Looking to travel to Iquique? It’s an easy weekend trip from Santiago. Iquique is a port city in the North of Chile. Before the War of the Pacific in the late 1800’s Iquique was part of Peruvian territory. It economically developed due to the abundance of saltpeter mines in the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is also a duty-free zone. The area is rich with history and natural sites.
I had never been anywhere in the North of Chile, so I chose Iquique for my first trip to the North. While everyone I’ve ever met raves about the South of Chile, I have heard a lot of mixed reviews about the North. Although Iquique doesn’t represent the entire North, I am beginning to understand why there is such a divide about travelling to the North.
Chile in general is a developed country. Depending on where you are though, that feeling of being in a developed country can change significantly. Iquique just didn’t seem like a city in a developed country. The poverty level was a bit shocking to see, and I even witnessed a random street fight. A lot of the buildings are simply falling apart, and the view from the Airbnb was reminiscent of a junkyard. In addition, upon arrival the concierge at the Airbnb told us that the city has a big drug problem and because of that is dangerous after dark. He said we shouldn’t walk anywhere after dark and that the car should be parked in the locked parking lot overnight.
That kind of put a damper on my plans of going out and exploring the bars/restaurants on the beach at night.
But, there are still things to discover and explore within the city. There’s a main pedestrian street and plaza, which the design and architecture makes you feel like you’re in a time machine to the late 1800’s. Also, since Iquique is a duty-free zone there’s a HUGE mall that sells pretty much anything you can imagine. Outside of the city you can visit Humberstone, which is an old abandoned mining town. If you venture out even farther into the desert you can reach the Salar del Huasco and the oasis town of Pica.
Unless you have a lot of extra time and money, the best way to get to Iquique from Santiago is by plane. It’s about 2.5 hours from Santiago by plane. LATAM, Sky Airlines, and JetSmart all fly to Iquique from Santiago. Just a quick search on Google Flights can give you an idea on the cost, which can be as low as $40 USD roundtrip.
The airport in Iquique is about 30-40 minutes outside of the city. You can either take a taxi ($17.000 CLP or $7.000 CLP for a shared taxi), rent a car, or take a bus ($3.000 CLP).
If it’s possible, I would definitely recommend renting a car. The public transportation didn’t appear to be amazing, and in addition some of the best parts about going to Iquique are far outside of the city itself.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of hotels, hostels, and Airbnb’s in the area. I chose an Airbnb that was centrally located and a few blocks away from the beach.
What to Do: Day 1
There are a few museums in Iquique, but when I went both the Museo Regional de Iquique and the Naval Museum were closed. The first for construction, and the second appeared to have half burned down. Like I said, the buildings look a little rough in Iquique so lots of renovations are probably in order. I did go to the Corbeta Esmeralda Museum, which is a tour on a replica of the famous Esmeralda ship that fought in the War of the Pacific. There are a limited number of tours per day, but luckily I happened to stroll up just in time for the last tour of the day. The tours are only in Spanish.
Although I didn’t participate, there also seemed to be numerous options for things like parasailing and sandboarding. In the barrio histórico de Iquique there are little artisan markets as well as tour companies where you can find out more about these activities.
Another attraction for travel to Iquique is the Zofri Mall. This is probably less interesting to international tourists, but if you live in Chile it can be a place to buy some cheap stuff. Keep this in mind when deciding how much luggage you want to bring with you. Since I flew on Sky with a Zero fare, I was only allowed to have a small backpack as a personal item.
What to Do: Day 2
Salar Del Huasco
I wanted to get an early start in case of any unexpected events – I didn’t want to get stuck in the desert at night. We left Iquique a little before 9 and set off into the desert for the Salar del Huasco. We used Google Maps to guide us there, which it predicted it would take about 2.5 hours. There are 2 ways to get to the Salar del Huasco: the route Google maps should give you is by far the fastest as the roads are mostly paved the entire way. The other way is through the town of Pica. I would suggest going straight to the Salar and then on the way back go through Pica.
