Oh, Arica. A town we had never heard of, seen photos of, or even knew existed until we were rumbling down a windswept, sandy highway in the middle of nowhere southern Peru, with the goal of reaching its city limits the next day.
For once, we had decided to take a day bus - previously all transportation had been done at night (you get to where you are going and you get a “bed” = a win-win). But no, we wanted to see the landscape this time, in all its sunny, sandy glory.
Turns out southern Peru is pretty boring. We love deserts, but the landscape down there is empty: no trees, no bushes, no animals, no life. Just rolling plains of light-colored sand for miles and miles.
Eventually, we reached the town of Tacna. A bustling city close to the border of Peru and Chile, with a nice downtown strip, a couple of interesting tourist attractions, and cheap lodging. We only spent a day there, and though we didn’t arrive with high expectations (or any if we are being honest) we left thinking Tacna wasn’t a bad city at all.
Then it was on to Chile, meaning an hour or so of waiting in line to get on the next available bus to drive us over the border.
The Peru-Chile border crossing is quite busy - something we didn’t expect until we arrived and saw hordes of people going every which way. But it turns out that a lot of people will cross over from Chile, do their shopping in Tacna, and then cross back over. This is because things (basic commodities like toilet paper) are a lot cheaper in Peru and it isn’t hard to cross the border - even just for a day trip.
Our plan was to spend a whole week in Chile, in the coastal town of Arica (the country’s northernmost city). A place we only knew two things about: it can have super big waves for surfing, and it has a cathedral designed and built by Eiffel. Yes that Eiffel.
Once we got through the border crossing - which was actually quite easy (woo) - we were on our way to the coast.
Now Arica might be located along the Pacific Ocean but it is still very much in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest deserts in the world (some say THE driest if you don’t consider the poles). Meaning the contrast between the blue water and the light brown sand was stark.
We decided to venture south to Arica because we needed to get out of Peru (for visa reasons) and we wanted to spend some time on the coast (we had been inland for the past month). So we quickly found an Airbnb within walking distance of the beach and settled in for a week of total and complete relaxation.
Arica, population 222,619, is a very important town in terms of trade. In fact, its port is used by neighboring Bolivia (which is landlocked) for much of its trade (Arica is also the terminus of Bolivia’s oil pipeline). Arica also sits along the Pan-American Highway, a major trade route used by many countries in South America. Finally, it has an international airport - though we didn’t get a chance to see its popular destinations.
Also, though located in the Atacama, the town has two major lush valleys nearby - both of which provide a good heaping amount of produce - which is then shipped from the town onto the wider area. All of this put together has made Arica a hub for various industries and turned it into a thriving community.
The town is also a popular tourist spot - especially for people of neighboring communities and countries. Once we started exploring it was easy to see why.
Comfortable temperatures (all day, and year, long), long walking paths right next to the beach, a fun, hip downtown with lively restaurants and shops, a nice museum (with fantastic views), and finally, long, sandy beaches and great waves for surfing.
While we wouldn’t characterize ourselves as “beach” people, we still greatly enjoyed hanging out along the shore - both during the day and at night (where we quickly fell into the habit of eating an ice cream cone at sunset).
Arica is the perfect place to relax and recharge, especially after a long couple of weeks of traveling. For us - two Type A people who are always planning the next adventure - it was nice to just stop and spend seven days doing practically, well, nothing.
Well… almost nothing.
In fact, if we are being honest, we lasted about three days of relaxation before we got the urge to do something exciting again. So we thought, why not go boogie boarding? There is a perfectly good piece of ocean about a two-minute walk from our Airbnb.
So we gathered up our swimsuits, some sunscreen, a couple of snacks and headed off for the rental shop. There we met a very nice woman who had obviously surfed way harder waves than we were looking at doing. She promptly rented us two boards for some measly price (we can’t remember exactly how much).
We sprinted off into the surf, dong that half run-half jump that always seems to occur in the first couple feet of stepping into the ocean. It was then that we noticed something odd, something a tad unnerving.
Jellyfish. And a lot of them.
The only “saving” grace was that they were dead. Though that was definitely a good and bad thing. It was good because that meant they wouldn’t swim towards us, but it was bad because since they were dead, they could no longer control where they floated. It was like an ocean full of stinging landmines.
We quickly ran/jumped back out of the water and headed back up the beach to the rental shack.
Maybe since they were dead they couldn’t sting us? Wrong. They still could, and it would still hurt (a lot).
Neither of us were exactly bubbling with excitement over boogie boarding anymore. Maybe hanging out on the beach, eating ice cream wasn’t the worst idea after all…
After that rather unfortunate adventure, we decided to do all of our exploring on land. So we headed for the museum that stands proudly on a tall hill (or morro) overlooking the town. The Museum of History and Weapons is a great place to spend an afternoon, learn about the history of Arica (and the war that took place there not too long ago), and get some stellar views of the surrounding area. We highly recommend going around sunset.
Other things to explore include the St. Marks Cathedral (the one built by Eiffel) and the neighboring Vicuna Mackenna Square, the Museo de Sition Colon 10 (an archeological museum), the Port of Arica (which has good food and very big and very loud resident seals), and Playa Chinchorro - which often has activities and food carts at night (including a couple spots selling very delicious churros).
We left Arica feeling refreshed and excited again for another couple of weeks of traveling. Sometimes - no matter where you go - you just need to take some time to stop and do pretty much nothing (except sit on the beach). After Arica we headed back into Peru - this time to the jungle (we sorely missed our greenery). And while we still don’t think we are beach people, we both agree that Arica is a special slice of paradise: good food, good beaches, friendly locals, and just a good vibe.
So if you are considering heading down south to Chile, we highly recommend making a pitstop in Arica - if only for the sunsets, ice cream, and churros.