Staying in Arica in the Atacama Desert is the perfect spot to reach nearby attractions. The Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth and it is also the home of the oldest mummies in the world. I spent six months here as a student from Europe and the US and I will share with you what I enjoyed doing here the most.
You might wonder how I ended up here? My Spanish teacher in Missouri was Chilean and her sister put me up for a couple of weeks so I picked this location as the base for my first stay in Chile.
Maria, my Spanish teacher was super enthusiastic about Chile. She kept bringing in maps and told us stories about the country and its people during Spanish language classes in Missouri. She reminded me of a friend of mine and one day after class I went to speak with her and asked if she could help me find a place to stay in Chile for the summer.
The Atacama Desert – My New Home
Turned out her sister was quite high up in Chilean society and she offered to put me up. They had their own swimming pool, servants and her husband ran a trucking business. She let me stay at her house while I was looking for a room to rent for the next three months.
Arriving in Peru
I flew from Miami to Lima as there were plenty of cheap flights on that route. From the airport in Lima I got a taxi into town to the main bus terminal. I told the driver to take me to the long distance bus station but it turned out that there were two and I needed the other one! After some argument he promised to take me to the other place.
But, instead of driving there direct he went around the back streets. I was slightly worried about where he was taking me but when we finally stopped I knew what was going on. He was hungry and he wanted to have breakfast! He took me to his local eatery somewhere in the slums. By then I was starving too and so I joined in. I ended up inviting him for breakfast and thanked him for the experience after which he dropped me off at the bus terminal and helped me buy the ticket. What an amazing guy!
On the other hand, Lima is not exactly a nice place. I had the misfortune to visit it a few more times and I never fell in love! It is terribly filthy, the roads are clogged and it just doesn’t feel safe.
However, the bus terminal was clean and everyone I met was very friendly, so I cannot complain. I only needed to wait a few hours for the overnight to Tacna near the Chilean border. Since I had my bus ticket and I had a big bag I decided to just wait it out instead of going for a walk.
The Overnight Bus to Tacna from Lima
Tacna is a border town just north of Peru. Dentists and doctors as well as everything else is half-price here compared to Chile. It’s like going from Germany to Poland to do your weekly shopping: a lot of Chileans come here to find a bargain. The image on the left looks a bit out of place but this is the local Mosque in Tacna.
The double decker bus to Tacna was amazing. It was the first time I traveled on a long distance bus and I loved it. They served food, the seats reclined and there was a TV. It was like travelling by plane except we were on the road! I arrived in Tacna in the morning and luckily the international taxi station was just next door.
They call these services the “collectivos” which literally means shared taxi. The taxi driver collects passengers and only leaves when it is completely full. A single journey cost about 2,000-3,000 Chilean pesos, about £2-3 or $3-4.
The journey to Arica took about an hour with the border crossing included.
Arriving in Arica from Tacna in Peru
My taxi from Tacna arrived in Arica on 4 June, 2008. It was quite a hot day which is not unusual in the driest desert in the world. Everything was dry and sandy and the surrounding hills looked completely parched. Arica lies at the foot of the Andes in the Azapa Valley. The city has a major port and this entire region used to belong to Bolivia. The make-up of the population reflects this: there are many indigenous Aymara people and even descendants of former black slaves.
Transportation in Arica, Chile
There are various daily bus services from Arica to various places in other parts of the country as well as Bolivia, Argentina and Peru. Until recently there was even a direct train to the highest capital city in the world. The nearest city south towards the capital is Iquique, about 300 kilometers on the Pan-American highway. So in fact Tacna in Peru is closer than the nearest Chilean town.
There is also a good public transport system using minibuses and shared taxis. The fare in the minibus was a few pennies and the shared taxis hardly cost any more than the bus. The people in Arica are super friendly although there is a huge rift between rich and poor. There are various shanty towns on the edge of the city, while the rich live in walled areas with swimming pools, lush green grass and palms trees – all in the middle of the driest place on Earth! I found it surreal at the beginning but then I sort of got used to it – not much else I could do about it.
First Impressions of Arica, Chile
It was the first country I lived in which had lower living standards than those in Europe and it was initially quite a shock to the system. Eventually I had to accept that it was not Europe, and that it was different in many ways. Naively, I was expecting clean streets and nice houses, similar to Spain or Italy but it couldn’t be more different. Chile at the time was far behind in development from Europe and the US although it was one of the most developed in South America.
On the plus side, I had never seen such a nice beach in my life and the desert looked wonderful too. The sky in Arica is simply bluer than anywhere in Europe and the sun always shines! No wonder they call it the city of eternal spring.
Tourism Friendly Locals in Arica
Most importantly for tourists, people are honest. They help you find a place, don’t mess with the bill in the restaurant and the police are generally not corrupt. On one occasion, instead of ripping me off the waiter told me he accidentally overcharged me and then gave me a refund. On the contrary, in Rome on a holiday a waiter so overcharged me: €26 for a coffee and two sandwiches!
The best part of my trip to Chile was when my landlady’s boyfriend offered to take me on a tour of Peru and Ecuador.
When I arrived in Arica, Maria’s brother in law waited for me and we went home to their villa. They had a huge house with a swimming pool, a massive garden and two servants – I simply couldn’t believe it! Vera was super friendly and gave me her son’s bedroom. He was studying law in Santiago at the time. She also helped me learn Spanish and to look for a room in Arica.
