Paradise Lost in Pisagua
“Pisagua debe ser puerto”, the banner reads. Pisagua should be a port.
Does the dream still live?
( Unpublished )
Pisagua today is both a nostalgia and a dream.
Curved around a bay in Chile’s Atacama desert, this decaying village is a knot of streets lined, mostly, with skeletal shacks and shell-like homes, distinguished only, upon closer look, by a timber watchtower painted white and blue and double-story neoclassical buildings dating from the nitrate-mining boom of the late nineteenth century. But the clock no longer tells the time, and the buildings emit a ghostly hollowness, some sporting broken windows and cavities where prized Oregon Pine slats, carried over by North American ships as ballast back in the day, have been ripped off. In the fading light of evening, Pisagua looks like an abandoned film set.
On Arturo Prat, the main street, a weathered banner hangs from a gutted old house. “Pisagua debe ser puerto”, it reads. Pisagua should be a port. But there is just one dock, and you can count the number of boats bobbing in the bay.
I wondered if the dream still lived.
I had arrived at La Roca, the only guesthouse in Pisagua. Caterine, the landlady, greeted me warmly with a practiced solicitousness. Her husband, Rafael, seemed kind but was a man of few words. When I met him that first evening, he sat quietly in front of the television, his trademark flat cap pulled low over his head.
Now in their seventies, they had moved here from Santiago twenty years ago to escape the trappings of city life. Rafael had been a video producer, and once worked for Salvador Allende; Caterine had taught French, picked up from years living in Quebec. She knows Pisagua’s history intimately, having published a collection of oral histories collected from those old enough to have seen Pisagua at its best and its worst, most of whom have since passed on.
Later, Caterine pointed me to the central square for dinner. “Just ask for Monica,” she said, the same way I would just ask for Félix if I needed a ride out of town when the bus wasn’t in service. People are on a first-name basis here, but it seems to be a familiarity that never crosses the line into camaraderie. In a village with just one guesthouse, three restaurants and about three hundred residents, I had expected neighbours dropping in on each other and shooting the breeze in open living rooms. But in Pisagua, lives are played out behind closed doors. Even on Pisagua’s main street, Arturo Prat, the only sounds came from what seemed like the only bar in town, groaning with the telltale beats of reggaeton and silhouettes dancing behind blue plastic panes. Only one man had left his front door gaping open: a hopeful, if half-hearted, invitation.
He called himself Barabbas, and first appeared to me like an unholy apparition.
“China!” he shouted, lurching out from the yellow rectangle of light — naked from the waist up, belly protruding above red shorts — as I walked past.
He hissed away a pair of menacing street dogs, part of a larger coterie that roamed the village at all hours, and waved me over. I declined a beer but was curious about the small company of men in his front room, huddled sullenly around a wooden table cluttered with cigarette butts, crushed beer cans, and half-empty bottles of orange fizz. Like Barabbas, they were artisanal fishermen, who make up most of Pisagua’s population today. Many of them had settled here in the nineties to cash in on the Asian shellfish export boom, though overfishing and the vagaries of El Niño had dwindled stocks and left them scraping for subsistence, harvesting algae as an alternative. A skinny teenager among the men stifled a smile, ducked his head in embarrassment at Barabbas’ drunken exuberance. Next to him, his father stood and nodded gruffly in my general direction.
Later, another man came out of a backroom and started to speak, slurring heavily. Barrabas was quick to take offense. “Don’t talk like you’re an indio.” Then, to me: “Indio, you know? Un tonto.” A fool. I glanced at the other men to see if they had registered the derogatory reference, but their faces were blank.
“Do you know who Barabbas is?” he asked. I didn’t.
“He’s a man from the Bible,” he said, and launched into a long, mostly incoherent explanation.
Back in my room that night, I would google Barabbas. What kind of a man would name himself after the man that Pontius Pilate freed, over Jesus? Well, the kind who had been in prison.
