La Ultima Salitrera: 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.

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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.

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