Arica on the Horizon

Let the traveling begin. After leaving Robyn and Tom in Mendoza, I had 72 hours to get all the way to Arequipa, Peru, over 2000km away. The journey started with a late night bus out of Mendoza, destined overnight for Santiago, Chile. This is a bus journey that I would love to do in the daytime some day, as although I couldn’t see much of the scenery, what I could see looked incredible as the bus passes from one side of the Andes mountain range to the other. The border crossing, which occured at about 2AM, was set inside a massive bowl of rock. Arrived in Santiago at about 6AM, and it was still dark outside. As the bus station is not in the greatest neighbourhood, I decided the best bet was to hide out inside the bus station until sunrise, when I checked my bag into storage and went out exploring the area for a couple of hours. I finally settled down on a park bench near the entrance to the Universidad de Santiago and read my book while I watched the city come alive.

Around noon, I grabbed a shuttle bus to the airport, or should I say, makeshift airport. The terminal building is still under repair due to earthquake damage, and so they have erected a series of large tents in the parking lot of the airport. Given everything, the whole process went very smoothly as they shuffled people from tent to tent to tent before being put on buses to take you to your plane right off the tarmac. From Santiago, I flew to Antofagasta, a two hour flight north and the second largest city in Chile. From the airport, I went straight to the newly constructed bus terminal (so new, it wasn’t even in my Lonely Planet book) and bought a bus ticket on an overnight bus to Arica, the last city in Chile before the border with Peru.

About 36 hours after leaving Mendoza, and after two straight nights of sleeping on buses, I decided to take a little break and spend a day and night in Arica. What I discovered was a really nice, non-touristy seaside town with a lot of charm. Coupled with a great hostel, Jardin del Sol, I wish I’d planned to stay an extra day or two in Arica. Given that I only had the day though, I made the best of it, starting with a terrific lunch at the local fish market, followed by a tour of some of the archaeological sites in the Azapa Valley, on the outskirts of town. The shared taxis (commonly known here as taxi collectivos) don’t go to the Azapa Valley unless they are full, so I had to wait around for about 30 minutes until a Chilean-German couple showed up wanting to see the same sites. In the end, the tour was actually not that impressive. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints where we could see shapes that had been drawn onto the sides of the valley mountains by the indigenous people as a means of communication with others and as symbols for the gods. We then got dropped off at the local archeological museum, which was quite small but did contain some of the world’s oldest known mummies. Back in town, I hiked up to the top of a massive rock that borders one side of the city. From here, I had panaromic views of the entire area and the chance to visit a war museum with informative displays on the history of the land battle between Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

The next day, I headed back to the bus station to complete the final leg, from Arica to Arequipa, Peru. First though, I had to get across the border to Tacna which was a crossing I won’t soon forget. Thankfully I knew what to expect as I had researched this in advance. There are a couple of ways to get across – train, bus or taxi collectivo. I opted for the taxi as the train didn’t run on Sundays (my day of travel) and the taxi is supposed to be faster than the bus. You can also get a bus straight to Arequipa from Arica but I’d heard it was a lot cheaper to get yourself to Tacna and get a bus from there.

So, I walked into the collectivo terminal and was quickly hounded by hordes of drivers vying for my money, yelling Tacna, Tacna! I chose the least shady looking man and he replied by asking me for my passport. Now normally there is no way I would ever cough up my passport to anyone but a border official but I’d read that this was just what you had to do so I gave him my passport, he pointed me to get into his beat up, early ’90’s Ford Taurus which was full with 4 other locals looking to cross and then ran off with my passport. Deciding to trust my research, I tried to find my inner zen, got in the car and waited. Unable to locate any such zen, I spent the next 10 minutes panicking, wondering if I’d actually given my passport to the driver and not some phony posing as a driver, etc, etc, before the driver came back to the car with my passport and my entrance to Peru forms all filled out for me. Wonderful! Next thing I knew, it was an hour later and I was standing outside the bus station in Tacna, Peru.

About 5 seconds after I walked into the bus station, I was approached by a godsend – a young Peruvian woman who spoke perfect English, worked for a travel agency and wanted nothing more than to help me get to Arequipa. I could not have had better luck. Given that it was Sunday, most of the companies weren’t running buses to Arequipa, something I didn’t anticipate. It would probably have taken me ages of walking from ticket counter to ticket counter to find the bus I eventually got on. After she found me a bus, she let me use the washroom and computer in her office and then watched my bag while I walked downtown Tacna for some lunch. Peru was off to a great start! Tacna was a nice city. As with most cities in South America, the city is centered around a very well developed main square and the further you go beyond the square, the more dingy the city becomes. Just off the main square, I found a Chinese restaurant where I got a massive meal and drink for 10 Peruvian Soles, or about $4 CDN. The same meal at home would easily have cost about three times more. Back at the bus station I got on the bus to Arequipa where I was pretty much the only tourist in sight. Tacna is not a big tourist destination but it is a big destination for locals because it is a duty free shopping zone, and as a result, people come in all the time from Arica or Arequipa to get cheap products. Also, most tourists go to Peru through Bolivia and not Arica. The bus ride was fine nevertheless, I was thoroughly entertained by the selection of films, first an ’80’s Sylvester Stallone prison movie, then an Arnold Schwarznegger movie that I think I’d already seen (both of these in Spanish with no subtitles – the true sign that you are not on a tourist bus) and finally, a black and white Spanish comedy about a guy who could control people by moving his eyebrows up and down. The locals were in stitches over that one. At about 10 PM, I finally landed in Arequipa almost exactly 72 hours after leaving Mendoza.

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