As I was preparing my trip to South America, I wanted to travel as efficient as possible between Peru and Bolivia without tracing back my steps. I wanted to include a small piece of Chile into my trip. However hard I researched online, I could not find a route to go from South Peru to North Chile. Online people said it was possible, but I couldn’t find any bus schedules or official reassurance on how to travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama and about the Tacna border crossing. So I just went ahead and trusted those people on the interwebs, saying it could be done. As I did it too, I want to explain my 10 steps to travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama. This can also be applied when you want to travel from San Pedro de Atacama to Arequipa, just check the time schedule.
Updated November 2017 to reflex more recent experiences by fellow travellers.
The problems to travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama
Before I begin to explain how you should travel from Peru to Chile by bus, I first start out by explaining why it is so important to do this right. When I was researching online, I couldn’t find any bus schedules. Only a schedule for a Cruz del Sur bus from Lima, that passes Arequipa but you cannot get on in Arequipa. I am a product of the modern generation, so if it doesn’t exist online, it can’t be real, right?
When I was in Arequipa, Peru, I talked to a girl who did it before. She said that she was picked up at the border and assured there would be a direct bus, only to be dropped off at Calama (Chile) in the middle of the night, with the bus station closed and a very dodgy situation after that. As I was traveling solo, as a female backpacker, I needed to avoid at any costs being stranded in the middle of the night by myself. So, here is how I did the Tacna border crossing and I’ll explain you the safe and sure way to travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama.
Read more: Travel to Peru, Chile and Bolivia in 30 days
Why would you want to travel from Arequipa Peru to San Pedro de Atacama Chile?
There is a thing called the gringo trail in South America. Basically the route that many gringo/foreigners take across the continent. Although I am a huge fan of slow travel and exploring more of the region, instead of just hopping from highlight to highlight, there sometimes just isn’t enough time. I had such an issue.
I had 4.5 weeks to explore the area and I wanted to see as much in as possible. See my post on my 7 reasons to visit South America. After spending time in Arequipa and hiking the Colca Canyon, I wanted to go to Bolivia. As I wanted to make a loop, without tracing back my steps, I headed south to the border of Chile. I skipped Arica because I wanted to spend as much time in San Pedro de Atacama as possible. I wanted to go Stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama and I explored the Valle de la Luna. After that, I took a tour to Bolivia and you can read more about it in my girlie guide to Salar de Uyuni tours in Bolivia.
Step 1: Go to the bus station in Arequipa Peru
The first step, to travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama, is go to the bus station in Arequipa. There is only 1 bus company that goes from Arequipa to Tacna, the last town before the border between Peru and Chile. The company is called Flores but doesn’t show you schedules or itineraries online. You cannot buy a bus ticket from one of the agencies in the centre of Arequipa. You really need to go to their bus station. Not just the Arequipa bus station, but the Flores Hermanos bus station. I took a taxi from the Plaza de Armas and told the taxi driver: Estacion de bus de empreza Flores (bus station of the company Flores). He asked me if I was traveling to Tacna and I confirmed. I knew he understood what I meant. The taxi costs 7 Soles.
Update: There is now a 2nd company: Moquegua who travels from Arequipa to Taca. Go to the Transportes Moquegua Turismo desk at the (main) bus station and buy your ticket there.
Read more: 7 Reasons to travel to Arequipa Peru
Step 2: Do’s and Don’ts to travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama
Maybe this should be step -1 because it has everything to do with good preparation for your bus trip from Peru to Chile. But I include it here, because these are things to do and don’t do before you get on the bus.
Do’s for bus travel between Arequipa Peru and San Pedro de Atacama Chile
- Book a bus seat on the lower level of the bus. These seats can recline further, are more comfortable on only costs 5 Soles more. I paid 30 Soles for the bus from Arequipa to Tacna Peru.
- Updated: Peru customer doesn’t give you a little piece of paper anymore.
Make sure you have your passport and the little piece of paper you received at customs with you when you’re at the Tacna border crossing. Yes, you need that little paper. Don’t have it? Start freaking out now, because once at the border it really is a bigger issue.
- Arrive an hour before the bus leaves at the bus station. This gives you plenty of time to book your seat on the bus, go to the toilet etc.
- Time your bus travel accurately. The bus from Arequipa to Tacna takes 6 hours and the border with Chile closes at 8.00 pm -ish. Be aware, there is 2 hours time difference between Peru and Chile. So arrive after 6.00 pm in Tacna means you’re cutting it tight to cross the Tacna border the same day. I took the 10 am bus to Tacna, leaving me enough time to cross the border in time. There is also a bus at noon, but this is cutting it close.
Don’t to the following when traveling by bus from Peru to Chile
- Don’t bring any fruit with you. At some point along the route, you need to leave the bus, get your bags and go through a zone inspection. The area is free from fruit flies, so no fruit can be brought into the area. No worries if you did bring oranges or such, you can dispose it before getting back on the bus.