There is only a small sign noting the Salar, and it appeared much sooner than Google Maps predicted (although it’s a large area so go where you think looks good). There’s a mirador with a great view of course, but it’s even better if you keep going and get close to the water. This is where you will potentially see the llamas and flamingos. There’s no parking or anything but you can just pull off to the side of the road since there’s very little traffic in the area.
When I went there were about 5 llamas hanging out. There appeared to be flamingos but they were way in the distance so we didn’t really get a good look at them. The llamas will let you get about 10 feet away from them but be careful and pay attention! The terrain is a bit difficult close to the water because some of the ground is wet and muddy so you have to really watch where you step. I was only looking where I was stepping and didn’t realize I was too close to a llama and it tried to spit at me! Luckily I wasn’t hit by anything but it’s something to keep in mind.
Also keep in mind there is nowhere to stop past about 20 minutes outside of Iquique. The cell phone reception gets very spotty and civilization almost disappears. There are still some mines in the area so you will see some trucks on your journey, but not many. There’s nowhere to buy food or go to the bathroom. So pack the car appropriately with enough water/food to get you through in case you get stranded.
Side note: The altitude in the area is quite high. When you’re about halfway to the Salar del Huasco you may start to notice it. I started to feel lightheaded and after a while even had a slight headache. Walking and going up stairs was also significantly more difficult. Pack some OTC meds like ibuprofen and viadil just in case you need to take something for the high altitude symptoms.
After the Salar del Huasco you can start the drive to Pica. The road is dirt for the majority of the way and there are a lot of large loose rocks on the path. A vehicle made for these conditions is ideal, but it’s still possible in a sedan (which is what we had). It will take about an hour to get to Pica, but that will vary based on the road conditions and the type of vehicle you have.
Pica is an oasis in the middle of the desert. They are famous for the “limón de pica” which are the small limes they use for cocktails in Chile. There’s also a hot spring. The town is quite small, and if you’re used to a more luxurious experience, Pica might not be for you. That being said, it’s a good place to get lunch as it’s the only town you’ll drive through on the way back to Iquique.
So have lunch, and if you brought a swimsuit you can spend some time in the hot spring before continuing your journey. We bought a bag of limones de pica and made homemade pisco sours in the Airbnb later that night. On the way out of Pica there’s a little park you can stop at with dinosaur sculptures. Nothing too fancy but it’s cool to see the types of dinosaurs that used to live in Chile.
Humberstone, an abandoned mining town, is about 30-45 minutes outside of Iquique. There are tours but we arrived after the last tour had already left. The town is actually larger than I expected and most of the doors to the buildings are left unlocked and open for you to explore on your own. The condition of a lot of the buildings is quite deteriorated, but that just adds to the eeriness. In the pulperia, which was like the main market of the town, there is a museum that shows you what life was like in the town and the working conditions. If you are planning on going to Humberstone after the Salar del Huasco and Pica, timing is important because you need to get there before Humberstone closes, and ideally before the last tour of the day. I would recommend a minimum of an hour at Humberstone.
What to Eat
I wouldn’t exactly call Iquique a place for foodies, but that doesn’t mean your meals are going to suck. In Iquique we had lunch at Caleta Buena near the beach, which was actually quite good. The menu was small enough and everything was fresh and tasty. The restaurant was also very clean and modern with tasteful design. While there’s no beach view from the restaurant, it’s only about 2 blocks away. Another interesting thing I had was a ceviche empanada at Chico & Hawa. As I had never seen a ceviche empanada I had to try it. I was a fan. In Pica your options are basically whatever is open.
As far as local specialties, it seemed to be relatively similar to other parts of Chile. However a chumbeque is a local sweet. They’re not for me but my boyfriend loves them and bought like 6 packages. They also have some local variations of popcorn you can get in the market in the center of Iquique.
So if you are looking to travel to Iquique, hopefully these suggestions are helpful! Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!