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Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter offices

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Ghost Towns in the Middle of the Atacama Desert

The Santiago Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Offices are located in the Tarapacá Region, just 45 kilometers south of Iquique, in the middle of the world' driest desert. They were declared UNESCO World Heritage Monuments in 2005.

During its heyday, the saltpeter region had around 200 offices operating simultaneously. The period, which coincided with the early years of the 20th century, was known as the industry's "Golden Age." Today, these compounds are the most complete and representative material evidence of the industry and offer visitors a chance to learn how men and women were able to overcome all of the obstacles presented by the driest desert in the world. Though the buildings' walls and corners now stand empty, they reflect an era that was a time of glory for some and one of sacrifice for others.

Humberstone and Santa Laura halted their activities approximately 50 years ago. Santa Laura had 871 inhabitants and its industrial facilities –which include a leaching plant unlike any other in the world-, administrative headquarters, clinic and other small buildings remain standing. Humberstone –which was originally called La Palma- had a population of nearly 3,500. Its encampment has been preserved, including the industrial area and public buildings such as the church, market, hotel and theater.

Humberstone's main plaza was the center of the town's social activities during its period of splendor. The buildings that were constructed around it include the theater, hotel, church, pool, train station and general store, most of which were built out of Oregon pine imported from North America.

The mythical Humberstone Theater was built in 1882 and allowed its inhabitants to live the splendor of the bell époque. Important European theater and dance companies performed there. Today, visitors can tour the workers' quarters and industrial area, with its workshops, armories and other constructions.

The Saltpeter Museum Corporation offers three tours designed to teach visitors about the most important historical processes of the saltpeter industry. The tours are free for those who purchase a ticket to the saltpeter mines.

Tour 1 "La Palma – Humberstone and Its Encampment"
Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
Description: This tour allows visitors to explore official buildings as well as the residences that were built at the site. During this excursion, you will learn what life was like at Humberstone and enter buildings that contain the histories of many of the families who lived in the pampa during the Golden Age of Saltpeter.

Tour 2 "Humberstone's Industrial Area – Technological Evolution"
Duration: 1 hour
Description: This tour offers visitors an opportunity to learn about the machinery and technology that were used to make saltpeter. All of the buildings related to the services that allowed the industrial plant to operate have been preserved, including the locomotive workshop and armory that allowed the company to make use of the era's most important means of transportation.

Tour 3 "Santa Laura and the Shank System"
Duration: 1 hour
Description: Learn how saltpeter was made, including the extraction, grinding, leaching, crystallization, bagging and shipping processes from the removal of the minerals until they are taken away by train to be exported to different parts of the world. This saltpeter office is home to the only Shank System industrial leaching plant in the world.

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Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter offices


Getting There

en avion
By Plane
Daily flights are available from Santiago to Diego Aracena Airport in Iquique (2h 30 min). You can also catch a flight from Arica to Iquique (45 min). Car rentals are available at the airport, as are tours of the saltpeter companies, Pozo Almonte, La Tirana and the surrounding areas.
By Bus
Local buses and taxis depart the Iquique Market for the saltpeter offices.

Taxis: Barros Arana & Sargento Aldea, along the edge of the Iquique Market
Telephone: (57) 329832 / 751113

Buses: Barros Arana, between Zegers and Latorre
Telephone: (57) 763934 / 423751

en auto
By Car
If you are coming from the city of Iquique, take Route A-16, which connects to the locality of Pica. At Km 46 you will see the unmistakable silhouette of the Santa Laura Saltpeter Office on the right hand side. You will find the entrance to Santiago Humberstone Saltpeter Office about one kilometer down the road, on the left side of the highway at Km 47. If you come from the south, take Route 5 North to the turnoff at Km. 1.814 on the left towards Iquique. This will take you directly to the saltpeter offices.




Watch the Sun Living in the Pampa When to Go
Sun block is a must here due. Also, be sure to set aside at least a full morning to visit the two sites. The Humberstone visit alone lasts around three hours. Humberstone is home to seven exhibit rooms that allow visitors to get a glimpse of what life was like in the pampa. The Game Room lets you travel back in time and learn how local children played and the Shanks System Tool Exhibit Hall shows just how difficult it was for local men to work in the world's most arid desert.
You can read the letters that workers wrote to their families in the Documents Room along with documents related to the unions, general store, anecdotes and complaints that tell some of the stories of the inhabitants of these ghost towns.
November is a great time to visit these sites because "Saltpeter Week" brings the entire community together and fills every corner of the town with lively activities.



The night tour of the old saltpeter offices is a great way to explore the industry's little-known and ghostly story.



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