South from Arequipa to Tacna.

South from Arequipa to Tacna.

The country between Arequipa and Chile is extremely dry, leading into the Chilean Atacama desert, arguably the driest place on Earth. Despite this, there are many settlements and much activity in this region.

The map shows Arequipa, Tacna and Puno. It is at a larger scale that those used in the guides to Arequipa, Colca and Cotahuasi and should allow you to place these in relation to the wider topography.


This old port is on the Panamericana Sur, around 970 km from Lima and about 130 km from Arequipa. It is the start of the railway that ultimately leads up to Cuzco. The road from Arequipa is fully modernised, and descends over 2000m in this short distance, making it exhilarating for cyclists (in one direction) and exhausting in the other. A number of forks and alternative make a map essential. There are various locations which have food and soft drinks for sale on the road, but the only settlement of any scale is San Jose. Buses run in both directions with high frequency.

Mollendo grew as the port for Arequipa and the mines of Bolivia. Unhappily, it was twice reduced to ashes by fires and seriously damaged during the war with Chile. Most of the older buildings are, therefore Nineteenth century, although a sense of tradition still clings to the town's heart. It has even lost its port traffic to more modern and accessible ports. The consequence is gentle decline, with Summer tourism its chief staple.

Click here to see a series of images The port, Malecón Ratti gives a view along the beaches and of the old jetty. The more modern Parque Acuático is the centre for contemporary Summer events. The old railway station is a replacement for the original, constructed by the same form as put up the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but unhappily demolished during the later, guano-fueled War of the Pacific.

The chief attraction of Mollendo is its beaches, which stretch for 35 km. Tourism is moderately developed, aimed at Peruvian customers, but everything from skin diving to paragliding are supported. It is possible to hire surfing equipment and mountain bicycles.

The Primera playa or main beach is close to the city. Boasting a fine white sand and a generally calm sea. It is easily reached on foot by crossing a bridge.

The second beach (Segunda playa or las Rocas) is dominated by a huge rock, on which is built the Casillo Forga. This is a Moorish monstrosity built for a late Nineteenth century entrepreneur, apparently following an original in Morocco. The beach has the characteristics described above.

Other beaches are known by their distance from the town. A large resort, built in the colonial style with - as they say - modern additions - is Mejía, the favoured retreat of the rich of Arequipa. It offers accommodation from the adequate to the camping ground, restaurants and guarded parking places.

Ten kilometres beyond lies Santuario Nacional de Lagunas Mejía. This is an area of marsh and swamp, low hills and areas of open sand which has become the home of a large number of species of water fowl. In total, 195 species of bird live in the sanctuary, 75 of them as non-migratory. The site is around 690 hectares, and offers flamingos ( Phoenicopterus ruber), several species of duck and gull, pelicans and other seabirds.

To Moquegua

There are two routes that lead to this provincial capital. The first runs down the coast through Cocachacra, Chucarapi and Clemesí to Ilo, about 120 km down the Panamericana Sur. This is a desert (and deserted) route, broken by patches of cultivation. The road then rises up to Moquegua (1400m). The alternative route (which can be followed from Arequipa without going to the coast at all) runs inland. This is a desolate and arid area once the fields and villages around Arequipa are left behind. The direct bus trip takes around three hours.

Moquegua is very much in the volcanic zone, and the rich soil is formed from volcanic ash. It was first settled by nomad peoples, and settled agriculture developed long before its annexation by the Incas in the Sixteenth century. The Spanish presence began in 1541, with the founding of the Villa de Santa Catalina de Moquegua. The Spanish brought vines with them, and viticulture became the principle industry of the town. Moqueguan pisco is well-respected to this day. However, the discovery of a major Copper deposit at Cuajone (3500m), 35 km from the city, brought the railway and changed its fortunes. The mine has been worked since the 1940s.

Click here to see a series of images The town is a quiet, safe place, somewhat knocked-about by the 2001 earthquake. The Plaza de Armas has a fountain originally made in France and imported into Chile, From there it made its way to Tacna, where the local authorities appropriated it. Outrage in Moquegua led to the ordering of yet another, grander fountain, this time from the Eiffel company and made of iron. This was brought in through Ilo and 1877 and arrived safely. The device stands 7.5 m tall and is comprised of three figures. It ran with wine in its inaugural ceremony.

The Santa Domingo cathedral was built around 1650, being constructed largely from surprisingly durable mud and cane stalks. Its façade is neoclassical. The museum offers ceramics and cloth, gold and silver items from the Wari and Tiahuanaco cultures. There are a number of interesting Seventeenth and Eighteenth century buildings, including the Casona del Conde de Alastaya and the Casona de las Diez Ventanas, which as the name suggests, has ten windows.

Wine remains an important element in Moqueguan life. The "Ruta de Pisco" is a little trip which takes in the chief producers. At its peak, the industry cultivated 1200 hectares of vines, which supported 120 vineyards and distilleries. One needs to use a car to make the full circuit, for which a driver is needed! Manufacturers (bodegas) called evocative names such as Viñas Cuayla, Camilo Valdivia, Don Lindolfo, El Mocho, Parras y Reyes and Ghersi y Lopez swim before your eyes in the course of the trip.

An interesting local village is Samegua, around 5km from the town and an easy and pleasing walk through farmland and orchards. This village is the national centre for avocado production, but is a pleasant place to visit despite this accolade. The village of Torata is 25 km from Moquegua, and well worth a visit. It was an Incan administrative centre, and subsequent developments have built on or otherwise used the stone that they quarried. The parish church and ancient stone flour mills are prominent features.

