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From Humberstone on the Pan-American Highway (Ruta 5), a 47 kilometer (29 mi) road cuts across the desert plain of the pampas towards the Cordillera de la Costa. From there the land suddenly drops towards a port on a narrow shelf of coast. Here you'll find Iquique, a city that stretches for as far as the eye can see to the north and to the south and the capital of Chile’s I Región Tarapacá.


For at least nine millennia, indigenous nations lived along this coast, harvesting guano to fertilize the agricultural fields in the pampa oases. In those valleys and at the numerous hot springs steaming across those arid plains, they built villages. Unfortunately, little is known about them. They may have been part of the group of people known as Chinchorros, but they are generally known as Changos. By the 19th century they had been wiped out by diseases brought by the Europeans and general mistreatment.


Within a few years after the conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spaniards too began to exploit this land resource and it became one of Spain’s most important ports. It was a tempting target for pirates, like Sir Francis Drake, who sacked the city in 1579. A more peaceful ship, the HMS Beagle, docked in port on July 12, 1835, with naturalist Charles Darwin aboard.


After the colonies’ independence from Spain, Bolivia was granted lands along the Pacific coast from 24º Latitude South to the Río Loa. The administration, however, fell largely in the hands of the Peruvians. But the majority of the inhabitants were from neither of those countries. They were Chileans who came as contract workers for the oficinas, the nitrate mines and other international ventures.


Control of this oro blanco, as nitrate was termed, caused a rift between Perú and Chile, sparking the Guerra del Pacífico (1878-1879). The war’s major naval battle was fought in Iquique harbor on May 21, 1879. Two ships went down, the Chilean Esmeraldas and the Peruvian Independencia and Chile’s great naval commander, Arturo Prat, was killed. Boat tours now go out to the exact spot where the Esmeraldas sank.


After the War of the Pacific, the British came in heavily, establishing nitrate mining companies on the pampas. Here in the port area, where the climate was much more agreeable, they built their family mansions. Other immigrants also arrived, setting up social clubs like the Casino Español, the Club Protectora for Chilean high society and Hrvatski Dom of the Croatians. Chinese also arrived to work in the mines. Most of the workers in those harsh lands, however, were Aymara, coming from the altiplano of Chile, Bolivia and Perú.


The revolution of 1891 was another revolt centering on the control of nitrate. The then President José Manuel Balmaceda was nationalizing industries, including the great mines owned by the British. Moneyed forces and elements of the provincial government opposed this action. At the same time, a miners’ strike and a naval revolt broke out. The city became a war zone once more.


During this time labor conditions grew more intolerable. Workers and their families arrived en masse to Iquique to air their grievances and take shelter in the Escuela de Santa María. On December 21, 1907, the military opened fire killing between 500 and 3000 people. This became one of the greatest massacres of modern Chile.


Iquique’s history is reflected in its architecture, being that little is left of the original city. A lot was destroyed in the earthquakes and resultant tsunamis of 1868 and 1878. The ex-Aduana, built in 1871, is one of the oldest buildings. The prisoners taken after the naval Battle of Iquique were held here. Like other cities in Latin America, Gustave Eiffel is said to have left his mark in Iquique: the design of the Torre Reloj is attributed to him. All along Paseo Baquedano are the splendid mansions of the families that owned the nitrate mines. The railroad station, on Sotomayor and Vivar, that once was the depot for the trains to the mining camps, is now government offices. There is also a monument commemorating the 1907 strikers. Escuela Santa María yet stands, across from the Mercado Centenario (Latorre, between Barros Arana and Amunategui). Murals on its walls proclaim the massacre’s silenced history. Within the walls of Cemeterio Número Tres is Cemeterio Número Dos and the mass grave in which the massacre victims were buried. On the outside of this graveyard are memorial placards to the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship.


Iquique has become a prime destination for both national and foreign tourists. The year-round sun and warm temperatures draw many to Playa Cavancha and the other fine beaches. The waves here are among some of the most famous in the world of surfing. Visitors also head outside of the city to see the geoglyphs and rusting salitre mines, to soak in the hot springs of Mamiña and Pica, and to take in the religious fervor of villages like La Tirana and Tarapacá.


Iquique has the Zofri, a zona franca (free trade zone). People come from as far away as Paraguay to go shopping here, and Chileans come from all over the country to purchase used cars. The importance of this port city, within the integrated Latin American group of countries, is growing, being the beginning of the Corredor Internacional shipping highway to Oruro, Bolivia.


(Altitude: 1 m / 3,25 ft, Population: 238,950, Phone Code: 057)



Other places nearby Iquique: Calama, San Pedro de Atacama, Mejillones, Pica, Antofagasta, Taltal, Pisagua, Huara, Toconao and Tocopilla.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

07 Jul 2009

Things to do in Iquique

Museo Naval de Iquique and the Edificio de la Aduana

133240The Museo Naval de Iquique is located on the south side of the old Aduana building. Dedicated to one of the most important sea battles of the Guerra del Pacífico, maps and dioramas recount the blow ...
Iquique, Chile

Plaza Prat and Paseo Baquedano

133243Iquique’s ruling nitrate families left an indelible print on the city. Social clubs, public monuments and lavish homes built of Oregon pine grace the historic center of the city. Many of the ...
City Walk
Iquique, Chile

Museo Regional

133244Museo Regional’s many galleries lead you through the history of the Iquique region. Most of the salas trace the development of the indigenous cultures, beginning with the Chinchorros who lived ...
Iquique, Chile

Playa Cavancha

133249The big beach scene in Iquique is Playa Cavancha. Everyone heads out to these several kilometers of pale grey sand – and not only to bathe in the warm sun or to surf in the brisk water. This ...
Iquique, Chile

An Introduction to Iquique’s Beaches

133250A chain of pale beaches drape southward along Iquique’s coast. Starting in the city’s center at Calle O’Higgins and Avenida Prat is Bellavista. Here, a broad band of sand is trimmed with ragged ...
Iquique, Chile


133251Iquique is internationally renowned for its surfing. Every year the city hosts the Juegos Panamericanos de Surf at the beginning of November ( In the interim, you can get in ...
Iquique, Chile

Oficina Santa Laura

133275Oficina Santa Laura was another one of the many salitre mines on the wind-blasted pampas near Iquique. Founded in 1872 by William Wendell, it was acquired by the Peruvian government in 1878. After ...
Historical Building
Iquique, Chile


133306Salitrera Humberstone was one of the most famous—and largest—nitrate mines in northern Chile. Founded in 1872 by the Peruvian Nitrate Company, by 1889 it had a population of over 3000. It later ...
Historical Building
Iquique, Chile

Palacio Astoreca

This impressive Georgian-style mansion was designed and built of Oregon pine by Manuel Ritornano for the Astoreca family. They never lived here, though, as they moved to Valparaíso after patriarch ...
Iquique, Chile

Paragliding in Iquique

Like Icarus, visitors to the city can strap on wings and go soaring above the bay of Iquique. Paragliding, or parapentismo, gives flyers a bird’s eye view of the nitrate flats and geoglyphs ...
Paragliding and Hangliding
Iquique, Chile
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