Peru to Chile by bus

With a blink of an eye our time in Arequipa is done, and we’re on a bus bound for our next destination, Chile. We would have loved to stay longer, but we’re in such a rush because we’ve booked a flight from Santiago to New Zealand that happens in two weeks. For today’s leg, we’re heading from here to the Peruvian border town of Tacna, then across the border to Arica in Chile. A few days from now, we may head down to Calama and make our way to San Pedro de Atacama. But we’re not sure yet.

So first up is our ride from Arequipa to Tacna, a six-hour journey. We’ve planned it so that we’re not waking up absurdly early, and we’ve got two front-row seats on the second story of the bus so we can watch the scenery in full splendor. We think we’ve finally got this bus thing figured out.


The bus terminal at Arequipa


En route update: So we may have worked out the perfect time and seats, but sometimes you can’t account for other people. The seats across from us are occupied by a woman with two toddlers run amok. It hasn’t helped that she has smacked one across the face twice. We’ve also listened to her call a cable company and claim she’s not responsible for bills on her account and then call a friend and complain about her problems. One of the kids reaches out a sticky hand and brushes it across my arm. He’s cute and all, but eeeughhhh.

En route update 2: The air conditioning is broken, so an attendant has come up and opened the emergency exit in the ceiling of the bus. It’s getting hot in here.


The view from our seats. If you can’t tell, it’s a desert.

En route update 3: The toddlers have stripped down to their diapers and we’re all struggling in the sweltering heat. It doesn’t help that our bus is black and this region of Peru is all desert. Ten minutes ago the bus stopped and we all piled out into the desert for a customs checkpoint. They looked at all of our luggage while we stood in the unrelenting desert sun and asked if anyone had fruit or vegetables. It’s apparently to stop the spread of some kind of fly pest. I don’t know if anyone has these things, but I’m pretty sure any flies on our bus have been cooked alive.


En route update 4: The woman with toddlers needed to go to the bathroom. She stood up and asked me something in Spanish, and was gone before I could process that she had asked me to “watch her kids.” The children immediately attempt to go after their parent, and I find myself trying to stop them with my hands or legs. One of them begins wailing and I start making funny faces at him to get him to stop. Half of my brain is thinking “this isn’t my responsibility, I didn’t agree to this, just let them go.” The other half is rebutting with “They shouldn’t get hurt because of the carelessness of their mother.” Thankfully I’m not alone for long. Some older folks behind me notice what’s going on and distract the toddlers by asking them questions in a cutesy way. Still, it’s an agonizing few minutes before the mother comes back.

We’ve ARRIVED IN TACNA! We practically sprint off the bus to escape woman and her toddlers and enter the station. We’ve got our next bus in an hour and we’re not venturing beyond this station, but from what we can gather Tacna is Costco, just in city form. Everything is the station is sold in absurd bulk amounts, from 50-count rolls of toilet paper to 8 loaves of fruitcake. We manage to buy the smallest amount possible for bread rolls (that’s 16 of them) and tissues (that’s 18 of them) for our trip onward.

Everywhere around us there are people packing up their bulk goods, preparing to take buses across the border, lending the whole station a post-apocalyptic preparation camp feel. But this is a daily occurrence, and all of these people carrying hundreds of chip packets and bread rolls have simply done some economic math. Goods are cheaper in Peru than in Chile, and you can save or make a pretty penny carrying goods across the border.

It’s already dark when the time comes to board our second bus of the day. This bus is a standard, single floor bus with no seat assignments. We climb on board and pick seats together, and the bus roars to life.


The bus terminal at Tacna doubles as a Costco. Families buy goods in bulk and then carry them across the border to Chile, where the same goods are more expensive.


En route update: We encountered another checkpoint, where all of us piled off the bus and had to take our stuff. The guards walked us into a small building to have our papers checked. Meanwhile, they put all of the bus baggage through an X-ray. A guard holds up one of our bags and asks whose it is. There’s some suspicion in his voice, but when Stoytcho and I come over he looks us up and down and waves us off with the bag. Being foreigners means it’s pretty unlikely we’re smuggling drugs or weapons.

En route update 2: We’ve reached the border, but traffic has trapped us on the Peruvian side for the last hour. We’re stalled within view of the border, but we’re not going anywhere so the bus driver kills the engine and opens the door. It doesn’t help us much with airflow though, and for a second time today we’re uncomfortably hot and sweaty. Everyone takes turns dashing off the bus temporarily to get some fresh air until the driver yells at us to come back on. Traffic is moving.


So close, yet so far: we wait in traffic at the border crossing into Chile.

En route update 3: The border is uneventful. We got our Chilean passport stamps!


Our bus finally putters in to Arica’s bus terminal around 11 pm. It took us four hours to make what is normally an hour-long trip between the two cities, but that’s how borders work. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing where you hardly slow down, and sometimes it’s vehicular molasses. We grab our stuff and tackle our two problems: finding a place to stay and getting Chilean pesos to pay for that place. Stoytcho asks around for the nearest accommodations and someone points us down one of the streets. No one seems to know about an ATM though, so we’re stuck until I notice a gas station. ATM? Yes.

With money in pocket, we hunt around for a hotel with an available room. The first two we try are full, but the third one is empty and we manage to negotiate a room down to around $30 USD. It’s way more than we’re used to paying, but at least it’s better for our budget than the $40 the owner wanted originally.

We schlep our stuff upstairs to a clean but shabby room covered in tile, and we’re immediately greeted by a bizarre artifact of globalization. The beds here are equipped with pillowcases from China. How do I know? Well, the fabric depicts all of China’s different ethnic minorities joyously waving what appears to be Mao’s Little Red Book. There are a lot of questions here, from why someone would make these pillowcases in the first place to how they managed to wind up in Arica, Chile. But I can’t answer any of them. All I know is that we’re sleeping face-first in Maoist Communism tonight.

There’s a party in my bed: the People’s Party. Globalization can have some very strange side effects, like this very Chinese Communism-themed pillowcases showing up in Arica, Chile.



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