Cusco to Chile and Back
When you first come over the hill into Tacna from Arequipa, you’ll think you’re arriving at Black Rock City, the temporary home of Nevada’s annual Burning Man festival. But don’t be misled by Tacna sprawling mass across an otherwise lifeless desert. Peru’s southernmost city lies just a stone’s throw from the Pacific, and just a few more minutes south in the backseat of a 2007 Chevy Impala lies an almost perfect stretch of sandy surf beach perfect for a weekend getaway (or a quick border hop).
Depending on your luck, you probably got either a 183, 90, 60, or 30-day tourist visa when you entered Peru. Tourists are usually permitted 183 days within a one-year period, but there are conflicting reports about whether it’s a calendar year or a 365-day period. Most of the time, this is plenty, but for those looking to stick around in Peru a little longer, a visa-run/border hop is one of the original travel hacks, as long as you’re still under your 183-day limit.
Most have 3 options from Cusco. Going north means the possibility of hopping to Ecuador, but from the south end of the country your choices are either Chile, Brazil, and Bolivia. Brazil’s border hop routes through Puerto Maldonado, an Amazonian city that rarely comes recommended. Bolivia’s hop can be incredible, but not for US Citizens, who have to pay a massive visa fee to enter the country. But Chile…Chile can be the perfect antidote to the blues of the Andean winter (or summer…seasons in Cusco are all the same), and getting there and back can be a highly-affordable breeze for the savvy traveler, as long as you have the right plug adapter.
From Cusco, you’ll book an overnight bus to Arequipa. This is a frequent route that is operated by countless bus companies. Shop around for the best prices. Busses offer two classes, depending on how far you want to recline, and most include movies and a snack. Check out Oltursa or Cruz Del Sur. The busses leave from the Terminal Terrestre in Cusco. You’ll have to buy a small ticket from a booth that serves as an exit tax. Get used to this as you’ll do it in each station.
TIP: Be sure to change a few soles into Pesos Chilenos and eat before leaving Cusco!
Upon arriving in Arequipa you’ll have a short “layover” to transfer busses for the leg to Tacna. Straight ahead into the terminal is a lady at a small stand who will try to sell you empanadas with “coffee”. Do not trust her. The coffee will not be coffee, but a cup of water that heard the word “coffee” faintly from a distance. Otherwise, the transfer is just long enough to use the restroom, buy a bottle of water, debate getting a sandwich, and get on the next bus. Phone service will be spotty through this part of the journey as you snake through the desert of what is ostensibly the planet Mars.
Tacna is the last city before Chile, and a major transit hub both nationally and internationally. You’ll have to switch stations before heading into Chile, so cross the street to the next station. Here, buses and “colectivos” cross the border into Chile and back. The station is packed with sim-card stores, currency exchange, and other traveler services. Once you get your exit tax ticket, head out the left door for colectivos, or the right door for buses. Which one, though?
Buses will take your passport, drive you to the border, pass you through immigration, and drop you at the bus station in the center of Arica. They are the cheapest option. Colectivos are basically guys with cars who are skilled at efficiently ferrying people across the border, and are your only option should you need to pay overstay fees upon leaving Peru (if you’ve stayed beyond your allowed number of days, you will have to pay around 4 soles per day to leave Peru. This is done at a separate counter and takes an extra ten minutes, so don’t tell the driver until you get to the border, otherwise he may try to overcharge you for the hassle).
If you are leaving Peru before your visa expires, you can take the bus normally. Both cars and buses will drop you off at the bus station in Arica. This is an international terminal that serves only Peru, so if you plan to continue past Arica you’ll have to cross the street to the domestic terminal, which looks like a giant iron pyramid.
TIP: You can grab a SIMcard for about 3000 pesos here which includes unlimited social media apps and enough data to last 3 days.
ANOTHER TIP!: Chile’s timezone is 2 hours ahead of Peru, which makes no sense if you are mildly decent at geography. Don´t forget to set your watch!
The site of a major battle between Peru and Chile during the War of the Pacific, Arica is just a small surf town starting to feel the effects of Chile’s resort tourism boom. Like every coast city in Chile there is a gigantic, windowless casino and an old colonial center, but Arica only has a few high-rise condo complexes dotting the coast.
It has a laid-back feel that 75% of the day feels completely deserted. Called the “City of Eternal Spring”, it has something like the lowest amount of daily cloud cover in South America, making it the perfect refuge from the indecisive weather of the Cusco valley.
