María Elena: saltpeter past and renewable present

Published on Wednesday, 3 August 2022

"We knew we had wondered to show off, but we were not qualified to present them to the outside world," said Abigail Ferreira (29), recalling how the movie "María Elena" was filmed by director Rodrigo Lepe in the old saltpeter mine in 2014.

Abigail was born in María Elena because the Pedro de Valdivia hospital had closed. After the Pedro De Valdivia saltpeter office was closed in 1996, she moved to María Elena with her whole family.

She had lived in the town since then, except for six years when she studied at university in Antofagasta. As an Elenina, Abigail is familiar with local history and the inhabitants' past lives. Abigail and other young people used to give visitors tours. However, they lacked proper organization. Although they had all studied and had experience, it was not enough to offer an integral experience to their clients.

A step forward for tourism

Victor Loyola has been promoting tourism in the area for four years. He gradually became involved with the María Elena Association of Tourist Guides until he finally became its president. In his new role, the first challenge he set himself and the other association members was to standardize the criteria for telling María Elena's story. With that goal in mind, the association approached the Rondó Foundation and Enel Green Power. Their initial intention was to acquire specialized clothing for their tours. Still, their conversations led to an even more ambitious goal: to obtain the Q Seal from the National Tourism Service (Sernatur).

Obtaining this seal requires undergoing a process of tourism service quality certification. In addition to endorsing services provided, the seal gives access to "Focal" co-financing from Chile's economic development agency Corfo, as well as great visibility on Sernatur's promotional platforms and a higher score for accessing its social programs.

“We were impressed by how professional eveything worked around the program. It was also very intense, both physically and theoretically, especially when learning the huge ammount of information and material. Tests were demanding, but we passed them all. Now we provide a safer service to our clients.”

– Victor Loyola, president of the Association of Tourist Guides of María Elena.

Loyola acknowledges that the certification process was difficult, lasting six months and involving classes like first aid in remote locations, psychological first aid, cultural heritage training, and guiding techniques.

Today, Abigail is optimistic about the opportunities this project will open up for her. After becoming certified, she wants to start an adventure tourism company with her partner Brayhan Milla, a certified Sello Q guide.

“We are planning to open up the adventure tourism industry. Here there are routes for biking, stargazing, camping, and extreme desert adventures.”

– Abigail Ferreira a certified tourist guide from María Elena.

Abigail says that thanks to the knowledge she acquired doing the certification, she can offer a high level of service and reach more potential clients thanks to the visibility she is gaining. And she believes that there is still much room to grow in Maria Elena's local economy.

"As new types of travelers start to arrive, you need to develop other kinds of activities, such as local handicrafts, and offer other types of services," she said. You also need to plan future projects to continue preserving the local patrimony and promote circular economy.