The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 118 of 164

Three days afterwards I heard of the Beagle‘s arrival at the Port, distant eighteen leagues from the town. There is very little land cultivated down the valley; its wide expanse supports a wretched wiry grass, which even the donkeys can hardly eat.

This poorness of the vegetation is owing to the quantity of saline matter with which the soil is impregnated. The Port consists of an assemblage of miserable little hovels, situated at the foot of a sterile plain. At present, as the river contains water enough to reach the sea, the inhabitants enjoy the advantage of having fresh water within a mile and a half. On the beach there were large piles of merchandise, and the little place had an air of activity. In the evening I gave my adios, with a hearty good-will, to my companion Mariano Gonzales, with whom I had ridden so many leagues in Chile. The next morning the “Beagle” sailed for Iquique.

July 12th.—We anchored in the port of Iquique, in latitude 20° 12′, on the coast of Peru. The town contains about a thousand inhabitants, and stands on a little plain of sand at the foot of a great wall of rock, 2000 feet in height, here forming the coast. The whole is utterly desert. A light shower of rain falls only once in very many years; and the ravines consequently are filled with detritus, and the mountainsides covered by piles of fine white sand, even to a height of a thousand feet. During this season of the year a heavy bank of clouds, stretched over the ocean, seldom rises above the wall of rocks on the coast. The aspect of the place was most gloomy; the little port, with its few vessels, and small group of wretched houses, seemed overwhelmed and out of all proportion with the rest of the scene.

The inhabitants live like persons on board a ship: every necessary comes from a distance: water is brought in boats from Pisagua, about forty miles northward, and is sold at the rate of nine reals (4s. 6d.) an eighteen-gallon cask: I bought a wine-bottle full for threepence. In like manner firewood, and of course every article of food, is imported. Very few animals can be maintained in such a place: on the ensuing morning I hired with difficulty, at the price of four pounds sterling, two mules and a guide to take me to the nitrate of soda works. These are at present the support of Iquique. This salt was first exported in 1830: in one year an amount in value of one hundred thousand pounds sterling was sent to France and England. It is principally used as a manure and in the manufacture of nitric acid: owing to its deliquescent property it will not serve for gunpowder. Formerly there were two exceedingly rich silver-mines in this neighbourhood, but their produce is now very small.

Our arrival in the offing caused some little apprehension. Peru was in a state of anarchy; and each party having demanded a contribution, the poor town of Iquique was in tribulation, thinking the evil hour was come. The people had also their domestic troubles; a short time before, three French carpenters had broken open, during the same night, the two churches, and stolen all the plate: one of the robbers, however, subsequently confessed, and the plate was recovered. The convicts were sent to Arequipa, which though the capital of this province, is two hundred leagues distant, the government there thought it a pity to punish such useful workmen who could make all sorts of furniture; and accordingly liberated them. Things being in this state, the churches were again broken open, but this time the plate was not recovered. The inhabitants became dreadfully enraged, and declaring that none but heretics would thus “eat God Almighty,” proceeded to torture some Englishmen, with the intention of afterwards shooting them. At last the authorities interfered, and peace was established.

13th.—In the morning I started for the saltpetre-works, a distance of fourteen leagues. Having ascended the steep coast-mountains by a zigzag sandy track, we soon came in view of the mines of Guantajaya and St. Rosa. These two small villages are placed at the very mouths of the mines; and being perched up on hills, they had a still more unnatural and desolate appearance than the town of Iquique. We did not reach the saltpetre works till after sunset, having ridden all day across an undulating country, a complete and utter desert. The road was strewed with the bones and dried skins of many beasts of burden which had perished on it from fatigue. Excepting the Vultur aura, which preys on the carcasses, I saw neither bird, quadruped, reptile, nor insect. On the coast-mountains, at the height of about 2000 feet, where during this season the clouds generally hang, a very few cacti were growing in the clefts of rock; and the loose sand was strewed over with a lichen, which lies on the surface quite unattached. This plant belongs to the genus Cladonia, and somewhat resembles the reindeer lichen. In some parts it was in sufficient quantity to tinge the sand, as seen from a distance, of a pale yellowish colour. Farther inland, during the whole ride of fourteen leagues, I saw only one other vegetable production, and that was a most minute yellow lichen, growing on the bones of the dead mules. This was the first true desert which I had seen: the effect on me was not impressive; but I believe this was owing to my having become gradually accustomed to such scenes, as I rode northward from Valparaiso, through Coquimbo, to Copiapó. The appearance of the country was remarkable, from being covered by a thick crust of common salt, and of a stratified saliferous alluvium, which seems to have been deposited as the land slowly rose above the level of the sea. The salt is white, very hard, and compact: it occurs in water-worn nodules projecting from the agglutinated sand, and is associated with much gypsum. The appearance of this superficial mass very closely resembled that of a country after snow, before the last dirty patches are thawed. The existence of this crust of a soluble substance over the whole face of the country shows how extraordinarily dry the climate must have been for a long period.

At night I slept at the house of the owner of one of the saltpetre mines. The country is here as unproductive as near the coast; but water, having rather a bitter and brackish taste, can be procured by digging wells. The well at this house was thirty-six yards deep: as scarcely any rain falls, it is evident the water is not thus derived; indeed if it were, it could not fail to be as salt as brine, for the whole surrounding country is incrusted with various saline substances. We must therefore conclude that it percolates under ground from the Cordillera, though distant many leagues. In that direction there are a few small villages, where the inhabitants, having more water, are enabled to irrigate a little land, and raise hay, on which the mules and asses, employed in carrying the saltpetre, are fed. The nitrate of soda was now selling at the ship’s side at fourteen shillings per hundred pounds: the chief expense is its transport to the sea-coast. The mine consists of a hard stratum, between two and three feet thick, of the nitrate mingled with a little of the sulphate of soda and a good deal of common salt. It lies close beneath the surface, and follows for a length of one hundred and fifty miles the margin of a grand basin or plain; this, from its outline, manifestly must once have been a lake, or more probably an inland arm of the sea, as may be inferred from the presence of iodic salts in the saline stratum. The surface of the plain is 3300 feet above the Pacific.

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