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Arica is a major port in the extreme north of the country. Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, it has a pleasant climate year-round. This is the last city travelers will visit in Chile, before moving on to Peru or Bolivia—or it may be the first, if they are journeying from those neighboring nations. Either way one is going, this vibrant yet laid-back city is a nice place to pass a few days, experiencing its multi-layered culture and learning about its complex history.


This desert coast draped with green ribbons of river valleys has been inhabited for over 11,000 years. The first peoples here were the Chinchorro. They lived in fishing hamlets and developed primitive, yet elaborate methods to mummify their dearly departed. The Camanchacos were another early indigenous nation of the region. These initial settlers created tremendous geoglyphs, or earthen drawings across the landscape’s hills. A prime place to see these reminders of the ancients is the Valle de Azapa, where geoglyphs bedeck the road leading to the Museo de San Miguel de Azapa housing mummies, pottery and weavings. From the fourth to the ninth century of the present era, Arica was dominated by the Tiwanaku Empire, then by regional lords until the Inca conquest in 1473. The Spaniards arrived in 1536. They called this area of small fishing villages Arica. In Aymara it means, “New Door,” which some historical linguists say may be interpreted as “a narrow access (door) to the altiplano,” recognizing the role of this natural harbor in pre-Columbian commerce. The white invaders quickly appropriated it for their own means. Lucas Martínez Vegaso founded San Marcos de Arica on April 25, 1541. It soon became the principal port for the shipment of Potosí’s silver to the coffers of the Spanish crown—and thus, a favorite target for pirates Sir Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish, Richard Hawkins, Joris van Spilbergen and William Daumpier, among others. Beneath the city, major churches and treasure storehouses were connected by tunnels.


With Latin America’s independence from Spain, Arica came under the jurisdiction of Peru. An 8.5 earthquake and the seven to ten meter (23-39 foot) tsunami that followed destroyed most of the city in 1868. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel was contracted to design some of the new buildings, including the Customs House and the Municipalidad. His cathedral successfully survived the 1877 tidal wave, which reached a height of 14 meters (45 feet).


Arica was damaged by wars as well. In the struggle to control nitrate and other reserves, Chile invaded Bolivian and Peruvian territories in 1879, thus provoking the Guerra del Pacífico. Several decisive skirmishes were fought in Arica, including a naval battle and the taking of El Morro hill, a major defensive point of the port. All territory, then, as far north as Tacna, reverted to Chile. A Peruvian army unsuccessfully attempted to regain control of the city in 1891. Later a plebiscite confirmed Arica’s desire to remain Chilean. The Peace and Friendship Pact of 1904 between Bolivia and Chile allowed the landlocked Andean nation to have access to the Arica seaport. The Arica-La Paz railroad began operations in 1913. It yet serves as Bolivia’s main export harbor. Since October 8, 2007, Arica has been the capital of Chile’s new Region XV, or Región de Arica y Parinacota.


This complex history led to the ethnic mix Arica is today. Not only the altiplano indigenous is strongly present, but descendents of African slaves on olive plantations in the Azapa valley and later, after Independence from Spain, migrations of these people from the Chincha and Ica region of now-Southern Peru. Holiday celebrations in Arica are painted with the Afro-Peruvian and Aymara dances and music alongside the Chilean cueca. The cuisine, as well, takes on these multi-national flavors.


The city and its region claim several world records: the shortest railroad (the Arica-Tacna line), the oldest mummies, the highest non-navigable lake (Chungará), the railroad at the highest altitude (the Arica-La Paz line) and the place where the past has left its greatest imprint. It is fascinating to explore the hidden corners of Arica, from the geoglyphs of the Azapa and Lluta Valleys to the heights of El Morro to the architecture of Eiffel to the railroads, tracing this city’s past accomplishments and savoring its present being. Arica has many fine beaches to soak up the sun, and some of the most challenging surfing waves in the world. Bird watching is excellent all along the coast, especially at the mouth of the Río Lluta and at Caleta de Camarones, which Humboldt Penguins call home.



(Altitude: 38 meters / 124 feet, Population: 186,000, Phone Code: 58)



Other places nearby Arica: Taltal, Huara, Iquique, Putre, Antofagasta, Toconao, Calama, Tocopilla, Pisagua and Mejillones.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

18 Oct 2008

Things to do in Arica

El Morro de Arica and Museo HistĂłrico y de Armas

125715At the south edge of downtown Arica rises a thick cliff, El Morro, this city’s landmark. Since the founding of this Spanish port, El Morro had always played a role in defense. Its most important ...
Arica, Chile

Museo del Mar

125716Arica’s Museo del Mar's glass cases house the more than a thousand varieties of caracoles don Nicolás has spent 50 years gathering. It is said to be the largest such collection in ...
Arica, Chile

Walking Tour of Arica

125717The historical center of Arica is on Bolognesi, between San Marcos and 7 de Junio, near the base of El Morro.This area was destroyed by tidal waves in 1868 and 1877. Many of the buildings are from ...
City Walk
Arica, Chile

Northern Beaches and the Desembocadura de Lluta

125719To the north of Arica are several bathing and surfing beaches. The two-kilometer-long El Chinchorro is the best place to catch a wave or to take a dip. Along the waterfront boardwalk, families ...
Arica, Chile

Southern Beaches

125720Past Isla del Alacrán is chain of beaches draping the coast south of Arica. These have a much different character than the northern chain of beaches. Here, ancient lava flows to the sea, which ...
Arica, Chile

Surfing in Arica

125721Arica is high on the list of surfing hotspots, and one of the southernmost places to practice on South America’s Pacific Coast. The El Gringo and El Buey waves off Isla del Alacrán are ...
Arica, Chile

Poblado Artesanal

126163Poblado Artesanal is a living and working artisan village on the south side of Arica. Founded in 1979, this brainchild of José Raúl Naranjo Menenses has white-washed huts with straw roofs. ...
Arica, Chile

Isla del Alacrán

126164Isla de Alacrán, or Scorpion Island, was important to the peoples of the Arica area. Before the conquistadors came, indigenous nations knew it to be excellent fishing and guano. In the 17th and 18th ...
Arica, Chile

Bay Tours

126165Other attractions of Arica lie offshore, on the open waters of this city’s bay. Several companies leaving from the Muelle Pesquero offer boating tours. The more basic trips, which last an hour, ...
Other Activity
Arica, Chile
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