One of northern Chile
's countless former nitrate mining ghost towns
, which, in addition to that fact alone, earns a special place on the dark tourism map because it was used as a concentration camp
for political prisoners during the earliest period of the Pinochet
military dictatorship from 1973 to the end of 1974.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Mineral extraction from Chile
's soils has very much determined the country's fortunes over the last two centuries, for better and for worse. Currently it is copper mining/smelting and the associated exports that fill the state's coffers (see Chuquicamata
). In the future, lithium extraction may become more important (large deposits have been found in the Salar de Atacama and other salt flats – see also Uyuni
But around a century ago it was nitrate that made the northern parts of Chile
"gold-rush" country. Nitrate, also called saltpetre, is a natural fertilizer and its mining became big business in the second half of the 19th century as agriculture in the developed world became increasingly "industrialized".
In fact, access to the nitrate deposits in this arid desert land was the principal cause for/in the "War of the Pacific" that Chile fought with Peru and Bolivia
from 1879 – which Chile won in 1883, i.e. by ending up annexing the disputed territory. To this day that fact remains a sore point in the relations between Chile and its northern neighbours. Peru lost some of its southern parts while Bolivia was hit doubly hard, cut off not only from the rich nitrate deposits but it also became a landlocked country after losing access to the Pacific coast and the port of Antofagasta.
For the next few decades in the late 19th and early 20th century nitrate mining became the key industry in Chile, with hundreds of mines and processing plants sprouting up like mushrooms all across the area. However, synthetic nitrate was discovered around the time of World War One
, and over the following decades gained in importance over natural nitrate mining. By the 1940s the Chilean nitrate business was crumbling …
Chacabuco was one of the later nitrate towns, or "oficinas". It was established by the British-owned Lautaro Nitrate Company in 1922-24 as one of the largest and most modern such desert towns. At its peak it had a community of some 5000 inhabitants. Workers with families received higher wages than single workers, so that something closer to a proper mirror image of society could be established, backed by an elaborate social infrastructure including a school, sports facilities, shops, a theatre and a library.
Nitrate was processed using the so-called Shanks system. In fact Chacabuco was the last newly built plant using this system. The mined raw material was crushed up, dissolved in very hot water and then crystallized by evaporation and drying. Up to 15,000 tons of nitrate were produced at Chacabuco in its prime years, transported to the Pacific coast ports and shipped to the rest of the world (i.e. mostly north).
This success wasn't to last long though. In the general decline of the nitrate business Chacabuco too was closed in 1940, at first as only a temporary measure until the industry recovered, as was still hoped. But it didn't, so the closure became permanent in 1945 and the property was sold off. It remained unused, but survived comparatively intact partly thanks to its layout which included a complete perimeter wall around the town.
The town was declared a national monument in 1971, and some restoration work was begun. However, dramatic change came again, when on 11 September 1973 the Allende
government was overthrown in the military coup under General Pinochet
. The new regime soon picked Chacabuco as an ideally isolated and remote site for a prison camp.
Thus from 1973 to 1974 Chacabuco became a kind of concentration camp
for political prisoners, esp. intellectuals. The whole south-eastern quarter of the former miners' town was surrounded by electrified fences and watchtowers, and the areas around the site "secured" by landmines. Ironically, the government undersecretary of education who had signed the decree making Chacabuco a national monument was imprisoned here himself and died shortly after his release.
After that first and most repressive phase of the dictatorship was over (i.e. the repression had succeeded), Chacabuco was abandoned again, and fell into increasing dereliction – culminating in the burning down of the church in the late 1980s.
After the end of the dictatorship in 1990 ownership of the site fell to the Ministry of National Properties, headed by an ex-prisoner of Chacabuco. Two other former inmates of the former detention camp returned (one after the other) to look after the place and stayed as caretakers, thus actively protecting the site from further vandalism.
From 1992, restoration work was undertaken on the old theatre with aid from Germany
's Goethe Institute. Later an exhibition was set up in the rooms adjacent to the theatre (in the former library). The rest of the site, however, remains a semi-derelict ghost town
. Several of the buildings have collapsed or are in danger of doing so. A good proportion of the structures are still standing, though, including parts of the production plant, where the 35m high chimney remains the dominating landmark.
In more recent years, some further development at the site included the erection of a number of informational panels dotted around the ghost town, and the main square was refurbished – in a somewhat incongruent style, with a children's play area, benches, a kind of pavilion in the centre and newly planted trees around it.
