Humberstone: enigmatic ghost town and UNESCO heritage gem

Wander the streets of the once-grand saltpeter plant and you’ll come
face to face with a unique desert culture – and a fascinating period in
South American history.


In 1872, with the nitrate boom gathering speed, the Peruvian Nitrate Company founded Humberstone Saltpeter Works in the dry desert altiplano near Iquique, northern Chile. It was destined to become one of the largest factory towns of its time.

In the time when saltpeter was known as “white gold», Humberstone grew fast and became a busy community with lovely English-style buildings, plus its own movie theater and swimming pool.

This all changed in the Great Depression of 1929, when the economic fortunes of saltpeter fell and the region’s plants spiraled towards bankruptcy. In 1960, Humberstone was finally abandoned and became the ghost town it is today.

Humberstone has been a Chilean National Monument since 1970, and in 2005 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

UNESCO highlights Humberstone’s cultural richness, springing from the thousands of workers who lived on the arid desert highlands.

“They forged a distinctive communal pampinos [plains] culture,” says UNESCO’s website, “manifest in their rich language, creativity, solidarity, and, above all, in their pioneering struggle for social justice, which had a profound impact on social history.”

What to see

Top sights include the town square and beautiful Municipal Theater, where Mexican movies were premiered and traditional Spanish zarzuelas, or operettas, were held. There is a cafeteria where you can buy souvenirs, but the best way to experience this unique place is to grab your camera and take in the history while wandering the deserted streets.

Around Humberstone

The town of Pozo Almonte is well worth a visit for its narrow streets, picturesque houses and interesting archaeological sites, including the nearby Pintado desert geoglyphs, large-scale rock designs on the landscape. Also recommended is a visit to the beautiful Quebrada Guatacondo (Guatacondo Gully) and its gigantic petroglyphs, or rock inscriptions.

How to get there

Local buses and taxis to Humberstone leave from the main market in Iquique, the largest major city near Humberstone. Iquique can be reached from Arica or Santiago via plane or long-distance bus. Car rentals are available at the airport, as are tours of the saltpeter companies and Pozo Almonte.