The City of Iquique, the Nitrate Bubble, and What We Can All Learn From It

Iquique (pronounced ikeeka) is a city in northern Chile you probably haven’t heard of. We were there in October 2016. I’m so glad we paid the city a visit, because it’s one of the more fascinating places I’ve visited in that country or, for that matter, anywhere in the wide world. We didn’t spend near enough time there in 2016, so I feel compelled to pay it a second visit, this time allowing a lot more time to explore. It’s on my ‘must do’ list once Covid is behind us. I’m not holding my breath.

Iquique is unlike any other place I have ever visited. On the fringes of the Atacama desert, its average number of rainy days per year is less than one. One promotional website I visited gives it a year-round daily maximum temperature of around 24 C. That really does sound too good to be true, but I vouch that life was very very bearable during my brief visit. If surfing or paragliding is your bag, and you have independent means, you might consider learning Spanish and emigrating. Not necessarily in that order.

To the immediate west of Iquique is the Pacific Ocean and, since earthquakes are de rigueur hereabouts, the city is under constant threat of tsunamis from this direction, as many warning signs around the city streets will tell you. To the immediate east of Iquique, and rising to heights of around 800 metres, is the cordillera de la costa, including a range of dunes to take the breath away, and which seemingly threatens to bury the city in a tsunami of sand at any moment. It is from the dizzying heights of these dunes that paragliders can indulge their adrenalin-charged passion.

Still further east is the full-on Atacama desert and, beyond that, the incredible Andean cordillera, rising to heights of between 4,000 metres and 7,000 metres. You may brave such heights as long as you feel no compulsion to breathe air.

If all that seems daunting, you can relax at a few metres only above sea level in the central square, Plaza Prat, in Iquique. Here you will be entertained by the street culture, comprising some of the best buskers I have seen anywhere in the world. Melbourne and Sydney eat your hearts out. You are not in the same league.

Another thing you can do in Plaza Prat, or just about anywhere in Chile for that matter, is sip on a pisco sour or three, a drink to which I quickly became quite partial.

Re street culture and buskers: see the photo above for an example. Re pisco sour: it is more for the taste buds and the neuroreceptors of the brain than for the eye.

Now, while you are looking at this photo, please do not fail to notice to notice the building in the background, whose facade contains Moorish arches in blue and white, and a heavily carved solid wooden door. It is Casino Espanol, a rich gentleman’s club from Iquique’s heyday, and now by all reports a classy restaurant. The club was for nitrate barons, from the days of the boom late in the 19th and early in the 20th century. Back then, the economy of Iquique, and that of Chile as a whole, was heavily reliant on the mining of nitrate in the form of saltpetre. Most of the world back then bought nitrate from Chile to make munitions and/or fertilizer. War and/or agriculture. Just the ticket. The world was addicted of course. Chile had a virtual monopoly on this versatile commodity, and Iquique, happily, was at the epicentre of it all.

We were interested to see the interior of Casino Espanol, having heard from guidebooks that it was well worth a look. But, drat, that wooden door was locked. We sat down nearby with coffee and cake while we plotted our next move. While we were so engaged, a chubby fellow came along with a key and unlocked the door. Janet was by his side in a flash, to ask him if he would let us inside. Not only did he allow us in, but he opted for the next hour or so to be our personal guide.

Inside, was a cave that would upstage Aladdin’s. Dim lighting, steel scaffolding bolted together, stepladders scraping the ceilings, plaster dust on the carpeted floors, &etc, all added to the effect, and told of renovations in progress. The last vestiges of a gentleman’s club were being erased to make way for the trappings of a high class restaurant. Out with the old, in with the new. Our guide, it turned out, was in charge of these renovations and – presumably under orders – was not inclined to compromise. I hesitate to think what treasures were about to be lost in the process. I suspect the enchanting nooks and crannies would be largely done away with, in favour of an open plan, more accommodating to tables in a high-class restaurant.

Aladdin’s cave? Treasures? Everywhere there seemed to be nooks and crannies leading off to other nooks and crannies, all separated by gorgeous Moorish arches, and containing paintings, frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures of considerable beauty, all harking from the fin de siecle. Don Quixote was a repeating theme of many of these art works. A grand staircase led up to another level where the beauty repeated itself. Everywhere there was candy for the eye. Everywhere was overwhelming.

I lined up my camera for a shot into the interior of one of the crannies, only to find in my view somebody intending to photograph me. Who was this gringo? Wasn’t this a private tour? Then I realized I was looking at my own reflection. Full-length mirrors were strewn throughout the precincts like booby traps throughout a battle zone. These mirrors multiplied the space. As a consequence, this enchanted cave appeared to have oodles more nooks and crannies than, in fact, it actually did.

Many of the crannies sported small bookshelves whose contents would have once served the refined tastes of nitrate barons and their entourage. Now I guessed these dusty volumes were destined for landfill. Our guide invited us to help ourselves to anything on these shelves that took our fancy. Feeling we were being urged to participate in a form of cultural vandalism, we hesitated there for a bit. But, in the end, we half-reluctantly chose one. Most were in Spanish, of course, but one was in English. It was an 1887 translation from the Latin of the collected works of Horace. Now who the freak reads Horace these days? Apparently, though, for the elite of Iquique in the late 19th century, Horace was hot stuff.

We took it.

Having been dazzled by magic for an hour or so, we thanked our de facto guide, leaving the truly remarkable Casino Espanol with great reluctance. But, voila, there were plenty of other relics of bygone days to be found in the city of Iquique. Lining picturesque Calle Baquedano, there were period mansions for the nitrate barons, out of colourful timber, in a style we had never ever seen before,. And there was the beautiful former opera house, also under restoration, which, in the 1890s had been ‘on the circuit’ and had hosted divas from all over the world.

But it not my intention in this blog to provide a travelogue for this remarkable city. I’ll leave that to Lonely Planet and the like. The brief I have chosen is to look at the way the nitrate bubble burst early in the 20th century, and to see what lessons this might have for those of us inhabiting the 21st. So how did the bubble burst?

During WWI in Germany, a chemist by the name of Fritz Haber found a way to synthesize ammonia from its constituent elements, nitrogen and hydrogen, winning a Nobel Prize for his troubles. After such synthesis, it was a simple step to oxidize the ammonia to produce nitrate. To do this on an industrial scale turned out to be cheaper than mining nitrate. Overnight, the mainstay of the Chilean economy collapsed comprehensively. Iquique went into swift decline. Mining centres like Humberstone, just beyond the cordillera de la costa, became eerie ghost towns. An era ended brutally. It was all over Red Rover for nitrate mining, and almost for Chile.

Why did the bubble burst? Because of new technology.

So what lessons can we, in 21st century Australia, take from this? We, too, in this country, rely on the mining of commodities that are fast becoming redundant. Such activity is in the process of being superseded by technology that is newer, cheaper, and cleaner. It is not nitrate mining. It is fossil fuel mining. The new technology is not synthetic ammonia. It is the harvesting of renewable energy, mainly solar and wind.

To be sceptical on this point is to ignore the facts on the ground. State governments, of both political stripe, are embracing solar and wind technology. So too is big business. Why? Simple economics.

Our federal government, on the other hand, is having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. Why?

Chile didn’t manage to dodge the bullet in the 20th century, and it paid the price. Can we dodge it in the 21st?