Chacabuco is now part of a "Rutas Patrimoniales" or 'heritage trail' programme, which also includes the famous Humberstone and Santa Laura nitrate plant sites further north.
The former ex-prisoner caretaker, however, is no longer there. And the new one has installed loudspeakers on the main square that blast out cheerful ethnic pop music. It certainly adds to the bizarreness of the place, but kind of detracts from the deserted ghost town atmosphere.
What there is to see: From the gate in the northern wall of the town, one should first make one's way towards the main square in the centre of the compound. Here a large panel provides a good overview, including a map. Eight further informational panels are dotted around the site, each dedicated to a specific topic of relevance to the part of town in question, thus forming a sort of circuit that visitors are encouraged to take on their walking tour of Chacabuco.
All these signs, by the way, are bilingual, in Spanish and English (of good translation quality), as is the central overview panel, which also lists the eight individual stations of those other information panels.
Of course, nothing stops you from taking a different route, but you could just as well follow the suggested one – with perhaps one exception: It might make sense to start at the theatre and the exhibition upstairs, in order to first get a good background briefing about the history and wider context of the place before exploring the ruins.
You cannot miss the restored theatre, which is also adjacent to the main square – a grand, whitewashed, three-storey edifice with a colonnaded portal and large windows. Just to make sure there's no remaining uncertainty, it also says "teatro" above the entrance.
Inside, have a look at the partially renovated auditorium and the stage – note in particular the restored wall paintings above the stage! Also look out for the little devil paintings above the entrance way to the auditorium!
Upstairs, the exhibition is a three-tiered affair. Along the walls there are text-and-photo information panels outlining the history of the nitrate industry in Chile
in general and that of Chacabuco in particular. Again, everything is bilingual, with good English translations of the Spanish original texts.
In the centre of the rooms, a few glass display cabinets contain personal items salvaged from the ghost town, some workers' tools, clothes, shoes, as well as old tins and bottles.
In the far bay-window corner, there is a separate section about the period in which Chacabuco served as a detention camp for political prisoners. In addition to a few artefacts (pieces of barbed wire, bullets) there are little text panels quoting from inmates' testimonies that provide some comments about the various parts of the camp.
Back outside take note of the trees planted in the recreated town square – and in particular of the sculpture of a prisoner crafted out of a tree trunk!
When you then head north-west you come to the area where the prison camp section used to be. There are no watchtowers or fences left, though, just the buildings which used to be workers' housing originally, and then a prison in 1973-1974.
Most buildings are in a pretty dilapidated shape, some even half-collapsed, and most are lacking roofs. In a couple of somewhat better preserved buildings, however, you can still spot some interesting wall murals.
Street after empty street of ghost town buildings can be explored. There's a certain Wild-West-like atmosphere about. Strange objects lie in the streets, dangling bits of cables and half-disjointed windows creak in the wind. And the roofs above porches throw sharp shadows onto the ground. It's a wonderful place – a very lonely ghost town
but with a heavy load of history on its shoulders …
Evidence of recent history can be seen at the spot where the old church once stood. It burned down some time in the 1980s, and very little of it is left, except the outer walls and some charred pillars.
In the centre of the town, just south of the theatre, are some larger buildings that used to house administration offices and the general store. Some of these parts are fenced off and inaccessible. But you can walk behind them and take a look at some ruins of workshops, including some large rusting machinery. Take care here, as some poles, cables and pillars are in danger of collapsing. Don't enter any ruins that don't look safe.
You need to walk all the way back around the general store and along Valparaiso street to get to the eastern sections where the nitrate production facilities were. The tall chimney still serves as the main landmark. Around it there are more old machines, and various bits and pieces of industrial rubble. The huge boilers are particularly impressive. Beyond, south of the town and factory as such, extends the plant's "torta", i.e. its spoil tip. They are called 'cakes', because of the characteristic shapes of these heaps – which, however, you can only really make out from the air.
North of the factory, set apart from the general workers' and employees' housing, in the eastern-most corner of the town, there are ruins of some larger houses that used to be the relatively luxurious living quarters of the administrator and other members of the higher echelons of the nitrate town's hierarchy. Little of their former grandeur is still detectable, though. The ruins are in a pretty bad state. The same is true for some wrecks of old vehicles rusting away outside what were once the garages – though you can still make out that typical 1920s style of car design in a couple of them.
