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Tacna, Peru: Health Vacation and Las Vegas South, All Rolled Into One

Pics of Tacna, Peru taken Jan 31, 2010

Pics of Tacna, Peru taken Jan 31, 2010

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As you stroll down the wide, palm tree lined boulevard in Tacna, Peru, you can’t help but notice the number of optical and dental offices in all the tall buildings lining the main street. I had heard that it was the Las Vegas of the South because of the casino strip downtown, but no one said much about the huge number optical and dental services here, just that it was cheaper to get contacts, glasses and dental work done in Tacna. There must be over a hundred optical stores and dental offices here. It’s a health service mecca.

Store names like ‘American’, ‘Machu Picchu Optical’ are obviously trying to attract by gut instinct emotional reaction. The reflection from the hundreds of pairs of glasses in glass display cases is nothing short of dazzling. Here top international brands of glasses are flogged for a fraction of the cost of in North America or Europe. Some of the dentists seem to think that the bigger and more revolting the picture showing rotten teeth is, the more appealing their services are. Other bilboards show surreal, blindingly white smiles.

It turns out that Tacna is a great place to spend the weekend to get everything you need done for your eyes and teeth, stock up on everything you need for the year, and have a good time, all in one fell swoop.

People that I call ‘ringers’ were out in droves, calling out greetings, smiling and trying to entice you into their stores. A young man who came up to my shoulder began loping beside me as I walked down the main boulevard, striking up a conversation. He introduced himself as Ferdinand. He was smiling and pleasant and didn’t say too much. After a few minutes he gave me a business card and encouraged me to go with him to a particular optical shop. When I wasn’t interested, he still kept walking along beside me. He assured me that he could help with whatever I was looking for. I tried to weasel out of it by saying I was fine, and didn’t want to take up his time. He assured me that it was no problem. 

He just kept walking beside me, a big smile on his face, oblivious to my attempts to show lack of interest. He was good. He stayed just far enough away that it might have been that he just happened to be going in the same direction. I couldn’t shake him without being really rude, which seemed unnecessary.

After the first three hostals and hotels I went into (which were full), he was still there, on the sidewalk, waiting with a sunny smile. He said he knew a good place hotel a few blocks away (no doubt getting a commission for bringing me through the door), assuring me it was quiet. We walked and he asked a few questions about my family (they think that’s the safest topic to talk about here). Turns out the hotel he took me to was quiet and decent, and had a room available, so I checked in.

Ferdinand was gone when I went back downstairs after checking in. I decided to show my face at the optical place he suggested, feeling fair was fair. I did want new contact lenses, after all. A half block away, there he was, lounging on a park bench, looking like he was enjoying the sunshine.  ‘Vamos’? ( we go?) he said, and his smile widened and he gave me a big thumbs up when I said the optical store mentioned on the card he gave. Then he started practicing saying me name (it’s hard for Spanish people to pronounce Marianne for some reason), saying it over and over again, telling me how beautiful my name was, chatting about Tacna. At the entrance to the store, he proudly saluted the owners, reached out and took back the business card he’d given me, said goodbye with a grin, and disappeared again.

The store didn’t have what I needed, so I moved on.  After a few more stores, and new contacts in my bags, I turned back to my hotel.  A few steps away, Ferdinand materialized out of nowhere.  “Dentista?” (did I need a dentist) he asked, going on to say he knew a good one, just a little ways away from my hotel. I tried to be irritated, but found I couldn’t be too annoyed by his short, cheerful presence.  Everyone has to make a living somehow.  And I did need to get my teeth cleaned, and this seems to be the place to do it.

So within a three hours of arriving in Tacna, and without appointments in advance, I bought a year’s supply of contacts, had my teeth examined, cleaned and a filling fixed, had my eyes checked, picked out a new pair of glasses, and had prescription lenses made to order for them, all for less than $150.00 CAD. The glasses cost just $49.00 CAD including the eye exam, frames and lenses. The dental work cost 50 Soles ($19.00 CAD), unbelievably inexpensive considering that the equipment in the office I went to was practically the same as that back in Canada (I had to drink from a cup to rinse my mouth instead of have a hygienist rinse for me, but otherwise it seemed the same- modern and clean). He even had a video camera tool and monitor set up to show me inside my own mouth (a bit shocking but useful, faster and more revealing to my eyes than dental X-rays). 

And it’s not just optical and dental services that are a steal of a deal here. Squirreled away in the downtown core behind the glittering optical and dentist shops is the Mercado  Central, where you can find everything from electronics to herbal cures, clothes, whole plucked chickens, fruit juices whipped up before your eyes, and handmade silver jewellery, for far less than in Chile or other places (for prices you can find in Lima only if you really hunt around). I found alpaca scarves for one third less what they usually sell for in Arica, Chile (and I thought the Arican prices were cheap!).

I discovered that they don’t really ‘do’ breakfast here. The central market was the only place open early in the morning (which is anytime before 10 a.m. here).  For breakfast the locals drink fruit shakes, and munch on thin crispy rounds of fried salted dough that have three holes in them. At first glance the fried dough looks like the ‘elephant ears’ you can get at the fair. They eat them plain, with a hot cup of thick drink that looks and tastes like pie filling. It’s an extremely sweet drink thickened with quinoa, and really sticks to your ribs. As I sat on the tiniest stool I have ever seen and nibbled my breakfast, vendors walked past, carting tubs of fresh fish, staggering under the weight of big sides of raw beef slung over their shoulders, and wheeling in stacked cardboard boxes of fresh produce, unpacking each piece by hand to stack it into huge towers of fruit and vegetables.  What a lot of work to set up shop each day.

For more upscale, brand name shopping, people go to the ‘Zofra’ zone outside of town. It’s a massive walled area, a small city of shops, where you can buy duty free items, anything under the sun. I hadn’t realized that Tacna was such a bustling commercial hub as well as a big health service and entertainment centre.

Even though it was 9:00 a.m., early in the morning by Peruvian standards, the doors were open to the casinos, musical tings, dings and chimes singing from the doorways from slot machines within, lined up to corall people inside. It’s easy to get lost inside the labyrinth of machines. There’s also a big spas with a pool, where I had a lovely 2 hour long massage for $15.00 CAD. The  beach is about a 30 minute drive away from downtown (and it’s just a 1 hour drive away from the famous beaches of Arica).  Based on the number of families strolling the streets, this place is a hit with families on summer holiday (Dec. / Jan is the summer break in South America).

Usually border towns are divy places, but not Tacna. It’s tidy and the streets are cleaned daily. Even the bus terminal is cleaner and less scary than most bordertowns. This time when I walked inside the bus terminal I was greeted by a live band featuring panflute music, drums, guitars and singing and was given complementary cups of different kinds of chilled Pisco sours as part of a promotion by a local restaurant to come and dine there. What a pleasant greeting after a hot and dusty road trip.

I’ve noticed that you can tell you’re in Peru at a glance by the number and quality of restaurants. They take pride in the decor, and serve up friendly, outgoing hospitality along with excellent food.

Peruvian food is delicious, the portions huge, and the presentation inevitably elegantly gourmet. Even a typical BBQ’d chicken dinner is delicious when done the Peruvian way, hot and juicy and served up with three of more dipping sauces ranging from mild and creamy homemade mayonnaise based sauces to chopped herb and garlic ‘chimichurri’ , and at least one orange coloured zingy hot pepper sauce. Meals all come with big salads, complete with shredded carrot, sliced tomato, cucumber, and pickled beets with oil and vinegar on the side, and a platter of fries. The dinner for two is usually enough to feed a hungry family of four.

