My Virtual Journey Through Chile: Pisagua
During my stay in Arica I got to know many people and was made welcome in bars and restaurants and had enjoyed invitations to people’s homes. There were lively conversations and much interest in my journey. As I recounted the things that I had seen and done there was a wealth of information imparted to me. I was especially pleased to hear all about the wildlife that I had been seeing recently which had become quite familiar to me.
The Llamas which I had seen so many of are about 4 feet long and 4 feet tall at the shoulders, their hair is thick and long and as I had noticed could be brown, grey, white or black. I learned that they were probably bred from the wild Guanaco. They are members of the camel family but have no hump and ,like the camel, they can live without drinking water for some weeks; they get moisture from green plants such as shrubs and lichens that grow on the mountains. This is a good example of animals suiting their habitat. I had seen many Llamas lying down and stubbornly refusing to move and looking cross, but I had never got close enough to witness an angry Llama spitting its bad smelling saliva into its enemy’s face. I heard a few anecdotes and a lot of laughter relating to this behaviour. They are very useful pack animals and I had seen their sure footed progress on very difficult terrain carrying a load that looked far too heavy and my new friends confirmed that the load could have been anything up to 45 kilograms.
The Alpaca is also related to the camel, I commented that it is smaller and I was informed that its wool is a finer quality and thicker, it provides one of the best known fibres for making warm, soft material and is woven into cloth. The Vicunas that I had seen at Lago Chungara are also related to the Guanaco, they are smaller than Alpaca and have a fine fleece. They live in herds and have remarkable sight, speed and endurance, which is a good thing when their habitat is difficult to say the least. So it seems that all the animals that I have become used to seeing are related to Guanaco, the wild camels that are ideally suited to the desert. The Andean flamingos that I had seen at Lago Chungara are pink because of their diet, could it be shellfish I wonder? They mate once a year and build a nest on a mound of mud. The parents take turns sitting on the egg to keep it warm for about 30 days. The young are fed for about 2 weeks by food produced in the digestive system of the parents. In fluid form it is dribbled into the youngster’s bill. After this period the youngsters form their own herd and feed themselves. From what I could understand, the rodents that I had seen are known locally as Vizcachas and known by me as pack rats. Pack rats live in clumps of cactus and scrubby growth and are a lot cleaner than rats that live in sewers and rubbish dumps. Later on in Arica my new found friends and I spoke of the way of life of the people who live in the places that I visited and everyone seemed to agree that it was a hard life. On the whole the Aricanos seemed to prefer to live on the coast and enjoy the fish from the sea and the vegetables that come from inland and can easily be bought at the market.
One of my new friends by the name of Claudio offered to drive me in his jeep to Iquique stopping on the way at Pisagua. At Iquique he would introduce me to a few of his friends and relatives. Today is the day and I am looking forward to this part of my journey with someone who is good company and has local knowledge. I have been enjoying the flora and fauna above ground with little thought of what lies beneath. Nitrate does for one, that valuable product that was important to the economy during the nitrate boom years. Also deposits of various minerals including copper, and in fact there is an abundance of copper under the earth as far south as Concepción. This makes Chile one of the leading copper producing countries in the world.
These are my thoughts as we head south down the Pan American Highway on route for Pisagua. I believe the name comes from the bad-tasting water, caused by nitric acid, I’m glad that I have stocked up with bottled water! There are 2 wells at Dolores, 33 miles from Pisagua that is used for domestic consumption and in the past, for filling the boilers of the steam trains. We arrive at the old settlement of Pisagua Viejo, my first impression of this place is of a wild and desolate place with barren land running down to the waters of the Pacific. In the 17th century, at a time in history when this land belonged to Peru, the Viceroy wanted to establish a base from which he could stop the illegal traffic of gold and silver from mines in the highlands. There were British and Dutch pirates operating off this coast too. Standing here in this ancient land steeped in history, imagining some of these historical events sent a tingle down my spine.
