La Ultima Salitre: A history of Maria Elena

Maria Elena was created in 1926, which was toward the end of the saltpeter boom that largely happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town is named for Mary Ellen, the wife of the Englishman who was the first administrator of the mine here, although it also went by the name Coya Norte – a sister city to the nearby Coya Sur. In keeping with its English namesake, the town layout resembles (at least, it is supposed to resemble) the Union Jack. The proudly call it “la ultima salitre” – the last salpeter. It is the last of the mining towns of its kind. In the world.

You can somewhat see the Union Jack impression in this book cover

Currently, about 4,500 or so people live here and it is the county seat of the surrounding area. In many ways, Maria Elena is a normal town. There is a mayor and a main square, which like every main square in Chile is called the “Plaza de Armas.” Around the square you will find the church and a town museum, which used to be the town school until around the 1990s when the current high school and elementary school opened up. Fortunately for me, there is a theater in town! Touring bands and production companies bring concerts and plays here. While I certainly won’t be catching Broadway’s latest hits here, the prices are always better than Broadway: free.

But there is also something very unique/strange about Maria Elena. The town is completely owned by SQM, the state-owned chemical and mining company. This is why the museum and shows at the theater are free: the company subsidizes them. The company sponsors cultural events, parties, recycling initiatives, and more around town. You cannot buy or rent property here, it is allocated to you by the company. The employees high up in the ranks at the mines live in what are called “chalets” that are all grouped on one side of town. In addition to their regular salaries, the teachers all live rent-free in housing near the school. The company even covers utilities.

It’s a good deal to live in a tranquil place – even if it is the middle of nowhere.

Although the population is steadily dwindling (the population is less than half of what it was 20 years ago), Maria Elena is positioning itself for the future. No one knows how much longer saltpeter mining will last. The good news is that copper deposits have more recently been discovered not too far away, near what was once Pedro de Valdivia. In an effort to become more environmentally sustainable, this land that is blessed with 365 days of sunshine per year is being increasingly covered with solar panels and thermosolar plants. And Maria Elena is something of a tourist outpost, albeit rather niche, for those that want to come and learn about the mining way of life out here in the desert.

Got any lip balm? The realities of desert life

Although my home is lush, and green, and beautiful I cannot say we are blessed with particularly perfect weather. Northern Virginia has lovingly been described as swampy on more than one occasion. In the summer, you leave the house in the middle of the day and you are lucky to last more than five minutes before melting into a puddle of sweat. The humidity makes the hot hotter and the cold colder.

The weather here is almost perfect. At least so far. Currently it is winter, although it seems like we change seasons during the course of a day. When I wake up, it is difficult to get out of my bed and into the chilly air. It is usually in the 50s, although I think it feels colder, so I wear my gloves and a wool hat in the morning on my walk to school.

By midday, I am shedding my zip up and rolling up my sleeves because summer has arrived. It is 80 degrees and sunny (it is always perfectly sunny), and I have to make sure I have my ballcap and sunglasses ready for action. Come November, when it is summer in the desert and the heat becomes more intense I might be singing a different tune. But right now, when the locals complain about it being so hot all I can do is laugh as I remember my beloved humid home.

But moving to one of the driest spots on earth has had its unexpected challenges. My poor sensitive skin is adamantly opposed to my new location. The locals take one look at my pale gringa skin and immediately inform me “necesitas mucho bloqueador” … “you need a lot of sunscreen.”

I should also probably be bathing in lotion considering how dry my skin has become. My lips protest the arid desert air on the daily. They are constantly chapped and flaking, despite the seemingly endless amounts of lip balm I use. I have suffered more than one nosebleed during my time here, and am anxiously awaiting more. But that is how it goes in a place where it never rains. In fact, one of the teachers told me that it rained once, like two years ago, and they had to close the school for ten days.


