CHILE – Mining in the Atacama desert at Chuquicamata mine and Humberstone

Wow! That’s a huge big hole in the earth there in North Chile! We don’t have mountains in the Netherlands, but we don’t have these pits either so it was an amazing experience to see. After my recent trip in the Atacama Desert around San Pedro de Atacama I had the opportunity to see a bit more of the mining activities in North Chile. I drove from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama to see the Chuquicamata mine, the largest open-pit mine in the world. From there I drove to Iquique to visit Humberstone & Santa Laura Saltpeter Works which are ghost towns in the desert. Well worth the 3 days side trip and that’s why I added them in my 10-14 days Chile itinerary. Read on for my experience and check the gallery for an impression of the places.

Calama and the Chuquicamata mine

The Chuquicamata mine is located just a few kilometers out of Calama city. Due to security and safety reasons it is not possible to visit the Chuquicamata mine on your own. The mine is owned by Codelco and you have to apply for a visit with them. You can do this by email through or by phone if you speak Spanish +56 55 322122 – I don’t.


Wow! That’s a huge big hole in the earth there in North Chile!

I like to plan well ahead and had sent Codelco an email two or three months before: not working, no answer. You can apply approximate a week before your visit and you have to re-confirm your spot on the tour the day before the visit. The tour runs around lunch time every business day and takes up to two or three hours. There are only so many spots to fill a bus, so you might want to keep in mind that the day you want to go might not be possible. The tour itself is free of charge but you can make a donation for charity.

After a great long sleep at the Sonesta hotel in Calama I decided to head first to Chiu Chiu a small town just out of Calama. Here you find a great small church called the San Francisco Church which is one of the oldest in Chile. There is a small nice lake nearby to have a drink and enjoy the sun a bit. From there I headed back to Calama to the tour office of Codelco to get on the tour for the Chuquicamata mine.

At the Codelco office my name was checked, ID written down, security fest and helmet given to me. Ready, set, go? Yes, but in a slow South American way. We finally arrived at the Chuquicamata town which is completely deserted. This town housed all the workers of the mine until they needed more room for processed rock and the workers were moved to Calama. The town is now half swallowed by the mountains of rock but is now further preserved and kept as an open air museum for future generations. You are allowed to walk around the square, one or two roads to see the empty houses and shops but the rest is off-limits at the time I visited due to safety concerns.

As the last one I got back to the bus and we headed to the actual mine. After a short security check the bus had a go to enter the mine, yes enter the mine! The bus actually drives some hundred meters into the mine over the road the big trucks use to drive the copper ore to the processing plant. There is a look out point where you get about 20 minutes and not more to see the mine and to make photo’s.

The truck takes 50 minutes from the bottom to the top using the same gas your car uses in a full year!

The mine is huge and is the world’s largest open pit mine with a depth of almost a kilometer, over 4 kilometers long and over 3 kilometers wide. Mining activities go back there centuries but only in the 20th century the large scale production of copper started. The mining facilities can produce up to almost a million ton of copper annually. At the moment the pit itself is coming to an end but underground there is much more copper to mine. It is the largest worldwide copper reserve. In the near future the mining activities will go underground which is more clean for the environment due to no more use of trucks. The truck takes 50 minutes from the bottom to the top using the same gas your car uses in a full year!


Back at the Codelco office I quickly headed to my car for a 5-6 hour drive to Iquique. A town at the Chilean coast in the north of Chile. When you arrive to this town you descent quite a lot suddenly as the town is at sea level but around it everything is up the mountain range. That evening I felt my first earthquake which happens quite often in Iquique. I just had a snack at the Holiday Inn Express Iquique as the next day a day trip to Humberstone & Santa Laura Saltpetersworks was on the agenda.

Humberstone & Santa Laura Saltpeterworks

Getting up early is not my thing so I arrived at breakfast 10 minutes before closing. They were out of eggs. I asked them for a fried egg not having them make it again for the buffet but this was not possible. I complained at the duty manager and they filled up the whole buffet again with eggs! Very strange as I asked for just one and there was nobody else anymore to eat the rest. After breakfast I was on my way to tick off another UNESCO site from my list: the Humberstone & Santa Laura Saltpeter Works. It is a site far away in the Atacama Desert which takes some time to reach if you are not in the region. Once you enter the site you really feel that you are in a ghost town with the strong sandy wind howling through the deserted buildings.

Humberstone and Santa Laura are the remains of two saltpeter mines and their worker towns. They represent various mining towns in the Atacama Desert and function these days as an open air museum. At the end of the 19th century up to the mid-20th century these towns were the home of the miners from Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Their social community was based on the pampinos culture with great creativity, solidarity, justice and language. These workers got challenged by the harsh environment of the Atacama Desert while mining the saltpeter for the production of fertilizers. They made it possible for South America but also Europe to fertilize the lands for higher yields in food production.


In Humberstone you can see the workers quarters, the school, an empty rusty swimming pool, the church, hotel, theatre and various other buildings. At the time of visit they were restoring the street with the shops and from what I could see they might restore it a bit too much. I hope they keep the feeling of a rusty ghost town. Many of the workers quarters are not more than ruins inside caused by the harsh environment. Next to the town is the actual mine where you can see the processing plant, the mine shafts and various other buildings. As most were built with metal plates, which get easily rusty and deteriorate quickly in this environment, you see holes everywhere. Remains of trains, cranes and other equipment are on display in and between the buildings. All of Humberstone quickly takes up to 3 or even 4 hours to see if you walk every street like I did. It’s an amazing experience to just stand for 15 minutes listening to nothing more as the howling wind and emptiness.

Once you enter the site you really feel that you are in a ghost town with the strong sandy wind howling through the deserted buildings.

After Humberstone I drove to Santa Laura which has much less structures still standing. After signing the guestbook as the third person that day I checked out the small museum which showed how the people lived there. From the housing is not much left and it was not allowed to enter the plant (anymore) due to deterioration of the structure. Everything at Santa Laura is in much worse condition than Humberstone. After an hour or so I had seen all and I left for Iquique for the night.


In Iquique I decided to not eat again fast food in the hotel. I went to Punta Cavancha an upscale district in Iquique. Here you find lots of hip bars and restaurants. On one of the terraces I had a nice cocktail and went for dinner at El Wagon Restaurant which turned out to be a great affordable choice. I’m a fan of Ceviche (raw seafood mixed with lime and some other ingredients) so I took this as a starter. Almost a full meal already! Good that I had tuna as a main course and not meat. Just over midnight I called it a day so that I could easily catch my flight back to Santiago the next day.

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Did you visit Humberstone or Chuquicamata too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!


Click an image for a full screen gallery of more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.

GPS Track from Calama to Iquique

During my trips I make GPS tracks (sometimes they do not show, click download to open in Google maps). Feel free to download them and see how we moved around and see the time frames at the various places. Hope these maps are of help for you when planning your trips.

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  1. Very nice and informative post Chris. Chile is still on our bucket list (top 5!). I can imagine you had lots of planning to do before going on a road trip like this. Thx for sharing your story and images. Cheers, Jempi & Nina.

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