Chilean ghost towns

On December 25, 2013 by Peter

I am a total sucker for urban ruins and abandoned places, so I was very excited to spend December 25 exploring two fascinating spots in the Chilean desert. Northern Chile has long had a robust mining industry. In the late 1800s-1960s, “saltpeter” (aka Potassium Nitrate) dominated the mining sector and represented a substantial portion of Northern Chile’s economic output. A German engineer invented a chemical process for producing the substance that proved less expensive than mining and shipping it, effectively shuttering the industry in Chile. About 45 minutes outside of Iquique, you can visit two relics of this era: Oficinas Santa Laura and Humberstone, located just across the road from each other. The high desert provides ideal conditions for preserving the structures, unlike other industrial ruins in wetter climes, like Detroit.

Our guide for the day was a local named Rudy. We got a taste of what to expect when Jen and I spoke with him on the phone the day before our excursion; he seemed like a colorful figure, and did not disappoint. Rudy is an aspiring musician, a fact he slipped into conversation as we were heading up the hill out of Iquique. By the time we arrived in Santa Laura, 40 minutes later, we had learned that he had played in several bands. As we wandered around the abandoned hulks of Santa Laura, we could hear him breaking into song through the holes in the building walls. When we got in the car to drive home from Humberstone, he was cranking the BeeGees, singing along, cuing instruments, and drumming on the dashboard. It was more entertaining than anything else.

The abandoned towns themselves were nothing short of amazing.

Santa Laura

We started in Santa Laura and walked around clockwise, to the consternation of the site manager. We explained that the position of the sun dictated our path through town, and he seemed both puzzled and partially mollified. The residential portions of Santa Laura have mostly collapsed, but the industrial bits remain.

Rail line leading into Santa Laura

Jen and I could have spent hours exploring and photographing Santa Laura. Interesting details abounded, as this shot by Jen illustrates.

Santa Laura

The large buildings were they extracted Potassium Nitrate and iodized salt were particularly interesting.

Iodized salt production

After about an hour and much spurring by Rudy, we headed across the road to Humberstone to check out the once bustling mining town. Unlike in Santa Laura, the residential and commercial structures town in Humberstone have endured.

Here’s the dining room in the town hotel.

Dining room

The iron swimming pool, supposedly assembled from metal salvaged from ships, was unique.

Dining room

The theater used to host world-class performances.


You had to buy your refreshments before going into the theater.


The school was full of interesting textures, colors, and patterns.


School walls

Many of the houses in town contained relics of life in Humberstone.


Toy truck

We could have spent many more hours here, but we were baking in the mid-day sun and headed back to Iquique.

One Response to “Chilean ghost towns”

  • Jonathan Reiber

    these are amazing pics. really dig the one through the window with the circles. what an incredible trip.

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