Santa Laura is a ‘ghost town’ in the Atacama desert some 50 kilometres from Iquique, Chile. A former nitrate mining and processing facility, Santa Laura was originally constructred in 1872 and has a rather dramatic history. The plant fell into Chilean hands in 1879 when Chile annexed large parts of Peru (and Bolivia) during the War of the Pacific. Later, facilities were modernised between 1916 and 1920, at a time when global demand for explosives was somewhat increased. However production was again by the global depression of 1929 to 1933, and never fully recovered as synthetic alternatives to nitrate fertilizers were developed. As with all of the saltpetre plants in Chile, competition from these synthetic alternatives meant falling global demand in the 1950s. In 1960 the plant was closed and the facility abandoned, as was the nearby Humberstone works.
Left to decay in the desert for a decade, Santa Laura was declared a National Document by the Chilean government in 1970 and was awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. Today Santa Laura is watched over by a couple of local custodians and its entrance building contains a small photographic display showing images of life in Santa Laura, Iquique, and other nearby saltpetre towns during the last century. There is also a fantastic display of adverts from around the world – with English, German, and Afrikaans text singing the virtues of Chilean saltpetre as a fertiziler.
The entrance building also includes reconstructed domestic scenes offering an insight to life out here in the desert, but in general Santa Laura has experienced less restoration than Humberstone and retains a ‘rawer’ feel.
Most of Santa Laura and Humberstone’s industrial buildings were built large from corrugated sheet iron which has slowly rusted over the years, producing beautiful patterns of mottled light in the the early morning sun. In other buildings the roofing has gradually decayed, leaving only support beams in place and exposing the once dark interiors to the fierce desert sun. In the cold morning air, devoid of tourists, and with loose sheets banging in the gentle wind, it is an atmospheric experience. To work out here, miles from the nearest settlements and with the baking desert heat, must have been a harsh and lonely existence.
Most of Santa Laura’s remaining buildings are industrial, from the plants used to separate and refine the nitrate to the area where the end product was loaded onto railway wagons ready for transportation to Iquique. The largest and most iconic of these is the leaching plant, where the raw material was heated and processed using the Shanks System to produce saltpetre. For some reason this rusting hulk of a building reminds me of the Jawa’s transporter from Star Wars.
It is possible to enter virtually all of the buildings in Santa Laura and in many large amounts of the original equipment remain in place. There is a huge range of items to see, from old steam pumps to unknown machinery still bearing the British manufacturer’s stamps. It is possible to spend hours wondering around the site, exploring the various buildings, rooms, and small details – and I did!
At the far end of the town are the remains of the residential buildings. All workers houses and most other buildings have now been demolished, but there are one or two other buildings remaining. Unfortunately these are some of the few buildings in Santa Laura that you cannot enter.
Santa Laura is about 50 kilometres from Iquique and getting there is easy if you have your own transport. If not, it is apparently possible to get a bus and alight at a nearby stop – however getting back to Iquique may be difficult. Another option, which I opted for, is to hire a taxi and driver. This was not as expensive as I thought it would be, and gave the flexibility to start and leave when I wanted. Once you do arrive at the town, entry is free. Humberstone, a similar but much larger town, is literally across the road and is well worth a visit. It is easy to spend an entire day looking around the two sites – take lots of water!