Humberstone – Ghost Town in the Chilean Desert

June 27th, 2014

Chile

I heard there was a ghost town in the desert. After paying a small fee to walk through a wooden swinging gate I was given free reign to walk almost anywhere I dared.  I had been a bit skeptical about allocating an extra day in Iquequi, Chile to be able to make the trip to Humberstone. I hoped this time would be a fulfilling experience and show me a unique, not over-exaggerated, place with a bunch of dusty buildings. As soon as I stepped through the swinging gate, saw the layout of the town and the giant sign stated, “Please read this sign. It will take two minutes and will help facilitate your visit.” I knew I was in a big kids play ground and there was a lot to see.

Humberstone is located in the driest desert region of the world 48 kilometers/ 30 miles east of Iquequi, Chili. In its peak, the town housed around 3,700 people. Established in 1862, Humberstone was the epicenter of Chile and processed the world’s largest deposit of saltpeter, or sodium nitrate. This production transformed the farm lands of North and South America and Europe. The town was booming and as I walked these dusty streets 150 years later, I could see the detail and care put into the construction of the buildings. I wanted to wave a magic wand, wipe the dust off and sit in the funky rocking chairs as the desert wind blew across my face.

The demise of the town started in the 1930s when a cheaper, synthetic fertilizer was developed in Europe. Demand dropped and by 1959 the town was abandoned. In 2005 Humberstone became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is now listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger for its declining buildings.

Work building at Humberstone
Work building at Humberstone

A visitor could spend hours walking around to explore all the buildings in town. The park service has done a great job of creating information boards in English and Spanish describing to visitors what each building was used for.

Narrow street of workers living units.
Narrow street of workers living units.

Oh what a joy it was to walk these dusty streets. Looking down these long rows of housing barracks, I imagined dozens of people milling about. I could see seeing dirty, smudged faces walking back to their room after a hard day in the mine. Endless laundry would be hanging out the window frames, blowing and collecting dust of these simple one room and a bed units. Unless you were of higher rank and had private quarters, group toilets and showers were located at the end of these rows.

Basketball courts.
Basketball courts.

Entertainment was an important part of living and working in this remote mine. Effort was put into building a big basketball court, as well plenty of grandstand seating and the pronounced clock tower seen in the background.

Theater.
Theater.

The theater held more charm than many of our modern day gymnasium/theater combos used in our schools today. Inside there were sloped, hand crafted seats viewing a grand wooden stage with the classic, heavy red velvet curtains held back with gold cords.

Swimming pool.
Swimming pool.

And most impressive of all, considering this is the driest desert in the world, was the swimming pool! Constructed from a wrecked ship, it was so big and smartly designed with it’s shade covered bleachers. I thought of well toned workers doing back flips off the high diving board. What a sight and reprieve it must have been to go to the swimming pool. I couldn’t help but wonder how gritty and brown the water might have been with all the dust and sand blowing around.

Buildings at Humberstone.
Buildings at Humberstone.

There were different living quarters based on family size and rank. Single workers were housed according to gender with shared living and cooking areas, families were able to have maybe two rooms (instead of one) and the supervisors, doctors and others with high rank had quarters away from the workers.

School room.
School room.

But every child, no matter of the parents social ranking could attend school all the way until graduation. This set Humberstone apart because in regular towns, if your parents couldn’t pay for your school, you didn’t go. Many of the lower class children in towns would have to drop out of school around 5th grade to join the work force and help bring food to the table. At Humberstone, children had equal opportunity to attend school.

Tall smoke stake.
Tall smoke stack.

The day we walked around we had to hold our hats as the wind kept whipping them off our heads. I was not surprised to see all these cables to hold this smoke stack in place.

View of Humberstone.
View of Humberstone.

Sites like Humberstone are one of my favorite presentations of history to experience. Because this site has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Area and my fees helped preserve this piece of history, I became a small part of it. I was overwhelmed to think of all the stories that must have came from this one place. Husbands and wives that met, babies that were born and circles of friends that made their life in this community in the desert. If you get a chance to go, this was one of my favorite towns to visit. Humberstone is a ghost town, but if you go quietly, stories of the past will speak to you.

 

If you go:
Humberstone is an easy day trip from Iquequi. There are ‘van’ buses that go to Humberstone on somewhat of a set schedule. If you don’t want to wait for the van bus, the big buses almost all drive right by where all the van buses leave from. Although all the big bus ticket offices told us we couldn’t buy a ticket to get to Humberstone with them, the big buses almost all pause by the van buses, ask the driver quickly if you can get on to Humberstone. If there’s an open seat, he’ll let you on. $2000 sole there, $1500 return. (I don’t know why the fare is cheaper on the way back, it just is.)
Iquequi is touted as a great beach destination. If your eyes see that and you enjoy it, great. We found the city to be dirty and yes, there are some long stretches of beaches. We saw hundreds and hundreds of people at each stretch of beach. We did not see one public bathroom. Not our idea of a fun time. Some travelers we met love Iquequi, we did not, but it was worth a stopover to experience Humberstone.
There are lots of varying types of accommodation, some better than others. We stayed at a place called Beach Hostel, but it was not the nicest. If we could have, we would have stayed at at Surf Hostal, Obispo Labbe 1591, but it was full. It looked much, much cleaner and nicer there. Try to book ahead if you can to avoid having to pay more for a decently clean place or get stuck in a not so nice place.

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8 responses to “Humberstone – Ghost Town in the Chilean Desert

    1. It was hot! Don’t forget your water. I was thankful to see this place as a UNESCO site, what was sad to me was how well everything was constructed and that people weren’t able to keep enjoying it. There was so many little details to the buildings that made them spectacular. The town is worth a stop if you ever get the chance.

  1. This looks like just the kind of urban abandoned space that I’d love to explore, and the fact that it’s being maintained and made safe for people to wonder around makes me or the more eager to go because I know how clumsy Franca can be so we tend to avoid too much exploration.

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