The midday desert sun beat down mercilessly. Before us stood rows of small rusty houses. Slowly, as if we were entering another world, we began our walk down the wide, empty streets, weaving in and out of faded, dusty old buildings. A subtle breeze swirled up every now and then, creating a bizarre choreography of sand. With each crescendo of the wind came the sound of squeaking hinges and creaking wood, the slam of a door, a metal roof plate breaking loose.
We were in one of the most desolate spots on Earth: the sun-baked ghost town of Humberstone in the Atacama, the driest desert in the world.
Established in 1862 in these remote pampas of northern Chile, Humberstone was once a buzzing center of saltpeter mining. Chile saltpeter, or sodium nitrate, was an ingredient in the manufacture of explosives and, later, of fertilizers that transformed agriculture in the Americas and Europe. So lucrative was the saltpeter industry that over 50 years, starting in the 1860s, 200 plants popped up around the country’s north to mine and process the “white gold.” Northern Chile experienced a boom, becoming the largest supplier of natural saltpeter in the world.
Following the promise of great wealth, scores of workers from around the country and beyond flowed into the region. This arid wasteland became home to thousands of people, who inhabited salitreras, impromptu towns that huddled around the plants. Among them, Humberstone had a most unique story. The town flowered in the desert. During its heyday in the 1940s, it housed 3,700 people who forged a tight-knit community of pampino culture. Humberstone fizzed with life, a bubble of energy at the heart of the desert, powered by skyrocketing profits.
I found this image of a bustling settlement befuddling as we wandered through its now abandoned streets. The heat was unnerving. The desert stood silent witness to our walk. Nothing moved. There were no signs of life beyond my husband and myself and a handful of other tourists. Yet everything felt so alive, full of some kind of unseen presence. It was almost as though we could hear the chatter of voices nearby.
Inside the old municipal theater, whose faded remains stand as a grand nod to the past, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a Saturday evening back in the day, when it showcased Mexican movies, zarzuelas (traditional Spanish operettas) and world-class starlets. I wandered among the aisles, between chairs still speckled with bits of red velvet.
Meanwhile, my husband, an actor, jumped up onstage and began performing a monologue from “Othello.” The moment was surreal enough already — and then a TV crew walked in. They immediately zeroed in on my husband, who effortlessly grabs the attention of any camera in his vicinity. Suddenly he was being interviewed for Chilean national television about his impressions of Humberstone.
The experience of roaming the town had been poignant and heavy. So the spotlights finding my camera-happy husband in a remote ghost town provided welcome comic relief. (He appeared on the evening news a week later.)
Back outside, we meandered some more in the scorching heat. My imagination was working in overdrive. I visualized hardy young pampinos catching the eye of their sweethearts at the once majestic ballroom. In my mind’s eye, I saw children jumping into the above-ground swimming pool made of cast iron salvaged from the hull of a ship that had wrecked in the nearby port of Iquique. The pool now stood rusty and sad, like a dead whale washed up on a distant shore. I saw the industry bigwigs sealing high-power deals at the town’s lone hotel. I imagined the bustling market, evening strolls in best dress along the main square, weekend games at the tennis courts. . . .
As life was being lived to the fullest in this cultural oasis of the Atacama, the white gold was losing value by the minute. By the early 1930s, the development of synthetic nitrates in Europe had already brought about the closing of many mines, and the industry came nearly to a standstill. While 10 percent of the world’s nitrate had come from Chile in the ’30s, by the 1950s, that number had dropped to 3 percent.
That didn’t bode well for Humberstone, saltpeter being the sole reason for its existence and its sole source of sustenance. In 1959, the mines and plants at Humberstone shut down. The workers left. Almost overnight, the town became a windswept, empty place. It was declared a national monument by the Chilean government in 1970 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
The years since its closing, marked by vandalism and earthquakes, have left their traces on Humberstone. Today, its deteriorated structures are so vulnerable that it was placed, also in 2005, on the List of World Heritage in Danger, where it still remains.
But more than five decades later, I could still sense the hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments, blooming romances and unfolding friendships that had been experienced here, in the desert heat. The people of Humberstone were gone, but they’d left something behind.
