Getaways in Arica, Chile

Like a desert mirage, the gleam of precious metal lured European explorers to South America's coasts. But in the Pacific port of Arica, Spain's dreams became reality. This city, situated just 11 miles south of the present-day Peruvian border has long been the port for the silver mine in Potosi, Chile, one of the largest silver mines in the world.

Arica’s history, however, dates far earlier than its 1541 discovery by Spanish captain Lucas Martinez de Begazo. Archaeologists suspect local groups have inhabited this site for ten thousand years, drawn by its port location and mild climate.

Lured by Spanish galleons loaded with silver, infamous buccaneers such as Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish came calling. One persistent legend claims that 10 billion dollars worth of treasure was hidden in the city by Drake.

Although that legendary pirate booty has never been found, the city itself has been a treasure for warring cultures over the centuries. Since Spanish colonial days, Arica has been part of Peru before being annexed by Chile in 1880 during the War of the Pacific.

Of particular strategic importance was the Morro de Arica or Arica Cape, a steep hill rising from the Pacific coast. Today, all is peaceful at El Morro, a place that’s now home to the Museo Histórico y de Armas, a museum that commemorates that 1880 battle. The site also offers exceptional views of the Pacific.

Although Arica’s history dates back centuries, many of its buildings are comparatively new, due to a catastrophic tsunami that followed an offshore earthquake in 1868. The years after the tsunami saw the construction of many structures that remain in use today including two famous buildings by French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, best known for his Eiffel Tower. Eiffel’s designs include the Aduana de Arica, a former customs house that now serves as a cultural museum featuring historical photographs, and the Iglesia San Marcos. Located opposite Plaza Colón, the Iglesia San Marcos was constructed to replace a church destroyed in the earthquake.

Arica ranks as one of the world’s driest cities thanks to the Atacama Desert, and it is adjacent to massive sand dunes. Nonetheless, the city also neighbors the Azapa Valley, an agricultural center best known for the Azapa olives. These purple-tinted olives are treasured for their strong oils.

The city’s mild and sunny climate also makes its beaches popular throughout the region. Playa El Laucho and Playa La Lisera are both known for their placid waters while Playa Brava and Playa Las Machas are favored by surfers. Today this region is considered one of Chile’s top beach destinations, spared the frigid waters of the Humboldt current that makes many of Chile’s beaches, well, just plain chilly.