Our ongoing quest to track down ghost towns and abandoned cities across every continent has brought us – finally – to South America, a stunningly beautiful landscape with a rich history and plenty of enigmatic abandonments. We’ll explore six of them in this article, from the architecturally striking, such as Humberstone and Sewell, to the tragic Armero and the chillingly infamous Jonestown, not to mention Henry Ford’s failed rubber plant in the Amazon Rainforest.
In May 2008, tragic misfortune struck the Chilean town of Chaitén when the nearby volcano erupted for the first time in 9,000 years. Warnings came on May 2 as the ancient volcano began to rumble. Fortunately residents had been evacuated by May 5 when the main eruption spewed a noxious plume of ash and sulpherous steam into the air, which drifted across Patagonia and out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Chaitén, the former capital of Palena Province in Los Lagos Region, was completely flooded on May 12 when the mudflow and other volcanic debris caused the river to burst its banks. Over the following week, the sheer power of the water excavated a new course through the centre of the abandoned town, leaving extensive damage in its wake. Officials have pledged to rebuild Chaitén 10 km to the north of the ghost town’s location.
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works, Chile
The Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works are two former saltpeter refineries in northern Chile, established in 1872 while the region was still part of Peru. Santa Laura was founded by the Guillermo Wendell Nitrate Extraction Company, while James Thomas Humberstone founded the Peru Nitrate Company and established La Palma, which was later renamed in his honour.
Busy English-style towns grew up around the works before the Great Depression of 1929 forced their sale. While Santa Laura was never a great success, Humberstone became the most successful saltpeter works in the region. Located in the Atacama Desert, both plants became ghost towns in 1960 and are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Known as the Armero tragedy, Armero in Colombia is one of South America’s saddest ghost towns. Armero was the seat of the region until November 13, 1985 when an eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano destroyed the town, killing around 23,000 of its 31,000 inhabitants. The Armero tragedy made international news, while survivors were relocated to surrounding towns.
(Image: United States Geological Survey, public domain)
Survivors constructed an extensive cemetery on the site of the former town as a poignant reminder of the tragedy. They constructed a tomb with an epitaph where their houses had once been, and in doing so created a symbolic city called The Camposanto. The foundation of Armando Armero was established to help in the social and economic redevelopment of the devastated area.
Another tragic community, Jonestown in northwestern Guyana was formed by the Peoples Temple cult, led by Jim Jones. On November 18, 1978, Jonestown became enshrined in the annals of notoriety when 918 members of the cult died at the settlement, as well as Guyana’s capital Georgetown and a nearby airstrip.
Termed “revolutionary suicide”, 909 Temple members died as a result of cyanide poisoning. The suicides followed the murder of five individuals at Port Kaituma airstrip, including Congressman Leo Ryan, and four cultists in Georgetown. Jonestown lies in ruins today, while the events that took place there are considered the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster before 9/11.
Founded in 1904 by Braden Copper Co. and named after the company’s president, Mr Barton Sewell, this colourful Chilean ghost town presided over the largest underground mine in the world. Beautifully positioned high in the Andes mountains at an altitude of over 2,000 metres, Sewell was home to 14,000 people by 1918 and many decades of prosperity were to follow.
Known as the city of stairs due to lack of roads, workers and their families reached Sewell by train. When the company began moving families to the valley in 1977, the camp fell silent and was partially dismantled. But in 1998 the Chilean government declared Sewell a National Monument and the mining town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Popular with tourists, Sewell is arguably one of the world’s most striking ghost towns.
Fordlândia is an abandoned, prefabricated industrial town in the Amazon Rainforest. Established by Henry Ford in 1928, Fordlândia was intended to supply cultivated rubber for the Ford Motor Company’s automobile manufacturing. Ford received the land in return for a nine per cent interest in the profits generated, but never actually visited the town himself.
Unfavourable weather conditions for rubber growing, combined with little help from a Brazilian government suspicious of foreign investment, saw Ford relocate downstream to Belterra. By 1945, synthetic rubber erradicated demand for natural rubber and Ford’s investment collapsed. His grandson, Henry Ford II, sold Fordlândia for a loss of over $20 million. The ill-fated Fordlândia survives as a ghost town.