Borders and Buses: How We Got from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama

Borders and Buses: How We Got from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama

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We knew we had to stop in San Pedro de Atacama on our way down the west coast of South America. San Pedro sits on one of two super volcanos in the world (the other is Yellowstone), and in the world’s driest desert. As such, the landscape includes breathtaking, varied formations of volcanic rock that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. The problem is that it is not completely straightforward to get from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama. In this post, I will tell you how we did it, and how it went. Hopefully it will serve to both entertain and inform – because San Pedro de Atacama is definitely worth a visit!

Here is the quick overview:

  • Bus from Arequipa to Tacna, Peru
  • Collectivo from Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile (border crossing)
  • 2 nights in Arica
  • Night bus from Arica, Chile to San Pedro de Atacama (stop in Calama)
  • Arrival in San Pedro de Atacama

Bus from Arequipa, Peru to Tacna, Peru

Try as we might, we could not find a bus schedule for Arequipa to Tacna, Peru. Based on internet research, you would think buses didn’t run between these two cities. Our hostel staff assured us that these buses left on the hour, so we headed to the bus station to find out the schedule.

True enough – Flores had buses leaving every hour for Tacna. We got there early to get on the 6:45am, and they let us hop on the 5:45am because it hadn’t pulled out yet. The bus was incredibly cheap – 20 soles (about $6), and boasted broken seatbelts, filthy seats, and a bathroom I shall not speak of. The ride was 6.5 hours long, including a stop where we all got off and had our bags squeezed by men in uniform. The signs at the checkpoint all said “fruitfly free zone” and pictured a variety of melons. I can only assume that’s what they were squeezing for.

Border Crossing (Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile)

Once in Tacna, we had two choices: get on a bus crossing the border (which means you wait for everyone on the bus to pass customs) or find a collectivo driver (a shared taxi, usually taking 5 people across the border.) At this point, I was coming down with a pretty bad cold, so I sat with our belongings and popped newly acquired Halls Watermelon while Will went out in pursuit of a collectivo.

About 20 minutes later, Will came back. “Okay, he’s outside. I think you’re sitting in back with two women and a child.” I indeed was not sitting in back with said group, but rather on the bench seat of the Ford sedan between the driver and Will. As we drove the 30 minutes to the border, the four adults passed around a clipboard with paperwork on it. The collectivo driver was very helpful with questions.

Somethings to note:

  • Collectivos post their rates on the windshield. They should not charge you more than that. There are no other fees, so don’t agree to pay any.
  • They take Peruvian Soles or Chilean Pesos.

First, we had to exit Peru, which involved having our passports stamped again. While this was happening, some other collectivo drivers pointed out that there was liquid coming out of the Ford. Our driver became very stressed out, running back and forth between the car and our group.

After exiting, we drove across the parking lot to enter Chile. Customs scanned our bags. At this point, our driver seemed to have either solved the problem with the car or resigned himself to it. Either way, he appeared calmer by the time we were headed for the Arica bus station (about 15 minutes away.)

Border Crossing Chile

Arica

No one really goes to Arica for Arica (except maybe the Tulane girls we met who are studying abroad there.) Arica is this little beach city where people going south from Peru to Chile pass by people going north from Chile to Peru. It is a crossroads of sorts, and if you ask questions of your hostel-mates you can get a glimpse of where you are about to go.

I was pretty sick at this point – so we decided to stay two nights instead of one at the very comfortable Hostel Sunny Days. It was three blocks from the bus station and across the street from a vegetable market and a school.  No bunkbeds, hot showers, a huge kitchen, good company. The perfect place to recover.

Bus from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama

The only way to get from Arica to San Pedro is via night bus. There are no day buses that travel this route. You can buy a ticket from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama, but these tickets are a combination of two tickets: one from Arica to Calama and one from Calama to San Pedro. We were hoping we would not have to switch buses in Calama, but no such luck.