I take a step back and shade my eyes to take in the stark and beautiful landscape with the brown earth and the blue sky and deeper blue ocean with white-crested waves playing on the shoreline. As I turn, I spot the ruins of a few adobe dwellings and I ponder on the life of the people that once inhabited them. Some of them may have perished in the tidal waves of 1836 which resulted in Pisagua being relocated about 3 kilometres to the south. In 1879 at the Battle of Pisagua, during the Pacific war, the port was taken over from Peru by Chile. It was one of the most important ports in Chile and a very beautiful city then, but now sadly, it is a small and isolated village. We wander sadly through the village and see semi-derelict buildings made from Oregon pinewood, including the clock tower which is the resting place of the fallen during the assault and capture of the town many years ago. Also we see the municipal theatre, hospital and railway station. Seeing the old railway station deserted and the earthworks, embankments and cuttings visible and unused on the bare ground was a sorry sight. In the past a train would have puffed and laboured upwards and returned proudly carrying its important load of nitrate for exporting, thus helping the economy. I learned from Claudio that the construction of the railway that linked the port to the interior towns and nitrate works was started while Pisagua was still Peruvian and then continued by Chile. By 1935, 400 miles of main and branch lines was completed with Pisagua being the northern terminus, with a connection to Iquique. The railway carried supplies inland and the return load was nitrate for export from the port. The steam locomotives carried passengers, livestock, fuel and merchandise, but the principle commodity was nitrate. The downturn in the nitrate industry must have changed the way of life of many people in this area and the knock on effect causing the closure of the railway led to further changes and a shift in population.
I will leave this small village which was once a rich port, in a reflective mood. After the decline of the nitrate boom Pisagua had a new role in the fish meal industry but by the end of the 1950s there was a major decline in the economy and the population. I am pleased to see that there is a small fleet here, fishing in the beautiful blue waters of the Pacific against a backdrop of brown earth towering above them. This fish and the fruit and vegetables from the fertile valleys of the cordillera that I recently visited, will keep the population healthy, as they live beside the ocean, so close to nature. I think it was the Incas that first irrigated this land, to grow crops. As we walk around, down by the Ocean I see a nice looking stone building, glowing yellow in the late sun, with red surrounding the windows and doors. Claudio tells me that it used to be the prison and is now a hotel. I think it will be fun to tell my friends that I spent a night in prison! So we went in to book rooms and find a place to eat. After our meal we decide to sit on a bench close to the ocean and talk of the many things our day had prompted and many more. I wish to find out more about what lies beneath the ground that I have been travelling over, I have heard that the Atacama desert contains borax, copper, sulphur and of course nitrates. Well, firstly I need to find out about nitrates and their importance.
Nitrates were a very valuable product especially because Chile was the world leader in this field. The nitrates of sodium and calcium add nitrogen directly to the soil and make valuable fertilisers. What could be more important than to fertilise the food of the world, in a world that has a population that is steadily increasing and so many starving people out there. Iodine is taken from sodium Nitrate and in its turn Iodine is part of a substance called Thyroxin. Thyroxin controls the rate of physical and mental development, so it is very important for our well being. I can remember having iodine liberally applied to cuts and grazes by my mother and oh how it stung! I used a gentler product on my children but for all I know it could have contained iodine because it is a good antiseptic. Nitrates are also used in making explosives so with the wartime demand for nitrates the industries expanded to meet the need. Because Chile remained neutral during WWI the increased need for explosives had a good effect on the economy. As a result of over-production the prices plummeted and attempts to cut production failed. Then Germany invented a cheaper synthetic substitute, so the nitrate bubble burst and by the 1930s only a few mines remained active in Chile. During WW2 Chile broke relations with Germany and Japan and based their major aid to the Allies on copper, nitrates and other war supplies. Much earlier on, the war of the Pacific was partially caused by the desire for what lay beneath the land. The economy of the country seems to be bound up with the nitrates and other minerals to be found lying beneath the Norte Grande. Well I am finding my new friend, Claudio, to be very knowledgeable and kind and he has promised to introduce me to his good friends and relatives at Iquique before he returns to Arica. On saying goodnight, we agree that the following day we will go to Huara to find the Giant of Atacama. I have had a tiring day and many thoughts chase through my mind as I try to sleep.
Tomorrow I will leave this small village which was once a rich port and reflect upon the fortunes that were made from the nitrates and the hardship of the miners. I have a feeling of sadness that the boom is now over and the city has lost its former glory and become a fishing village. But who knows, the people may be happier with the simple life. Another deeper sadness that I feel here is the knowledge that this isolated area sandwiched between the ocean and the desert has often been used as a concentration camp for political prisoners and a burial ground. Sadness cloaks me as I drift off to sleep. But tomorrow is another day and I shall be searching for a giant!
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