When I visited Chacabuco in late December 2011 we had the place practically to ourselves (only as we were leaving did some other visitors arrive) … and the isolation of the place is indeed immense. It can only give you a vague indication of how "cast away" those inhabitants must have felt back then (not to mention the political prisoners during the Pinochet
dictatorship). But you can sense the loneliness and desert windswept-ness of this most fascinating ghost town. Truly mesmerizing stuff.
What is slightly detracting from this atmosphere, though, is the fact that the new caretaker of the site decided to install loudspeakers in the main square which blast out incongruously cheerful Indio-ethnic pop music! It does lend the place a certain bizarre extra, if you can tolerate it, but I found it an unwelcome distraction. At least when the wind is blowing sufficiently you can get away from the sound pollution in many parts of the town and enjoy the silence and occasional creaking noises appropriate to a ghost town
Note that it's not advisable to stumble into the desert around Chacabuco unguided – allegedly the former camp is still surrounded by about a hundred landmines from the days when it was used by the military/as a prison.
One site outside the perimeter wall of Chacabuco town itself, however, is the old cemetery, just to the south-east of the production plant. Here it is in particular those adornments made from metal that are most characteristic of these desert tombs. Note the flowers made of wrought iron!
Is it worth going all the way out to this lonely spot? If you have only the vaguest taste for ghost towns
, then absolutely so! The commodification
of the dark days of Chacabuco as a Pinochet
-era prison camp, is somewhat limited, though. That alone would probably not be reason enough for making the journey. You'd be better off studying the relevant sites in Santiago
. But for its "atmospheric-ness" as a ghost town, Chacabuco is hard to beat. The place is also a photographer's dream – even if the small size of the pictures in the gallery here (see below) can only hope to give an indication of this. For me at least, Chacabuco was one of the absolute highlights of my Chile
trip in 2011/12!
's northern province of Norte Grande, over 700 miles (almost 1200 km) from the capital Santiago de Chile
. Calama, the gateway to the Atacama and most important contemporary mining town of the area is 70 miles (110 km) to the north-east. The port town of Antofagasta on the Pacific
coast is ca. 60 miles (100 km) further to the south-west from Chacabuco.
Access and costs: quite remote, but relatively accessible all the same; fairly cheap if done independently, quite expensive by guided tour/day trip.
: If you have your own vehicle (or hire car) you can in theory just drive up to the site and explore it independently. The site is close to the main Panamericana north-south road through Chile
's north, thus easy to get to by car. As buses travel along that road too, it is not altogether impossible to get here by public transport, but it's hardly ideal.
The access road and entrance to Chacabuco are just north of the intersection of the Panamericana highway, No. 5, and the main road 25 that leads to Calama. The easier access is from the Panamericana, but you can also drive up from the 25, past the old cemetery.
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.
Admission: 2000 CLP
When I went to see Chacabuco I invested in a guided tour from Calama. It was indeed quite an investment in money terms (240USD per person for a full day, including transport, lunch and snacks), but the added value was immense: I had the tour arranged by the specialist company Rutas del Desierto/Atacama Desert Trails
, whose director Ricardo Pereira acted as driver and guide. And I couldn't have found a more competent guide for the cause. Ricardo has actually played an important part in the development of Chacabuco as a heritage site since 1993, including the putting together of the exhibition in the theatre building, and is a true expert on all things surrounding the history of the nitrate industry and its traces in the desert. See the sponsored page here
Instead of starting from Calama, you can also fly into Antofagasta on the coast and travel to Chacabuco from there, which is a somewhat shorter distance – and is also convenient if you'd rather combine Chacabuco with other mining towns and the coastal areas, instead of the more dramatic parts of the Atacama and the Andes.
In Calama I can personally recommend the El Mirador hotel, which is not only charming (if a bit simple in the guest room décor) but also a historically very interesting place (see combinations
Time required: Inside Chacabuco itself you'd need at least two to three hours, possibly more if you want to explore the site thoroughly. As a day excursion from Calama, including a couple of stops en route, it takes the better part of a whole day. Combine it with other ghost towns and the dark attractions around Calama and you can spend three to five days in the region.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Chacabuco may be the most interesting of the many nitrate industry ghost towns
due to the extra dose of darkness infused in it by the fact that it also served as a prison, but the generally more acclaimed relics of the nitrate era are elsewhere. In particular the twin sites of Humberstone and Santa Laura
, ca. 25 miles (40 km) east of Iquique, get most of the credit, thanks to their UNESCO World Heritage status. These sites are probably the best preserved of the lot, but lack the extra darkness of Chacabuco.