Like Iceland (I bet you didn’t see THAT comparison coming), there are few trees around to block the breezes so the wind can get pretty wild as well. The combination of sun and wind creates quite the pleasant atmosphere, and I enjoy relaxing outside. I can often be found sitting on the front porch enjoying the fresh air, listening to the wind, and watching whatever neighbors and wildlife come and go. I am visited by many birds and I am trying to befriend a lizard that hangs around, although the most common animal I have seen around here are stray dogs (stray dogs that must love to party all night long, as they are always barking). With a cup of tea in hand, I will sit and listen to podcasts, read… or write my blog posts. Here’s to many more!



A brief history of the Chilean Pampa

I recently visited the museum in Maria Elena, which not only chronicles the town’s history but also the history of the local mining industry. This visit, paired with my on-the-ground tours of the surrounding pampa and discussions with locals (including my very knowledgeable host father), has my head full to bursting with the interesting story of this area.

Traditionally, not too many people lived here in the pampa. Ancient cultures lived on the coast and famously up in the mountains (think: Incans), but the vast Atacama was considered too harsh to be habitable. However, that does not mean that the ancient peoples did not leave their mark on this land. Trade routes crisscrossed the pampa, marking the land with petroglyphs and geoglyphs that showed the routes. I visited what is now a popular swimming hole at the confluence of the Loa and San Salvador Rivers but what was then an ancient market and pueblo called Chacance.

Of course, that all changed when people discovered and learned to exploit the mineral riches in this land. In the Atacama Desert they mine salt, iodine, saltpeter, lithium, and copper. Saltpeter seems to have been the larger industry historically, although copper has replaced it. (Chile is by far the largest copper producer in the world. Peru is second, but produces only about half of what Chile produces). Mining operations were quickly set up and towns formed nearby as people raced in to reap their riches.

Chileans have been here since the beginning, which is interesting because the land was not Chilean then. Where I currently live was the southern part of Peru. The land to my south for many miles, including Antofagasta, belonged to Bolivia. But Chilean companies quickly grew tired of paying taxes on the fruits of their labor to other countries, so they decided they would take over.

For three years the War of the Pacific raged until Chile emerged victorious over Peru and Bolivia (which was ultimately the biggest loser here as they not only lost access to the vast mineral deposits in the desert but also any access to the ocean – still a source of tension between the two countries). Meanwhile Argentina, seeing Chilean forces were preoccupied in the North, made a move to take their portion of Patagonia. Although tensions still run high over this as well, as a whole Chile ended up faring better trading in the southern desert for the northern desert.

Soon after that was all settled and various borders redrawn, there were hundreds of pockets of Chilean civilization dotting a vast swath of land that had barely been inhabited before. They were organized in groups, geographically, with each group being served by a port. Maria Elena eventually fell in a group in the northern part of the region (Chile’s Region II: Antofagasta), along with the towns Vergara, Coya Sur, and Pedro de Valdivia, all served by the port of Tocopilla.

For decades, as the saltpeter mining industry grew so did the number and prosperity of the towns. But all good things must come to an end. As the worldwide demand for saltpeter waned, mines were slowly shut down due to high production costs. Without mines, there was no need for mining towns. My friend, who was born in Pedro de Valdivia, told me how one day when he was a teenager the town was declared “closed” and a bus pulled up to take people away. The people who were not moved to Maria Elena were left unemployed and returned where they originally came from. The ruins of some of these towns still stand, but only ghosts live there now. These towns were, one by one, completely wiped off the map. All, that is, except one. Maria Elena: “The Last Saltpeter.”

I will post a history of the last saltpeter next week!

Pueblo abandonado – Vergara
ads for chilean saltpeter around the world
Ads for Chilean saltpeter from around the world
chilean saltpeter around the world
Global desire for Chilean saltpeter
Many uses for mining products

Why I love Hostels – and You Should Too!

Last weekend, I stayed in a hostel in San Pedro de Atacama with some friends from Maria Elena. They warned me that it would be “sin glamour.” And sure, maybe it was a bit different from the Four Seasons but it was comfy, clean, and homey.

