Co-ordinates: 20°13’15”N, 70°08’55”W
Weather: Cool, with a bright blue sky in the morning changing to a warm, but not hot, afternoon
After a quick Observation Lounge breakfast, I disembarked at Iquique to find two modern highway buses and several Chilean guides waiting on the quay. A low mist floated over the sea in the grey light of morning. Sea birds hopped along the pier.
With 22 guests, Richard the photographer and Annie, the nurse, our tour began with a quick drive around 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, I had a wonderful view of skyscrapers along the shoreline and thousands of colourful flat-roofed houses. An enormous sand dune, the Dragon, dominated the southern end of town. It looked as if curled up, lying and watching over 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, which had been used to test a NASA moon buggy before its journey into space.
The first saltpeter mine I saw was Santa Laura, its dark outline silhouetted against the pale desert sand. Its neighbouring mine was our destination. Originally called Las Palmas when the area was Peruvian, it became known as Humberstone after the War of the Pacific and the loss of the region to Chile.
The mine was abandoned in 1960 and was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dry desert environment has left the abandoned buildings relatively untouched. It is easy to imagine people living, working and playing in them. The metal swimming pool was a favourite. Apparently 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. Richard waxed eloquent over the enormous Renaissance-style theatre with old movie posters from such greats as “Gone with the Wind,” “Citizen Cane,” and “Frankenstein. Other highlights were the old schoolrooms complete with desks and holes for ink wells, and old steam locomotives imported from England.
We had a quick drive back to Iquique before visiting the main boulevard. Closed to regular traffic it had an old wooden trolley car, which unfortunately was not working while we were there. It was a splendid avenue, bustling with Chileanos and decorated with saltpeter sculptures and beautiful pastel-coloured buildings. Small, artisans’ stalls lined the streets. At the end of the avenue we stopped at the Casino Español for mango and lime pisco sours and some snacks. Bright blue, white and yellow ceramic tiles decorated its walls, its Moorish architecture and decoration an imitation of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. Oil paintings of Don Quixote’s quests hung on its walls.
After our return to the ship, there was a wine tasting in the Panorama Lounge. After that I gave a lecture entitled “The Inca are Coming,” detailing life in the Inca’s empire which stretched from northern Ecuador to slightly further south than Santiago.
A blue whale sighting interrupted our evening recap. The Captain changed the course of the Prince Albert II to match that of the whale, and we all scrambled out on deck in the setting evening sun clutching binoculars, cameras, sunglasses and blankets to catch sight of the rare animal. I didn’t get a photograph, but do have memories of a large bluish body rolling along the sea surface, water spouts, and a fin that seemed to wave to me as the animal disappeared below the waves. It was a great end to a great day.