Most other former nitrate industry ghost towns
have been almost completely dismantled and looted for scrap and thus are hardly worth stopping for. Only the recently closed Pedro de Valdivia
and especially the still working Maria Elena
'oficinas' are still relatively intact . They are located 40 miles (60 km) and 55 miles (90 km) north of Chacabuco, respectively).
To see these places in addition to Chacabuco you'd have to go on a multi-day trip, though. This is stuff for the seriously dedicated industrial archaeologists, and the extremely dedicated Ricardo Pereira of Rutas del Desierto
is the right kind of specialist to offer such comprehensive tours (see above
, and this sponsored page
One of the other ghost towns of the area closer to Chacabuco is Pampa Union, ca. 10 miles (16 km) east of Chacabuco by the road to Calama. Pampa Union was not a nitrate mining town as such (even though the sign by the road erroneously claims it was an oficina too). Instead it rather had the role of a regional service town, full of bars and other old-profession "entertainment" offers for desert-weary workers in the region.
Very little of the town is left today, and the ruins of the buildings have a rather grim appearance of a war-ravaged village after a scorched-earth policy wiped it out. But you can still find traces of its former entertainment centre status, for instance murals on the walls of what once was a bar, with an inscription demanding that patrons pay for their drinks immediately ... not that anything less dry than dust would be on offer here today …
The nearby set of cemeteries is interesting too, especially the strange fact that in one part all graves face east, while in the adjacent part all graves face south.
Also en route between Chacabuco and Calama you'll pass one of the newer open cast mines of the area, Mina Spence – in fact, the main road had to be moved because of the expanding mine, so that a new road now leads around the area on a southern loop, from where you can catch a few glimpses of those giant trucks, spoil heaps and trains of more than 70 wagons length carrying their precious load to the coast.
The "mother" of all of Chile
's gigantic copper mines, however, lies just to the north of Calama and is given a separate entry here: Chuquicamata
A similar distance (10 miles / 16 km) south-east of Calama, a little north off the main road to San Pedro, you can find one of the most significant monuments to victims of the Pinochet
dictatorship, known as the Caravan of Death monument
, or, officially (and drier) "Parque para la Preservacion de la Memoria Historica". It commemorates the brutal executions of some 26 men by a helicopter-based army death squad that travelled the length of the country during the initial phase after the September 1973 coup ... and thus acquired the epithet of "caravan of death". The victims from the Calama region were simply dumped at this very spot, later removed, but most could still be identified through DNA analysis after 1990.
The main monument consists of red columns, each bearing a plaque with the name of a victim, arranged around an amphitheatre-like circular space, in which relatives have placed individual plaques and lay flowers. In a wider circle around the main monument, trees have been planted in tin drums. But their irrigation system has clearly not been up to the job, as the trees look in a very bad shape (as dead as the people they are dedicated to, to be quite blunt). Worse still, many of the little name plates attached to the base of each tree pot have been removed, presumably stolen by mindless, disrespectful souvenir hunters. It's a sobering, though rather deserted place – emphasized by the big Atacama skies and the distant backdrop of the Andes on the horizon.
Closer to Calama, just off the main junction of highway 23 and the ring road on the south-eastern edge of town, an older monument can be seen. This commemorates the War of the Pacific, more precisely the Topater battle of March 1879, at the very beginning of the war.
The former house of Eduardo Abaroa, the tragic Bolivian "hero" of that battle, is in the centre of Calama and is today run as a charming little hotel. The beautiful central lounge hall features antique furniture and plenty of historical documents and photos on the walls, as well as a flatteringly heroic oil painting of Abaroa.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Calama, from where day trips to Chacabuco most conveniently start from, is also the gateway to northern Chile
's premier tourist centre, namely San Pedro de Atacama. This, in turn, is marketed as the "gateway to the Atacama desert". Well, not all of it, of course, but it is indeed the jumping-off spot to the most spectacular parts of the Atacama.
These include the fabled Moon Valley, Death Valley, giant dunes and more that are within an easy half-day trip reach from San Pedro. All operators based in town offer such trips. Too many, some may find, as this is so popular that some spots can get a little too crowded to do justice to the desert atmosphere of silence and eerie desertedness. But it's still worth seeing! By the way, the name "Moon Valley" acquired additional justification when NASA used parts of it to simulate the actual moonscape in a training mission for their Apollo programme!
