Water is Everything in Arid Iquique, Chile

“What time is it?” Sony asked with a yawn, as we sat finishing dinner last night beneath a thatched partial roof at the El Tercer Ojito, or “The Third Eye,” in Iquique. Twelve-thirty, I answered, and to that Cristina Burchard, proprietor, told us that here, parties begin about now. She sat sipping Cabernet, and told us how she named her comfortable, open air restaurant after one she visited in Katmandu. She used to have a hammock and showers for passing travelers, now she just concentrates on good food like grouper cheeks, quinoa with shrimp, and veggie lasagna.

We flew up north and arrived in Iquique, a mining town of 200,000 right on the Pacific coast, and practically in the Atacama desert. More than 20,000 here work in giant copper, salt and other mines, the men work 10 days in a row with four off. The jobs are coveted and passed down from father to son. It rains about 2 millimeters a year, so restaurants like El Tercer Ojito don’t need any real roofs. “When it rains, it’s just a piffle,” said Cristina. By the beach, we saw an entire gym set up outside with no roof.

Water of course is very scarce here in this arid climate, and it comes from faraway rivers and lakes. The talk of the city is how they want to force the big mining firms to pay for desalinization plants as they do in Antofagasta, Chile’s second largest city. “Water is everything,” our guide told us, as we passed a monument to water that stands right next to the pounding Pacific surf. “Nothing grows here unless you water it like crazy.”