Crossing the Border by Rail from Arica, Chile to Tacna, Peru
Traveler’s notes (updated August 2019):
Trains from Arica to Tacna: Daily departures at 9:00 and 19:00
Arica ticket office hours: 8:00-12:00, 14:00-18:30
Phone number: +56976332896
Trains from Tacna to Arica: Daily departures at 8:30 and 17:30
Tacna ticket office hours: 8:00-17:30
Buy tickets in advance, check-in 40 minutes before departure
Chile and Peru are in different time zones, 1-2 hours apart*
*Chile observes Daylight Saving Time, Peru does not
Arriving with my 70-liter backpack on a Monday night, Beatriz sees me in the yard and kindly calls me over to the front entrance. Hostal Sunny Days is a highly-rated hostel in Arica, Chile, the country’s northernmost city on the Pacific coast. Beatriz checks me in, gives me a small snack and some water, and shows me to my room. I’ve been riding busses for a day and a half since leaving Santiago, with the simple trajectory of heading north towards Cusco. Tomorrow I’m planning to cross the border into Tacna, Peru, presumably by bus.
Upstairs at the hostel, I say “Hola” to the young woman in the communal kitchen, and then ask “¿De dónde eres?” She responds with a slightly confused look and says “English?”
Elizabeth tells me she’s been in Arica a few days, and tomorrow morning she’s taking a train across the border to Tacna.
After traveling for two months in South America, by plane, bus, and boat, this is the first time that rail has been an option.
The young Londoner summarizes the train details better than a travel guidebook: The Arica-to-Tacna train departs twice daily, at 10:00 AM and 4:15 PM; there were plenty of seats available when she bought her ticket earlier; the train company asks passengers to purchase tickets a day in advance; check-in is forty minutes before departure to allow time for passport control and customs.
Recent stand-by travel attempts on this trip have been surprisingly successful, so I decide to try to board the 10:00 AM train tomorrow morning.
After a quick breakfast and a shower, I ask Ross, Beatriz’s New Zealander husband, for directions to the train station. I quickly walk through the dense residential neighborhood with my heavy backpack, and then turn left to head southbound along the main road that runs parallel to the train tracks. A single, brightly-painted train car passes me; the combination engine and passenger coach looks more like a bus on rails. I’m pretty sure it’s the train arriving from Peru.
At 9:20 exactly, I arrive at the station. Standing in line at the ticket window, the station agent asks if I’m buying a ticket for tomorrow. I admit that I’m trying to get on the 10:00 train this morning, and he frustratedly tells me that passengers are supposed to buy tickets a day in advance. He comes from behind the window and snatches my passport, which is actually encouraging. He adds my name to the manifest and charges me 3,800 Chilean Pesos, or $5.75 US Dollars. I thank him for his help.
With ticket in hand, I meet Elizabeth on the platform before we’re directed through passport control. The bright red and yellow train car slowly zig-zags back and forth across the parallel tracks until it arrives next to the platform. We board along with a few dozen others, including several families with children. Elizabeth tells me we’re the only non-Chileans on the passenger list.
Once aboard the railcar, the few passengers with luggage find the small shelf in the back. The train departs on schedule at 10:00 for the one hour and fifteen minute journey
It’s a bumpy ride, and a loud one. When approaching rail crossings, the conductor activates a siren that sounds like a toy police car; he adds a few blares of the horn if there are any vehicles nearby. The ocean fades from view as we head north through the sandy desert. Looking out the back window, the tracks look as if they could be lost in the sand in a strong windstorm.
We soon pass the Chilean-Peruvian border, the vertical obelisk marker indicates the precise location. Once in Peru, we see several small farms near the tracks that seem to have more sand than soil. Some of the storage sheds alongside the farms are made of woven straw. We soon see orchards of trees, one of which has an active fire in the middle with a smoke plume. There are a lot of unanswered questions, but this isn’t exactly a guided tour.
Continuing north, the farms disappear. On the sandy ground we see grids of stones marking small, rectangular plots of land with no crops nor clear purpose. The stone grids are everywhere: in the flat lands, up on the hills; both near and far from the tracks. There are some small storage structures here and there, but no sign of people nor any activity. Maybe the crops are out of season, or maybe the owners are laying claims to land for future use.
The view from the train becomes more industrial, and roads begin to appear alongside the tracks. We see cinderblock structures that look like factory compounds. We pass a newly-built gated entrance with an indigenous-looking statue out in front, but it’s not clear what type of facility the entrance will be used for.
As we get closer to the city, some of the very basic looking vehicles on the road only have three wheels. The environment begins to look more urban, and we eventually arrive in Tacna. It’s amazing how different our surroundings look in southern Peru, only thirty-six miles to the north of Chile.
We exit the train at the small, almost empty station, and go through passport control. The woman asks how long I’m staying. I guestimate three weeks, and respond “Twenty-one days.” She pleasantly asks “No more than thirty days, correct?” I confirm, and she stamps my passport and writes in “60.” I appreciate the extra month, even though I won’t have a chance to use it.
A few feet away at customs, the agent asks if I have any food with me, I respond that I do not. She asks me to open my large backpack, and the first thing she sees is my frisbee.
“What is that?” she asks in Spanish.
“Es un frisbee.” I respond.
I pick up the plastic disc and gesture a few throws. She’s seen enough, and she tells me I’m okay to go.
Elizabeth isn’t so lucky. She bought a bottle of pisco in Chile for her parents, but Peruvian intellectual property law states that any alcohol labeled “pisco,” by definition, can only be from Peru. I step in to help translate, and I do my best to negotiate the bottle through, but it’s not happening. These agents treat the Chilean pisco as contraband and confiscate it. They almost seem regretful taking it, but it’s their job to enforce the law.
We quickly walk a mile to the bus station, buy tickets, and board a 10:00 AM bus heading north to Arequipa. Peru's timezone is two hours behind Chile’s, making possible our second 10:00 AM northbound departure in the same day.
Back to traveling by bus, I look at the two new stamps in my passport, both of which contain the old-fashioned Spanish term for railway, “Ferrocarril.”