Finding My Room for the Summer
Arica is home to Tarapaca University (Universidad de Tarapaca) with various courses where foreign students come to study for an exchange semester. When I stayed there I got to know various European and US students who came to learn the language and see something completely different.
The district where I was staying while in Arica was La Lisera, which was one of the most expensive parts of town. I looked at several other places before I took this room but they were all terrible. They were between 30-80,000 pesos at the time (2008-2009) but they all had one problem or another.
One day Veronica (my Spanish teacher’s sister) and I were invited for lunch at a seaside hotel. Veronica’s friend told me she had a friend who rented rooms to foreigners so I decided to have a look. Initially I was a bit put off by the sound of foreigners because I didn’t want to stay in a flat with English speaking people. In the end it turned out that the other tenants were French and they didn’t speak English!
Actually no-one spoke English in the house all summer, so my Spanish improved exponentially day-by-day. The rent was twice the going rate in town at 150,000 pesos a month, but I did have a nice double room.
My New Home in Arica
The house had five rooms, two living rooms, two terraces, a nice garden, three bathrooms and a kitchen. The price was all inclusive and I could cook in the kitchen if I wanted to (in the end I ate out every day – the restaurants were so cheap! In case you want to rent, ask if cooking for yourself is OK. In most places they don’t allow you to cook, you have to buy the food from the landlady.
There was also hot water in the shower, with a mirror and a sink plus toilet. It sounds basic western standards, but what luxury compared to the other places in Arica. In some places I looked at everything was shared, with the toilet in the common area.
I absolutely loved it in La Lisera, it was in a quite part of town, a 20 minute walk from the city center but right on the beach. The views were absolutely stunning and I could see and hear the waves from my window every day. I would leave my window open and go to sleep to the sounds of the waves! I miss it so much!
About half way through my stay I found out from the Hungarian consul’s wife that La Lisera was the most upmarket part of town. I didn’t have high expectations when I looked for a place, but I was not going to stay somewhere with earth flooring or no running hot water.
You might ask how I knew the consul’s wife? Although Arica was a relatively small place it still had a Hungarian consulate! There were only three Hungarian speakers there, including me, the consul and his wife so we made friends. Apparently some tourists do pass through Arica and they need help sometimes – hence the consulate.
In the rich households the gardener and maid are live-in, so they don’t pay rent or for food. They tend to be Peruvian or Bolivian immigrants, because these so called rich cannot afford to pay local wages to local people. Or they simply enjoy exploiting the poor from other countries. Either way I don’t view this as a privilege.
Living Expenses in Arica, Chile
Here is a little list of living expenses in Arica:
- Three course lunch in a restaurant 1,500-2,500 pesos
- Basic salary for a cleaner/live-in maid: 100,000 pesos/month
- Rent in the shanty towns: 20,000 pesos/month
- Rent in shared flat: 80-100,000 pesos/month
Journalism Internship at the Estrella de Arica
A week after I got back from Santiago, where I spent 10 days on holiday, Totón introduced me to the director of the local newspaper. He told me I could work at the newspaper as an intern for the rest of the summer! I was so impressed! It really confirmed to me that my Spanish improved so much! The entire interview was in Spanish and we had an hour-long conversation about my experience and everything else in between.
I covered a few stories with the local journalists and accompanied them to meetings with politicians and business people. I really enjoyed the placement as I got to meet the governor of the entire Parinacota district, the mayor and some policemen high up in the hierarchy.
Other than that, I was also a reporter for an American surfing magazine from the Arica Bodyboarding World Championship. The magazing was A-frame – I had never heard of it before but all the surfer guys knew about it. I wrote an email to them and the guy replied: “I would be stoked to read your article…” Well, I hope stoked doesn’t mean anything nasty!
The Bodyboarding Championship
The bodyboarding championship took place in Arica in 2008 and the organizer of the championship gave me a press pass. So from then on I had a seat in the private area. I interviewed the two-times world champion Ben Player and the six-times world champion Guilherm Tamega. After the championship we all went to the club and got shitfaced which was a lot of fun!
About three weeks later I had to start packing my bags as it was time to leave. I was super sad as I had such a great time! On the way back I did the same as coming down: took the taxi to Tacna then a night bus to Lima. Again, I spent the day in Lima, mostly in Miraflores and then in the evening I headed out to catch my American Airlines flight to Miami!
Luckily the flight got to Miami earlier than scheduled and I made a mad dash to catch an earlier connecting flight to Chicago. By then one of my friends from Missouri University moved to Chicago and we spent the next three days together. For the first night I stayed at the HI Hostel again then for the second night I stayed in Trevor’s flat.
We went for a huge walk along the lake shore and also took the train around the loop and into the suburbs up north. In the afternoon we went to the botanical garden which was absolutely massive with a huge glass house covering square meters of rainforest imitation!
Total Cost Of North And South American Trip
You might wonder how much this trip, from January to September in the US and South America cost me? Less than £6,000! That included my accommodation in Columbia, Missouri with the food, transportation, flights and trains across the US. Also the flight to Lima, the buses back and forth, rent in Arica and the road trip contributions for Pancho.
So if anything is holding you back from travelling, think twice! It is not a huge investment and it is totally worth the experience. Some of the things I did during this trip were unforgettable and I will probably never experience them again – but I have no regrets at all. In fact, I would have far more regrets if I hadn’t gone and stayed in cold and rainy Edinburgh! As it turned out 2008 was one of the wettest and coldest summers in the UK!