Details, northern Chile
Established in 1862 in these remote pampas of northern Chile, Humberstone was once a buzzing center of saltpeter mining. Chile saltpeter, or sodium nitrate, was an ingredient in the manufacture of explosives and, later, of fertilizers that transformed agriculture in the Americas and Europe. So lucrative was the saltpeter industry that over 50 years, starting in the 1860s, 200 plants popped up around the country’s north to mine and process the “white gold.” Northern Chile experienced a boom, becoming the largest supplier of natural saltpeter in the world.
Following the promise of great wealth, scores of workers from around the country and beyond flowed into the region. This arid wasteland became home to thousands of people, who inhabited salitreras, impromptu towns that huddled around the plants. Among them, Humberstone had a most unique story. The town flowered in the desert. During its heyday in the 1940s, it housed 3,700 people who forged a tight-knit community of pampino culture. Humberstone fizzed with life, a bubble of energy at the heart of the desert, powered by skyrocketing profits.
I found this image of a bustling settlement befuddling as we wandered through its now abandoned streets. The heat was unnerving. The desert stood silent witness to our walk. Nothing moved. There were no signs of life beyond my husband and myself and a handful of other tourists. Yet everything felt so alive, full of some kind of unseen presence. It was almost as though we could hear the chatter of voices nearby.
Inside the old municipal theater, whose faded remains stand as a grand nod to the past, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a Saturday evening back in the day, when it showcased Mexican movies, zarzuelas (traditional Spanish operettas) and world-class starlets. I wandered among the aisles, between chairs still speckled with bits of red velvet.
Meanwhile, my husband, an actor, jumped up onstage and began performing a monologue from “Othello.” The moment was surreal enough already — and then a TV crew walked in. They immediately zeroed in on my husband, who effortlessly grabs the attention of any camera in his vicinity. Suddenly he was being interviewed for Chilean national television about his impressions of Humberstone.
The experience of roaming the town had been poignant and heavy. So the spotlights finding my camera-happy husband in a remote ghost town provided welcome comic relief. (He appeared on the evening news a week later.)