So, in a world where AirBnb has become the cheap lodging of choice for most of my millennial cohort and “hostel” literally became a horror movie, I thought I would take a moment to sing an ode to the underrated institution of budget lodging.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate AirBnbs. Staying in someone’s home offers a lot of attractive qualities, even beyond saving money. Staying in someone’s house and living like a local is a totally worthwhile experience. Many AirBnbs offer the chance to stay in residential parts of town where commercial lodging isn’t available, allowing you to experience a place where tourists maybe do not usually go.

And I have definitely had my fair share of horrific hostel experiences, including a terrifying lack of cleanliness and one 2:00 am séance in a hostel dorm in Venice during Carnevale that turned me off of staying in shared rooms. But I still love hostels, and here’s why:

  1. They are cheap: Everyone loves Airbnb because it’s so cheap, but I have yet to find a place where I could stay in an Airbnb for cheaper than a hostel. Compared to a hotel, both offer much more attractive rates. Both usually offer access to a kitchen as well, allowing you to save money by cooking meals. An extra bonus with hostels is that they also often function as quasi-travel agents that will book tours for you. I have found that the “hostel price” can be cheaper than the “hotel price.” For example, in Cusco I took a horseback riding tour. I paid in advance through my hostel and in the morning was picked up to join the group. Some folks staying at a nicer hotel paid at the end of the tour, and they paid over five dollars more than me for the EXACT SAME TOUR. While $5 may not seem like a lot, over time every little bit adds up!
My inexplicably cheaper horseback ride
  1. They offer better service: At the end of the day, a hostel is a business. They are there to serve you. They will arrange an early morning taxi to the airport for you, book tours for you (see above), and even print boarding passes for you so that you don’t get hit with a $16 charge by the cheapo airline to print it at the airport (I learned THAT the hard way). Furthermore, I never stay at a place without 24-hour reception. You never know when you are going to need something, and having someone right there to help you feels like such a luxury – without the luxury price tag. With Airbnb it really depends on the host, and I have yet to receive the same level of service I usually get at hostels.


  1. You can meet other great travelers: Everyone asks me how I keep from feeling lonely when I travel. Although I prefer doing things on my own, sometimes it is nice to have someone to pal around with and this is one way that hostels can be very helpful. Hostels are filled with travelers just like you, and you can meet them playing board games in the common space or having breakfast. Odds are they will want to see some of the same things you want to see, so you might as well go together!


  1. You don’t have to stay in a dorm: For me, I like having my own space. A room where I can have some peace and quiet. I don’t mind sharing a bathroom, but I would rather not be bothered all throughout the night with strangers snoring, coming and going at all hours, or deciding to participate in strange occultic rituals – whatever the case may be. Fortunately most hostels offer private single (or double, if you are travelling with a friend) rooms with a shared bathroom at really cheap rates. In fact, many offer rooms with en suite bathrooms too, if sharing a bathroom isn’t your thing.


  1. I feel safer: Probably the most important thing is I feel safer in a hostel. My first Airbnb experience had me staying in an apartment that belonged to an overly interested dude (who had a key, of course) who knew that I was travelling alone for a few days. My days ended with me moving a piece of furniture in front of the door before going to sleep because, well, you can never be too careful. I have never felt the need to do something like that at a hostel. Hostels are usually full of other people, so you never feel awkwardly alone with someone who might make you feel uncomfortable. As a business, hostels are regulated and employees vetted in some fashion. And with my own room that I can lock when I leave, I can ensure my stuff has a safe place to spend the day.

And that really sums it up for me. With the rise of the sharing network, the good, old-fashioned hostel has fallen a little bit by the wayside. My intention was to remind everyone of a really solid budget travel option. Of course, what works for me may not work for you and I encourage anyone to get out there and travel wherever they want to in the way that makes them the most comfortable. For some, that is Airbnb. For others, it is fancy hotels. For others still, it is literally crashing on a stranger’s couch through the couchsurfing network. Whatever works for you, go out there and work it!