At nearby Santa Laura, founded 10 years after Humberstone in 1872, the soul of the salitreras was even more tangible. Just one mile down the road, Santa Laura, named in honor of the first owner’s wife, was a smaller plant, with an oficina (adjacent town) that numbered 450 families in its 1920s heyday. It shut down in 1958 and has sat abandoned ever since, with its rusting machinery, a large funnel where the white gold was placed for processing, and a narrow-gauge railway once used to transport the powder to the coast.
The afternoon we visited, the only other person around was an unsmiling guard who sat on a chair outside the old mansion that now houses a small museum. I moved through the rooms, looking at the displays of items left behind by the pampinos. Haphazardly placed household appliances stood around one room, and a pile of dusty dresses filled a corner. In the next room lay a heap of well-worn shoes and fichas — tokens made of rubber, aluminum and cardboard that were used in nitrate towns in place of cash. Like whispers of lives once lived, these leftover items offered an intimate glimpse into a bygone world.
The floors creaked as I walked, and the wind blew through the broken roof. I had an intense feeling that I was being followed, turning around every few steps, convinced that someone was behind me.
Back outside, I chatted with the unsmiling guard, who after a while warmed up and told me tales of children’s wails echoing in the mansion’s rooms and strange apparitions showing up in people’s photographs.
A couple of road-tripping weeks later, we experienced the pinnacle of spooky in Pisagua, a forlorn coastal town that crouches like a wounded animal at the foot of a nearly vertical rock face, 118 miles north of Iquique. So forsaken a place that even its name conveys it: It’s a combination of the Spanish words “pis” and “agua,” which roughly translates to “pisswater.” The name is said to have come from bad-tasting water contaminated with nitric acid.
We drove down a deserted zigzag road one late afternoon. After many hours on empty desert roads, we’d run out of drinks. My lips were so parched that all I could think about was getting my hands on a chilled bottle of water. Surely that would be no problem in Pisagua, which sounded, according to my guidebook, like a place that would have at least a store, if not more. But to my dismay, we drove through town, up and down, and found not a single storefront, stand or kiosk.
I assumed that our next stop, Hostal La Roca, a quirky little place on the edge of town, would be my savior. We rang the doorbell and the owner, Catarina Saldana, a vivacious historian well past middle age, came out to greet us. She apologized for the construction mess inside. It was low season, and they were sprucing up the four funky rooms of the cliffside hostel. But as she talked, the only response I could muster was: “Can I please have a glass of water?”
Once properly hydrated, I began to probe Catarina about the history of Pisagua. She handed me a book she’d written and said that I’d find all the answers in its pages. She didn’t say much else, except that in its 19th-century heyday, Pisagua was a bustling port for the nitrate mined in the Atacama. After the nitrate’s value dropped, the town became a penal colony and, during the Pinochet military dictatorship, a prison camp. Today, Pisagua is home to about 250 people who make their living harvesting algae and shellfish.
She told us of a mass grave discovered near the cemetery in 1990, when Chile was shaken by the unearthing of 20 eerily well-preserved bodies. The mummified corpses had intact clothing and flesh, which bore traces of bullet holes. Some still wore blindfolds, and their hands were tied. Two bodies were mutilated. One had been beheaded. The bodies were wrapped in cloth and bound with wire, some of the sacks sewn together.
Catarina urged us to visit the cemetery, which was just a short drive beyond the hostel. The wind picked up as we first spied the graves sloping down a desert hillside toward the Pacific. At moments it was gusty, spinning plastic bags and random bits of trash through the air. Then it would die down and ease into a fresh breeze.
I was watching this macabre dance of human-made waste and nature when I suddenly heard the sound of sobbing behind me. Terrified, I turned around. It was Hoji, my husband, weeping as if he’d just gotten news of a loved one’s passing. I rushed over. “What happened?” I asked, but he couldn’t speak. I held him as his sobs waxed and waned.
Hoji was only 3 when his father, a left-wing political dissident during the Angolan civil war of the 1970s, was taken from the family home. To this day, he remembers his father packing and the suit he wore the day he departed. He never returned. Much later, the family received a document informing them that he had been executed, but they don’t know where his body lies, or how and where he was killed.
The wind picked up again as we parted with Pisagua. I felt a shudder and an echo of something Catarina had said to us: “I have learned to live with the ghosts, and I have learned to love them.”
Mutic, a New York-based writer, covered northern Chile for the just-released “Lonely Planet Chile.”