The towns of Arica in Chile and Tacna in Peru are separated by merely 35 miles of land. Crossing the international border between them isn't difficult, but the information on how exactly the process works is a bit scattered online, resulting in confusion and uncertainty among independent travelers. There are currently only two public ways to do this trip: by colectivo or by bus.
Prior to May 2012, there was a historic one-car train that ran the Arica-Tacna route once per day. However, due to lack of maintenance and safety issues, the service has been suspended ever since. According to this article, Peru is in the process of investing $4 million USD to revive the train, and it is expected to be operational again by December 2013.
Even taking the train into account, however, the fastest way to get from Arica to Tacna is by colectivo. Colectivos are essentially shared taxis that run the border route several times per day. The vehicles are typically older Lincoln Town Car or Ford Taurus models, and drivers will wait until there are five passengers to depart. Buses leave from the same terminal in Arica, and the cost may be slightly cheaper than colectivos. However, with room for a lot more passengers, the journey will also take longer.
I was in no rush the morning of departure, since Peru was two hours ahead of Chile, taking into account daylight savings time. I walked from the hostel to the bus terminal, which took about half an hour, and arrived at approximately 8:30 am. Be aware that the large building with the pyramidal roof is the domestic Rodoviario Terminal. Keep walking past this building until you see a sign that says Terminal Internacional.
Domestic Rodoviario Terminal
Once you enter the gates, the first thing you have to do is pay the international departure tax at the window immediately to your right. This token amount totals 250 CLP, or roughly $0.50 USD. Afterwards, take the slip of paper and continue into the terminal. On your left, through a short alleyway, are the buses waiting for departure to Tacna, and straight ahead are the colectivos.
Paying the departure tax
Buses through the alleyway
Typically, the colectivos parked closest to the entrance fill up quickly, so look for one that perhaps already has a small group of passengers waiting. Approach the driver and ask if he still has space and how much it will cost. In April 2013, I paid 4,000 CLP (approximately $8.00 USD), and it seemed like that was the standard going rate. Some drivers may be willing to lower the price if you negotiate. It all depends on if you feel like it is worth the time and effort.
The driver will then ask for your passport and take care of all the exit and entry paperwork. It may be slightly unsettling to hand over your passport to a complete stranger and watch him disappear into a small office, but rest assured, this is all standard practice. After he finishes processing everyone's paperwork, you and a cozy carload of new friends depart for Tacna.
I believe this was a Chevy Impala
Small office for paperwork
Ready to go
It was a quick drive to the border, and just before entering Peru, we stopped at a large Chilean immigration building, where all passengers were required to get out of the car and line up to get stamped out of the country. This is where having a busload of people might delay the journey significantly. Luckily, with only five of us, the process was quick and painless. Afterwards, we waited on the other side for our driver to pull up, and then loaded ourselves back into the car.
Waiting for our driver on the other side
We drove for just a few minutes past the border and then stopped again. This time, is was the Peruvian immigration building, where all passengers were required to get out of the car once more and line up for immigration processing as well as security checks. All personal belongings in the vehicle had to be unloaded for X-rays, much like the procedure one would find at an airport.
Once we passed through immigration and had our passports stamped, we exited on the other side of the building, where we again had to wait for our driver. This time, it took a while longer since the vehicle had to be inspected as well. Finally, after piling back into the car, we continued on our way. From here, it was a straight shot to Tacna without any more stops.
Waiting for our driver on the other side
The landscape from Arica all the way to Tacna certainly lives up to its reputation as the driest place on earth. I don't think I witnessed a single living plant during the entire trip (besides at the immigration buildings). No trees, no shrubs, not even a few slivers of dried grass could be seen. Only sand dunes and dirt inhabit this stretch of land. After about half an hour of additional driving, we reached the international bus terminal in Tacna. The entire journey, from departure to arrival, took just under two hours.
International bus terminal in Tacna
Lots of colectivos
From Tacna, there are bus routes to virtually all major cities within Peru. My final destination was Arequipa, approximately 230 miles north of Tacna. Both Cruz del Sur and Flores used to operate daily departures on this route, but since late 2012, Cruz del Sur discontinued their service. Unfortunately, Flores does not have online booking capabilities as of yet, so the only option is to reserve tickets once you arrive in Tacna.
Flores buses depart out of their own location directly across the street from the international bus terminal. There are two buildings, however, and each serve different routes. I randomly entered one of the buildings, and was then directed to the other one when I told them I needed to get to Arequipa. Regular coach tickets cost 20 soles, or approximately $7.25 USD.
Flores bus terminal
After waiting about an hour, boarding was called for Arequipa. Larger belongings were loaded into the back, and I entered the bus and climbed up the stairs to the coach cabin. While this was a fairly old vehicle, I was glad to see that the seats were very well-maintained. There was plenty of cushion, and I was quite comfortable for the duration of the six-hour journey. Surprisingly, the bus was only about half full when we departed. However, there were two additional stops on the route, and many more passengers boarded along the way.
Flores bus terminal
Boarding our bus
As we got on our way, the entertainment system was turned on, and Joe Versus the Volcano started playing on the small TV screen. For those who don't know, this was the first of three movies that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan co-starred in during the 90s. And perhaps not so coincidentally, this was also the first of those exact three movies that were played during this bus ride. Granted, I'm a sucker for romantic comedies, so I thoroughly enjoyed the first film, then continued watching Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail. All in Spanish, no less!
The curtains were closed for much of the ride, but I could tell that we were doing some serious winding and climbing for much of the way after leaving Tacna. Once in a while, I would peek out the window, only to notice that we were perilously close to the edge of a sheer cliff. Needless to say, I kept the curtains closed. The scenery outside was identical to the barren landscape of Arica, until we began to approach Arequipa.
Being entertained by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for six hours
We arrived at the Flores terminal in Arequipa, located directly across the street from the domestic bus terminal, at approximately 4:00 pm. While Flores is certainly considered a budget option compared to higher-end alternatives such as Cruz del Sur or Oltursa, I found them to be very reliable and quite friendly in terms of service. They also seem to be ubiquitous in the more remote regions of Peru, so they may end up being the only choice regardless.
Upon exiting the terminal, I was accosted by half a dozen or so taxi drivers all trying to lure me into their vehicles. I am always slightly suspicious of desperate taxis that specifically stalk bus terminals, so instead, I walked out onto the main street, hailed down a more legitimate-looking cab, and negotiated a price of 6 soles to get to downtown Arequipa. The short two-mile trip took less than ten minutes in local traffic, and I finally arrived at my destination, Hostal Las Torres de Ugarte.
Flores bus terminal in Arequipa