Archaeological remains at Cerro Baúl date back to the Wari culture (600-1100AD.) They are located 18 km Northeast of Moquegua. The remains are probably those of a fortress. The Warí and Tiwanaku civilisations derived, respectively, from the Peruvian midlands and from the Bolivian altiplano. They co-existed as neighbours for a considerable period before collapsing more or less simultaneously around 1100 AD, perhaps as a result of a sudden change in the climate. Moquegua was a part of the Timanaku territory, based around the town of Chen Chen. The Warí built a hill fortress on the edge of the valley, at Cerro Baúl, a steeply-sided peak in extremely dry conditions.

Despite the general aridity, this was a major settlement for several hundred years, in which people of both civilisations coexisted peacefully. Indeed, Tiwanaku settlements are found around the peak of the Wari city. The cultures were very distinct, with the Tiwanaku essentially peaceful pastoralists, the Warí as conquers, but both celebrated the god Wiracocha. Both, too, seemed to see maize and its beer, chicha as sacred and - then as now - these Andean communities created solidarity through drinking rituals. Special vessels (keros) are widespread in both cultures, and Cerro Baúl has many of these. They mix the artistic styles used by the two cultures. Excavation has uncovered substantial breweries, including earthenware drums over a metre in width. Whatever roles Cerro Baúl fulfilled, it was certainly a place with a religious and spiritual focus, and the apu of the mountain is still revered by local people in pilgrimage and sacrifice.

Further afield, there is the valley of Omate, around 147 km back towards Arequipa and equally accessible from there. This valley is enclosed by snow peaks (Goylano, Paylogen) and the dry peaks (cerros) of Junín and Cerro Blanco. Intense volcanic activity has twisted and turned this area, which is close to the volcano Picchu Pichu. The valley has a huge array of wildfowl: eagles, condors and water birds. The river has fresh water crayfish (Criphius caementarius) that can grow to 40 cm in length. The valley is lined with nearly twenty pretty little villages that specialise in the exploitation of this and other natural resources. There is only very basic accommodation on offer.


The road between Ilo and Moquegua is a quick, well-surfaced run of 90 km. Ilo itself is a major port, with a copper refinery and a domestic fishing industry that is the remaining focus of the declining anchovy industry. Its nightlife is rough and tough.

Click here to see a series of images The port area is busy but reflects a former style of fishing, with small individually-owned boats, teams repairing their nets and hopeful pelicans looking on. There is a good observation point at la Glorieta which is also close to the Naval Museum. Seafood is, of course, fine, and best enjoyed in the Plaza de Armas. The patronal is on June 29th, when fishermen celebrate San Jerónimo in rowdy style. Beaches such as Pozo de Lizas are used chiefly by local people and by the numerous seals which inhabit these waters.


Tacna can be reached from Ilo in two hours along a good road, frequently served by buses. The route is for the most part total desert. Tacna is supposed to be so-named from the Quechua word takana, meaning something like "here I struck them". It refers to the seizure of the site from the Aymara peoples, although habitation here goes back many millennia. Rock paintings at Cimarrona, near to the village of Toquepala, date back to pre-history.

The Spanish arrived in 1535, in the shape of the viceroy himself, Toledo. As architect of the policy of reshaping Indian communities into fixed settlements (Reducción de Indígenas) the town was established as such a centre under the name San Pedro de Tacna.

Click here to see a series of images Centuries of untroubled agricultural existence was punctuated by the first cry for liberation from Spain, annunciate here by Francisco de Zela in 1811. Tacna was occupied by Chile in 1880, and only returned to Perú in 1929 by treaty. A passive resistance movement had grown in strength, marked by events such as the annual silent parade, in which the Peruvian flag was processed through the streets. The date of the treaty - August 28 - is marked by grand processions in contemporary Tacna, where the flag-bearing ceremonies are repeated. The citizens of Tacna are known for their strongly patriotic sentiments, and relations with Arica (the Chilean port that was also a part of Peru, but which decided to remain Chilean) are distant, despite their mutual interest in trade.

Tacna's Cathedral was begun in the 1880-90 period by the omnipresent Eiffel company, but completed only after the Chilean withdrawal. The ornamental fountain is six metres high, comprising figures that show the four seasons and nine cherubs of indefinite function. The Casa de Zela - from which the dry for independence issued - is now a museum. There is also a museum of railway memorabilia, which is fun for aficionados. Outside of the city, one can visit the site of the battle of Alto, where there is a museum full of uniforms, rifles and relevant documents.

Prehistoric sites include the rock art at San Francisco de Miculla, 22 km North East on the Tacna-Palca road. These cover an expanse of 20 square kilometres, and were probably created by the Tiahuanaco culture, around 500 AD. The pictures show people hunting and dancing, and animals which include tarucas, pumas, snakes, foxes and llamas. Plants and fruits are also represented, as well as star-scapes and unrecognisable designs. The site is little studied, despite its extent.

The Toquepala cave, located two and a half hours from Tacna, contains paintings of great age. Charcoal from the cave has been dated to 7500BC, and the paintings may be contemporary. They show scenes of hunting, with the hunters surrounding their prey in a circle. The pictures are carefully rendered in red, yellow, gray-green, black and white.