Baywatching in Iquique

Iquique with a population of 200’000, is a beautiful coastal town in Northern Chile. In fact – according to the locals – the downtown Playa Cavancha is supposed to be the most beautiful beach in Chile.

Indeed, this sandy spot is scenic, with very long promenades, sunbathers and surfers. Arriving here is quite a scenic ride. Since the town is squeezed between the Pacific ocean and a 600m high mountain range, from where all roads arrive, there is a scenic view from the top of a winding road. This particular geographic setting also makes Iquique one of the Paragliders’ top spots in South America.

Iquique city beachComing here from Arequipa (Peru) did require eight hour trip to the Peruvian border town of Tacna, from where a shared taxi took me for the 40km ride across the border to Chile, where I arrived in the town of Arica. There, I took another bus for the four hour ride to Iquique.

Having been sick since the arrival in Arequipa, I took this full day transport as a relaxation and recovering day. Which worked out fine, especially since the weather in Iquique was very hot. This was a welcome relief from the cold in the Peruvian mountains.

Interestingly, this northern part of Chile once belonged to Peru – with other parts further South belonging to Bolivia. During the “Saltpeter War”, between 1879 and 1883, both Peru and Bolivia lost huge parts of their territories to Chile. Also called the “War of the Pacific” (not to be confused with the similarly named “Pacific War”), the resulting new territorial borders left Bolivia landlocked, having no more access to the sea.

Iquique backstreet

Years earlier, the worlds largest reserves of saltpeter were found in this region. Being a key ingredient for explosives, it was foreseeable that Bolivia, Chile and Peru would disagree over the exploitation of these natural resources.

Indigenous people haven’t moved around these new border lines. Therefore, the towns of Arica and Iquique aren’t reminding me of being typical Chilean settlements. Moreover, looking into the faces of the local people, I am being reminded more of Peruvian or Bolivian faces, than Chilean one’s.

Being here and enjoying this town is rather surprising to me (and probably most of my readers). I consider beach towns to be nice places when I will turn 60 years old, being on a two week vacation. But on a round-the-world trip, such places are rather dull, boring and a simple waste of time.

Surfing in Iquique

However, recovering from a terrible cold, strolling along the beach, watching people and relaxing, did put the usefulness of such places in perspective. This was in fact the optimal stopover, before going into the high Andes in Bolivia. However, there is one thing that strikes me: All the South American beach cities I have seen so far, which is not a lot – to confess – lack a central “strip” or a pedestrian mall.

There is simply never a place where you just can hang out in a cafes, sip a drink and savour the view over the sea – as I would expect. Also, Iquique features the well known monstrous four-lane beach road which runs for dozens of kilometers, slicing the beach from the town. This leaves practically no space for a small touristic commercial area. The only place to be is either right at the beach in the sand – or in the center of the town. Looking for a drink, some shade – or another bathroom than the sea – results in walking far distances.

Nevertheless, the stay in Iquique was very relaxing and my cold almost got completely away. And I finally felt ready for the famous desert trip from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) to Uyuni (Bolivia). But that’s another story coming up shortly…