“Four times,” Barabbas boasted, and paused, to let it sink in. “I was caught stealing. But never for myself, you know. I didn’t know what it meant to work. But now, look at me.”
He had a penchant for self-mythologising. And when the boy and his father shrugged on their hooded parkas to leave, I said goodbye and left.
The next morning, in the breakfast room, Caterine showed me the trails I could walk along the coast. I noted the stacks of books and historical photographs adorning the desk and mantel shelves. Their home, elevated above the main drag of the village with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, was just a two-minute walk away from Barabbas’ basic quarters, but Caterine and Rafael clearly inhabited a different inner world.
“By the way,” she said tentatively, just as she left me to tuck into my breakfast, “I heard from one of the señoras this morning that you were talking to some men on the main street last night?”
“Yes,” I said. I knew what was coming, though Barabbas had seemed harmless enough — given, mostly, to bellyaching about the cold hearts of women.
“Don’t do that again,” she cautioned. “They’re alcoholics and cazadores. It’s best not to talk to them. Don’t talk to anybody. If anyone calls out to you, just walk on.”
Later, when I knew more of Pisagua’s history, I imagined that it had learnt to be on constant vigil during its darkest period, that what had been learnt was not so easily unlearnt. The village still had eyes and ears, even when you thought no one was watching.
In fact, the dream isn’t as audacious as it first seems.
Pisagua had been a port, and not just any port but one of the most important in Chile during the “white gold" rush. It had boasted five wharves and a railway connecting it to the many nitrate plants , which have been reduced to ghost towns, in the northern plains. At the time, Chile effectively held the only commercially viable deposits in the world, used in fertiliser, detergent and explosives. This had brought as many as eighteen thousand people to Pisagua at its peak, and you could hear the chatter of a colourful number of languages — hustling, gossiping, flirting — down by the docks and on Arturo Prat, which, back then, was a commercial thoroughfare of shops hawking imported goods like textiles, tea and exotic perfumes. There were many hotels, and five banks where none exist today.
The most famous of these fortune hunters was John Thomas North: a self-proclaimed “mechanic to millionaire” from Leeds, England, whose shrewd exploits in mining and banking soon earned him the moniker “the Nitrate King”. There was something Gatsby-esque about him, not least for the grand parties he would throw and his penchant for flashy jewellery. His 1896 New York Times obituary noted that he “lacked elegance”, but was an “intimate friend of the Prince of Wales”.
You’ll need some imagination, and stories like this, to colour in the relics that bear testament to Pisagua’s glory days. There, on Arturo Prat: the church of San Pedro. There, the theatre, it’s majesty amplified by having its back to the ocean. Inside, you’ll hear what theatre-goers back in the day would have heard before a show started: the echo of waves crashing against its rear wall. Then, fused to the theatre: the old market, now repurposed as a small library — “though hardly anyone reads,” Caterine pointed out. Walk further along and you’ll come to the old fire station next to the central square, where you’ll also find Monica’s, and next to it, the old prison. Then get off Arturo Prat: north for the old train station, and south for the old hospital. Some of these buildings have been restored and are still used for special occasions, but the hospital seems to have been left to rot, despite its national monument status. Leaning heavily to one side, it looks a sneeze away from collapse.
Evidently, Pisagua knows something about ambition and greatness. And falls from grace. It knows something about that too. The peculiarities of its geography have made sure of it.
One night, I lingered in Caterine’s living room, mulling over coffee and empanadas de jaiba, a northern Chilean staple: deep-fried puffs filled with melted cheese and crabmeat. It’s perfect for breakfast, lunch, tea or supper, and I’d even taken to washing it down with a glass of cheap white wine. Still, I hadn’t mastered the art of eating it—all that runny cheese grease—without staining the front of my shirt.
Meanwhile, Caterine was telling me about the history of Pisagua. “It’s a natural prison,” she said. It’s an often repeated saying about this place.