A weekend in San Pedro de Atacama – Muy Bacán!

From the moment I started thinking about coming to Chile and researching what to see and do here, I knew I had to go to San Pedro de Atacama. Pictures of San Pedro de Atacama show cute stuccoed buildings, dusty shopping streets, and snow-covered mountains in the background. It is known for being the gateway to exploring the Chilean altiplano. From here, it’s an easy day trip to see flamingos on salt flats, hike volcanos, and bathe in hot springs near geysers. The surrounding land is so other-worldly they’ve literally named it Valley of the Moon and Valley of Mars.

It’s definitely my kind of town.

I went with three other teachers from the elementary school, who had all been before and were looking to see more of what San Pedro de Atacama has to offer. Our first stop was La Valle de Luna (Valley of the Moon). There we climbed through dark and sometimes very tight spaces in caves (where one of us was perfectly dressed for the occasion in a Batman shirt). We then watched the sun set, and the moon rise, over the valley. It was nothing short of spectacular.

That would be the first of many spectacular views, as the following day we went to the ruins of a fort, the Pukara de Quitor, built by the native Atacaman pre-Incan society. Some hiking nearby led to stunning views across the valley. And how green this valley was! There were trees and plants – a welcome sight compared to the vast blanket of brown that surrounds Maria Elena.

We also spent time walking, shopping, and eating in town. We visited the church, which anchors the main square. Music flowed out of many restaurants, and a violinist appeared to be a regular in the main square. It had a very Europe-meets-Chilean altiplano vibe. We stayed in a hostel on the edge of town, where in the mornings we had a breakfast of eggs and toast and in the evenings we sat around a fire drinking and talking about music until 1 or 2 in the morning. Yes, I stayed up until 2 am! (Special thanks to chef and fire-master Andres!!)

Before returning to Maria Elena, we decided to check out the Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache. A journey of an hour and half down a rough gravel road brought us to our destination. Pools of the clearest blue (and chilly) salt water emerged out of nowhere in the middle of parched earth, just waiting for us to jump in. So we took a dip in the salt-surrounded lagoons. Much like in the Dead Sea, the high salinity of the water makes everyone quite buoyant. I could have grabbed a book and read if I wanted to.

I was so fortunate to be able to go with my new friends. I would never have known about the Pukara de Quitor or made it out to the lagunas escondidas on my own. Everywhere we went I heard little to no English (except for me continuously saying “This is awesome!). This was surprising to me since the area is such a tourist hub. I came back with a couple of trinkets and plenty of wonderful memories, and am already looking forward to visiting again (gotta go see those flamingos). The experience was, as the Chileans say when something is super awesome, muy bacán!

Who Has the Better Barbeque: Chile or the US?

This blog post is about probably the most important topic there is: food. Chilean food is not well-known in the United States, and there are many that would say that is for good reason. Chilean food is largely light on spice, heavy on salt, and if you aren’t eating bread are you really even eating? Chilean salad is literally just tomato, onion, and olive oil (and salt, of course). Although the mix can be tasty, it would hardly pass for a salad at home. Fortunately, I have been spoiled by my host family’s cooking so far:

But I think there is one major aspect of Chilean food that we can all appreciate: asado. Asado is Chilean barbeque, and here I am referring to the sacred act of grilling meats (and other things) over an open flame and not the glorious sauce. That is a totally different discussion. For both Americans and Chileans barbeque is more than food – it’s a hobby, it’s a way of life, and it’s as much about the people you are eating with as it is about the meat itself. There are some key differences though.

Americans tend to grill during the day. The classic summer backyard barbeque is often an afternoon event, perhaps on Memorial Day or Independence Day. Or dad might slap some burgers and dogs on the grill for dinner. Chileans asadar at night. The earliest one I have been to started at 8, but they can start at 9 or 10. They tend to last until 2 or 3… or 5 in the morning.

