My trip from Buenos Aires to Brazil was supposed to last about 6 weeks. It’s now been about a year and it ends mid-May.
There are many reasons why it took so long. When I first went to Arica I was only supposed to be there for maybe 3 weeks and then never go back. I did make friends, though, at a small church near my hostel.
I went to Peru and I still hadn’t visited Machu Picchu yet. I didn’t know I could have asked for my entire 6 months, so I got 90 days and left the country. I went to Arica to renew my visa sometime in July and it was freezing.
Then, my visa to Peru was about to expire and I remembered that Arica has a Bolivian consulate. I thought I could be there for a few weeks, get my visa, and just kinda hang out at the beach.
It wound up taking longer because I needed to raise a lot of cash. In Perú, the wage I was earning was just fine. In Chile, I needed to earn 2-3 times more even though I was living in what is considered the country’s cheapest city.
So I just kinda hung around and worked super hard. I’ve lived in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Cusco, and Washington, D.C., I was raised in L.A. and most people in that part of Chile wondered what I was doing there.
Well, I was trying to enjoy the sun. When else do you get a desert with a beach with all the amenities? At the hostel I stayed at people from other parts of Chile would visit and talk down people from the northern part of Chile, denigrating them for “being Peruvian.”
I met one guy who kept complaining about everything in Perú and Arica, and it was just annoying to deal with. For a small town (250,000 people is a small town to me), there’s a lot to do and I didn’t get to cross off more than half the things on my bucket list.
There are these really beautiful caves and the beaches are great. Most people there are nice, and I found the environment far more accepting of immigrants than other parts of Latin America I’ve been to.
Competition between Arica and Perú is much friendlier, and a lot of people go to Perú and Bolivia on vacation and have great things to say. A few things I remember:
- Sometime around December, the entire city’s power went down. There was no wifi, no lights. Nothing. So the next day I just went to the beach. There were many instances where the wifi and other electricity went out and I went to the beach until the power came back on.
- You can get used to anything. When I got there, I stupidly tried to run sometime around 3 PM and my nose bled because it was too hot. I never tried running at that hour ever again, but I was eventually able to go outside between 12pm-5pm without nosebleeds. Eventually, I was able to take walks after my meals because I kept eating menú del día (soup, salad, and the main dish).
- You can get used to anything: part II. Understanding the Chilean accent is hard even for native Spanish speakers. When I was in Arica I attended a local church and learned absolutely nothing about Jesus for at least a month. The worst part was when I had to sit through a convention and understood nothing. I went to a youth group and kept asking them to repeat stuff. One of my friends called me a seca one time and I didn’t know if I should be insulted or not. I’m pretty sure I offended a lot of people for a few weeks until I just kind of got it. One day, I woke up and I understood. Then I even started using some of the words, no seas fome. Eso es muy chanta, ¿cachai? You just have to listen to people and it’ll click, I promise.
- It rained there and I didn’t find it to be a big deal after all my time in Cusco (plus, I lived in Buenos Aires and the streets used to flood all the time). But it was a big deal there. Some river got too full and people lost their homes, and the beaches were polluted for several weeks as debris washed up on the shore.
- When I was there I experienced a 7,3 magnitude earthquake. Being from California, I just went back to sleep and had to sit through some Belgian guy calling everyone in Europe to let them know he was alive. A British guy had arrived from dancing and was super drunk, so as far as I know, he thought it was the alcohol he ingested and just kinda stood around in his underwear. Neither the British or Belgian guy had any intention of letting anyone go back to sleep. There was a painting in our room and I tried to comfort the guys by saying that the earthquake isn’t a big deal because the painting didn’t come off the wall, and would they please let me go back to sleep?
- Chile is cheaper than Argentina, but it took me a while to realize that because I had to wait until I was earning more money to be able to enjoy a few things.
- I really enjoyed the food at Mercado Colón and the Super Agro Santa María.
- My favorite thing about Arica is how culturally different it is from the rest of Chile. You see cholitas, Peruvian stuff, and you can feel the Andean influence. People there use slang you normally hear in Perú, “el wawa,” “se ve regia,” I didn’t notice this in the rest of Chile but I didn’t spend as much time there.
- The olives, wine, and cheese in Arica are great. Goat cheese is traditional and the Azapa region probably has what I consider the best olives in all of Chile. Just buy a $3 bottle of Carmenére wine and some cheese from the Agro and you’re good to go.
- The markets were probably my favorite. Food is a lot cheaper in Arica than the rest of Chile.
- I love the beach and toward the end, I barely had time to go but I went to the beach almost every day my first 2-3 months. Most people complain about the water temperature, but the cold water reminded me of L.A. I happen to like it when waves knock me down and you have to catch them and stay focused. Calm beaches are boring.
- People are much nicer in Chile than in the United States. Because of the current political climate, I find the U.S. hostile to people of color. Chile isn’t perfect but there are more people of color in Arica than in Santiago (by percentage and majority), so I generally felt welcome. People asked a lot of questions about where I’m from and what I do. A lot of people just assumed I was Mexican, and when they found out I was a backpacker they’d ask me a lot of questions, tips, etc. and gave me recommendations for things to do, eat, or see.
I went to the beach there with friends a few times and we just drink tea and talk. That was one of my favorite things.
I never actually imagined I’d be in a desert for a long time and that it wouldn’t drive me crazy. There were times when it did. I found Chilean men to be very shy and difficult to get to know, but Arica is one place I’d come back to because I promised my friends I would, and because I never got to take the surf classes I wanted. I also came up with a screenplay idea that I’d like to film there someday. The guy I wanted to hire said no twice, but with more experience, maybe I can take a professional crew and really hash out my idea.
Many tourists are afraid to come to South America, and going into a desert town can feel scary, but literally nothing bad happens in Arica. It’s peaceful and there are a lot of good restaurants to try. Coffee in Chile doesn’t have a good reputation, but I really liked Arte Café.
A few other interesting things I ran into while there:
- Festival Arica Nativa (film festival with desert and indigenous themes)
- Carnaval Andino and Carnaval Afrodescendiente (the only part of Chile that does this for itself, and not just for tourists)
- CineArte Arica. You can watch free movies every Friday evening.
Stuff I ate. You can find most of these things everywhere else in Chile, most like:
- Empanadas de pino
- Empanadas de queso
- Pastel de choclo (kept me full for at least 24 hours)
- Picante de pollo
- Picante de güata (the Chilean word for stomach, and people use it to talk about their own stomach. ¡Me duele la güata!)
- Ceviche at the puerto. 1000 pesos gets you a small portion, 2000 pesos gets you a giant fresh ceviche
- Peruvian food is everywhere. Lomo saltado, papas a la huancaína, and just about anything Peruvian is there if you miss it.
- There are a few shawarma places around town, some taco places (I made my own, so I can’t vouch for the tacos there), and you can get arepa ingredients easily
- Mote con huesillo. I had it with my friend Carolina in Santiago for the first time and it’s an awesome drink + snack
I also biked around Arica a bit and found it to be great for that as well.
All photos in this post are my property. You can see more on my Instagram.