The capital of Chile’s Tarapaca Region, Iquique is a very interesting city to visit with a lot of different sides. Lying along the country’s northern coastline, right by the Atacama Desert, it attracts everyone from beachgoers and gamblers to sandboarders, shoppers and paragliders.
Set in a stunning spot beneath towering dunes, the coastal city was founded in the sixteenth century. The strategic port remained part of Peru however until the War of the Pacific in 1883. It was around this time that a nitrate mining boom financed the construction of many of the beautiful old buildings that dot its historic center today.
After this industry’s collapse and decades of decline, it became a duty-free zone to entice shoppers and investors alike. As a result, there are now some massive malls and a couple of casinos to check out, scattered around town.
Other than shopping and exploring its charming old colonial center, there are also more active things to do in Iquique thanks to a huge range of exciting adventure sports. Due to Iquique’s unique setting, these include not just scuba diving and surfing but sandboarding and paragliding too.
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12. Teatro Municipal
One of the city’s most important and impressive buildings, the marvelous Teatro Municipal lines one side of the picturesque Plaza Arturo Prat. Over the decades, it has put on countless top-class shows and concerts by both local and international acts. After numerous delays, all its ongoing renovations are scheduled to be completed sometime in 2023.
Remarkably built back in 1889, the old theater exhibits some exquisite architecture with its brilliantly bright white facade overlooking the iconic clock tower in the center of the square outside. Other than admiring its ornate neoclassical features and snapping some pics, visitors can usually also enter its richly-decorated amphitheater.
Dedicated teams are currently working to restore its three floors, hallowed stage and brightly painted ceiling to their former glory. Once open again, it will be amazing to see the historical theater sparkle and new acts take to the stage. As it is, its refined facade already makes for some fabulous viewing.
11. Go Paragliding
If you’re after an exhilarating experience, it’s hard to beat parasailing above the coastal city’s soaring mountains and surrounding desert. Thanks to its unique setting, it is one of the best places to go in the world with flying conditions almost always being ideal.
From town, a number of companies run unforgettable excursions that see you soar through the sky, many hundreds of meters above the ground and glinting ocean. What makes Iquique so perfect is its dry climate and steady ocean breeze combining to create consistent thermals. With only a handful of non-flyable days per year, pilots of all levels can clock up some serious air time.
On top of this, the professional guides and their expert equipment will also ensure you have the best time imaginable. Gliding gracefully through the sky above all the magnificent mountains, desert and coastline is an unbelievable feeling like no other.
10. Zofri Mall
Back on firm ground again is the absolutely massive Zofri Mall. Located on the north side of town, its endless shops lie within one of the world’s largest duty-free zones. This means there are lots of great deals to be had with plenty of cafes and restaurants also on offer.
Almost like a mini-city, the colossal shopping complex was first opened to the public in 1976. Its low price tags and enticing tax rates mean shoppers and investors have flocked here ever since. Across its two vast floors, you can buy everything from accessories and electronics to clothes, jewellery and even car parts.
The gleaming mall also contains a huge food court while roughly 450 stores, restaurants, businesses and service providers pack out almost every conceivable space. Although not big shoppers, we were amazed at its size and the sheer number of people and products found there.
9. Regional Museum
For visitors interested in learning more about Iquique and its surroundings, the highly-rated Regional Museum is an absolute must. Now occupying the city’s former courthouse, its fascinating artifacts and exhibits lie a few blocks south of Plaza Arturo Prat.
Founded in 1960, the museum’s well-done displays now cover everything from the lives and cultures of pre-Columbian peoples to Iquique’s interesting origins and the impactful Pacific War. Other rooms look at the region’s important nitrate mines and ancient Incan mummies uncovered in the area.
Photo exhibits also explore its age-old past as does a walk-through recreation of a traditional adobe altiplano village. Its collection encompasses not just examples of old coins and rusting miners’ gear but stuffed animals, sparkling jewellery and even some elongated skulls.
We really loved the museum due to its well-thought-out exhibitions and the remarkable architecture of the historic building itself. Bordering the beautiful Baquedano Street, it boasts a colourful facade, lovely courtyard and light and airy galleries.
8. Go Surfing
Another fun activity to try in town is surfing atop the sizeable swells that pound its Pacific coastline. At the northern end of the popular Playa Cavancha, you can find a number of challenging breaks and cylindrical barrels.
While many of these rather gnarly reef breaks are only suitable for experienced pros, there are some schools nearby where you can learn to surf. Starting on the beach, the teacher will show you how to balance before you advance to the open ocean. Here you’ll learn how to stand up, paddle out and safely surf small waves.
Skillful surfers can already attempt exciting but intimidating breaks such as Punta Dos, Las Urracas and El Bestia. If surfing is not your thing, you can always try bodyboarding and windsurfing instead or watch others zip across the ocean’s shimmering surface on their boards.
7. Trip to the Red Lagoon
One of the most spellbinding natural attractions in the area, the Red Lagoon lies roughly four hours’ drive away amidst the inhospitable Atacama. Its bright blood-red waters make for some fantastic photos, standing out delightfully against the desolate desert around them.
Hidden away in a remote part of the Chilean highlands, the mysterious lake has numerous myths and legends explaining its dazzling color. In reality, scientists are unsure why the little studied lagoon is red with most attributing it to algae and sediments.
Despite the long, tiring, difficult drive through the Andes to the lagoon, taking a tour here is well worth it. Aside from ogling at its unusual hue, you can also take in all the dramatic landscapes and scenery you pass on the way. There are also yellow and green lagoons to see nearby and ancient petroglyphs to stop off at along the route.
6. Plaza Prat
The heart and soul of life in the city, Plaza Prat is bordered by many of its most impressive buildings. Fountains and flowerbeds also decorate the wide, open square while the spectacular Torre del Reloj clocktower rises theatrically in the center.