In the United States, we might throw some veggie kebabs or some fruit like pineapple or peaches on the grill. A classic barbeque might also include a salad, baked beans, pasta salad, and some kind of dessert like cookies or brownies. Chileans seem to grill meat, and meat, and more meat. Each asado invariably includes steak, ribs, chicken, and sausages all on the grill at the same time. When it is time to eat, a mountain of meat awaits you.

Of course, a pile of meat would feel too lonely without bread. Enter choripan, which is chorizo in bread (a.k.a. better hotdog), and churrascas which is a kind of grilled biscuit. There is nary a vegetable or fruit to be seen, unless you count the glass of wine or pisco as fruit.

I have been lucky to be invited to a few asados so far, and I hope I get to go to many more in my remaining time here. Both cultures have great barbecues because ultimately it isn’t about the food – it is about the company. For me an asado has been more than about eating a fabulous meal. It has been about being invited into a culture and feeling just a little bit more at home here.

Cultural Differences: Getting Used to the New Normal

In addition to the differences of life in a small desert town like Maria Elena that I mentioned before, there are some cultural differences in Chile that I want to talk about. Fortunately, none of them are troubling, but it takes some getting used to.

Language. Of course, I did not move to Chile expecting everyone to speak English all the time. But Chilean Spanish is difficult. It’s rapid. They swallow letters (for example, gracias becomes “gracia” and “por fa” instead of por favor). And then there are all the chilenismos. I am making a study of flaite, fome, bacán, monitos, po, and the other slang they use here. Luckily I came speaking some Spanish, and I hope to improve while I am here – but I still have a long way to go. Hopefully I can report more on this later. Assuming, of course, that I learn to effectively use the keyboard on my school laptop. It is just different enough that my typing doesn’t always flow smoothly. And forget about all the shortcuts I used to use in MS Word – they are all different in Spanish Word.

The epitome of “bacán” or “cool”

Daily Schedules. If you know me, you know I’m an early bird. I come from a family where 7:00 am is considered “sleeping in” – even on the weekend. I like to get up early and get things done, and it is normal for me to go to bed by 10. For my Chilean family, 9 or 10 (or later) is dinner time. They regularly go to bed at midnight or later, even during the week. On the weekends, an asado or fiesta (or night at the casino) can easily last until 5 am. I can’t remember the last time I was awake until 5 am. Much of this late-night revelry is fueled by the fact that Chile has a culture of siesta. At 2, everyone goes home to have lunch with their families and take a nap. The work/school day resumes around 4. As someone who has not had much success with napping (and believe me, I’ve tried) this schedule is difficult for me.

Lack of Internet Access. I have absolutely zero access to wifi. My host family does not have internet in their home, and there appears to be no wifi I can access in any public location – although I have a cable I can connect to my laptop to access internet in the school. For me, this is a big change because I am so used to sitting on my couch or in bed on my laptop either doing work, chatting with friends, or planning travels. Fortunately, data is cheap here so I’ve been using it to check facebook and listen to podcasts. But the tiny phone screen and lack of a keyboard is not great for lesson planning or writing anything of length. So if you are wondering why it is taking me so long to blog, and why it is so irregular… this is why.

PANTOUFLES! I have no idea why, but apparently the thought of walking around your house in bare or sock feet is incomprehensible here. I’m not sure if it is seen as offensive (although if you are in your own house, I am not sure who you would be offending) or just weird. So naturally everyone has a pair of really dope slippers (pantoufles) here. Lucky for me, my host mom has let me borrow an old pair of her daughter’s 😊

my borrowed pantoufles
My borrowed pantoufles

And then there is All.The.Kissing. Chileans greet each other with a kiss on the right cheek (like many other cultures, of course). This norm is sweet and warm and I usually don’t mind it too much. But it feels a little strange, and can be a little time consuming, when a line of students want to kiss you goodbye. Nevertheless, these delightful differences are all part of my cultural education!