Developed mainly during the saltpeter heyday, Iquique was originally a Peruvian city that passed to Chilean hands after the Pacific War (1879-1883). Today, with more than 200,000 inhabitants, it is one of the largest cities in northern Chile and a popular touristic destination thanks, at least in part, to the warm waters of its beaches (when compared to rest of the freezing Chilean coast, affected by the Humboldt Current). Standing 1,750km (1,085mi) away from the national capital, Santiago, and 410km (255mi) north of Antofagasta, right in the Atacama Desert, Iquique has an average annual rainfall of just 1mm (0.04in), so that any rain is an extremely unlikely event in the area.
Iquique’s downtown, quite compact, is possibly the most interesting one in northern Chile. Several buildings still preserve their original 19th century architecture from when European entrepreneurs, on their search for the riches provided by the saltpeter mines, built their homes here. Baquedano street, in the heart of the city, has a particularly high density of well-preserved examples of Victorian architecture adapted to the local climate. At the end (or beginning) of that street, Arturo Prat square, the city’s main one, concentrates some of the most representative buildings of the city, like the Clock Tower, the Municipal Theater (one of the most important of the country) and the Spanish Casino, currently converted into a restaurant that deserves a visit at least to see its interior decoration.
The Corveta Esmeralda Museum, by the coast, still in the central area of the city, has become one of the most photographed monuments of Iquique after it opened in 2010, in time for the 200th anniversary of the Chilean Independence. The Museum is a reconstruction of one of the most representative symbols of Chilean proud, a ship sunk in battle during the Pacific War in 1879. It is possible to enter the ship and learn a little about the history of the Chilean Navy and the main armed conflicts fought by them during the 19th century.
Finally, Iquique is also an important shopping destination, thanks to its tax-free zone (Iquique and Punta Arenas, in the southern extreme of the country, host the two tax-free zones of Chile). Its main tax-free mall, known as ZOFRI, attracts thousands of visitors monthly.
Leaving the city through Route 16 towards Alto Hospicio you can get an excellent panoramic view of Iquique. Driving about 50km (31mi) on the same road, until just before the junction with Route 5, the main highway of the country, you’ll arrive to the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works, two former saltpeter refineries. They are both opened for visiting, but in case you have to pick only one, Humberstone is the place to go. In their heyday, Santa Laura and Humberstone had, respectively, 425 and 3,500 inhabitants and, currently listed as World Heritage Sites, are the best landmark of the period when the saltpeter economy thrived in this region. Each place works independently, but in both it is possible to experience a taste of the lifestyle of those who worked for these companies and of their families: their homes, churches, sport clubs, stores and offices.
An interesting complement for visiting the saltpeter works could be to continue north along Route 5 until a village called Huara and then turn right to head toward the Andes. Some 45km (28mi) after Humberstone you’ll get to Cerro Unitas, where you can see the Atacama Giant: the world’s largest anthropomorphic geoglyph, possibly a deity drawn by the locals between the years 1000 and 1400AD. Continuing another 150km (93mi) on the same direction you’ll arrive at Colchane, by the Bolivian border, 3,730m (12,240ft) above the sea level. From here you can decide to visit the Volcano Isluga National Park, nearby, or then keep on to the Bolivian city of Oruro, 240km (150mi) away.