The coastal oasis city of Arica lies 1,300 miles north of Santiago—a mere 14 miles south of the Peruvian border. Arica was part of Peru until June 1880, when Chilean forces overtook the city in one of the key battles of the five-year War of the Pacific. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Arica was the primary export point for precious metals mined at Potosi.
Today, Arica is a port of call for beachgoers and travelers headed to the high desert plateau. A good place for an initial overview of the town is El Morro, the 430-foot hill rising above the city's shoreline. A devastating 1868 earthquake destroyed most of Arica's public buildings, so much of the historic city center dates to the 1870s. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel engineered the cast-iron replacement cathedral, which was shipped in pieces from France in 1876.
Arica has a worldwide reputation for accessible surf. Four surf spots circle the manmade Alacrán Peninsula, in front of El Morro. Each May and June, bodyboarders and surfers from around the globe come to ride "El Gringo"—a barreling wave breaking left and right, with swells up to twelve feet. Miles of golden dunes line the coast north of town, with a variety of beachbreaks and reefbreaks. Surfing conditions are best from April to June and September to November.
East of the coast, the fertile Lluta and Azapa Valleys climb to dizzying altiplano heights. These valleys have been inhabited for millennia; the oldest artifacts date back more than 9,000 years. Ancient geoglyphs, obelisks, and fortresses are easily visited from Arica. Pucara de Copaquilla, a defensive structure near the town of Putre, was constructed in the 12th century. The San Miguel de Azapa Archeological Museum houses one of Chile's best Pre-Columbian collections: mummies, pottery, textiles, and tools from the Chinchorro, Tiwanaku, Inca, and Aymara cultures.
Lauca National Park, 100 miles northeast of Arica, protects 532 square miles of spectacular altiplano and mountain landscape. Scenic highlights include the clear blue Lake Chungara (14,760 FASL), archeological sites, lava flows, and six snowcapped peaks reaching above 19,700 feet. The Aymara village of Parinacota, in the park's north, is the site of a whitewashed 17th century church adorned with colorful, cautionary frescoes.
Las Vicuñas National Reserve, which borders Lauca on the south, is populated by more than 20,000 wild vicuña. Their domesticated cousins—llamas and alpacas—also graze here, herded by Aymara farmers. Contiguous to the reserve's southern limit is the Salar de Surire National Monument—a gleaming 43-square mile salt flat that supports three species of flamingos.
The climate of this region is famous for its sunny consistency; year round, days are warm and clear, nights cool. High temperatures rarely exceed 83ºF. Overnight lows approach 60ºF. Precipitation is rare, and humidity averages 73%. High season for beachgoers is December through February.
Chacalluta International Airport (ARI), eleven miles north of the Arica, receives non-stop flights from Santiago (two hours and 45 minutes) and Iquique (45 minutes).
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