The pretty plaza and its attractive old buildings as we know them today largely date to the 1880s and 1920s. After a devastating earthquake leveled much of the city center back in 1877, the square was reconstructed and re-imagined. A nitrate mining boom financed the building of the Teatro Municipal and majestic Moorish-style Spanish Casino and clocktower among others.
Other than ambling about enjoying the ambience and taking photos of all the fine architecture, there are some excellent restaurants and cafes to try out. Fun dance classes, concerts, crafts markets and community events are also regularly held here.
5. Museo Corbeta Esmeralda
Just a short walk north of the expansive plaza is a life-sized replica of the Esmeralda. Sunk just off of Iquique during the War of the Pacific, the massive museum ship is full of interesting period artifacts and exhibits on its past.
Now located along the waterfront, the huge wooden-hulled steam corvette was commissioned by the navy in 1855. It was eventually sunk during the Battle of Iquique by the ironclad Peruvian Huascar on 21st May 1879. Commanded by the Chilean national hero Arturo Prat who died trying to board the enemy ship, its loss actually led to the country mobilizing behind the war and winning it in 1884.
Aboard the very well-done replica, you can see where the sailors ate, slept and fought and learn about the fierce battle. We found the ship fascinating as we didn’t know much about the hugely important War of the Pacific before visiting. A must-see, it has very informative guided tours to take about its decks.
4. Baquedano Street
On the opposite side of the square to the ship is the bustling Baquedano Street. Another of the most popular attractions in town, the long avenue is lined by lots of lovely old historic buildings. Top-class restaurants and bars can also be found along here as can souvenir shops and cultural institutions.
Also dating to between the 1880s and 1920s, many of its traditional wood houses were erected after the 1877 earthquake with proceeds from the mining boom. Known for its ‘Wild West’ look, the paved pedestrian street has an old tram track running through its center.
To either side are beautiful colonial-era buildings that have picturesque porches and balconies lining their facades. These now house countless local bars and restaurants that are packed with crowds of people in the evenings. You can also pick up souvenirs and gifts along the lively street or listen to the outstanding music acts and dance groups that perform here.
3. Playa Cavancha
If after all the sightseeing and outdoor activities you want to kick back, relax and soak up some sun, then the endless Playa Cavancha is certainly the place to go. Lying just south of the center alongside the glittering Pacific, its soft sands are perfect for lounging on lazily.
Bordered by hotels and high-rises, parks and palm trees, the broad beach stretches just under three kilometers in length. While its warm, sheltered waters make it a great spot to swim, some fun surfing and bodyboarding can be hard at its northern end.
Aside from strolling about or cycling along its scenic boardwalk, you can also sunbathe, sail and jet ski. There are also numerous restaurants nearby and the prominent peninsula of the same name to explore too. Due to its proximity to the center, the beach can get quite crowded, particularly at weekends and holidays.
2. Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
Not to be skipped, the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works provide a very interesting look into the history of the city. Now abandoned, the former mining towns and all their valuable deposits played a key role in the development of Iquique.
Set around forty-five minutes’ drive directly east of town, the sun-scorched site was first exploited for its nitrate in 1872. What followed was a mining boom that financed the building of many of the city’s most impressive old edifices. The saltpeter works were eventually abandoned in the 1960s however after decades of financial difficulties.
At the intriguing old ghost towns in the Atacama, you can now wander around rusting equipment and railroad cars left behind by the miners. The buildings’ striking shapes and the colours of the sky and desert about them also make for some fab photos. At one point, 200 mining communities dotted the desert with these two adjacent sites being the best-preserved of the lot.
1. Go Sandboarding
The most memorable and fun thing we did in Iquique though was definitely sandboarding down the colossal Cerro Dragon. Overlooking the city’s skyline, the immense hill is astonishingly the largest urban sand dune in the world. As you shoot about its sweeping slopes, you can bask in breathtaking panoramas of the city and ocean below.
From the center, a couple of companies run tours out to all the towering dunes on its eastern edge. After a short demonstration and class on how to slide, break and also position yourself on the board, you’re good to go!
While there are loads of rather dramatic looking drops, there are also smaller slopes for beginners to try out. As such, people of all ages and abilities can enjoy sandboarding about the undulating dunes. The captivating landscapes and panoramas also help make it an unforgettable experience.
Where to Stay in Iquique
When visiting Iquique, you can either stay in its historic center or along its broad beaches. As they don’t lie very far from one another, you’re not going to miss out, whichever option you choose.
Right next to Playa Cavancha is the very highly-rated Hilton Garden Inn. A great choice if you’re after a quiet, comfortable stay, the four-star hotel is also located just a stone’s throw from the peninsula’s countless restaurants and bars. Besides modern, spacious rooms, its huge gleaming, glass building has an excellent restaurant, bar and indoor pool to enjoy.
A bit further back from the beach is Arriendo Diario Iquique; a budget-friendly option with an amazing rooftop pool. Set right next to several shopping centers, the large, private apartment is equipped with everything needed for a pleasant stay. Ideal for families or groups of friends, it has two comfy, clean bedrooms, a kitchen and living room for visitors to make use of.
How to get to Iquique
Squeezed in between the ocean and dunes, the city is situated in a rather isolated, inhospitable spot. Despite this, it has decent connections to the rest of Chile as flights regularly land at Diego Aracena International Airport. These fly to Santiago, Antofagasta and a couple of other destinations.
Long distance buses are also available to many places up and down the country’s long Pacific coast. Some even head to La Paz, Oruro and Cochabamba in Bolivia.
In Iquique, you can either walk to the center or beach from your hotel or hop on a bus and hail a taxi.