Arica: Chillin’ in Chile

The Border Incident

I took a bus from Arequipa to Tacna, a pueblo on the Peruvian side of the Peru-Chile border. We arrived around 3 am.  Collectivo taxi drivers sell trips across the border. I was solicited the second I exited the bus terminal. I asked how much and the guy replied “30 soles.” I agreed.

We walked two blocks to his early-80s model Chevy Caprice and I put my suitcase in the trunk. The driver returned to the terminal to find more passengers. I noticed a small sign on the windshield advertising “Tarifa” for 20 soles or 4000 Chilean pesos.

The driver returned with two women. After he went back to the terminal to find one more passenger, I asked how much they were paying. 15 soles each.

I found the guy and asked him when we were leaving. Right now, he replied. I told him I’ll pay 20. He agreed. An hour later he found a fourth passenger and we left the terminal.

We arrived at the border before 5 am. It was closed. The driver shut off the engine, pulled his hat over his eyes and went to sleep. I watched the sun come up. The terrain was nothing but sand and dirt. Nothing green as far as the eye could see. Mountains to the East. The Pacific Ocean was out of sight somewhere to the West.

The driver woke up around 6:30. He asked for our passports and went to work with Chilean paperwork. He realized I didn’t give him my Peruvian tourism card. When entering Peru they give you a card with the date you entered and the day you have to leave. But these dates are on the passport, so I can’t think of any real purpose this card serves except to charge foreigners who lose it the lost card fee. I’ve lost mine and paid before. I still had mine, but forgot to bring it on this quick excursion across the border.

I told the driver I don’t have it but it’s not a big deal. They charge $10 or so and I’ll pay it.

Our car was 5th out of 15 – 20, but when the office opened everybody pours in and finds a parking spot. Then they literally run into the office to clear Peruvian authorities. It’s a race to get through customs, I assume so the taxi drivers can be the first to fill their taxis with return trips to Peru.

So we’re all running as a group and we stop at the first desk. The driver tells me to give him the money. I made a big mistake here, partly due to lack of sleep and partly due to not having run this drill before. All I had was a 100 soles bill. I gave it to him.

When we got to the Peruvian customs agent, he quickly ran through each passenger’s documents, stamping each one. When he got to mine, he noticed the lack of tourism card and looked up at the taxi driver. The driver’s hand inconspicuously shot across the desk and met the agent’s hand. The agent nodded and stamped my passport.

We finished the process and ran outside, where the taxi driver met us with the car. While driving to the Chilean checkpoint, I asked the driver for my change. He made a stupid face. I already knew what had happened. He bribed the customs agent my 100 soles (or maybe a smaller bill of his if he really got one over). However it went down, he bribed the agent not to charge me the fee I was willing to pay. I paid 100 soles to avoid a 30 soles fee.

I started my Chile trip angry.

Chile, Pinochet, and the Chicago Boys

I took a taxi from the Arica bus station to the Plaza de Armas and immediately noticed how economically developed Chile is compared to Peru.  It’s been an economic gem in Latin America since the 80s.

Former President and General Augusto Pinochet was guilty of various human rights crimes, but he was responsible for one inarguably positive reform in Chile: free-market economics. After taking power via a bloody coup, Pinochet designated as his Ministry of Economics a group of Chilean students (the Chicago Boys) who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. This team implemented various free-market initiatives that resulted in the Miracle of Chile.

That difference is evident as soon as you cross the border. Arica is a city of roughly 300,000 – less than half the size of Arequipa. There are both a McDonald’s and Blockbuster Video, neither of which exist in Arequipa. I didn’t know people rent legitimate copies in Latin America. There are high-end restaurants, where fries come with a burger. The servers put branded ketchup and mustard bottles on the table. There were fine boutiques.

Western opinion of Pinochet is generally negative. In the US and Europe, dictator are “bad guys.” In Chile I found he enjoys a mixed legacy. New friend Sonia explained the country’s divided in half. According to another guy, Diego, Pinochet was a horrible leader. At the museum on top of El Morro, there are dedications to Pinochet. Chile is proud of their military, which has thumped every neighbor it’s gone to war with (including Peru a few times).


I was never eager to see Chile because of what I’d heard. Chile and Argentina have more of a European influence, less Latin character. I heard they were pretentious but found the opposite to be true (in Arica anyway).

I was having a few beers my first night on a patio in the central commercial district. At a table next to me sat two beautiful girls with two young men. They invited me to join them. Sonia, Niko, Patricio, and Pablo were very friendly. We drank until late. They were students at the local university. We met the next day for lunch on their campus and they showed me around. After lunch Pablo had to split but Sonia, Niko, and Patricio accompanied me to the top of El Morro, the mountain overlooking Arica.

One thing strange about this group – I assumed they were two couples. But by the end of the second day, I learned that each one of these four friends had a significant other, but nobody was each other’s significant other. Their significant others weren’t part of the group.

My last night I met a group of three guys drinking. They were already pretty boozed up and couldn’t keep up. They were in a blues band together and I insisted they check out Junior Kimbrough, RL Burnside, and T Model Ford.  Diego emailed me recently that he loved Junior Kimbrough.


La Represión y Daniel Menco

On the Universidad Tarapacá de Arica campus I took pictures of the murals decorating various buildings. Most were statements against La Represión, or the supression of the student voice by police. Sonia protested that she didn’t agree with the message. She feels there’s no such repression. I told Sonia it doesn’t really matter if I agree with the cause to appreciate the art.

In May 1999 UTA students organized a protest which turned violent. In their efforts to gain control, the Chilean police killed 23 year-old student Daniel Menco. His image was in some murals. Below is a video dedication to Menco.


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  1. That Tacna/Arica run is kind of crazy isn’t it? I had to do that sola w/my youngest daughter, then 2 years old at the time. I didn’t have the proper permission to leave only a U.S. notarized letter from my husband, but I played stupid and got through anyway.

    The Peruvian taxi driver was initially pissy with me for not having the proper permiso, but he sure as hell was grateful when our group was expressed through the Chilean side b/c : A.) I was traveling sola w/my toddler and B.) The Chileans thought that I was perhaps Chilena.

    It is night and day and even though I probably shouldn’t say this, Peru could use a Pinochet if they want to be more developed like Chile. The Chileans used to call Pinochet “Tio.”

    I didn’t stick around Arica too much b/c I was there to pick up my visa (hence why I got through Peruvian customs.) I also wasn’t too impressed w/Arica, but that’s probably b/c I wasn’t there to visit.

    Chile was more notably expensive and my (private) Peruvian taxi driver told me on the way back to Tacna that the further you go down in Chile the more expensive the country is…So Arica is technically a bargain.

    I did my trip in one day from Arequipa. The bus back to Arequipa is pretty nice since it’s half empty if you go back around noon.


  2. Pinochet was tried for crimes against humanity. He TORTURED people. I wouldn’t wish a leader like him on my worst enemy. Love your blog by the way 🙂


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