Until we started planning our trip to Chile, I had never really heard of Iquique. It isn’t one of those cities that is represented in the travel brochures as a tourist destination, especially for travellers coming from Europe. However, a little more research revealed a lot more information and it became clear that it would be worth calling in for a couple of days as we headed on a long drive south from Arica.
Why? Well, to explain that needs quick history lesson (which I promise I’ll keep short)
In 1879, Iquique was the scene of one of the most important confrontations in the War of the Pacific. At the time, the city was controlled by Peru and the Chilean navy had sent two ships, the Esmeralda and the Covadonga to blockade the port. In response, Peru sent the Huáscar and the Independencia to confront them. The Peruvian’s iron ships far outclassed the two old wooden schooner Chilean counterparts and the Indepencia effectively chased the Covadonga down the coast before engaging in a separate battle at Punto Gruesa (in which both ships were lost). The Esmerelda could not get away and engaged in battle with the much larger Peruvian Huáscar.
The Esmeralda’s cannons had little effect against the iron-clad Huáscar and although the the Peruvian ship was effective on inflicting large casualties to the Esmerelda’s crew, the Esmerelda itself sustained minimal damage. The Peruvian captain therefore decided to ram the Esmeralda.
As the ship neared, the Chilean captain, Arturo Prat, called to his men to board the Peruvian ship to fight. As Prat and his men stormed the Huáscar, Prat was killed in action. Shortly after, the Esmerelda started to sink from the ramming damage and the Peruvian’s regained the port. It was 21st May 1879.
Although Chile lost the battle and had to leave Iquique, the Peruvian navy had been weakened with the loss of the Indepencia, one of their most important vessels. Meanwhile in Chile, news of Arturo Prat’s heroism inspired many thousands of new young men to join the army and navy, a fact that historians now agree was probably one of the most important factors in Chile’s eventual victory in the War of the Pacific. As a result, Prat is now very much a national hero and wherever you go in Chile, seemingly in every town and city, you will find a street or plaza named Arturo Prat, and probably also one called 21 Mayo. With such a key piece of history behind it, to overlook Iquique when exploring Chile would therefore seem a bit remiss.
Today, Iquique remains an interesting place that is full of contradiction. It is unmistakably a desert city, yet it has elements of relaxed modern coastal resort sitting, as it does, on a wide sandy bay. It is sandwiched between the vastness of the ocean to the west, and the vastness of the Atacama Desert behind it to the east, and is hemmed tightly in by 1,000m high rocks and a sand dune (apparently the largest urban example in the world) that lead up to the desert plains. New high-rise apartment blocks and glass fronted hotels sit alongside thousands of more modest houses constructed from timber or cinder block. Pelicans, Andean eagles and cormorants are in abundance, and we even stumbled upon two sea lions sunning themselves in a car park.
Because of its significance in the War of the Pacific, it oozes naval and maritime history. A magnificent full sized reproduction of the famous Esmerelda sits boldly and immaculately presented in the docks as both a museum and a monument to Iquique’s past. However, it also reveals its very strong links to the historic nitrate mining industry in areas such as Baquedano, a lovely part of the city that is a long wide and straight street in the old part of town. Here, it is packed with faded old Spanish colonial buildings, many of which are gradually being restored and turned into fancy bars.
My favourite evening in Iquique though, was a very simple one. It was nothing more than a long walk along the seafront in the early evening, along the pathway on the way out to the edge of town, and along the sand on the way back. The mixture of the warm early evening breeze, a deep orange sun setting over the ocean and gentle waves lapping at our feet was beautiful. It was easy to forget the odd juxtaposition of this ocean scene with the backdrop of the arid Atacama Desert just a few miles behind us.
Check out the full photo gallery for some more photos of Iquique.