“They say Humberstone used to have a summer home in Pisagua to get away from the heat,” Pedro said as he took another sip of water and placed his water bottle back in the cup holder.
“Now I think only 50 to 200 people live in this town depending on the time of year you visit. Today it will probably be only about 50 people,” he continued turning the steering wheel slightly to veer around a piece of cardboard in the road.
James Santiago Humberstone is the man for whom the town of Humberstone was named. The town of Humberstone was one of the mining towns that used Pisagua as its major port for exports. (see our article on the Humberstone ghost town here)
The dry barren desert sands of the Atacama desert stretches out as far as the eye can see in all directions. The road ahead of us elongates across a dusty plane. It is the only road in sight. Desert mountains stand far in the distance, also barren and dry save for the ones capped in snow.
Intrigued by the town’s rich history, both good and bad, I’d been curious about the remote town of Pisagua since we arrived in this region. Trin and I were excited when Pedro offered to spend a day to visit this remote village with us.
Today Pedro along with two of his children Isabel and Ian is taking Trin and me to Pisagua located 120 kilometers north of Iquique.
Visiting Old Friends
Years ago, Pedro and I attended the same college and also worked at the same sports card company. Pedro, his wife Stephanie and their six kids now live in Iquique, Chile. I’ve been excited since the last few countries to learn that we would be able to visit him and his family.
During our time in Iquique, they have taken us to a couple of nice restaurants and we’ve enjoyed some of the best meals we have had in a while. They also let us join in on their family fun while one of their daughters celebrated her birthday. They have been so hospitable. It has been wonderful to talk to someone from back home and have a chance to get to know his family.
Stephanie is amazing. She has this way of making sure everyone is comfortable. I loved watching her at the birthday party as she simultaneously made sure everyone was included and enjoying themselves. She is a rare gem.
Pisagua, a place of Peace and Change
Pisagua was founded in 1611 and at that time it was still part of Peru. Settlers were attracted to the area because of the large deposits of guano on the islets all along the coast. Export of the guano was the original reason Pisagua became a port city.
Around 1810, nitrates were discovered in the soil of the region and exports substantially increased. This coastal village was also once a summer vacation spot for the more wealthier families of the little mining town of Humberstone.
In 1868, the town was devastated by an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 and the tsunami that followed. It was rebuilt.
In 1879, Chilean troops occupied the port of Pisagua during the war of the Pacific. By the end of the war, Pisagua became part of Chile.
A Dark Story
In a darker part of history, Pisagua has been used a few times as a concentration camp, most recently by the dictator Pinochet who was president of Chile from 1973-1981.
There is a graveyard at the north end of the town. It is filled with old wooden crosses and memorials that have been dried by the sun and beaten by the sand. The colors of the wooden grave rails have been muted by time to match its dry brown landscape.
At the end of the graveyard is a large open pit where a memorial has been erected. This was a mass grave where the bodies of the tortured victims of the Pinochet dictatorship were discovered. Today the yawning hole is left open, serving as a reminder of this country’s dark past.
Justice for the dictator’s atrocities has yet to be served on the many who took part in the regime. This has made it difficult for many Chileans to have closure and move forward.
After the long road over the desert plane, we started to descend. The narrow two-lane road squeezed between two steep mountains, the sand on either side creeping over the white lines on the edge of the road. It is as if nature herself built prison walls around this little alcove and placed it on the outer edge of a barren desert.
“Be good or you’ll wind up in Pisagua,” parents tell unruly children.
Pisagua is almost like a ghost town. In fact, many say it is haunted because of the dark part of its history. Yet life continues. From the shore, we watched fishermen as they steadied their small boat in the waves while sea lions frolicked in the waves behind them.
Some wooden buildings still stand but worn with time some appearing as if they would crumble off their perch on the side of the mountain at any time and fall upon the newer houses. One building appeared to be brand new its sparkling green and yellow sides stood out like Effie Trinket (the escort of District 12 from the hunger games) would if she walked into a crowd of minors just emerging from a deep mine covered in gray dust.
