Clashing Mansions and Beach Umbrellas

2 Mar

Iquique is an odd mix of old restored mansions in a range of colors, new highrise condos and hotels, and bedraggled brick dwellings and stores. As a coastal port town located in the Atacama Desert, it has its fair share of tantalizing, sandy, wavey beach and endless sunny days. Indeed, Iquique’s beaches are one of its main attractions. Obviously, when I heard this, I couldn’t resist a stop off here on my way up through Chile.

Playa Cavancha in Iquique

Before the War of the Pacific, Iquique and the Chilean territory to the north of it were a part of Peru and what is now Chile’s coast south of Iquique was a part of Bolivia. The War of the Pacific began in 1879 over a Bolivian and Chilean conflict about whether a treaty between the countries gave Chile freedom from a Bolivian tax on nitrate extracted from Bolivian land. Peru backed Bolivia, and Chile fought against the two countries for five years until ultimately triumphing and gaining control over nitrate-rich territory in Peru and Bolivia, an area that now makes up northern Chile.

Even today, relations between Chile on the one hand and Peru and Bolivia on the other hand remain contentious, Bolivia still suffering from the loss of its coast and Peru continuing to be bitter about losing its nitrate mining land. (And of course, there’s that whole ownership-to-pisco disagreement between Chile and Peru.)

When laying on the beach in Iquique, it’s hard to imagine that it was once the site of a vicious battle during the war.

A non-swimming beach in Iquique

My journey to Iquique was exhaustingly painful, so I planned on spending the bulk of my time there relaxing, eating, and beaching. The trip began at the La Serena bus station, where I whiled the night away sprawled over my luggage and wrapped in my sleeping bag on an uncomfortable wooden bench under a broken window that bestowed frigid air on me all night.

At 9am the next morning, my bus left La Serena and started heading north, me cramped in a seat with my limbs getting stiffer and stiffer as the hours passed by. The bus stopped twice in the afternoon and evening, giving me an opportunity to prove that my leg muscles still worked and to chug coffee so I could stay awake long enough not to miss the bus’s middle-of-the-night arrival in Iquique.

It was 4:30am when a taxi dropped me off at my hostel in Iquique. A nice benefit of staying at hostels is that you can arrive at any time of day or night and they will usually accommodate you in some way or another. On this night, the groggy hostel guy let me nap for a few hours on the couch until my room was ready the next morning.

Iquique's beachside promenade, perfect for a run

I awoke to the other hostel guests coming down to breakfast. My room wasn’t ready but the front desk girl said I could use the dorm room showers if I wanted. She must have noticed my greasy, disheveled hair and shiny face. I was extremely grateful until I arrived at the showers to a sign that said they must be limited to three minutes each, due to the city being in the desert. As a notorious long shower-taker, I was a bit consternated with this requirement. However, it was enough time for the chilly water to rinse the bus ride off of me.

Some beautiful old mansions on Baquedano Boulevard

After a beachside run with a view of young surfers struggling with curling waves and sunbathers lounging next to pastel umbrellas, I went to check out the main historical street. Baquedano Boulevard is a stone pedestrian promenade of 19th century Georgian mansions built when Iquique was a part of Peru. Wealthy Europeans who were attracted to the area by potential riches from the nearby nitrate mines constructed these palaces from Douglas Fir shipped from the northwest United States.

Some clashing mansions on Baquedano Boulevard

Today, the gorgeous residences are schools, hotels, restaurants, tour places, and tourist shops. The colorful and majestic old homes are connected to each other on each side, resulting in a stretch of clashing colors, opaque turquoise with white trim boldly contrasting with its sunshine yellow, orange, and black neighbor, dark grey in disaccord with its next-door neighbor’s sage green.

Salmon ceviche and a pisco sour, yum

Admiring the art in the form of buildings, I set off down the street in search of a good lunch place. A sunny outdoor patio tempted me, and I sat down to enjoy a salmon ceviche and pisco sour. Salmon is a big deal in Chile. Although salmon is not native to Chile’s waters, the country is the second biggest producer of farmed salmon in the world after Norway, even as it struggles to combat a virus that began attacking its salmon in 2007.

A clock tower in Plaza Arturo Prat

At the end of the boulevard, I reached the Plaza Arturo Prat, named after a Chilean officer who was killed in the Battle of Iquique and is honored as a national hero. The lack of sleep the previous two nights had caught up with me, so I headed back for home along the coastal promenade. My sleepiness overwhelmed me so much that I couldn’t even be lured to sit on the beach to watch the sunset. My eyes closed for the night while it was still light out.

Ten hours later, I hopped out of bed, full of energy to lay on the beach all day. It was 5000 pesos (about $10) for a lawn chair on the beach, but it was totally worth it. As the sun arced from behind me towards the horizon in front of me, threatening to penetrate the SPF 50 I had slathered on, I tried to brush up on my Spanish with my lesson books from Spanish school. Somehow studying at the beach is much more fun than in a cramped classroom. Although my fellow beach-goers probably thought I was a little bit crazy talking to myself in Spanish all day.

Studying Spanish and soaking up some sun on Playa Cavancha

My last day in Iquique was another leisurely beach day, followed by an evening trip to the grocery store. For some reason, I have so much fun wandering the aisles at Chilean grocery stores and buying random stuff.

Now that I am stocked up on snacks, I am waiting for an overnight bus that will take me to San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny Chilean desert town near the Bolivian border.

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