After the saltpetre industry collapsed due to the development of synthetic nitrogen in Germany in the twenties, Pisagua became a penal colony for political prisoners at the behest of subsequent presidents, starting with Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in 1927. It’s easy to see how this came to be when you first see Pisagua, as most travellers do: from above. You’ll turn west off the Pan-American Highway onto the A40, zigzagging through hulks of sand dunes before plunging into a blue bay patchily outlined by bearded palm trees. Wedged between sandstone bluffs six-hundred-metres high and the vast nothingness of the sea, no one could hope to escape on foot from Pisagua.
The last and most contentious period of this history came in 1973 to 1974, when Augusto Pinochet — who had deposed of the Marxist Allende administration in a coup, just eighteen days after Allende had named him commander-in-chief of the armed forces — turned Pisagua into a concentration camp for suspected communists. Under Pinochet’s watch, Pisagua soon became synonymous with torture. One of these sites of notoriety was the old salmon-coloured prison. Its magisterial facade, accented with window arches the colour of rust, belies what went on inside. Unlike the other buildings from Pisagua's heyday, however, it’s no longer open to visitors.
“Go to the cemetery,” Caterine urged me. “You’ll see what really happened.”
The next morning, I took the paved road north, following the curve of the coast. I passed a historical monument commemorating the wrestling of Pisagua from Peru by Chilean troops in 1879 before coming to the cemetery. Nestled in an indentation that was like a large, shallow bowl in the sand, you can take it all in at once: hundreds of large, elegant crosses carved from Oregon Pine stabbed into the ground over tombs carrying the cosmopolitan dead, adorned with paper flowers. Overlooking the ocean, it’s a resting place with a hell of a view.
Following the path bisecting the cemetery to its end, I come to an empty rectangular pit, like a gaping wound, alongside a memorial. In 1990, nineteen bodies had been unearthed from this secret mass grave. Their flesh had reportedly been intact, the bullet wounds in their heads visible and consistent with execution by firing squad. Their clothes, the blindfolds — they were all still there.
Soon, they were identified as political prisoners of Pinochet’s military dictatorship, during which more than three thousand people had been killed or “disappeared”. The perpetrators had surely not intended that the desert salt would preserve their crimes for posterity.
Considering its controversial history, its isolation, and the relative poverty of its cultural and social life, Pisagua seems like an odd place to retire for people like Caterine and Rafael. Their families are in Santiago; they have no emotional ties to this place.
When I asked Caterine why she had come here, she shook her head. “I don’t talk about that anymore. It’s a long story and I’m tired of telling it. It’s in my book.”
But the book didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. They had been drawn to Pisagua for its fierce natural beauty and its history, what it had once been and what it could once again be, and thrown themselves into life here. But I wondered: were there emotional catalysts, little tragedies? Caterine never let on.
Their ideals, however, were clear. In a 1999 paper concluded on the back of field trips to Pisagua spanning five years, marine anthropologist Sarah Keene Meltzoff wrote: “Rafael says that he and his wife have settled in Pisagua in order to create a ‘paradise’. Their goal is to transform what they see as an unorganised migrant group, squatting in the former concentration camp, into an empowered community of fishing families within a thriving tourist economy in the spectacular arid coastal landscape.”
The words are academic, practical, orderly, the goals clear. But the annals of Pisagua’s history are not so neat, nor encouraging. When the nitrate economy collapsed, Pisagua followed. There was an attempt, subsidised by the Chilean government, to establish a fishmeal industry between 1962 and 1965. But that failed, and Pisagua’s struggled to find an alternative ever since.
Is “paradise”, then, destined to collapse from the weight of its own ambitions?
The trail south to the sea-lion colony at Punta Pichalo is a more cheerful one. On a slope above the old hospital, you’ll come across a glinting rubbish heap covered with shells that crunch beneath your boots, scattered with a confetti of curious objects: a broken piece of a porcelain plate, a torn shoe, an old radio with its wires ripped out. Make your way onto the paved road, past a helipad, and you’ll come to the mouth of a sand trail hugging the winding cliffs. Soon, you’ll leave reminders of human existence behind — though I did come across a brown car, inexplicably abandoned where several foot trails converge, now embedded in the landscape. Then follow the squeals of the sea lions and you’ll come across bubble-like rock formations, some with human-like moulds for shade. Then head down to the edge of the coast to dip your feet and rest on the jagged black rocks. You'll glimpse a little of what Caterine and Rafael might have seen in Pisagua.
