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The new Ruta A-40 slices westward across the desert. Ravines fracture this landscape, which on occasion is used by the Chilean air force for bombing practice. The only vestige of civilization in the middle of this no-man’s land is a cemetery. At Km 28, this highway dissects high hills and begins a dizzying descent down a precipice. To the distant left, like a toy town, is Pisagua.




Hugging the cliff, zigzagging closer to that village, its history slowly comes into focus. At Km 35.3 a monument pays tribute to the 1879 battle fought here. Far below, a thin band of surf carves the beach. Almost center stage are long, now-roofless buildings, which used to be detention centers. High above Pisagua is a blue and white clock tower, raised in 1881 to commemorate Chile’s victory in the Guerra del Pacífico. The road twists past a run-down wooden building that once was a hospital. At the time it was built (1909) during the nitrate boom, it was the region’s largest and best equipped. One last steep turn and this highway enters town.




Pisagua is cloaked with the heavy weight of its past. Once the third most important port in Chile, during those salitrera mining days from 1880 to 1920, it is now tattered by harsh winds. Little remains of the six wharves that used to be here. Fishermen go out to sea from one wharf under the watchful eye of San Pedro peering from a shrine.




This was an unlikely spot for a glory town. In Aymara, its name is Pisa Wayña, Scarcity of Water. But evidences of that rich past are still here. The clock tower on the cliff above town is one. On Avenida Prat, the main street, is the fire station constructed in 1888 of imported Oregon pine. Around Plaza Santa María is the Teatro Municipal. Built five years after the Guerra del Pacífico, this classic European style theater is entirely of Oregon pine. The ceiling mural, representing the four performance arts, was painted by Sixto Rojas. This was the cultural center of its era, hosting opera, comedies and concerts. Mannikins dressed in period clothing mutely sit in the box seats awaiting some future performance. The back stage can be explored as well. Next door is the Iglesia de San Pedro. Another building of Oregon pine, this 1909 church has an unusual oblong nave. Its dark green ceiling is strewn with stars. Only one tower remains. (For the keys to the theater and church, ask at the two-story blue house to the left of the Club Deportivo Pisagaua on Avenida Prat). Behind the police station is the old train depot, yet another reminder of the golden days of that Oro Blanco, nitrate.




As the 20th century unfolded, the nitrate boom fizzled. A more sinister future awaited Pisagua, centered in the innocuous-appearing large peach building trimmed in rose. This was the Colonia Penal, or jail. Constructed in 1910, it was here social and political prisoners were tortured and executed. Three major internments happened. One, in 1942, was during the height of World War II. From 1947 to 1948, President Gabriel González Videla rounded up communists and others opposing his regime. Poet Pablo Neruda managed to escape this dragnet and with his opus Canto General exposed the Pisagua nightmare to the world. The final chapter of this dark past occurred after the 1973 coup d’etat. Documentary and oral evidence also indicate homosexuals were detained here, in 1941, during the government of Aguirre Cerda. At some counts, 11 times Pisagua was a concentration camp. For a short period in the 1990s the building was a hotel.




More vestiges of Pisagua’s history lay on a side road at Km 40 of the cliff hanger highway into town. This dirt road runs parallel to the coast, passing through a stilled landscape where the dead wait and rest. Below are the ruins of the six detention centers of the Pinochet dictatorship, near the former railroad depot. The first graveyard appears on the left. These white crosses honor those who fell during the attack on Playa Blanca. A monument commemorates that Guerra del Pacífico sea-to-land assault, said to be the model for World War II’s Normandy Invasion. The road ends at Pisagua’s cemetery. Wooden crosses, some more than a century old, crowd on this field surrounded by cliffs. In 1990 a mass grave of those killed 1973-1974 was found. Several memorials now grace the site. Every October 29 a commemoration to those victims is held here.




Since then, Pisagua has become just a small fishing village with barely 200 living souls. Every June 28-29, they fete San Pedro, the patron saint of those who go to sea. Those dark times aren’t spoken about, but rather depicted in a mural upon the wall near Plaza Santa María. Signs around the town allow a self-guided tour through Pisagua’s history. There are some brighter Pisagua wonders you can enjoy. Playas Guata and Blanca north of the hamlet are filled with birds. A lobería (sea lion colony) at Punta Pinchalo south of town is reached by a path above the helicopter pad (30 min walk). Here are also archaeological remains of the Chinchorro culture (± 3000 BC).




Services are pretty sparse in Pisagua, though it does have a carabinero post and health post. Two hotels put up guests: Hostal La Roca (Tel.: 73-1502, E-mail:; single $20, double $28) and La Picada de Don Gato (Tel.: 73-1511, E-mail:; $10 per person, private bath). Camping Pisagua is on Playa Blanca. Don Gato is the only restaurant in town. There is a general store. Sometimes homes sell empanadas.




(Altitude: sea level, Population: 260, Phone Code: 057)


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

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

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