There’s only one town on the 250 mile (400 km) stretch of desert between the port town of Chañaral and the surf city of Antofagasta in northern Chile, but fortunately for those caught out on the Panamericana highway as night descends, it’s a worthy pitstop.
Maybe it’s because of this isolation, maybe it’s the setting – ringed in as it is by stark arid mountains and jutting out into the Pacific – or maybe it’s its tumultuous past, that saw it swap countries, go from frontier fishing village to booming industrial port and back to its humble origins – whatever the case, the Taltal has an air of intrigue about it.
The fishing port sits some 15 miles (25 km) off the Panamericana highway, reachable by a side road that winds its way through stark hill and down to the ocean – it’s a distance that is at once far enough to keep the passing buses and vacationers at bay, but close enough to make Taltal an interesting highway detour.
Meanwhile, for those who want to delve deeper into Taltal and its surrounding regions, the town can provide a refreshing and unique travel experience of deserted beaches, fishermen’s pubs and quirky historical monuments.
A brief history of Taltal
Taltal dates back to the 1850 when it was in Bolivian territory, but sixteen years later became Chile’s most northerly outpost after a border treaty. The village soon flourished into a center of the booming nitrate trade, being the end of the line of the Taltal Railway that ran through the mining towns, or oficinas, of the nitrate pampa.
By the 1950s when the global demand for nitrate had well and truly come to an end, Taltal began dismantling its infrastructure and the bustling nitrate port became a fishing town once more.
But the wealth and glory of the nitrate days live on in Taltal in the form of the handsome, if slightly dilapidated, colonial buildings around the central plaza, many of which have a distinctly British feel, no doubt acquired from the powerful British industrialists who controlled much of the nitrate trade.
Fresh seafood and the great outdoors
Taltal is one of the best places from which to explore one of the Norte Chico’s (Little North) best kept secrets – the 100,000 acres of beaches, wildlife, cactus-studded hills and magnificent Pacific views, contained within Pan de Azúcar National Park.
For those who want to get stuck into some fresh seafood, head to the plaza for an array of fresh and cheap seafood options, including the Taltal institution, Club Social de Taltal in a large old building off the central plaza, or better yet, the charming fishing village of Caleta Cifuncho, 18 miles (30 km) Caletas for seafood.