Antofagasta Stories and Tips

Saltpeter, Sweat and Shores

Antofagasta Photo, Chile, South America

Near Antofagasta things get the wettest in Atacama, with an astounding 1mm (roughly 1/25 of an inch) of rain in many of the years recorded. A spitting llama (they spit whatever they are eating at the eyes of any supposed aggressor, more often than not a traveler unaware of this behavior and in need of a Best of IgoUgo picture) could change the region annual rain balance just by an annual single self defense act next to a meteorological station. However in seven occasions during the last century there were sudden mudslides and floods, as it happens in many deserts whenever an unexpected heavy rain occurs.

That means the traveler is unlikely to witness rain or floods; umbrellas are still to make their debut here. Even if being present during the year’s wettest event, the rain would probably end before the camera is ready for the perfect picture. Thus, other points of interest must be found. If arriving from the north – Iquique – then the traveler has already seen a city in the desert; the only novelty Antofagasta can contribute is its size: roughly twice as big as Iquique, it is the largest city in the Atacama Desert. Also, it is the fastest growing city in the country and one of the most expensive; an efficient and short stay is recommended for those of us on a budget. On the geographical side, the only other point of interest is the Tropic of Capricorn which passes on the northern outskirts and is commemorated by a notably uninspiring, rectangular monument.

I was hoping to see something of the dramatic past of the area. Arica and Iquique have clearly lost all Peruvian touch; nothing seems to belong to the old country. Antofagasta proved the same connection to the past with respect to Bolivia. That is, unless you know what to search for.

On March 1868, the "Melbourne Clark Company" was established, after the integration of Chilean and British capital in order to mine saltpeter in the area; the settlement was called then La Chimba. On May 1871, Antofagasta was appointed by the Bolivian Government as an open trade port; shortly after, on January 1872, the Municipality of Antofagasta was founded. Then, on November 1873 the "Compañía de Salitres y Ferrocarril de Antofagasta" signed a contract with the government of Bolivia, in which taxes were removed from mineral exploitation for 15 years. This contract was not ratified by the Congress of Bolivia, as demanded by the constitution and eventually led to the War of the Pacific. Basically, the war can be seen as a taxes conflict between the Chilean and British operators of the mines and railway, and the Bolivian government. A secret defense pact between Bolivia and Peru complicated the subsequent events, which even nowadays are not completely settled. Visitors in Bolivia would see frequent public references to this war, including the "Day of the Sea," on the anniversary of the war. Nowadays, there are very little signs of the war except for de "Torre del Reloj" at Plaza Colon, the central plaza of the town. The clock was donated by the abovementioned "English Colony" – as it is known here – and is a partial replica of London’s Big Ben.

However, Antofagasta is more than saltpeter. "Ruinas de Huanchaca" is the name of the ruins of an abandoned silver melting plant from the late 19th century. This is the reminder Antofagasta is very close to Potosi; silver from Cerro Rico often made its way to this port. The plant is next to the Campus Antofagasta of the Universidad Católica del Norte, at the junction of Antofagasta and Argentina avenues. If under time pressure, a visit to this building can be skipped altogether.

Pretty soon I was in troubles. The town is very low, without any structures of interest – unless you like ports - and surrounded by the same desert I’ve seen all along the trip. Its main natural attraction is the Monumento Nacional de la Portada (the Archway National Monument), a natural arch formation next to the shore; yet, in the last years it can be seen only from faraway due to geological instability. Instead of dedicating a journal to the city – my original plan – it obviously became a topic for a short and not very interesting entry. Even the name was problematic to comment on; nobody knows its origin, similar words can be found in all of the native languages of the area. Such a lack of consideration for my writing!

Eventually, I stayed for as short as possible, dedicating most of the time to arranging the details for my visit to the upper parts of the Atacama Desert.

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