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.
There are various daily bus services to La Paz. Until recently there was even a direct train to the highest capital in the world. As I mentioned in my previous post, Tacna is just over the border where most people go shopping for cheaper food and other goods.
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.
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.
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.
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. Read more about my road trip to Quito in Ecuador in the next post.
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