In the Atacama desert of northern Chile, three dusty ghost towns stand as stark reminders of the country’s long–and sometimes brutal–history. Humberstone, Santa Laura, and Pisagua each played an integral role in Chile’s development. All are now merely shells of what they once were: Two are entirely deserted, and the third is home to just a handful of inhabitants.
Humberstone (originally La Palma) and Santa Laura were both towns built around saltpeter works: facilities that extracted rich nitrate deposits from the deserts of northern Chile. The natural chemical, also known as “white gold”, was used in explosives and fertilizers and was in great demand throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Humberstone and Santa Laura grew up around their respective saltpeter plants, luring laborers into the desert with promises of wealth. These pop-up communities provided such luxuries as Mexican films and Spanish operettas in the municipal theatre.
Both sites thrived for years, until a synthetic nitrate from Europe all but erased the need for saltpeter facilities and their workforces.
By 1960, Humberstone and Santa Laura were abandoned. The exodus happened so quickly that much of the town remains frozen in time. Pictures still hang in hallways, dresses and shirts are stored in closets, and suitcases are stacked neatly against walls, collecting dust. In 1970, the ghost towns were opened to the public; in 2005, UNESCO declared both locales World Heritage Sites.
Pisagua, a nearby port city an hour and a half north of Humberstone, experienced its own turbulent rise and fall. Founded in 1611 by the Viceroy of Peru, the coastal settlement originally served as a base to combat the illegal activities of pirates. In 1879, Chilean troops invaded the area during the Guerra del Pacifico, after which administrative control switched to Chile. In the late 1800s, Pisagua experienced its own “nitrate boom”, transforming into one of the country’s most important and attractive port towns.
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Just like Humberstone and La Palma, however, Pisagua’s economic boom did not last. By the 1950s, it began its slow descent to the near ghost town that it is today. Adding to Pisagua’s eerie aura is the fact that three separate Chilean rulers –Carlos Ibanez del Campo, Gabrial Gonzalez Videla, and Augusto Pinochet–used the area as a prison camp and torture site for political prisoners. As recently as 1990, bodies have been unearthed in mass graves: A few were mutilated and beheaded, while most were blindfolded with their hands bound behind their backs and bullet holes in their heads. Today, the vast majority of the buildings that still stand in Pisagua are uninhabited, haunting the 250 or so residents who still call this isolated site home.
While the vast majority of the people are gone, these three Chilean ghost towns remain. Stand before Humberstone’s rusting ironworks or Pisagua’s shuttered rail station, and one is reminded of the life that once thrived there: the fading history of forsaken places, just visible before the desert swallows it up.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons