Arica in northern Chile has a fearsome reputation for hosting Chile’s heaviest wave. El Gringo, is a shallow, heavy, terrifying slab infested with hard-charging locals and bodyboarders. The wave has featured on the WCT and is still part of the WQS roster.
But as far as a fun South American surf trip goes, is there more to this town than heavy death slabs? I was intrigued, so I booked a ticket and headed to Arica to find out what the place is actually like. Le’s discover everything you need to know about surfing Arica, from how to get there and where to stay, to the various waves on offer.
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Best Time of Year to Surf in Arica
Arica faces directly into the Pacific and rarely goes flat. Like most west-facing South American surf spots, Arica is bombarded with solid, long-period swells almost daily in winter. You won’t wait for the swell to come up here, but likely for it to drop and get less scary.
Unless you’re a barrel-hungry slab hunter, you’ll probably seek the hidden corners and bends in the coastline that dampens the swell and provide something more fun to ride.
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Best Surf Spots in Arica
While Arica doesn’t have heaps of options, there are other waves other than El Gringo. Most waves in Arica are shallow slabs, they’re heavy and pretty intimidating. Arica is by no means a beginner friendly surf destination, but there are 1 or 2 waves that offer something for the intermediate/beginner.
The long stretch of beach break sometimes provides fun banks. Miles long stretching into Peru. Great for beginners at the southern end. As an intermediate/advanced surfer myself, I found a few peaks here also and the waves got progressively bigger the further north I walked.
I struggled to find a bank that resembled anything of shape or quality, although this si where I saw packs of sponsored ripping groms surfing, so this is a good go-to option if you’re after turns over intimidating death slabs.
A left-hand point that breaks just around the headland from Gringo. While Gringo faces directly into the prominent swell, Isla is just that bit further around the corner–more sheltered. La Isla needs a large swell to start working and gets super crowded as it’s one of the more accessible, quality waves in the area.
The wave breaks off a rocky outcrop and peels off into a deep bay offering a few sections to smack the lip or wrap a cutback or two. Great for intermediate/advanced surfers when Gringo’s too big and scary!
The heavy death slab that put Arica surfing on the map. Heavy, shallow, and intimidating, packed with local bodyboarders and hard-charging locals. El Gringo breaks in 2ft of water, almost directly onto a shallow rock slab, and if you’re too scared to surf it like me, standing on the rocks and watching is a cool spectacle.
The wave rises up abruptly and unloads onto a dry rock shelf. The right is short and doesn’t always tube, whereas the left is longer, hollower, and provides an opportunity for a gaping left vision before also closing out on the rock shelf. Advanced surfers and chargers only. Check out footage of Gringo in action here.
Breaking a few kilometers offshore, El Buey is the area’s premier big wave spot. An offshore bombie that needs a macking swell to awaken. Having a big wave spot on offer like this mystical offshore bombie only adds to the scary mystique of Arica.
If you want to catch a really big wave without a pitching lip or having to life under the ledge at a big wave slab, El Buey is that. You’ll need a big board, even bigger balls and a local mate to show you the ropes.
Arica Surf Spot Map
Where is Arica?
Arica is located in northern Chile. It is the last major town before the border into Peru.
Getting to Arica, is relatively straight forward and you can get there by place, bus or car.
Although distances are vast in Chile, getting to Arica is relatively straightforward. You can hire a car at the airport or from nay major city in the country. Check out the best hire car prices in Chile here.
If you’re on a budget surf trip to Chile, or you’re trying to save coin while on a larger South American surf trip, the bus is your best friend! You can get the bus to Arica from other cities in Chile. For example, the gruelling 24 hour bus from Santiago, or the closer Iquique. For bus journeys anywhere in the world, I always use BusBud. Check out the buses in Chile, here.
Transportation & Getting Around
If you’ve got a car, you’re laughing and you can easily drive between each spot. If you’re on a tighter budget, you can walk between spots. For example, I stayed down at Las Machas and made the walk over to Gringo a coupke of times. This took around 25-30 minutes!
From Machas, you can also walk to the shopping center to buy food and whatever you need (a 10-minute walk). This is your best bet for budget and accessibility!
Where to Stay?
There are a handful of large skyscraper-style hotels throughout Arica, and while these huge standalone towers do little for the town’s already poor aesthetic, they do serve as a comfortable, clean, and decent place to stay when traveling and surfing in Arica.
Hostal Willa Kuti
If you’re on a budget surf trip to Chile, Willa Kuti is a wicked hostel right on the beach at Las Machas. Hostal Willka Kuti is super affordable (around $13usd per night for a dorm) and run by an incredibly helpful family who will go out of their way to help you.
Hostellling International Doña Ines
If you’re looking for another budget-friendly hostel for surfing in Arica, Hostelling International Dona Ines offers dorm rooms for around $15 per night. While you’ll be closer to the shops and restaurants in town, you’re further away from the surf!
If you want to get closer to the action at Gringo, Apacheta is by far the best place to stay for surfing in Arica. From here, you’re only a few minutes walk from the waves.
Hotel Apacheta has a modern, sleek interior, with rooms that overlook the Ocean; an amazing place to stay and my top pick for Arica if you want somewhere cool, comfortable, and close to the waves. Rooms start at $90usd per night.
Tips for Surfing in Arica
You only have to search some videos of Gringo and El Buey to see how frickin intimidating the waves are here! In person, you can feel this even more so. The water is dark, cold and the coast here picks up tonnes of swell, so bring your gun and balls.
As you’d expect in hollow waves of consequence, there are plenty of boogie boarders, and locals competing for the best waves, and won’t be too stoked to see you snaking up their inside for a set wave. So as always, respect the locals and wait your turn–competition can be fierce.
What's the Town Like?
Arica is cloaked in grey skies every single morning, then burns off into sunny and blue skies, blowing out the surf in the process. However, the views the lifting greyness unveils certainly aren’t anything to look forward to.
The town sits on the edge of the Atacama desert, the driest place on the planet, and the landscape is exactly how you’d picture such a place. The town itself is run down, annoyingly busy, and dirty, and walking the streets is picking your way between people, broken glass, and rubbish.
Surfing Digital Nomad in Arica?
While Arica, doesn’t compare to the best digital nomad surf locations, there are a few hostels and cafes where you could in theory get work done, in-between charging slabs. But if you’re looking for somewhere with a blend of surf and digital nomad, community vibe, you’re better off choosing other South American destinations such as Florianopolis in Brazil, or Costa Rica’s Santa Teresa.
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Non-surfing activities in Arica
Because Arica, is located in one of the driest areas on the planet, the surrounding hills and dunes are a fantastic place to go explore the Atacama, from bike riding to sand boarding and hiking, there’s a bit to do!
Unless you’re a hard-charging slab hunter looking for vision at El Gringo, or a complete beginner, Arica doesn’t offer much in the way of fun easy-to-surf waves. The town is also not the coolest place to hang out and lacks the traveling backpacker-type vibe common in many surf towns throughout Central and South America.
And for this reason, I would skip Arica and head down south to make the most of surfing in Chile. Check out my guide to surfing in southern Chile here. If Chile is part of your wider Latin America trip, read my guide on surfing in South America and complete guide to surfing Central America!