We arrived in the hot and dusty terminal at Arica and retrieved our bags from the taxi with some relief. The journey across the border had not been the smoothest we’d had yet.
The trip down from Arequipa had been split into two distinct parts; the first was a six hour bus journey from Arequipa to Tacna, a rough-sounding town on the Peruvian side of the border which no-one on the internet had anything good to say about, but which came with plenty of warnings about scams and muggings. Because of this, we’d elected to continue immediately on over the border to Arica using a type of shared taxi called a “collectivo”.
Our research had led us to believe that collectivos would be the simplest way of crossing the border, as the drivers could shepherd their handful of passengers through customs with a minimum of fuss meaning that the whole trip would take roughly an hour and a half door-to-door. Buses, while cheaper, had more passengers to manage and were therefore more likely to run into problems.
We arrived in the bus terminal at Tacna and were immediately hailed by a stocky Peruvian man in his 50s, whose dark, curly hair was starting to turn grey at the temples.
“Arica? Collectivo?” he asked us. Bingo, I thought, this’ll be easier than we’d imagined.
“Si, Arica,” I replied, “how much?”
Done – this was pretty much what we’d expected. We followed him outside and he went to speak with some drivers, eventually handing us on to a larger gentlemen who guided us to a restaurant next to the terminal to fill out our visas for the crossing.
As we were filling out the forms, the driver disappeared and returned a few moments later asking for money to cover the visa charges. We’d already read that this was a scam, but I was feeling a little intimidated by the situation and as Katie and I began to discuss what we should do the taxi driver began to hurry us.
Then he dropped his price. This should have been the point at which we said no and left but we had no idea whether there were any other drivers who were not affiliated with this scam, where they would be if there were, and (perhaps most importantly) this guy was quite large and very insistent. I decided that even if it was a scam, this would still be a reasonable price to pay to get over the border in one piece and unhappily handed over the extra money.
As soon as he had the money, we were lead out of the restaurant, past the terminal building we had arrived at and across the road to a second terminal we hadn’t known existed. In here we were instructed to sit down for a few moments and the driver disappeared. In front of us were several small, but official, stalls with “collectivo-Arica-Tacna” written on the front. I started to feel a bit stupid and wasn’t sure we would see our driver again.
Despite my fears, he not only returned, but gave us 20 Soles back. Eh??
“For your seats,” he explained as he pushed us through some turnstiles.
When we got through we saw two buses headed for Arica. This was not what we’d paid for. The visa forms we’d “paid for” had vanished and, I noticed when we turned around, so had our “driver”.
I was livid. We headed back through the turnstiles and I dropped Katie off with the bags and headed back to the first terminal to find either the driver or the grey haired old ^£$*%*£ who’d lured us in originally but, fortunately, found neither.
Feeling humiliated and frustrated at falling victim to a scam I had known existed before it even happened, I took some cash out of the machine and headed back to buy a genuine collectivo across the border.
Second time round we got it right. We were bundled together with two French girls, one of whom had been living in Lima for several months, and a local Peruvian girl who appeared to speak no English, and before long were headed for the border.
At the Peruvian side of the border control, we handed over our passports and visas and carried on through, but one of the French girls had lost her visa. This led to a delay of an extra ten minutes or so which had been no major problem for us, but caused a brief shouting match between the driver and the girl.
When we got out again a few minutes later to complete the Chilean entry forms she explained that the driver had told her we were in a hurry and she was causing problems. We agreed that there were no problems from our point of view and kept our heads down for the rest of the journey.
Half an hour after crossing the border, we reached Arica and collected our bags before heading for the hostel on foot. On our way, we were hailed by a gentlemen who asked where we were from and where we were going. Fresh from our border experiences we were a little reticent to offer too much information at first, but when he accurately guessed the name of our hostel and offered to show the way we warmed up a little.
As we walked he told us about his kids and his stall in the market across the road from where we were staying, and before we knew it we we were at the hostel. We said goodbye and headed into our new home where we were greeted with cake and juice and shown to our room – another basic double bed with shared bathroom and a big gap over the door which effectively meant no privacy either. A far cry from the five star hotel in Arequipa we’d left that morning…
That evening we decided to ignore the tsunami warning which had been received as a result of an earthquake in Costa Rica and headed for the sea-front for dinner. The wind coming in from the Pacific was cool and clouds overhead had intervened successfully in the sun’s last ditch attempt to provide warmth before nightfall. We ate quickly and returned to higher ground and an early bed.
The next day was spent mainly planning our various onward journeys. The original plan had been to spend nearly ten days in San Pedro de Atacama before heading down to La Serena before meeting Katie’s parents in Santiago, but we hit a couple of snags: first we discovered that the cost of staying in San Pedro was prohibitively expensive, and then we ran into trouble finding transport and accommodation pretty much everywhere else!
It turns out that the 18th of September is a national holiday in Chile – the Fiestas Patrias (“Patriotic Holidays”) officially celebrate Chilean Independence on the 18th and the “Day of the Glories of the Army” on the 19th. Unofficially however, the festival lasts up to week and is the second biggest holiday of the year after Christmas, with many workers taking the week off and travelling around the country to spend it with friends and family. All of which is very nice, unless you’re trying to get round the country on limited transport or find accommodation at the last minute!
After two days frantic searching and panicked planning, we’d totally revised our plans, choosing to spend just two nights in San Pedro, three nights in La Serena before then heading south to Pucon in Chile’s Lake District, about 12 hours south of Santiago, for five days. So much for forward planning!