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Chile's Mining Past Draws Tourists North
[Photo essay] The north of this fascinating country is extremely arid, but it is rich with history
Maria Pastora Sandoval Campos (mariepelou)     Print Article 
Published 2005-04-29 16:45 (KST)   
Late last month, citizen reporter Maria Pastora Sandoval Campos took a trip to the far north of her homeland -- Chile.

Getting there is no easy task. From the captial of Santiago, in the middle of the 6,000 km-long country, it takes 24 hours by non-stop bus to the port city of Iquique. Two drivers alternate on the long, monotonous drive through flat, arid land that on first inspection seems devoid of vegetation and animal life.

Forty-seven kilometers east of Iquique, in the heart of the Altiplano (high plains) and near the driest desert on earth -- the Atacama -- she and a tour group visited the late 19th, early 20th century saltpeter mining site called Santa Laura.

Saltpeter (NaNO3) was mined from caliche ore and was used in explosives before World War I. At that time it was Chile's main export item. Following the introduction of artificial nitrates after the first war, the world market for saltpeter collapsed and Chile's economy and history took a very different turn

This abandoned mine is nonetheless a significant landmark in Chile's history and many tourists visit there annually. The following is her photo essay of the mine. -- Ed.

©2005 M.Sandoval
We arrive at the old saltpeter mining company Santa Laura, which operated from 1872 to 1958, to learn about how saltpeter was processed. The company's first owner Guillermo Wendell, named it in honor of his wife, Laura. The company was up for auction in the 1960s, at the same time that Humberstone, another major saltpeter company of the time, was bought by Isidoro Andia, who collected wood and metal from the site to sell.

In 1970 it was declared a national monument, but people still obtained material from the building. If you wanted to visit the company you had to pay a ticket. The company went bankrupt and was sold to the Saltpeter Committee, which began the very slow process of restoring the two sites as remnants of Chile's industrial age.

On the right is a large funnel, where workers would place the caliche, beginning the production process for saltpeter.

Before entering the mill, the mineral would pass along a conveyor belt.
©2005 M.Sandoval

Here the caliche was broken up into smaller pieces. According to legend, Indians discovered saltpeter and presented it to a priest. It was first used as a combustible. Then he realized saltpeter was an effective fertilizer.
©2005 M.Sandoval

A machine would smash the caliche, and the finer product would be transferred to the conveyor belt, on the right.
©2005 M.Sandoval

Caliche would pass along the belt.
©2005 M.Sandoval

The caliche would move along to a second building, where it would go into gigantic recepticles, called nitre-beds, or cachuchos, in Spanish.
©2005 M.Sandoval

Cachuchos, where the minerals and water were put over high heat. Some workers, called derripeadores cleaned up, wearing special shoes, and put the water in wagons.
©2005 M.Sandoval

The wagons carrying "old water" from the cachuchos would run along shafts.
©2005 M.Sandoval

Walking by the crystallized fields laced with canals of Oregon pine wood, where the process ended.
©2005 M.Sandoval

A complete view of the building where the process would finish. In the middle is the chimney, where the smoke from the heating process would be released.
©2005 M.Sandoval
©2005 OhmyNews
Maria Pastora Sandoval Campos, who hails from Chile, is an assistant professor of digital journalism at a university in Santiago. She is working as a journalist and loves her career and its relation to the Internet. Her blog, in Spanish, is e-dentidad.
Other articles by reporter Maria Pastora Sandoval Campos

  Linked Story - A Lost Chilean Culture on Display...

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