Chile's Ghostly Abandoned Nitrate Towns

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Oct. 17 2013 8:26 AM

A Tour of Chile's Ghostly Abandoned Nitrate Towns

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a new travel blog. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Until 1909, Chile had something very special: large deposits of sodium nitrate. Also known as "white gold" or "Chile saltpeter," sodium nitrate is used in the production of fertilizer and explosives. 

So valuable was this white gold that it caused Chile to go to war with its neighbors in 1879. In the oft-forgotten War of the Pacific or "saltpeter war," Chile, Peru and Bolivia all fought over territory containing the minerals with Chile gaining much of the disputed land.


At the turn of the century, the Saltpeter Works of Humbert and Santa Laura were both busy trying to extract as much of this Saltpeter as possible. Hundreds of buildings were built and whole communities of workers from South America, Europe and Asian formed around these towns. In the words of UNESCO they became a "distinct urban community with its own language, organization, customs, and creative expressions, as well as displaying technical entrepreneurship."

But something was coming that would change this all. In 1909 two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to chemically fix nitrogen, that is, how to make this white gold on an industrial level. It was disastrous for the Saltpeter towns, and despite efforts to compete, by 1960 they were totally abandoned.

Today the towns' ghostly remains stand as rusting ruins in the inhospitable Atacama desert. In 2005 UNESCO declared them a World Heritage Site.

Other abandoned mining towns:


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.