If visiting the dry and dusty Atacama Desert that covers a large majority of Northern Chile, don’t miss the chance to tour Humberstone, an abandoned mining ghost town. This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the village of Humberstone and the Santa Laura Saltpeter Works. In this desolate region, Chilean Saltpeter, also known as sodium nitrate, was extracted from the driest desert in the world. Saltpeter is used to make explosives and fertilizers.
With the extraction of the saltpeter from the arid desert, the mining camp town of Humberstone was founded in 1872. What’s left behind is a memorial of the harsh circumstances these 3,500 inhabitants had to endure on a daily basis. The walk through is interesting, but hot, a reminder that people actually worked in these grim conditions.
It is possible to take an organized tour of Humberstone, but with plenty of information plaques in Spanish and English, it’s easy to independently tour Humberstone as a day trip from Iquique.
Here’s the complete guide on how to visit the UNESCO Site of Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works.
Table of Contents
- Where is Humberstone?
- Independently Tour Humberstone
- Cost to Tour Humberstone
- Return to Iquique
- Tour Humberstone An Eerie Abandoned Mine in North Chile
Where is Humberstone?
Humberstone is located in Northern Chile in the Atacama Desert. One of the closest cities is the port-town of Iquique. Iquique can feel almost like Miami with its laid back beach vibes. Due to its close proximity to the ocean, a visit to the fish market is a must.
Iquique is a great place to spend a few days relaxing and eating as much seafood as possible. This city makes an excellent and much deserved break to chill out for those overland travelers moving slowly south from Peru by bus.
Indeed, it is a great place to soak up the beach vibes, but there are still plenty of things to do in Iquique and touring Humberstone was definitely a highlight of my time here.
Itinerary Planning | All the Awesome Things to do in Iquique Chile
How to Day Trip to Humberstone from Iquique
There are two companies that run frequent small buses to Humberstone from Iquique. Look for the buses with the final destination of Pica, a town known for its natural thermal pool. Between the two companies, there are around 4 departures hourly, sometimes more, sometimes less. One of the bus companies Pullman Santa Angela, posts their daily schedule online here.
The first bus departs to Humberstone at 6:00 and the last at 19:15. Buses depart just one block south of the main Central Market on the street of Barros Arana, block 900.
Bus Logistics | Cost: 2,000 CLP ($2.50 USD) | Duration: around 45 minutes | Buses drop across the street from Humberstone | Use the footbridge to cross the highway
Tour Humberstone Tip: Make sure to pack plenty of water! The two areas of the ghost town are large and don’t forget you’re in the driest desert in the world. Due to the size and amount of walking through the site, it’s wise to pack some snacks.
Independently Tour Humberstone
Welcome to the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works UNESCO World Heritage Site. As stated earlier, it’s quite easy to independently tour Humberstone and the interesting debris that remain here. Upon entrance, walk through the small village. There’s lots of remnants of items like canned goods that were left behind.
With plenty of sign boards, it’s straightforward to see the purpose of each section of the town. The housing dwellings were separated by single workers and those who were married. Nicer homes were reserved for administrative workers.
These mines played a significant role between the relationship of Chile and the Peru-Bolivia alliance. All of them wanted the land to extract the saltpeter. Eventually, it would lead to the Saltpeter War, or the “War of the Pacific.” The War spanned over the years of 1879 – 1884, with Chile coming out victorious. As a result of their victory, Chile soon began extracting a large majority of the world’s sodium nitrate.
At one point, there were over 200 saltpeter mines scattered among the Atacama desert. Humberstone and Santa Laura are said to be two of the best preserved.
Logistics | Cost: $4,000 CLP ($5.25 USD) | Opening Hours: 9:00 – 18:00 (March 16 – November 30) 9:00 – 19:00 (December – March 15) | Duration: I spent over 3 hours just to tour Humberstone | Due to time constraints, I didn’t make it to Santa Laura
Some main points of interest of a tour of Humberstone can be found below.