Going to see the famous El Tatio geysers, regarded as the highest geothermal field on Earth, requires a pre-dawn start from San Pedro so that you arrive at the crack of dawn, which is when the geysers are most active, while during the day they quieten down. Again, it's a standard destination, so you'll have to share it with dozens of other 4x4s and buses. The drive through the Andean scenery on the way back alone is surely worth it though. Whereas I found the geysers themselves no match for the originals, i.e. those on Iceland
The wildlife that can be encountered here is also an attraction in itself. Not just the common llamas and vicunas, the creature I found by far the most endearing is the loveable mountain viscacha. These cute little mammals look a bit like a cross between a large hare and a small kangaroo – and they are at least as fast as either of these! Your eyes can hardly follow them as they dash about between the rocks. When they sit still, though, these viscachas are the most adorable sight to behold around El Tatio. To catch such a glimpse of them, however, may require some patience … and luck.
Most people, however, make another trip specifically to see a different animal, namely the flamingos of the Salar de Atacama, to the south of San Pedro. The Laguna de Chaxa in the middle of the Salar is the standard point to go and see them. There are viewing platforms up close to some of the feeding ponds, so you are likely to get a really good look at these pink sifters as they wade through the shallow waters, head down in the water, so that from the right angle their reflection creates the image of a double flamingo, one upside down attached to the real one. You can often see flights of flamingos overhead too – which against the backdrop of the high Andes is a magical sight too.
(For photos of all this see the general entry for Chile
Apart from breathtaking scenery and engaging wildlife spotting, the region is also rich in cultural traces of e.g. Pre-Colombian civilizations, if that's your cup of tea. Contemporary rural villages add to this, and you can even go horseback riding to visit some such sights and en route pass through even more lunar-landscape-like valleys. Throw in some hot springs that you can soak in, and you get a package of a variety that few places on Earth can match. No wonder it is a dream destination for so many.
Finally, San Pedro de Atacama is also the jumping-off spot for one of the most spectacular (and most remote) border crossing points in the world – that into Bolivia
located at the foot of the mighty Licancabur volcano (nearly 6000m high and an almost perfect, picture-book cone).
Driving into Bolivia's Altiplano from here not only gives you the best access to such otherworldly sights such as the eerily turquoise Laguna Verde but also a great contrast to the overcrowdedness of San Pedro and its environs. Up here on the Bolivian side you often have the immense grandeur of the Andean landscape, and its big skies, almost to yourself.
- Chacabuco 01 - view over the ghost town
- Chacabuco 02 - guide Ricardo with general plan of the site
- Chacabuco 03 - main square
- Chacabuco 04 - prisoner tree sculpture
- Chacabuco 05 - the theatre
- Chacabuco 06 - inside the theatre
- Chacabuco 06b - restored wall paintings
- Chacabuco 07 - the darkest days
- Chacabuco 08 - exhibition
- Chacabuco 09 - English sauce label in the exhibition
- Chacabuco 10 - bullets
- Chacabuco 11 - view from the theatre roof
- Chacabuco 12 - ghostly ghost town
- Chacabuco 13 - almost wild-west-like
- Chacabuco 14 - info panel
- Chacabuco 15 - dereliction
- Chacabuco 16 - surviving wall murals
- Chacabuco 17 - rusting hulk
- Chacabuco 18 - ghostly
- Chacabuco 19 - behind bars
- Chacabuco 20 - burned down church
- Chacabuco 21 - expressive shadows
- Chacabuco 22 - window hanging by a thread
- Chacabuco 23 - industrial dereliction
- Chacabuco 24 - heavy machinery from England
- Chacabuco 25 - inside the old factory
- Chacabuco 26 - dark
- Chacabuco 27 - the chimney
- Chacabuco 28 - heavy rubble
- Chacabuco 29 - old boilers
- Chacabuco 30 - exposed tiled floor
- Chacabuco 31 - view back towards the theatre
- Chacabuco 32 - rusting old vehicle
- Chacabuco 33 - former adminstrator housing
- Chacabuco 34 - a dry bath
- Chacabuco 35 - the cemetery
- Chacabuco 36 - metal flowers
- Chacabuco 37 - adornments made from scrap
- Chacabuco 38 - Pampa Union ghost town
- Chacabuco 39 - bar wall mural in Pampa Union
- Chacabuco 40 - Golondrina grave at Pampa Union cemetery
- Chacabuco 41 - Parque para la Preservacion de la Memoria Historica
- Chacabuco 42 - the Caravan of Death monument
- Chacabuco 43 - War of the Pacific Topater battle monument in Calama
- Chacabuco 44 - former house of Eduardo Abaroa in Calama