Iquique. What an awesome name you have. And there is so much more to recommend you, too!
Like a lovely central plaza with a very cool central clock tower.
Which they light up bright blue at night!
Cool street art everywhere, that definitely rises above your everyday graffiti.
Hostels with comfy common areas that happen to be across the street from weird-ass Chilean sushi restuarants! (We were just happy to have "sushi", even if it's almost impossible to avoid cream cheese, avocado, or both in Chilean rolls.) Thanks, Backpacker's Iquique!
Nice restaurants, if you're so inclined, full of Chileans drinking Chilean-style Pisco sours (in champagne flutes, with lots of sugar and the amazing limes of Pica, just outside Iquique) - though be sure to show up late for dinner, or you might be dining by yourself for the first half-hour or so.
This place is called El Wagon, and they introduced me to the wonders of the pastel de jaiba. Strictly translated, the name means "crab cake" - but it is unlike any crab cake I've ever had. Think more cheesy crab dip. You'll find it under the main course section of the menu. Yes, Chile doesn't mind if you eat an entire crab dip for dinner.
If this gets you in the mood for seafood, your next eating stop should be the Mercado Centenario.
Try not to get distracted by the sexy menus you'll see at some of the comedores.
We sat at Pampa y Mar Berta Chavez, which was cheery and crowded.
They proceeded to put down in front of us some of the best sea urchin we've ever eaten, and certainly the most generous portion we've ever seen! This is erizos in salsa verde, a Pica lime-sour, onion-pungent cool salsa. The strong flavors nicely tempered the urchin's insane creaminess.
We also had a giant order of loco in mayo, which is steamed abalone with, well, mayo. Kind of ridiculously rich, and again, the portion was nuts!
This Iquiquean (?) love of seafood stretches to the grocery store, as well, where the aisles of canned seafood stretched for miles. They had fresh, too, but I liked the cans.
Another thing Iquique is crazy for that is NOT seafood related is the chumbeque, a doughy sandwich cookie filled with dulce de leche, or lemon curd, or jam, or, well, lots and lots of fillings. We bought these from the locally famous chumbeque bakers, M. Koo, and weren't the biggest fans. With our chumbeque, we tried out a Bilz and a Pap - these sort of unfortunately named sodas are EVERYWHERE in Chile. They are super sweet and both seem to be slightly different, brightly-colored takes on cream soda.
Iquique also has a neat harbor, which is why Peru, Chile, and Bolivia all fought over it during the War of the Pacific. Chile won. (This war is the reason that Bolivia has no harbor and that their navy is confined to Lake Titicaca. Yes, there is a naval station there.)
And, awesomely, the harbor is full of sea lions!
We went on a harbor tour, which was very interesting despite being entirely in Spanish. The guide showed us formations on the sandy hills surrounding Iquique, one of which looks a lot like a gorilla, and talked about the town's history during and after the Pacific War. I wish I'd understood more of it.
You can get really close to the sea lions at the boat launch. They are HUGE and I kept my distance, though we did see some people trying to creep close for pictures.
We looked into taking day trips out of Iquique, but choked on the high prices in Chile. Everything seemed to be ridiculously expensive, especially coming from Bolivia!
So we DYI'd a day trip to Pica, home of the region's famous limes.
The bus ride out there was almost three hours. The first portion of the journey is up into the hills outside of Iquique, from where you do get a nice view of the town and the Pacific.
The drive is mostly dusty and several hours long. We passed the ghost mining town of Humberstone, where nitrates were mined until synthetic ones became cheaper - but there's nothing to see from the road, which is a bit of a disappointment.
At least we got to see dinosaurs!
As you draw closer to the town of Pica, the arid, dusty desert gives way to small orchards of limes. These limes are some of the best we've ever tasted - like Key limes, but perhaps a bit more floral.
It took us longer than we'd throught to get from Iquique to Pica, so it turned out we only had about 3 hours in town before we'd have to get back to Iquique to catch our 18-hour night bus to La Serena.
This was disappointing, as it meant we couldn't head out of Pica to the hot springs. And the rest of Pica was pretty much closed for business. We did find a small market where we were able to buy a bag of limes (that traveled with us for the next three weeks, as far as Easter Island, before I had to throw them away at the Argentine border).
And we had some llama and ensalada Chilena (tomato and onion) at a decent restaurant. The llama was nice, though pretty chewy.
Most frustratingly, we weren't able to find a single place in Pica, home of those oh-so-sexy limes, to get a pisco sour. Crap.
Well. Back to the bus to Iquique, where we retrieved our luggage from the hostel and hopped on our new, extra-snazzy bus. The top front seats are pretty pimp, especially when they're available in cama (bed) instead of semi-cama. Not the most terrible way to spend 18 hours!