Although mining has never really peaked my interest, I thought the industrial processing zone was one of the most fascinating parts of visiting Humberstone. This area was primarily used to dry the saltpeter. Next, it would be loaded onto the railroad cars, which can be scattered around the ghost town. It’s possible to get up close and personal to the old equipment that was used for extracting the minerals. The wood buildings with fragile metal roofs have been left to decay and wither in the hot baking sun.
Keep your eyes peeled for the old abandoned railroad tracks that helped move the mined goods. Some of these tracks seem to lead to nowhere.
Wander up the hill to see an aerial view of the entire abandoned mining community. In the distance you’ll see the iconic processing building of Santa Lara. Surprise! This hill is actually not a natural landscape, but is the result of all the waste of the saltpeter production process.
There are many highlights that can be seen from the Old Town Square of Humberstone. First off, there’s the square itself. Along the square is a theater, hotel, church, and the old market with an iconic clocktower. Today, this is where you can find the bathrooms and some women selling ice cream and cold beverages. In the plaza and under the clocktower are some benches, which make for a great place to enjoy a cold beverage in the shade.
Off of the square, look for the small school which still has desks and chalkboards hanging.
Nearby, also look for the moving memorial for the victims of the Santa María School Massacre. The massacre was a result of a large collection of saltpeter miners striking for better working conditions. In the end, the Chilean government opened fire on December 21, 1907 and killed many of those protesting the harsh working conditions. To this day it is unknown how many victims perished that day. Some say the number of victims totaled around 150, while others say over 3,500 were massacred here.
Next to the town square is the municipal swimming pool. Ok, I know it doesn’t look like much, but I can imagine that the pool was probably the most popular and fun spot for those living at Humberstone.
The grocery store was extremely fascinating and is set up to look like how it was back when the city was occupied with thousands of workers. It felt kind of like a modern day Costco and its bleak warehouse feeling. There are lots of information boards and “lifelike” mannequins to show how the grocery store supplied an isolated village of over 3,500 workers and their families.
Santa Laura was the primary spot for industrial installation. From Humberstone, this large processing facility sits a little over one mile from Humberstone. Remember, those travelers without a car will have to walk there. The afternoon sun is intense and gives you a new appreciation for what the miners had to endure daily. There is no shade coverage if you choose to walk there. With the hot desert heat, I decided to appreciate Santa Laura from afar.
Summary: Tour Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
In short, Humberstone offers some interesting industrial processing sites and a look into the daily lives of the former inhabitants while Santa Laura focuses almost completely on the industrial process.
Both were abruptly abandoned by 1960.
Cost to Tour Humberstone
In total this was the cost to independently tour Humberstone.
Prices on the table are rounded to the nearest 25¢
|EXPENSE||CLP ($)||USD ($)|
|Bus Fare: Iquique to Humberstone (Round Trip)||$4,000||$5.25|
|Humberstone & Santa Laura Saltpeter Works Entrance Ticket||$4,000||$5.25|
Return to Iquique
After a long and hot day, head back to Iquique. Walk out from the main entrance (where you entered from) and wave down a bus. There is a small bus stop with frequent buses passing by.
Reminder: Bus tickets cost $2,000 CLP and will drop near the Central Market.
Tour Humberstone An Eerie Abandoned Mine in North Chile
In conclusion, Humberstone is an eerie and abandoned mine located in the barren and dry Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Humberstone and Santa Laura are two of the best preserved saltpeter mines that are still standing.
It’s easy to independently tour Humberstone and Santa Laura as a day trip from Iquique. The ghost towns lie a little more than a mile apart. This entire itinerary costs around $10 and exceeded all of my expectations. A tour of Humberstone is a desirable and educational experience that should not be missed when visiting the north of Chile.
Have you had the chance to visit or tour Humberstone? What did you think of this UNESCO World Heritage Site? Let me know in the comments below!
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