From the bus station, you’re about ten minutes on-foot from the mall, or ten in a cab from any hotel you may have reserved. There are numerous hotels and hostels to fit any budget, from the high-end to the more economical. The Arica Surfhouse Hostel is a centrally located option for those on a short trip who don’t care to wander too far for coffee in the morning. Good Wi-Fi and a great cappuccino! There is plenty of shopping nearby and you’re only a few blocks from the 18 de Septiembre, Arica’s pedestrian walk where most of the city’s commercial activity is centered.
Arica is quiet. Much quieter than Cusco, and you should not take that for granted. Chile is famous for its beachfront boardwalks and bike/ped baths, but Arica’s isn’t much to brag about. Instead, walk beyond the mall and get down to the beach near the wooden ship. Enjoy a calm stroll along the beach. How far is too far? Who knows. Who cares? What else do you have to do? Pass the surf schools with their groups of young Chileans paddling out and learning to stand up. Drink an Arequipeña beer with your toes in the sand. Enjoy the sun! Get burnt. You deserve it.
Arica is small, and there isn’t a ton to do. Between the beach, some shopping, and absorbing the incredible street art waiting for you around every corner (Cusco’s city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so there is not much interesting modern art, but Chile is dripping in wet paint everywhere), you´ll have no problem killing three days doing (mostly) nothing. The hike to the viewpoint above the city is extremely worth the walk and is totally free. After a few weeks or months in Cusco, you´ll probably sprint up to the top without sweating. Go You! On the backside of that same mountain are the Cuevas de Anzota, a 4.7 star-rated attraction that is only a short taxi ride away.
Should Arica and its many attractions not tickle your fancy enough to justify spending a full weekend, don’t worry. That’s fair. The city itself has little culture, and – especially if you’ve already been once – the prospect of another three days can be tough to stomach. Luckily, Chile is a long country, and Arica is very literally just the tip. Remember the bus station? Well, if you can stand to get right back on another bus, you can add a short 4-hour leg to your journey and find yourself in Iquique, a city twice the size of Arica and a flash-forward to Arica’s inevitable future.
Iquique is a not-quite-cosmopolitan city but offers a different experience than Arica. Here, the beaches are bigger and more plentiful. The boardwalk stretches almost the length of the city’s coast and will swallow your entire afternoon should you find yourself mounted atop a beach cruiser bicycle. Here you can go paragliding over the city, where from a cliff you’ll have 20 minutes in the air circling the waterfront and the skyline before they drop you right in front of your beachfront hotel.
Climb aboard the Esmeralda, a full-size replica of one of the most important ships in Chile´s history. It is frozen in time, just as it was when in-commission! Head up the pedestrians-only Baquedano for nightlife and fun bars, but come back by daylight for the beautiful Plaza Arturo Prat. Finally, enjoy the best ice cream of your life at Maraschino (they have a Ferrero Rocher/Nutella ice cream that had us considering permanent relocation) before or after spending countless hours lounging on the centrally-located Playa Cavancha, where barefoot beachcombing salesman will be quick to offer you pre-made iced mojitos.
TIP: No mountain vista here,but go to the Skybar at the top of one of the Terrado Cavancha hotel for killerviews and a nice cocktail in an upscale ambiance.
Whether you leave from Arica or Iquique, sure to check schedules to get back to Tacna by your departure date. It will take slightly less time to get back into Peru than to get out, but either way you want at least 2 hours to get from Arica to Tacna. If you´re leaving from Iquique, that means six, and don’t forget the time change. Busses leave almost every hour of the day. In Arica, you´ll board a passenger bus where they´ll do the border-run in reverse. As you wont need to pay fees on your way into Peru, the bus is the best option. There will be someone waiting to get you on his bus right when you arrive. You´ll need an exit tax ticket here as well! At the border, you´ll get an exit stamp from Chile before simply pivoting on the spot to face the Peru window. They will stamp you into Peru, scan your bags, and wave you through. You made it! Back to Peru, but this time with a better tan.
Now that you’ve planned your boarder run, plan your stay in Peru with Proyecto Peru! We provide Spanish classes, accommodation with Peruvian families, volunteer opportunities and tours in and around Cusco.
Any great tips for Arica or Iquique? Any travel hacks for visa hopping in South America? Let us know in the comments!