Ghost towns of Chile, historical abandoned cities

Francisca Pizarro | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Chile, as I have told you, is a place of natural wonders, secret places, and hidden gems. This article, however, is not about is a bittersweet story about ghost cities you can still visit. Imagine yourself walking through an empty street of an old mining city. The only thing there is your presence, the buildings, and the feeling of nostalgia of a golden era. That’s how a ghost city feels. Empty but filled with memories. In order for you to understand what these abandoned towns are and why they were left that way, I’ll give you a little context.

First, a bit of history

My country’s main activity has always been the mining of minerals, most notably of saltpeter and copper

Chile was once the biggest producer of saltpeter worldwide! Saltpeter was very popular around the 1880s because it could be used as a fertilizer and gunpowder. This fact, brought Chile a lot of changes, one of which was the formation of small towns near the places of mineral exploitation, where workers would live.

But why would you leave your life in the city to go to a faraway town near a mine? Well, imagine you are a middle-class young guy, that doesn't have many choices for a living and hears about a job in mining, which also includes a house. As expected, this has worked amazingly. People would move there in hopes of finding a better life and even forming a family. Years later, tragedy struck! Artificial saltpeter started being made, and it was cheaper and as good as the natural one. As a result, the saltpeter mining slowly started to die, jobs were lost, people left their homes, and the cities transformed into "old buildings and memories."

This is the same story for copper mining except for the ending; copper mining is still Chile’s main economic activity, so the closing of copper mining-related towns was for a different reason. 

This is the story behind most of the cities I’m going to present. In some of them, it was saltpeter while in others, it was copper; however, they all became ghost towns in the end. 

© istock/cicloco

Humberstone and Santa Laura, the biggest saltpeter exploitation point

Located in the north of Chile, 47 km away from Iquique, it was once the biggest exploitation point of saltpeter in the country. Here you can see the houses where people lived, as well as the stores and the industrial area, that give you a full picture of how the living was there in the golden years. Humberstone was closed by the end of the fifties and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site! As you walk by this ghost city, you’ll feel like walking in a different era, frozen in time. 

© istock/DC_Colombia

Sewell, a ghost town on a hill

Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sewell was constructed and populated circa 1904 and is located approximately 2100 meters above sea level in the Andes mountain range. This place was a copper exploitation center. What is very interesting about this ghost city is the way it is built, and how well-preserved it is. Some say you can feel a supernatural vibe in the place. Filled with colorful houses and weirdly placed buildings, you can walk through the streets of this ghost city and see a more modern approach to life.

© Flickr/Marcelo Páez Bermúdez

Chuquicamata, the newest ghost town in a still producing mine

The newest ghost city lays 2870 meters above sea level in the At[acama Desert](, north of Chile, and is the place I call home even though I left it many years ago. Chuquicamata was closed in 2007 due to the pollution and the expansion of the copper mine. Like any other ghost city, a lot of legends surround the place, and there's an inevitable feeling of nostalgia as you visit it. 


Ghost cities are a great touristic point because of how mysterious and filled with stories they are. They are also a testimony of a different way of living since they feel like "a picture, frozen in time." For people like me, who actually had to leave their home behind, it is a reminder of better days, a source of nostalgia and a sense of pride for being a small part of our country’s long history. 

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