Crossing the Atacama Desert

May 2, 2017

​One of only two international rail journeys in South America, this short 75 minute crossing takes you from Arica, in northern Chile to Tacna, in southern Peru in relative comfort and ease. Beginning in Arica, the railway hugs the Pacific coastline before venturing deeper into the Atacama Desert, one of the driest regions in the World. With immigration checks carried out at both Tacna and Arica stations, the train doesn't slow down when crossing the border meaning that you won't even realise that you've left one country and arrived in another.



How to  get to Arica and Tacna?


​The closest touristic city to Tacna (Peru) is Arequipa which is 6 hours away by bus. Buses travel between the two cities numerous times per day and Peruvian Airlines also offers a daily flight. Arica can be reached from many Chilean cities further south, but also from La Paz (Bolivia). Buses from La Paz take approximately 10 hours and depart early morning (5-7 am) or early afternoon (1-2 pm). 


How often do the trains run?


From Arica the train departs at 10 am and 8.30 pm (Local time). From Tacna the train departs at 6 am and 4.30 pm (local time). The journey in either direction takes 1 hour 15 minutes. The local time in Chile is two hours ahead of Peru, meaning that on a journey from Chile to Peru you go 'back in time'. (e.g. The morning train departs Arica at 10 am but actually arrives Tacna at 9.15 am).


How much does it cost?


$3200 Chilean Pesos (Arica to Tacna) and S/ 15 Peruvian Soles (Tacna to Arica). Both fares are approximately 5 US$. 


Left: Tacna station ticket office and departure board

Right: Arica station ticket office and departure board


What is the journey like?


Ok, so this train will never appear in any book that's about scenic rail journeys, but for border crossing ease, this journey certainly ticks that box. I arrived Arica bus station from La Paz at around 4.30 pm, and after checking in at Sunny Days Hostel, I walked to Arica train station to buy my ticket for the following day. Arica actually has two railway stations - and the tracks run parallel to each other for some time - however the old Arica to La Paz station is now disused. The two railways never join together as the track gauge is different. 


The Arica-Tacna railway station's ticket office is open for most of the day and has all the information you need fixed to the wall on either side of the ticket window. I bought my ticket easily with zero Spanish skills but I did need my passport as the ticket office clerk writes your full name, passport number etc. on your train ticket - I think he also added some details on his computer. After paying I was handed a Peruvian immigration and customs declaration form and was told to bring these completed with me in the morning and to also arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time of 10 am. 


Passport, immigration documents and the train ticket


Passport control at Tacna station (Peru)


Passport control at Arica station (Chile)



The following morning I arrived at the station at 9.30 am and proceeded straight through a security and customs area. The process was very efficient but expect to have your bags searched. The search took no time at all thanks to the small amount of people using the train as a means of crossing into Peru. On the platform, a small window along the red wasll was the passport control office and I was swiftly stamped out of Chile with no questions asked. I very much doubt the road border crossing would've been so easy. 



The train was about half full. At a few minutes to 10, the driver shouted "Vamos" and without any further hesitations the driver and conductor jumped onto the train and off we went. The train at first follows the Pacific Ocean coastline but soon curves away into the Atacama Desert. The Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar region in the World, stretching 1000 kilometers along the Pacific coastline west of the Andes mountain range. The area is described as being mainly composed of 'stony terrain' and I can first hand say that all I saw was rocks and sand for the 1 hour it took to reach the first roads of Tacna. The distance between Arica and Tacna was 62 kilometers. 



Once in Tacna, the railway tracks go straight down the road, creating at times precarious situations where the train is travelling in the wrong direction on that particular side of the road. The journey ends at Tacna railway station, also the home of the Arica-Tacna railway museum. The train emptied out and we were all ushered into a room with a wooden paneled sliding door closed behind us. This was to ensure that everyone passed through Peruvian immigration and customs. This process took longer than the exit process at Arica, but I felt it was more down to everyone entering at exactly the same time. 


The journey took 1 hour 15 minutes from station to station, plus the 30 minutes check in time allowance at Arica and about 20 minutes to clear immigration and customs at Tacna. Overall, this must have been quicker than the equivalent bus journey, and if not quicker, at least more relaxed. 


Suggested Links


No known websites and I found very little information online before arriving in Arica.


Photo Journal



The driving cab - inside its old, outside the train looks new


The comfortable passenger compartment




Tacna station


Atacama Desert


Atacama Desert


Arriving Arica station from Tacna


Arica station






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