They wasted no time putting their dreams to work when they first arrived. Rafael was elected to represent the local community, and continued as its leader for a time. Look through the archives of the regional paper, Estrella Iquique, and you’ll see Rafael entreating the local mayor to make improvements to Pisagua’s infrastructure. “The voice of Pisagua”, an article described him. The road from the highway improved, electricity came online, its villagers were granted title to property they had already been occupying for years, and there is now a daily bus service from the thriving port city of Iquique. Only as recently as 2012, Pisagua got on board with landlines, cellular signals, and the internet , though it’s so slow it can feel nonexistent.
Caterine and Rafael were not the only ones who saw Pisagua’s potential for tourism. In a particular crude attempt at a makeover, a businessman from Arica bought the old prison and re-opened it as a hotel in 1990. Caterine was plainly disgusted by the political connections it must have required: “No one understood how he got his hands on it, since it belonged to the government. He bought it for about two thousand dollars, which is nothing.”
The building has been shut for more than ten years now, but in keeping with the neglect of the village, a grimy sign on Arturo Prat still points to the “Plaza Hotel”. Those who have been inside have reported sightings of a pool table in an old cell block and a lush inner courtyard with a caged parrot displayed in the middle. For Caterine, though, its most unforgivable feature was the small museum upstairs.
“The man didn’t care about the memory of the place. The museum covered the history of the nitrate boom, but it didn’t say anything about the torture that happened here during Pinochet’s time. It’s like it never happened,” she said.
The initial developments soon went the way of the hotel, and efforts to generate a tourist economy soon petered out. Pisagua stagnated after 2002, Caterine said. “There were no more investments, no more proper jobs.” She puts the village’s problems down to the the failure of the community to organise itself to achieve common goals.
“Sure, people here get together when they drink, and the women come together to gossip. But there isn’t an organised group doing good things around here,” Caterine said. And as Meltzoff had observed in her paper, the problem could be that Rafael, the man who purported to lead this community of fishermen and their families, wasn’t one of them.
The dream of “paradise”, then, if not extinguished, seems to be pursued with less fervency , chipped away by every little slight, imagined or not. In her book, Caterine wrote about two prominent functionaries who had come to visit, and how they had seemed hurried, unappreciative of the welcome that had been rolled out for them — and, inexplicably to her, ignorant of Pisagua’s significance. Even those who do appreciate what they see , like the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman , leave, and eventually forget.
Is she disappointed by how things have turned out? I ask.
“No, I can’t say I’m disappointed, because no one obliged me to come here. I’ve created a world here with my husband. I don’t have regrets,” she said, gesturing around at her home, which takes it name from the large rock adjacent to it: the site of a clandestine opium den for the large population of Chinese merchants back in the day.
“Maybe it’s because everyone here today is an outsider, myself and Rafael included,” she said. Only one man who was born here remains. “His name is Oscar, and I think he’s seventy-five years old now. But he won’t speak to anyone.”
On my last morning in Pisagua, I was finishing up my omelette in the breakfast room when I saw a black-and-white photograph of Rafael on a mantelpiece.
He’s walking serenely down Arturo Prat. He’s wearing his flat cap. He’s holding up a large banner with that same old refrain: “Pisagua should be a port again.”
“That was three years ago,” Caterine said. “He was rallying peacefully.”
It's the anniversary of Chile’s triumph over Peru in the battle of Pisagua. On Rafael’s left stand a row of men in fatigues, rifles by their feet, looking straight ahead as if they are seeing right through him. On his right, a photographer peeks out from behind a tree, camera lowered, as if deciding what to make of what he’s seeing.
Rafael is walking all alone.