Step 3: Travel by bus from Arequipa to Tacna in Peru
Once you booked your bus ticket in Arequipa, your travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama begins! You take your seat, recline, maybe even take off your shoes and relax. The sun will probably shine fiercely, so most people will shut their curtains. Relax, take a snooze, listen to some music, read and let time pass. After 6 hours, you’ll arrive in Tacna at the Flores bus station .You made it to the border!
Step 4: Ignore the touts and the bus tours in Tacna
On the bus, I met a lovely lady from Canada and a couple from New Zealand. An American fella joined our little group and together we walked from the Flores bus station in Tacna, across the street to the Tacna central bus station. As soon as we walked into the building, a Peruvian guy spotted us from the balcony of the second floor and walked down the stairs. He spread his arms, as if he was expecting us. Then he shook our hands and asked if we were traveling to Chile. He assured us he had a direct bus from here all the way to San Pedro de Atacama and invited us into his office. As we were slowly following him up the steps, a lady in uniform pulled our arm and warned us not to go with him.
I felt something was off. Of course, the warning was one thing, but I knew, there were no direct busses to San Pedro de Atacama with this company. There is only one company leaving from Arica that goes direct. I’m sure the man would bring us to San Pedro in the end, but I didn’t want to strand in Calama in the middle of the night at a closed bus station. So step 4 is: Ignore the touts from bus tours and take a collectivo or official bus from Tacna across the border. You need to buy your bus tickets in Arica, Chile and not in Tacna, Peru.
Step 5: Pay your departure tax at the Tacna bus station
So, we ignored the tout and went to the collectivo stand in Tacna. When we wanted to leave Tacna bus station, it turned out we forgot something: we needed to pay the departure tax to leave Tacna. So, the 5 of us headed back inside and paid the 1,5 Soles departure tax. Ticket in hand, we finally were able to leave Tacna and Peru behind us.
Step 6: Take a collectivo to the Tacna border crossing
A collectivo is a shared taxi. The taxi waits until it is full and then you go off. As we were with the 5 of us, we needed a big collectivo to drive us all. The collectivo stand is right at the Tacna bus station and is run by people in official uniforms from the Tacna bus station. After 20 minutes, we were able to squeeze all of us in the collectivo and we drove off into no man’s land between Tacna, Peru and the border with Chile.
Prices for a collectivo: this depends on your bargaining skill, the mood of the driver and how many people you are with. Prices range between 15 to 18 up to 25 soles per person.
Step 7: Get your exit stamp at the Tacna border between Peru and Chile
At the Peruvian side of the border, we got out of the collectivo. We took our luggage and walked towards the immigration office. Everything looked new and clean. The sun was setting in the distance and the warm air felt sticky on our skin. We got some stamps, smiled and waved good bye. Farewell Peru! I knew I would be back soon.
Step 8: Get your entry stamp to Chile
We got back into the collectivo and drove towards the Chilean border. Here, we left our luggage with the driver in the collectivo. He parked it somewhere and joined us as we were waiting in line at immigration. It took a while as we had a very curious immigration officer who asked a million questions. The guy was having a good laugh and finally, all of us got our stamps and we were welcomed into Chile.
Step 9: Leave the collectivo and walk to the Arica bus station
From leaving the bus station in Tacna, Peru, to arriving in Arica took us around an hour and a half. It was now 7.30 pm and it was dark already. We were dropped off at the Arica bus station by our collectivo driver and we said good bye to our new friends. I continued with my new Australian friends and we headed to the office of the bus company who are the only ones that travel direct by bus from Arica to San Pedro de Atacama. All the other companies have a stop and bus change at Calama, which I didn’t want. We booked a bus ticket with Turbus Chile. They have 2x a night an overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama. (between 8 and 10 pm). The ride will take 10 to 11 hours.
You can buy your ticket online already; just make sure you’ll have enough time. I recommend the salon cama, as you’ll have more space and can recline your seat further. The Salon Cama was 17,600 Chilean Pesos, the Semi Cama was 14,400 Chilean Pesos. I paid with my PayPal account.
Step 10: Take the direct bus to San Pedro de Atacama
Once we had our ticket, we had diner and got some more Chilean Pesos at the ATM in the bus terminal. The bus leaves on time and we had a longer stop in Calama. But after some gas and a windscreen wipe, we continued direct to San Pedro de Atacama. The last hour on the bus is really interesting, so make sure you open the curtains and take some of the landscape in. After almost 24 hours, you made it. You travelled by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama!
Easy border crossing between Peru and Chile
As you can see, in 10 easy steps, you can travel by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama. I didn’t run into any major problems, but if you want to do it efficient, you need to be aware of the times. With my 10 steps the Tacna border crossing will be a piece of cake! Read more about bus travel in South America.
Have you travelled by bus from Arequipa to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile too? What were your experiences? I’d love to hear them too!