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Chacabuco is one of the first attractions to see as you make your way to the Atacama Desert. Abandoned after the boom of nitrate, or saltpeter, in the late 1900s, Chacabuco once a bustling town is now a desolate. Devoid of all life bar a lone attendant. If you are one who likes to get off the beaten path, then visiting Chacabuco is a must for things to do in the Atacama Desert.
How to Get to Chacabuco
Chacabuco is located 100 kilometers northeast of Antofagasta towards San Pedro de Atacama. If you do not have your own set of wheels, there is no easy way to get to Chacabuco. Consider renting a car or hiring a taxi for the day. Renting a car is best if you plan to head further north into the Atacama Desert as many places to visit in the Atacama Desert are remote and not accessible without your own wheels or a tour guide.
The Best Time of the Year to Visit Chacabuco
Like many other desert destinations, visiting the north of Chile and Chacabuco can be done year-round. Temperatures during the summer months (January, February, and March) reach highs of 27°C (81°F) and lows of 16°C (61°F) which seems pretty pleasant. And winter (June, July, and August) isn’t much worse with highs of 22°C (72°F) and lows of 4°C (39°F). When we visited during the winter months, the heat was still relentless during the day so make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection.
If you are combining your trip to Chacabuco with the Atacama Desert, the best time of the year to visit is during shoulder season which runs from September to November and again from March to May. During this time you will see fewer tourists and more temperate weather.
The History of Chacabuco
The Nitrate (Saltpeter) Era
Chacabuco’s rise and fall all began with the mineral nitrate. Nitrate, or saltpeter, was discovered in the early 1800’s in the Atacama Desert. This rick mineral quickly became a profitable commodity mainly for its use in fertilizer. With borders between countries somewhat lenient, the neighboring countries of Chile, Bolivia and Peru all laid claimed to the mineral rich area and wanted a piece of the nitrate boom.
Inevitably, this led to a war over the land that was so rich in the mineral nitrate. The war known as the Saltpeter War or the War of the Pacific was fought between 1879 and 1884 between Chile and the allied Peru and Bolivia. Long story short, the Chileans won the war. The nitrate industry boomed and saltpeter towns popped up all over the north of Chile to accommodate the booming nitrate industry. The Lautaro Nitrate Company Ltd. settled one such saltpeter town, Chacabuco, in 1924.
Business boomed for the nitrate industry until the rise and creation of synthetic nitrate in the 1930’s. Synthetic nitrate crumbled the mining industry leaving Chacabuco abandoned less than 15 years after formation.
The Detention Center Era
Although abandoned by the nitrate miners, Chacabuco did not stay abandoned for long. Chacabuco became the home to a prisoner concentration camp during the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1974. Augusto Pinochet, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, overthrew Salvador Allende in a coup with the alleged assistance of the United States in 1973. After seizing the reins, Pinochet sent thousands of political activists, intellectuals, and those opposing his regime to “detention centers” throughout Chile one such being the deserted town of Chacabuco.
We know little information of Chacabuco as a concentration camp, but we can only imagine the atrocities that were committed. The government closed Chacabuco as a detention center in 1974 leaving the town once again abandoned and left for ruin.
It is apparent when arriving at Chacabuco that it is a ghost town. Expecting to see some resemblance of life, it was startling how completely devoid it was of people. It was evident and almost surreal walking towards a town completely abandoned.
Clearly once a tourist hot spot with signs in Spanish and English, there was no one manning the gate to let us in. Finally, a lone man appeared yelling at us in Spanish until we finally understood we needed to pay the entrance fee. Formalities squared away, the man retreated into the shade of a decaying building leaving us alone clutching a pamphlet with the desert sun beating down on us in the dusty ghost town.
Chacabuco, like many other towns, centers around the main square. This is where the center of life took place, but today there is nothing more than empty, dilapidated buildings. The central theater flanking the main square on one side is a particular highlight. Three stories high, with the stage and curtain still intact illuminated by the sunlight piercing decaying roof boards above make for a startling glimpse into what life was like when Chacabuco was full of life. Aside from that, schools, halls, dwellings, a children’s park and decaying cars line the dusty streets.
So, is it worth it to visit Chacabuco? We think yes. It is not every day that you can walk through a town with literally no other person in sight. It was definitely more interesting and desolate than creepy, especially in the harsh brightness of the midday sun. If you are passing by towards the Atacama Desert, it makes for a great way to spend a few hours.
- Hours of Operation: Daily from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm
- Cost: $2,000 CLP per person
- Location: The Entrance
- From Antofagasta take Ruta 5. At the fork, kept left to stay on Ruta 5. Chacabuco will be on your right a few kilometers from the fork.
- From San Pedro de Atacama take Ruta 23 towards Calama. In Calama, take Ruta 26 south towards Antofagasta. Follow the signs for North Ruta 5. Chacabuco will be on your right a few kilometers from the turn off.
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