Saturday, 11 January 2014

Days 292 to 295: Arica and Iquique

Chile, it would seem, was in no hurry to greet us. Departing by bus from La Paz shortly after six in the morning, we were at the Bolivian-Chilean border within about four hours. Set in a national park, it is one of the prettier borders I've seen in my lifetime, although the astonishing queue of lorries didn't do much for the area's natural beauty. Days later, I expect some of these lorries are still patiently waiting, but fortunately our bus seemed allowed to overtake them all and in no-time we'd reached the checkpoint. The Bolivian side took less than 20 minutes to stamp our passports.

The Chilean side took around four hours.

Drug smuggling, according to the owner of our hostel in Arica, a genial Kiwi, appears to be at the root of it; indeed, everyone's bags went through scanners, albeit lackadaisically manned. Importing food, with whatever diseases the Bolivians might have concocted, also appears to be a concern. Everyone crossing into Chile has to sign forms saying that we're not taking in animal or plant products, with the threat of a heavy fine. Danielle got very anxious about this, and so insisted - to my deep regret - I bin our can of tuna, and a customs official also confirmed that a bag of boiled sweets had to go as well. After sitting on a stationary bus for hours, this was most dismaying. More dismaying was that, once finally in the passport control building, nobody seemed to give a damn about anything. I could have easily smuggled in my tuna and boiled sweets! They were simply very slow and inefficient. At least I don't drive lorries (the queue loops well beyond the hill).

Blame Chilean border control, therefore, for the lack of attention given to Arica. Well, that and a dual case of explosively-evacuating stomachs. We arrived in the small city - approximately the size of Aberdeen in terms of population but with a quieter feel - just as darkness was setting in, towards nine at night, many hours later than expected. Our evening exploration consisted of going to a shop and buying some wine, and finding a greasy takeaway for some easy food. The next morning, Danielle was feeling off-colour, so we restricted our daring adventures to a wander along the beach and then into the city centre. By the time we'd reached the centre, my stomach had also decided it wasn't in a compromising mood.

The main reason many people visit Arica is transit. It's Chile's northernmost significant town, and the first city visited from either Peru or La Paz. Some visit for the beach, which apparently offers good surfing, but otherwise it's not top of most people's holiday destination lists. With broad streets, big cars, and a hot and lazy feel, it gave the impression of being an anonymous town in the US. That's not to say it's a bad place: it's very pleasant. Just not hugely compelling. Transit was our chief reason for passing through, but I had another one: Eiffel. South America is turning out to be a minor tour of Gustave Eiffel projects, with Arequipa offering a staircase and La Paz offering a bus station. In Arica is a small church he built in 1875.

Although his tower is his signature attraction, Eiffel was more known for his bridges than anything else, so a church seems quite an unusual diversion. He didn't diverge from his material of choice however, and Arica's pretty little church is a quirky little number inside, with the ironwork clearly on display. Both Danielle and I give it a thumbs up on the Eiffelometer. So does the Virgin Mary.

Arica was hot, a dry desert heat. Dogs lay in the shade, dusty sand coated the streets, the sun never blinked. After our walk along the rather spartan beach, and a look at Eiffel's iron church, we made our way into Arica's pedestrianised main street and found a cafe. Here, the difference between Chile and either Peru or Bolivia was clear: Chile is visibly wealthier. While I wouldn't describe Arica's main street as charming, it is certainly clean and well-maintained. Peru and Bolivia had lots of people in traditional dress; Chile is very Western in style. Indeed, sitting in the cafe, eating food at Western prices, we could almost have been in an anonymous modern European town. Arica: an anonymous European town at heart, an anonymous US town in the broader area. I'm sure their tourist board could make something of this.

Arica's surroundings distinguish it from Europe though, with rocky desert stretching all around. If we'd been in better health, we'd have climbed El Morro for a view, and to visit the museum there. But we felt it more prudent to return to the safety of the hostel. By late afternoon we were on the bus to Iquique.

Four or five hours drive south, Iquique is around the same size as Arica but feels much bigger: a man compared to a boy. Tightly wedged between cliffs and the sea, signs abound alerting to the direction of tsunami safe zones. The cliffs tower so high above the city that it seems like only a helicopter could save you if a tsunami were to hit. In fact, it looks as though the water would bounce off the cliffs and back into the city. But some parts of the city indeed proudly announced themselves as safe zones: I wouldn't like to test the claim.

Stay away from Iquique during tsunamis therefore, but otherwise I would happily recommend it. It's the on-season for Chilean holidaymakers right now, and many of them were in Iquique. It's not difficult to see why. I may not like beaches, but Iquique's long and wide arcing beach was packed with people who aren't me. More to my taste was the eminently charming Baquedano, the pedestrianised street with wooden decking and a funny dog with wheels.

Baquedano had lots of colonial-style buildings, a vintage wooden tram, and led from the beachfront to the pleasant central square, with the slightly unfortunate name of Plaza Prat.

It's named after a Chilean naval officer called Arturo Prat whose boat was sunk just off the coast of Iquique during the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia (Iquique was then Peruvian). He subsequently became a national hero, although suffering the eternal misfortune of being a hero with a rubbish name. If you want, as we did, you can take a short boat trip which goes round the buoy which marks the spot where his boat sunk.

By happy fortune, our hostel was smack-bang in the middle of Baquedano. By unhappy fortune, it was otherwise awful. Advertising itself as a converted townhouse, it looked lovely from the outside. But from the inside, it much more closely resembled a converted prison. It was grim. The cell-like rooms had windows that opened into the enclosed internal chamber of the hostel, meaning they were stuffy and very, very noisy. Every sound in the building seemed to find its way into our room, most made by the staff and their friends who congregated on the ground floor. Right next to our room was a large community hall, and on our first morning we awoke to the sound of seemingly hundreds of screaming children and pounding dance-pop. But hey, breakfast came with a slice of cake, so it's not all black marks.

Our first full day in Iquique was happily spent wandering around. Our second day was spent doing a day-trip. Whereas my real reason for visiting Arica was Eiffel's church, my real reason for visiting Iquique was the nearby ghost town of Humberstone. And as it involves quite a lot of photos, I think I'll save it for my next entry.

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