Chile: God’s Leftovers

Day 28 – Puerto Chacabuco, Chile – Find Insignia on CruiseMapper

A show of hands, fellow travelers: How many of you have traveled Chile? How many of your bucket lists has it made?

Until intrepid little Insignia swept us into Chile’s territorial waters a week ago, our hands would be clasped in our laps, barely twitching. Louis once stumbled across the border from Bolivia on foot for a few minutes, but we don’t count that. In our endless travel fantasies, Patagonia was an also-ran, but larger Chile never made a list. 

As a result, when we bore down on the world’s longest and narrowest country, it was terra incognita, which made for a state of pregnant ignorance, primed to be startled when scenes like this materialized off our deck.

How Chile Was Assembled

A story Chilean children are told about their country is relevant. 

After six days of making heaven and earth, God had a few pieces left over. Some deserts, some forests, some perfect wine valleys, some trees made to live 5,000 years, some glaciers, some volcanos, some fjords and so on. These became Chile, a land of magnificent leftovers. 

Chile stretches the equivalent of Los Angeles to New York (or Norway to Morocco); its width averages the distance from Los Angeles to San Diego. It is a sliver of a country. Probably because of this slenderness, its magnificent leftovers are unusually visible or accessible from our wee little stateroom.

Our discoveries started with Atacama, the world’s driest desert, where humans first settled 11,000 years ago, and no measurable rain has fallen in the last 500 years. The few square feet occupied by the more recent human pictured below visiting a modern monument can only hint at how vast, spare and blank is this 1,000-kilometer canvas of lifeless soil more closely related to the surface of Mars than to anything else on earth.

Man’s Leftovers

Among other accomplishments, Atacama’s Chinchorro people mastered mummification about 7,000 years ago, making the Egyptians latecomers to the practice. We visited some of their mummies at Tarapacá Museum outside the port city of Arica, hardly 10 miles inside the country from Peru. This exhibit shows one of their earlier techniques (emptying a body and filling it with stuffing). Eventually, the found wrapping bodies in sealskin easier and more enduring. 

Early dwellers also scratched and built immense geoglyphs into hillsides of the Atacama. Their descendants have yet to decipher the scratchings. What did these animals, shape and arrow mean to them? It’s anyone’s guess.

The Saltpeter War

Atacama is also rich in saltpeter, a mineral Partout would have been hard-pressed to describe until visiting the abandoned saltpeter mining town of Humberstone in the Atacama. From 1882 to 1960, Humberstone (named for its British founder) was home to some 5,000 citizens who were born, schooled, married, employed and even buried there while mining the mineral that contains nitrate, a fertilizer and also a component in explosives. The ghost town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, its history as mummified as Arica’s ancestors.  

The saltpeter region was once was once part of poignant Peru or Bolivia. Peru had a keen interest in developing the saltpeter resources after its Guano Era peaked. (If we could not have described the role of saltpeter in world history, Partout is a complete loss to explain the Guano Era of Peru.) But the countries lost the resource to Chile in the War of the Pacific (which, of course, is also known as the Saltpeter War [1879-1884]). The defeat cost several Peru its southernmost provinces, Bolivia its only access to the Pacific and both of the loseers their saltpeter resources.   

And that wasn’t the end of saltpeter’s long reach. 

Unique Iquique (Uniquique?) is sometimes called the “wooden city” because, unlike most Spanish colonial towns, its architecture is almost entirely wooden, giving the city the feel of a movie set for a period Western. The reason? Sailing vessels carried wood as ballast on their runs to Chile to pick up loads of saltpeter, and the locals turned the ballast into a city. 

In Valparaiso, saltpeter attracted European opportunists who built saltpeter fortunes they went on to sink into erecting Victorian-era homes, public buildings and monuments that still give the city a distinctly European air. 

South of Saltpeter

But all these human leftovers pale by comparison to the country’s magnificent natural gifts that start around the 41st parallel and basically run to the end of the world.

At 8 pm tonight, Chile Summer Time, we weigh anchor in the port town of Chacabuco and set sail into the fjords. Those countless islands and inlets between Insignia’s little blue symbol and the Drake Passage to Antarctica? That’s what we have to thread.

Partout’s optimistic plan is to send bursts of photographs taken inside the fjords, but this requires the Pacific to be pacific enough for us to reach open water (and thus internet, which does not penetrate the fjords) at night. We have been told the Pacific more resembles a blender lately. If it stays that way, we will shelter within the fjords and be off the grid for the next few days.

Stay tuned and wish us luck and smooth passage. 

Coming Soon (with Luck)!

At Sea in Patagonia

10 thoughts on “Chile: God’s Leftovers

  1. Enjoying your trip. I spent a couple of Christmas vacations in Arica, while working in high altitude La Paz, Bolivia for a couple of years in the late 90s. Going over the Andes was an adventure in itself… and then being at sea level was a great relief…


  2. Thank you Doris and Louis – fascinating reading…and viewing of course:-)

    If you’re interested in learning a little more recent history of Chile, Isabel Allende’s novel ” A Long Petal of the Sea” is a fictional account of a family that fled to Chile after the Spanish Civil War. Enjoyable reading whether you’re particularly interested in Chile or not. But I hope you get to try some of the wines – they’re really good:-)


  3. Thank you for the marvelous education, Partout! It’s always a pleasure to see what you have in store for us. Good luck in the fjords, we will be thinking of you. 🥰


  4. I’m enjoying your description of your voyage so much and, especially, with this episode, the photos of the buildings with such interesting architecture in a place I’ve never been to and hear little about (except the tragic time during the Pinochet era.) One thing I’m wondering about, having not been on a cruise since I was 20, is what are the other passengers like?


    1. We visited the capital of Chili, Santiago de Chili, on our way to Easter Island (and on the way back again) and we loved the city but there is much more to see reading your interesting story .
      The fjords will be wonderful!


    2. Loving Carmenere . Other countries use the grape as a mix grape with other grapes. Nice to see you are following our blog . I hope you find it edutional and interesting . Besos


  5. Hello way down there, way down and further south to go! I will go directly to Google after writing this and find out what saltpeter is for. Rumor had it in high school it was added to food to curb teen sexual desires. I hope the blender turns to its lowest setting soon. But a fjord might be cozy. Thank you for writing and hope to hear again soon. k


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