Iquique in northern Chile was at the centre of the nitrate boom in the 19th century and many Europeans including English and Germans made their fortune here. Apparently, this city was so decadent in its time that it is alleged more champagne was drunk per capita than anywhere else in the world. Interesting to know that Brits getting pissed abroad didn’t just start in Ibiza in the 1970s. Nitrate was heavily sought after as a fertiliser in Europe and the USA until Germany stopped buying during World War One and then developed a synthetic version. After that the boom years were over.
I have to admit I was rather ignorant of this European presence in those boom years, so it was fascinating to wander along Baquedano street and see the grandiose town houses they built and which have been restored. I also looked around the excellent Museu Regional and saw objects connected to nitrate mining, like boots and lamps and a fascinating old time clock for workers made in Liverpool, as well as luxury items such as teapots and gramophones. In the Palacio Astoreca the attendant was very keen to show me the full size billiards table and antique scoreboard made by Burroughes and Watts, a British company.
Iquique has a fascinating setting, squeezed in between the sea and the brown Cordillera de la Costa mountains in a small gap of only about 500 metres. I stayed half a block from the Playa Cavancha (the main city beach) which is nicely maintained.
I’ve finally made it to the most northern city in Chile, Arica, just a few kilometres from the Peruvian border. The journey from Iquique was one of the most spectacular so far. Route 5 goes inland away from the sea and has to cross several huge canyons, plunging down along hair-raising bends, then passing through the ravine with steep dusty arid slopes on either side, before climbing up to the top again.
Arica is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, but unfortunately my first day here was more like a miserable overcast British summer’s day. It was the perfect opportunity, though, to visit the Azapa museum and see some mummies from the Chinchorro culture which started the practice of mummification in this region about 7000BC well before even the Egyptians.
The modern day city is a bit of a rundown place and not particularly attractive. It’s main church, the Catedral de San Marcos, does have one claim to fame though. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel before he came up with the little tower in Paris. It was prefabricated in Paris entirely of iron and then shipped to Arica. Quite why, I’m not really sure. Sadly, it’s being renovated at the moment and is surrounded by boards and scaffolding.
Today the sun came out and I wandered down to the bustling fish market at the port. Fishermen were hauling the day’s catch onto the pier and others were gutting and cleaning the fish ready for sale. Further up the steps vendors were weighing the fish in huge scales and finally customers were buying. All around pelicans swooped and hungry sea lions bobbed in the water below waiting for scraps.
After that I explored the beaches south of the city and soaked up the sun. This will be my last view of the sea for many weeks as tomorrow I head for the altiplano again and then Bolivia.