Location: Near Iquique, Chile
Guidebook: Global Treasures Humberstone & Santa Laura Chile
Humberstone is the ‘sister’ site to the nearby Santa Laura and is much larger. Whereas the remaining buildings at Santa Laura are primarily industrial, Humberstone has a huge residential area featuring workers’ abandoned houses, a church, and theatre, in addition to the industrial buildings.
Humberstone was constructed in 1934 and grew rapidly into a bustling town complete with theatre, swimming pool, hospital, and school. Its now empty streets, dilapidated houses, and abandoned industrial works speak of a time when Chile provided saltpetre to a large part of the western world for use as fertilizers and explosives. Unfortunately this success was short-lived, and synthetic alternatives severely hit the market after the Second World War. Falling demand meant Humberstone was no longer profitable and in 1960, only 26 years after its creation, the entire town was abandoned.
For years Humberstone’s buildings stood baking in the desert, slowing decaying – though luckily, thanks to the town’s position some distance from major settlements, it has been spared significant vandalism. However in 1970 the Chilean government declared Humberstone and nearby Santa Laura as a National Monuments, and in 2005 they were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Both towns were reopened as tourist sites and at Humberstone restoration and reconstruction work has been performed, and is ongoing, on some of the buildings. While this is obviously important for maintaining the site for future generations, it does mean that some of the site leans more towards ‘museum’ than ‘abandonment’. This is particularly true in the residential area. The industrial area does look as though restoration efforts have yet to reach it.
Just inside Humberstone’s entrance is a row of buildings which have been converted into a museum containing exhibits from the town’s past. These include children’s toys handmade from wire and other scrap material, communications equipment, and a restored version of a worker’s house.
Lined by rows and rows of abandoned houses, the streets across the main driveway all lead to the former plaza at the centre of the residential area. The houses in these streets are all completely abandoned and empty, with absolutely no furniture or other household items visible. Unfortunately they are all somewhat graffiti-covered too. It is possible to enter all of the buildings, but many are quite dilapidated and care needs to be taken to avoid myriad sharp edges, broken glass, and nails.
The central plaza is where Humberstone’s main residential attractions are located, including the church, theatre, and hotel. These three major buildings have been fully restored, although it is still possible to get a feeling of what life must have been like here in the 1930s and 1940s.
Directly behind the hotel is the town swimming pool, standing empty but with diving boards and wooden spectator’s seats sitting in excellent condition. Behind the grandstand it is possible to see the small changing rooms and pumping equipment for the pool (the water was sourced from underground reserves).
Also in this part of the town is the former hospital, complete with empty corridors and silent treatment rooms. One of the compensations for workers in this harsh desert environment was the provision of free healthcare – something which is still not available in Chile even today. The children of workers were also given schooling, which took place in a medium-sized building housing half a dozen classrooms.
The second half of the Humberstone site is set back and to the left of the residential area, and is a short walk away. This is where all the industrial buildings are located, as well as a small open area surrounded by slightly higher quality housing which was reserved for the town’s management.
The industrial area houses several very large former factory, processing, and warehouse buildings, and has seen absolutely no restoration work. Many of the buildings really are in a perilous state and while it is fun to explore them, there is also a definite risk here. There are no barriers preventing access to particularly dangerous areas and the rusting corrugated iron sheets used through the buildings leave very sharp edges. That said, this was my favourite part of the site – I felt it was the most authentic – and there are many areas to explore and small details to notice. If you find your way around the back of the buildings, there is also some interesting machinery standing out in the open…
A final area of the Humberstone site which is worth a visit is the nearby hill, lying between the residential and industrial areas. An easy track goes up. Though there are no more buildings, there is an excellent view over both areas of the town, and – giving a great sense of scale – over the surrounding desert. Although a modern road now runs near the perimeter, the general lack of restoration at the site means it is very easy to imagine what living and working here in the must have been like in the 1930s – hot, isolated, and very difficult.