Pronounced “Ee-kee-keh”, Iquique is one of the northernmost cities in Chile, topped only by Arica. It’s a port town, with popular beaches and set at the base of enormous sandhills. The city’s history and location is a source of pride for the Chilean people, both for its mineral resources and wartime efforts. Its flat areas are well-signed tsunami danger areas. Lastly, for whatever reason, Iquique has a tax-free centre, known as Zofri. It is therefore a popular place to buy electronics, perfumes and alcohol; just be aware of your limits…
Iquique is probably most famous for its war history – in 1879, strained relations between Chile, Peru and Bolivia were pushed into war by arguments over mineral resources and land ownership. Controlling the (then Peruvian) port of Iquique meant a great deal. Even though Chile’s navy presence was poor, Chilean naval officer Arturo Prat Chacón sailed out to meet the Peruvian offensive and to do the very best he could to hold Iquique for Chile. Despite a sound thrashing, Arturo Prat is remembered for his loyalty and courage. You’ll notice that Chileans honour their heroes by naming things after them (quite a lot). There are, therefore, many many streets called Arturo Prat in Chile.
Things to see
Main square: The square, Plaza (Arturo) Prat, is actually really beautiful. It’s surrounded on all sides by stately old buildings, it’s clean and has a great clock tower in the centre. The square is often host to live music, dancing, orchestras and singers. There’s also entertainment for kiddies, including some of the weirdest pony-rides I’ve ever seen (I don’t want to ruin the fun by telling you, just make sure you check it out), small markets and a few restaurants. Definitely make time to see the square. Late afternoon/ evening is a great time to visit – the markets are open and in full swing, people are milling about and the restaurants are beginning to take in diners.
The beach: It stretches most of the bay and is an easy walk from the square area. Don’t mind the extremely strong ocean smell (sounds stupid, but wait until you smell it), just keep walking past the rocks until you get to the sandy part. There are people walking around singing their wares – “helados, bebidas, ensalada fruta…” Beachgoers seem to settle in for the entire day. If you have them, take beach chairs, umbrellas, plenty of water and suncream and maybe bucket and spade. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of food available nearby, so if you’re planning on staying all day, consider taking a picnic. Swimming, boarding and surfing are all possible here.
The sand hills/ desert: Iquique is just to the west of the Atacama Desertand is one of the driest towns on earth. As a result, dust and dirt are the main annoyances here. Iquique backs on to the foothills of a big sandy-looking mountain and also, a huge sand dune called Cerro Dragón. If you drive up the hill towards Alto Hospicio, look out for a small dirt area where you can pull off the road – there are no signs for it and it’s a bit dangerous because of the speeding traffic, but it’s a great lookout point. If you can get it at the right light/ angle, like at dusk, it’s an impressive photo opportunity and you can understand the “dragon” moniker.
Pica: Another excursion possibility – I didn’t go but it’s called an “oasis” because of it’s proximity to a communal hot spring. I can’t tell you much about it, but lots of companies offer trips there.
About an hour’s drive from Iquique is the once mining town, now ghost town of Humberstone. Built in the 1880s, Humberstone and other nearby towns were built to support refineries that were in production at the time. It was a hive of activity for about fifty years as they mined potassium nitrate, or saltpeter. However, it wasn’t to last – a synthetic method of production was created in Germany in the late 1920s and the refineries were soon unable to continue making money. There’s a small museum and a lot of the houses have been reconstructed to look as they would have done back then. It’s sneakily quite big, and definitely worth the trip. Tour companies in Iquique offer trips out there, or if you have a car, you can easily take yourself. Allow several hours at least for the whole excursion. Since 2005, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tours/ Things to do
Tour companies: The main street from leading from the town square to the beach (Baquedano street) has a few tour companies – I didn’t use any but I would suggest asking one of them or seeing what your hostel or accommodation can recommend to you. Options include Magical Tour Chile and AviTours. Don’t worry – Humberstone and Pica seem to be the most popular (dare I say only?) tourist attractions – you’ll find an easy enough way to see them. If in doubt, ask at your accommodation.
Surfing: The waves here are great – if you’re into surfing or bodyboarding, bring your equipment. If you don’t know how, check out one of the local surf schools for information on lessons and equipment hire. I think your best plan would be to talk to the staff at your accommodation about how to find a surf school/ equipment hire, as these places don’t seem to be online. This is one that I could find, but can’t vouch for: Uma Jaqi.
Paragliding: With all the hills around, it’s an amazing opportunity. Again, I can’t vouch for these, but some parapente (paragliding) companies are Altazor, Purovuelo and Iquique Parapente. For more detailed reviews and information, check with your accommodation.
Check out Booking.com, Hostelbookers, Hostelworld, and Expedia.com. I would recommend staying near the town square Plaza Prat – the neighbourhood is generally nicer, the beach only a few minutes’ walk away and even for those people who don’t like to be labelled a “tourist” – you’ll probably prefer it to staying somewhere else.
You can get there by bus, car or flight. Flying is by far the most preferred option, as it’s a long way from Santiago (about 25 hours by car or bus, 2.5 hours by plane), and flights can be found relatively cheaply. Try LAN or Sky airlines. Once there, I would highly recommend hiring a car – there’s a lot of coastline and having a car makes everything easier.
View Iquique and Humberstone in a larger map