How (Not) To Cross The Border from Peru Into Chile

I left off in Arequipa, the second-largest city in Peru and the town from which Logan and I traveled to the Colca Canyon. It’s been a while since I posted, I know – and I still have a lot to share with you guys (like, three more countries’ worth of stories), which I plan to do over the next few months.

If you’ve been following along with our adventures, you’ll know that we toured the Colca Canyon on just a couple hours of sleep. We were literally dozing off and on throughout the bus tour all day. And our adventure was just beginning.

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We got back to our hostel in Arequipa at about 5 p.m., and immediately caught a cab to the nearest bus station. We knew our mission: Buy a bus ticket to Tacna, the southernmost point of Peru and our crossing-over point into Chile. In South America, you can pretty much show up at any city’s bus station and find a bus ticket to wherever you’d like to go. Sure, popular routes can sell out. But in general, bus travel is widespread and a super-convenient way of getting from town to town.

So, we bought the our tickets from the first counter we saw: a company called Flores. It looked nice enough… The logo had pretty flowers all over it, so how bad could it be? Well, while it wasn’t the worst bus ride ever, it was decidedly not the best.

The bus was wet and damp, and we were clearly the only tourists on the bus (not that that’s an issue – in fact, I thought it was kind of cool – but it’s a symbol of how non-luxurious this ride was compared to our experience with Cruz del Sur.) The ride was, of course, an overnight trip, and while Cruz del Sur served food and gave everyone blankets to sleep with, the Flores bus was more of an every man for himself sort of setup. Throughout the night, we’d stop at various towns and Peruvian ladies would board the bus and walk the aisles selling water and papas rellenas (doughy breaded stuffed potatoes). Now remember: At this point, we’d barely slept in two nights.

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The next morning around 5 a.m., we arrived in Tacna. And then things really started getting stressful. I’d known all along that this particular part of the trip was going to be odd. We had to find a collectivo, a bus or car that people share as a form of transportation, that would take us across the border into Chile. And we’re not talking about a cool Uber-pool situation. We’re talking about literally speaking Spanish and walking up to a driver and asking him to take us to an international border. And yes, as the Spanish speaker in our duo, I was nervous about this. But I’d done thorough research online and countless travel bloggers said this was the thing to do.

So, I found a collectivo. Yay! It was a double-decker bus full of backpackers like us, and all you had to do was hand your passport and your customs ticket to the driver (yes, I’d read this was totally normal and legit – the driver then makes a copy of your passport to give to the border agents so that he or she can legally get you over the border). But when it came time for us to board the bus, we realized something awful: We didn’t have our customs tickets. And they were, apparently, required in order to leave the country.

“Well, this is over,” we thought. “We’re never going to be able to leave Peru. We’re going to have to take three more overnight busses to get back to Lima to meet with the American embassy and have them get us home. So much for seeing Chile, Argentina and Brazil.”

I can’t emphasize enough that we were running on about four hours of sleep over the course of two very active days.

We sat down on a bench in the middle of the semi-deserted bus station (remember, it’s about 6 a.m. at this point) and tried to regroup. I did some Googling on what happens when travelers lose their customs tickets. According to some guy who lost his while traveling in Vietnam, customs officers will issue you a new one, even if grumpily. This was good news. Perhaps we wouldn’t have to backtrack to the American embassy after all – if we could convince a collectivo to take us to the border in the first place.

We asked a few taxi drivers, and they turned us down. We were about to give up when I had the genius idea: “What if we take a collectivo, but instead of the double-decker bus with backpackers on it, we use an individual driver?” This is difficult to explain unless you’re in the situation, but the individual driver option seemed a lot more shady. We ended up in a car with three South American dudes, none of whom spoke English, making the one-hour drive to the Peru-Chile border.

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But, the driver didn’t ask for our customs tickets, so… All we could do was cross our fingers and hope for the best. The best case scenario would be that the border agent would re-issue our customs tickets and we would successfully be able to cross the border and continue on our adventure without needing to make the two-day bus trek back to the American embassy in Lima. The worst case scenario? We’d drive an hour across the desert and the border agent wouldn’t let us cross without our tickets, so we’d be stranded in the desert. Or the taxi driver was actually running some kind of scam and would take our passports, kidnap us and harvest our organs.

So, what do you think happened?

……..

IT WAS FINE! We didn’t get kidnapped, the border agent let us cross, and we were soon in Arica, a beachy hippy town in northern Chile right on the Pacific coast. And that’s where our next story will begin. Stay tuned!

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