Pisagua From Above
Pedro drove us to the north end of town up to the peak of the cove that protects the town. There we stood at the tip of a ridge that overlooked the entire bay of Pisagua and the bay directly north of it. A large cannon rests in a dugout at this lookout point, a remnant of the war and a reminder of its past.
From this viewpoint, we could see the faded graveyard. On the far end of the beach is the small village that has seen better days, but is still unique and inviting.
While the town may have seen better days, they still make the best empanadas. Shrimp or crab with cheese, fried to perfection.
The crest of the mountain we stood on was about the width of a car. On both sides of the spine were slopes so steep that Trin decided to have a little fun with them. He picked up a small pebble and placed it on the edge. It began to roll going faster and faster making little jumps as it hit other pebbles on the way down until it’s final jump where it disappeared over the cliff. Soon Ian and Isabel followed suit along with Pedro. I don’t know how long we stood there rolling pebbles down the slope laughing and watching the skips and jumps cheering when they made their final plunge off the edge.
This town is one of Pedro’s favorite places to visit. It has been almost two years since he was last here and he was exclaiming over the progress made by the town. The road we followed up to this slope was now paved and a brand new memorial was recently built.
The town is working toward a revitalization and looking to increase tourism. They begin with their infrastructure and it appears that they are making great progress.
Bleating Sea Lions
At the south end of town, we parked at the end of the paved road and began our walk to the farthest point of the rock outcropping that forms the protected bay around Pisagua. Along the trail, we encountered an old burned down car. Pedro said it’s been there for years.
We continued the hike, walking along the edge of the mountain overlooking the ocean. It was peaceful and quiet save for the wind, the sound of the waves, and is that someone screaming?
“I think that’s the sea lions,” said Pedro. I got even more excited about making it to the end of the trail.
The screeching, growling, and bleating grew louder. We walked/slid down a hill to a small alcove. There lay a couple of small islands covered with sea lions. They were making all kinds of noise yet we got the impression that they were communicating with each other. Some of the growls sounded angry, maniacal and exasperated all at the same time, and these made us laugh. Small pups swam in the waters just below the ledge where we stool and kept popping their heads out of the water to watch us. So curious.
Please, turn on your sound for this one:
Making Money Out of Crap
Guano, excrement from the birds, covered many of the small islands just off the beaches of the alcove. This white excrement is used for fertilizer due to its rich nitrate and phosphates. There are only certain regions in the world where it can be mined.
Most guano is washed away with rain, but here in the Atacama desert and along the path of the Humboldt current rain is rare to non-existent leaving the guano to accumulate in massive quantities. So much so that after the war of the Pacific, Peru mined guano from its islands and used the proceeds to pay off its debt. In some places, the guano was hundreds of feet deep. The exports were so profitable the war debt was completely erased. Now, that’s a crappy way to pay off debt! (I’m sorry I couldn’t resist)
As our van climbed out of Pisagua and back to the main highway the sun was quickly setting in the horizon. Over the long desolate road home, the colors of the sky brightened then began to mute as the crescent moon appeared and night began to set. Trin pulled out a bag of chips that was soon devoured by our gang, but the crunchy munching continued for quite some time, it was a large bag.
We had a beautiful day in a tiny, picturesque village. Some describe it as a peaceful retreat and others as haunted. Its diverse history lends credence to whichever impression one holds. Maybe haunted places are mostly haunted by the memories that are difficult to let go of.
With each new place and each new experience, I try to learn something new. Solomon said, “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice.” Today I learned to always buy two large bags of chips, not just one when there is a growing boy in the group.
4 thoughts on “Nature’s Prison, Pisagua, Northern Chile”
Very intriguing and interesting place. That would be really neat to visit the island that the sea lions were on. I loved the video that you made of it. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.
Yes, the sea lions were a riot. I wish we could have captured a better video of the pups playing in the water. They were very entertaining
This was so fun to read! We’ve so enjoyed your visit to Iquique.
Thank you so much for your hospitality!