This guide details the route and our personal experience of crossing the border between Tacna, Peru and Arica, Chile, as well as offering some tips for your own border crossing.
If you're making your way from Arequipa or Ica, then this is the route you'll be taking.
#1 all roads lead to tacna
Wherever your start point for this journey on the Peruvian side - from Ica (closest city to Huacachina) or Arequipa - you need to find your way to Tacna which is 15-hour overnight journey from Ica, or a much more manageable 6 hours from Arequipa.
If travelling from Ica, we would strongly recommend booking your bus south in advance - either from the bus station or on-line from busportal.pe. We didn't, and on arriving at the station were promptly informed that all night buses to Tacna were full.
So, plan B for us was a cheap overnight bus to Arequipa. This took 13 hours but cost only 60s./$20/£12, so, you know, silver linings!
If you're skipping the above stage and leaving the country from Arequipa, it's pretty simple.
There are many bus companies of varying degrees of luxury travelling to the border from Arequipa's Terminal Terrestre. As this is a relatively short journey time of 4.5 hours (after spending literally days on buses, this feels like a quick commute across London) you really don't need to stump up the extra cash for one of the fancier coaches. For 20s./$6.5/£4 we still got air-con and even a movie, but saved ourselves a little more cash.
Buses running from Arequipa to Tacna start pretty much at the crack of dawn, and leave at least every three hours throughout the day. We'd advise you turning up in the morning to buy a ticket for a departure between 8 a.m. and 10.30 a.m.
cost: 80s/$26.5/£16 per person | time: 18 hours*
*Note, travel time may be a few hours less if travelling direct from Ica to Tacna on a night bus. Also, our price of 80 soles is exceptionally cheap because we travelled on lower quality local buses; prices listed on busportal.pe for a direct bus from Ica-Tacna range from 100-150 soles. If you're taking a direct 15-hour overnight bus from Ica, the you might be happy to pay a little extra for a more comfortable journey.
#2 tacna terminal to the border
Tacna has two bus stations, the national and the international. You will arrive in the national one and can find the international station by exiting, turning left and crossing the road where you'll see the station on the left.
As Peru is much cheaper than Chile for a number of goods, lots of Chileans make a trip to Tacna to stock up on essentials like toilet paper and shampoo to clothes, cigarettes and alcohol. In the station, you'll see groups of women with their shopping and luggage sprawled all over the floor whilst they try to pack their tax-free quota. You may want to follow their lead and stock up on a few items from the various shops inside the station.
You have two options to make it to the border and onward to Arica.
The more expensive route is to take a collectivo taxi which charges 20s./$6.5/£4 per person. They leave when they have a full compliment of passengers and are the quickest option for crossing the border and onward travel to Arica.
The cheaper option, which we went for, is hopping on a bus for 12s./$4/£2.5. These leave every ten minutes and you can buy your ticket to Arica onboard (remember to pay your 'bus terminal tax' whilst inside the station as they collect this on the bus).
Unless it's getting late or you're in a huge rush, we'd recommend the bus.
The drivers will ask you at some point, usually before you board, to see your passport and the entry form you completed when you entered Peru (they collect every passenger's ID, not just foreigners). These will be handed back to you before you reach the border. They will also give you forms fill in on board so that you can exit Peru/enter Chile.
cost: 12s/$4/£2.5 per person | time: 30 minutes to border
#3 crossing the peru-chile border
If you've taken the bus option, your driver will tell you when to get off.
At the Peruvian side we simply hopped off the bus for a couple of minutes whilst we got our exit stamp before continuing onward, on the same bus, to Chilean immigration.
We joined the queue to get our stamps (90 day stay in Chile) and documentation processed, then grabbed our big rucksacks from the bus to take them to be scanned in a little room just behind the passport check.
Be aware that, for UK citizens and most countries, there are no entry or exits fees for either country. If you're from a country which is charged a reciprocity entry fee (i.e. USA, Spain, Mexico) , we have read that this may only be charged at airports and not at land borders, however we highly recommend you doing your research and understanding the process before you make this journey.
After all the formalities have been taken care of, your bus will pass through to the Chilean side of the border (everything's right next to each other so you will see it waiting after the bag security check) and pick everyone back up; it's only 20 minutes further to Arica's bus terminal.
Our crossing, which was during a busy time of day, took around 30 minutes from the time we stepped off the bus. It was safe, secure and nobody tried to scam us. Unlike some other border crossings in South America, there was nobody offering to exchange our money, so you'll need to find an ATM in Arica.
overview of border crossing from ica, peru to arica,chile
1 - Overnight bus from Ica-Arequipa | 60s./$20/£12 | 13 hours
2 - Bus from Arequipa-Tacna | 20s./$6.5/£4 | 5 hours
3 - Bus from Tacna-Arica, including border | cost: 12s/$4/£2.5 | 1.5 hours
total cost per person: 92s./$30.5/£18.5 | travel time: 19.5 hours