Driving through the horizon-less Atacama desert, it’s hard to reconcile yourself with the fact that you are in one of the dead center of a large sector of Chile’s booming economy.
That’s until you pass one of the huge trucks that supply the biggest copper mines in the world, or the remains of a town that once was housed workers in an industry so important that wars were fought years ago over these arid lands.
The ruins stand as a testament to the lucrative nitrate trade of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries – an era which drew industrialists from as far afield as England and workers from all over Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru to raise adobe towns and ramshackle oficinas, or mines, in the sands and dirt of the Atacama, and the majority of these mining towns were established in a stretch of desert known as the pampa salitrera, or the nitrate pampa.
The Nitrate Pampa
Northwest of Antofagasta, the nitrate pampa is home to the remains of over 80 former oficinas, built between 1890 and 1925 – that today range from a few blocks of stone or the base of a wall, to perfectly preserved towns – most of which are literally just on the side of the highway.
Two main roads traverse the pampa, Route 5, or the Panamericana, which runs the length of Chile, and the smaller Route 25 which connects which branches of the Panamericana to travel directly to the mining city of Calama.
This is the road more traveled, and because of the bus lines that follow the highway you can travel to the ghost towns of the Panamericana without a car.
It is also home to some of the best preserved oficinas, including Pedro de Valdivia, which was abandoned as recently as 1996.
Just beyond the Carmen Alto junction – where Route 25 branches off the Panamericana – and some 19 miles (30 km) beyond the dusty little town of Baquedano, lies another notable ghost town, Chacabuco.
Now a national monument, the almost perfectly preserved town of Chacabuco, has an added, sinister, layer of history, as it was used as a detention center by the Pinochet regime.
Twenty-two miles (36 km) north of Pedro de Valdivia is the only inhabited nitrate town in Chile today, Mariá Elena, a colorful town of just under 8,000, and a cheerful contrast to the skeletal remains of the other oficinas.
The 68 mile (110 km) stretch of Route 25 from where it begins at the Carmen alto junction to Calama, is home to over 20 oficinas, some of which are literally dissected by the road.
This route offers a different experience from the natural monuments and (relatively) easily accessed oficinas of the Panamericana – it is much more raw and rough at the edges, and can really only be appreciated with a car.
You don’t need a tour guide here, just stop off at some ruins that take your fancy, and admire the utterly surreal effect of crumbled and graffiti strewn adobe walls, made all the more picturesque by vast desert skies above and the desert backdrop that runs unbroken until collides with the Andes mountains that divide Chile with its western neighbor, Bolivia.
By Joe Hinchliffe.