By the Seaside

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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backpackers hostel

Flag of Chile  ,
Saturday, April 1, 2006

About 4 hrs south of Arica by bus is the seaside town of Iquique, who┤s name conjurns up images of swaying coconut palms, gentle rustic villages, and dark women in grass skirts. It not like that at all, as we soon find out.

The town is trapped between the steep barren escarpment rising into the altiplano and the pounding surf of the Pacific ocean. As we drive down a road cut into the side of the sandy cliff we can see the urban sprawl beneath us and we wonder if its going to be like Arica all over again.

Ross from Sunny Days hostel in Arica recommends Backbackers hostel to the south of the city centre, and so we have phoned ahead to book a place. We get out of the bus in a bustling but dirty part of town where malnourished stray dogs outnumber the locals. We walk down Barros Arana for about a kilometre till we get to the hostel.

Backpackers Iquique is close to the beachfront and is full of over-tanned and skimpily dressed Westerners who smoke maruijana and chat each other up noisily. Rachel and I feel like unwilling participants in Big Brother. The sultry Chilean girl I spoke to earlier on the phone tells us she has made a mistake with our booking and there are no rooms left - however she smiles and says we can have an apartment round the corner all to ourselves if we want. We are both pleased that we will not be staying (competing) in the main hostel.

A short and enthusiastic smiling lady called Grace shows us to the three-bedroom apartment on the 8th floor of a tower block overlooking Cavancha Beach. Its stunning position and the views over the beach and to the brightly lit casino beyond make us overlook the fact that its dirty and falling apart, and we agree to stay for 6,000 Pesos (about GBP6.00) per person per night.

We take a trip to the local supermarket and buy some nice food that we eat by candlelight on the large balcony whilst overlooking the noisy city below. Placed on to the walls of the escarpment behind the city is a giant digital display which indicates the time and flashes up advertisements for take-away pizza.

The next morning Rachel and I walk into the centre of the town and we are surprised by the colourful 100 year old mansions that line some of the streets. The wooden exterior of the houses are every colour of the rainbow and they have sash windows and balconies. The wooden construction, and the dry windy weather, are a combination that keeps the bomberos (firemen) busy in Iquique. These mansions were built on the wealth of the long-gone Nitrate-barons, who grew rich on exported mineral fertilisers.

We visit Museo Regional in town which has a huge range of ancient pre-columbian artifacts that have been preserved in the dry atmosphere. There are mummies who still have hair and skin, wrapped in garments of Alpaca wool clutching belongings they┤ll need in the afterlife. There are elongated skulls which look like those of aliens, but the captions in the museam tell me they are a product of deliberate mulillation, deformed by wrapping bandages tighly round the growning skull.

Around Plaza Prat there are many other unusual buildings including Casino Espa˝ol, a restaurant with an awe inspiring Moorish interior, which today is decked out for a wedding banquet. Rachel and I eat in one of the many cafes looking over the square which offer Menu de Dia for 3,000 Pesos (about GBP3.00) each. Although the setting is enjoyable, the food tastes poor compared to a similar lunch in Valparaiso. The final letdown is an espresso made from a sachet of nescafe with a smartly-dressed waiter on hand to pour hot water with ceremony from a silver jug. (The use of freeze dryed coffee in the north seems to be commonplace, despite the presence of espresso machines in many restaurants. I reckon the water is so hard up here in the desert that most machines have died with boilers caked with calcium carbonate).

At dusk we go for a rare jog on Cavancha beach barefoot, and keeping a close eye out for broken bottles. Rachel hasn┤t jogged since she left the UK. The waves pound the wide arc of sand and after half an hour Rachel comments that she feels great.

And why would anyone come to Iquique? - well although its not the most beatiful beach resort in the world its still the nicest one for thousands of miles. Its just as well Rachel and I are not big beach junkies.
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