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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

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

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Lima to Cuzco by Bus: A Great Decision

Confession: we were completely freaked out by the thought of taking a bus through the mountains of South America. Will even cited it as his greatest fear on our journey. I binged on negative TripAdvisor reviews and created contingency plans in my head if we were robbed or in an accident. When buses crash in Peru, they sometimes fall more than 1000 feet.  But we wanted to see the Andes, and we didn’t want to pay the high cost of flying. So we took the bus. In hindsight, we are so happy we decided to travel this way because, not only were we safe the entire time, we got to see the countryside of Peru and some awe inspiring scenery.

When you hear “traveling South America by bus” you usually think of a rickety bus with the luggage strapped to the roof. While that is definitely still an option, South America also has some beautiful buses with big leather seats, on demand movies, and meal service. Given the treacherous nature of the Lima to Cuzco route (there was a US travel advisory about this route in 2013), we decided to take one of these very safe, more comfortable companies that tracks their buses by radar and has two drivers who take shifts. While more expensive, it was still about a third of the price of flying (if you count the hotel room we didn’t need to book.)

We arrived at the Cruz Del Sur bus station in Lima at 4:45pm for our 5:30pm bus. In Lima, each bus company has its own station, so you must go to the right one. We checked our bags at the central desk and waited in the cafeteria for boarding to begin.

Boarding was quick and easy – they checked our passports and inspected our carry-on bags. The whole bus was loaded in about 15 minutes. Heading out of Lima, it got dark very fast. We unfortunately didn’t have much to look at as we departed. This is what our seats looked like:

Cruz Del Sur bus Seat Lima to Cusco by bus

Everything was smooth sailing down the Pan-American highway. We settled into our leather recliners and each watched a different movie on our entertainment screens. After about 4 hours we tried to go to sleep. That was around the same time the road turned into an amusement park ride. Back and forth, up and down mountains. Just when we thought we’d hit a stretch of straight road, the bus would turn again. I’m not sure when I dozed off.

I do know I woke up at 6:30am high up in the mountains with a terrible case of altitude sickness. Will stumbled to the bathroom as the bus followed the swerving road. “I just almost threw up.” He reported. I ate one of the rolls we brought from Lima and started my regimen of Pepto Bismol tablets and Advil. This is also when we noticed the breathtaking scenery – the reason we took the bus. We wanted to see the Andes Mountains. Please note, most of these photos were taken through a dusty bus window, while in motion.

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Right after Abancay (a very small city), perched on the side of a hill, the bus came to a stop and the doors opened. Several people got off. Curious, Will and I stepped outside to find one of the two drivers feeding a stray dog out of his lunch container. Will asked him what was going on in Spanish. He replied, “It’s the middle of the day,” and gave an emphatic shrug. We saw that we were in a long line of stopped vehicles. Suddenly a boy selling soda and a cart selling oranges appeared, going from stopped vehicle to stopped vehicle. People from the vehicles in front of us were walking up and down the road, chatting, smiling, buying oranges. Will and I took some photos and chatted with a French couple for about 30 minutes until the driver called, “Amigos!” and motioned for us to get back on board.  The title photo shows the view from the road.

Lima to Cusco by bus pictures

We arrived in Cuzco around 4:30pm. After picking up our luggage from the check desk, we hopped in a cab with a couple from Italy and were at our hostel in 10 minutes.

The truth is: there are some risks associated with bus travel in Peru, but many of those same things (motor vehicle accident, robbery) can happen when you are living your life at home. The route from Lima to Cuzco is extremely winding, and you feel it even on a good bus.  But if you can handle sitting in a recliner and watching movies for 20+ hours, you can handle this bus.  The payoff is seeing all of Peru, and hours of priceless views!

Cheers,

Elizabeth

P.S. Prior to this trip, I searched all over the internet for information about bus travel from Lima to Cuzco.  I hope this is helpful to others!  Feel free to reach out with questions.