When we found ourselves stranded in Chile’s northernmost city for 24 hours, we weren’t sure how we’d pass the time. As we exited the bus station, we were met with a less-than-pretty sight. Windowless, barred hostels lined the opposing street, and the potholes in the sidewalk were dangerously deep. But we knew we were in a seaside destination – we had seen the beach and high-rise hotels from the bus as we came in – so we set off for the center of town on foot, racing against the setting sun.
It wasn’t easy to find a place to stay on a Sunday evening without a reservation, but we were grateful when we did. The next day, with many hours to kill before our overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama, we stored our luggage at our hostel and headed to Paseo 21 de Mayo, Arica’s walking street. For about eight blocks, we passed clothing stores, banks, pharmacies, restaurants, ice-cream shops, and street vendors selling everything from sweet treats to handmade jewelry. The street lacked the local cultural identity we had hoped for in our first Chilean city, but the pace was pleasantly slow and the vibe was laid back.
Exhausted from the previous day’s travel mishaps, we began to search for a coffee shop where we could get our fix of caffeine and wifi. That’s exactly what we found at Kawri Cafe, just one block from the beach. With its hip atmosphere, comfortable seating and friendly service, it was exactly what we needed to recharge – quite literally – before our impending bus ride. We stayed there for hours, sipping strong Colombian coffee, nibbling on ham-and-cheese sandwiches, and watching the trendiest locals come and go.
As it turns out, had we not been feeling so lazy, there were a handful of sights we could have visited during those hours. Here are four things you can do on a whim in Arica, in case you unexpectedly find yourself there like we did.
Get a view of the city – and its past. From anywhere in Arica, you can look up and see El Morro de Arica, a dramatic, rocky summit located on the Pacific Ocean. From the top, all of Arica and its coastline are visible. At the base of the morro is a small square with monuments and a weapons museum reminiscent of the Pacific War, which took place between Chile, Peru and Bolivia in the late 1800s.
Walk to an island. Opposite the morro is the former Alacran Island, which Chilean authorities united with the mainland in 1964. They also built a lighthouse there to guide ships at night. Legend has it that fisherman used to visit the island in search of treasure hidden by pirates – but all they found were hooks and harpoons belonging to the region’s first inhabitants, and scorpions (hence the name alacran, which means “scorpion” in Spanish).
Wander through caves. Just over 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Arica’s historic center are the Cuevas de Anzota, ancient natural caves formed by erosion and coastal winds. Once a large guano deposit, the location is the home of the Chinchorro culture, a group of fishermen that inhabited the coast of the Atacama desert from 7,000 to 1,500 BC. Mummy remains have even been found there.
Hit the beach. Two beautiful beaches – El Laucho and La Lisera – are located just a couple of miles (about 3.5 kilometers) from downtown Arica. Fine sand, clear water, energetic beach bars, and water activities like surfing, scuba diving and fishing make El Laucho popular with tourists looking to make the most of the summer months. La Lisera, on the other hand, is popular with joggers, hikers and cyclists during the morning hours, and families in the afternoon, who set up shade and relax there for hours on end.