Position: 20° 13’ 14.6 S and 70° 08’ 54.5 W
Weather: Cool with a bright blue sky in the morning changing to a warm, but not hot, afternoon.
After breakfast we disembarked at Iquique to find two modern highway buses and several Chilean guides waiting for us on the quay. Our day began with a quick tour of the central area of the city. Elaborate, brightly coloured, turn-of-the-century two-story houses graced the sides of wide streets. As we drove out of the city, we had a wonderful view of skyscrapers along the shoreline and thousands of colourful flat-roofed houses. An enormous sand dune, the Dragon, sat at the southern end of town, curled up as if sleeping and watching the city.
For most of our journey to Humberstone, there was no vegetation, just a few scrubby black xerophytic plants on the windward side of some sand dunes. At one point, we passed a section of flat desert that had been used to test a NASA moon buggy before its journey into space.
The first saltpeter mine to come into view was Santa Laura. The dark outline of its buildings was silhouetted against the pale desert sand. The neighbouring mine was our destination. It was originally called Las Palmas when the area was Peruvian, but after the War of the Pacific and the loss of the area to Chile, it became Humberstone.
The mine was abandoned in 1960 and was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the dry desert environment the abandoned buildings are relatively untouched and it is easy to imagine people living, working and playing in them. The metal swimming pool was fascinating to see. We were told that metal does not rust in the Atacama, as there is so little moisture. Remnant paint along the top of its edge suggests that the part that got wet had some form of waterproofing. Other highlights were the old schoolrooms complete with desks and holes for ink wells, an enormous Renaissance-style theatre with old movie posters from such greats as “Gone with the Wind,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Frankenstein,” and old steam locomotives imported from England.
We had a quick drive back to Iquique and then we went to visit the main boulevard, which was closed to regular traffic but had an old wooden trolley car that made its way slowly up and down the thoroughfare. It was a splendid avenue bustling with Chileanos and decorated with saltpeter sculptures and beautiful buildings. Many of us bought souvenirs at a small artisans’ market. At the end of the avenue we stopped at the Centro Español for refreshment. Bright ceramic tiles decorated it and oil paintings of Don Quixote’s quests hung on its walls. Its Moorish architecture was an imitation of the Alhambra Palace in Granada.
After our return to the ship, Toby gave a lecture in the afternoon on “Darwin and his Chums,” making it clear that Darwin did not just visit the Galapagos Islands. Later there was a lively, fun wine tasting in the Panorama Lounge hosted by Vanja. The recap included saltpeter formation by Robin, geoglyphs in the Atacama Desert and dancing guests by Claire, and a short discussion of why birds migrate by J.J.