We took Frontera del Norte, but Pullman and Turbus also travel this route, among others. Somethings to note:

  • The attendant will take your passport and will not give it back until you are arriving in Calama. It’s okay. He will give it back. Every passenger has to hand over some form of ID.
  • Don’t count on sleeping through the movie. They started it at 10pm after we were on our way. The sound was blasted throughout the cabin. We got to watch Pound of Flesh, which is a Jean Claude Van Damme movie in which his kidney is stolen the day before he’s supposed to donate it to his niece. He tracks down the thieves to get the kidney back. Luckily(?) they left it on in English with Spanish subtitles.
  • There is a middle of the night security stop (it happened for us at 3:30am) where they make everyone get off the bus, pick up their luggage from the cargo hold, and pass through what is basically a TSA check point. You then have to drag your luggage to another location and wait for the bus to come get you. You bring your luggage back to the cargo hold and get back on the bus. The whole thing takes about an hour.
  • Calama bus stops are notorious for theft. We were warned by Hostel Sunny Days that there are many tricks thieves play in Calama, including dressing as a bus attendant so they can get at your bags. While we were stopped in Calama, waiting for our connecting bus to San Pedro, one of the passengers had his bag stolen from inside the bus. He had left it there to go pick up his larger bag and when he got back it was gone. Always be careful on buses and at bus stations and never leave your things, but be especially careful in Calama.

San Pedro Rainbow Valley 1

Arriving in San Pedro

And finally, we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. The entire week we were there, I think I saw one taxi. The bus station is not far from most of the hostels, so you can plan to walk. The people of San Pedro are notoriously friendly. We were stopped by no less than three people asking if they could give us directions (and indeed, they were all helpful.)

And then we collapsed. Between the Jean Claude Van Damme, the check point, and Calama, we had about 2 hours of sleep. Luckily the beds at Backpacker’s San Pedro were comfortable! Photo galleries of our amazing six days there coming soon.

Curious what to do when you arrive in San Pedro? Check out pics from our 4 day trips:

Ancient Petroglyphs and Rainbow Valley

Red Rocks and the High Lagoons

Cathedrals of Salt

Valley of the Moon

Elizabeth

Elizabeth

Elizabeth is a blogger, educator, and world traveler.She enjoys hiking, cooking, and learning about new people and places.When not on the road, Elizabeth is a Louisiana culture enthusiast.
Elizabeth

10 thoughts on “Borders and Buses: How We Got from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama

  1. Hi there, thanks for your awesome post! can i just check how long your entire border crossing took? Cause i am planning to go as well!

    1. Thanks, Lissa! We left Arequipa at 5:30am and arrived at our hostel in Arica at about 3pm. The bus from Arequipa to Tacna was 6.5 hours and the border crossing itself probably took 60-90 minutes. Have fun!

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. I am looking at the exact same route right now, and while it does not seem that straightforward, I am happy to read that it worked for you. Happy travels!

  3. Hi, thanks for your great post, it has given me a good idea of what to expect on this crossing. I was wondering if you could give some more info on how you guys managed to secure a place in a collectivo?

    1. Hi Charlotte,
      There was a group of drivers gathered outside the bus station. Will went up to them and said “collectivo, Arica?” Will is good with Spanish and was able to talk with them about price – we had to wait for the car to be full (it was the two of us, two women and a child). If you are not good with Spanish, I recommend having some phrases ready to ask about price and wait time. Hope this helps!

  4. Thank you for such a helpful post! I am a bit scared of the Calama bus station after reading your post, but I think Tur Bus skips Calama right?

  5. Awesome post! My wife and I live and Lima and this post was a HUGE help toward planning our next trip. Very witty also! You had my wife in stitches! You rock.

  6. Super post guys, really helpful. I’m doing the exact route in a few days. Want to do it quickly to get to San Pedro to meet friends so I’m hoping to get from Arequipa to Tacna in the morning, then a collectivo to Arica, and overnight bus to San Pedro all in the same day. Here goes! Thanks a mill, Anita.

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