The War of The Pacific

I thought only the US went to war over resources…?

What Was Bolivia

Chile invaded Peru and Bolivia in 1879 over mining claims. Stayed, well, forever — the war ceased in 1884, however. Dubbed the War of the Pacific, or the Saltpeter War, as it was (mostly) fought over one resource: Nitrate. White gold. A substance that can be used to both enhance (fertilizer) and eradicate (explosives) life.

Chile emerged victorious. Peru ceded part of its Pacific Ocean border. Bolivia ceded all its Pacific border. Both Peru and Bolivia lost much of the resource-rich Atacama Desert.

The End of the Nitrate Rush

The good times didn’t last long, for the nitrate miners at least. Only a few decades. In the early 1900s, a pair of German scientists invented a chemical means to produce nitrate. By the mid 1900s, petroleum-based fertilizers had (mostly) replaced nitrate-based fertilizers. Dozens of nitrate mining towns shuddered. Resourceful Chileans, however, found another resource in the desert: copper.


We stopped here in route to San Pedro, a well-trampled, abobe town in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

Humberstone reminded me both of the ghost towns in the US (also largely abandoned because of mining) and what a cult compound would look like a few decades after the FBI raided it, all set behind a wild west backdrop. Everyone lived, played, and worked (kids as early as twelve-years-old) on-site. They constructed schools, churches, tennis courts, dance halls, bodegas, rows and rows of apartments, in addition to the mining facilities. Now all abandoned. Visited only by the occasional tourist or viscacha (think jackrabbit).


We crashed at a campground run by a former overlander just outside of San Pedro in the middle of the Salar de Atacama. Surrounded by salt flats and craggy canyons.

Atacama is the driest desert in the world. Some weather stations here have never recorded rain. Some towns go four to five years without receiving rain. NASA tests equipment bound for Mars here.

Yet despite the lack of the most crucial, life-sustaining ingredient, you wouldn’t think of Atacama as desolate — or at least we didn’t when and where we visited.

Cacti, thyme, succulents, and llareta, a mossy- and brócoli-looking evergreen (the highest growing wood-species in the world) with self-fertilizing, hermaphroditic pink and lavender flowers, variegate the clay-colored Earth. Flamingos scrounge for algae in the salt flats. Hummingbirds and sparrows scoop up insects. Viscahca and Darwin’s left-eared mouses roam the grounds. Vicuñas, in the higher regions, munch on sparse grass from melted snow.

While life, seemingly, struggles to exist here, I think you’d find it invigorating. Inspiring even. If that flower can make it here, you can make it anywhere. You may even set out to accomplish things while here. For me, that was eating an entire box of Cheesy Lays Stacks (the Pringles competitor, and my new favorite junk food) without the assistance of the kids. And I did. Sure did. To others, that may be writing the great America novel. Or a blog post.

Laguna Cejar

Various turquoise lagoons, rimmed by pure white salt flats, dot the desert around San Pedro. Some are swimmable. Some not. We chose the closest one, Laguna Cejar, to our campground because, well, we had driven a lot recently and were lazy. You can take a lazy float here. The salt water concentration, as high as twenty percent in some lagunas, prevents you from sinking. Just like the Dead Sea.

The Drive

The best drive, hands-down (though, if I’m being critical of that cliche, it seems ‘hands-up’ is more apropos), we’ve yet driven. You have to do this at some point in your life. From San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to Yala, Argentina. The terrain changes precipitously and dramatically from the desert lowlands to the Andes highlights. You’ll pass snow-capped volcanos, ginormous salt flats, variegated lagoons, Neapolitan-colored hillsides. All in a matter of about five hours (six if you include the border crossing).

3 thoughts on “The War of The Pacific

  1. It was amazing to see a FLAMINGO in the middle of the driest desert in the world! Trivia: know how I remember the spelling difference between desert and dessert? A desert is too dry to have two s’s. Moving on, did the kids resist “tasting” the salt bed???


  2. Pingback: Best Of! + Buenos Aires | Vanablog

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