The Peruvian parrilla is a huge platter of BBQ’d chicken, pork ribs, beefsteak, and flame broiled sausages served with fries, salad and a pop. The ceviche – raw marinated chopped fish salad – is the best in Peru of any South American country I’ve visited so far because they add a hint of hot chillies to the lime marinade and other secret ingredients, and a lot of mild red onions and fresh cilantro too. I had a fried Corvina fish filet in a gourmet mushroom cream sauce that smelled so good it actually made my mouth water when it was first set before me. While I like the food in Chile, I love the food of Peru.  I’m surprised we don’t hear more about Peruvian food back home in Canada. It’s really very good. Some people in Arica drive across the border just for a fancy dinner.

Many people drive across the border between Arica and Tacna every day, since things are cheaper on the Peruvian side than the Chilean side, or to go to work. In fact, they’ve been doing this run for centuries, since the Arica – Tacna route has been a major commerce route ever since the Potosi Mine was established in Bolivia when the Spaniards colonized this part of the world. The train between Arica and Tacna is the oldest rail line in South America, established in 1855. But before that Arica and Tacna were part of a major trade route too; there is evidence that this area of the world has been continuously inhabited for over 10,000 years, and that it has always been a major place of trade from people in the mountains and those living along the sea.

I can’t imagine doing this trip every day since I find the whole routine exhausting.  After a hot (thankfully short) drive, you have to go  through one long line at the customs office of Chile and then do the same thing a few minutes drive away, in Peru, and do the whole thing over again in reverse when you return.  Although the lines move fairly quickly, there is a lot of paperwork and stamping that needs to happen, and you have to wait your turn outside under the blazing sun with only a few light posts for shade.

There are three main ways to cross through the border on the ground: buses, cars and collective taxis. If you have ever wondered where all those old beloved ‘luxury liner’ Cadillac cars in the world have gone, you been pleased to know that not all been crushed into tin cans. They’ve all been shipped to South America and are still used every day, pressed into service as taxis, especially taxi collectivos doing this run between Arica and Tacna. The air conditioning no longer works, but every day the faded exteriors are washed, and the worn- but- still- half- decent  plush velvet interiors are brushed clean daily. The amount of care taken to keep these vehicles serviceable and the care taken when driving them is impressive.

There is a long line of Cadillac collectivos at the bus station, taking up half the station. Before you climb inside one, you have to wait for enough people to fill up the car. Then you have to hand over your passport (Chileans hand over their RUT cards- like a social insurance card) to the driver, a total stranger, and he wanders off with it. At first I didn’t understand why I didn’t need to go with my passport, but after patient explanations in Spanish  by everyone within earshot that heard my initial question, I had to accept that it’s perfectly safe to let it out of sight in this situation. Apparently  every carload has to get a manifesto for the border crossing typed up using an ancient typewriter that does carbon copies in triplicate.

Eventually the driver returns, and then you have to pay 200 pesos for a border entry permit (a tiny thin paper ticket) and then finally you can all pile into the old Cadillac and set off.  You pay the fare (about $3.00 CAD) when you arrive. The driver takes responsibility for getting everyone through the border crossings, shepherding people along, somehow remembering what everyone looks like to round them up after the security checks.

No one talks much; I think it’s too hot to bother most of the time. But it’s also cultural. They aren’t a chatty bunch in this part of the world. They talk if there’s a reason or family members will talk to each other, but that’s about it.

On the way home I took a bus instead, but now I understand why collectivos are so popular even though they are twice the price. The buses are crammed full of hot stinky people and their stuff and aren’t necessarily any faster. There must have been a deal on toilet paper because every second person had a huge bulk pack. So me, thirty glum looking people and temporary walls of toilet paper trundled down the road to the border. Although there was a separate throughway at the border for buses, they didn’t open the wickets to let us get through for ages, so that did not save us any time, and we had to wait outside in a line in the hot blazing sun for what felt like hours but was really only 20 minutes or so. People complained about the heat, but not about waiting, to my surprise. Waiting is a way of life here and they are so patient, never in a rush.

It was a relief to get back home to peel of my travel clothes and take a cold shower, so my body felt as rejuvunated on the outside as I felt on the inside from the excitement of a road trip weekend.  Despite the hot trip home, I can’t wait to go back to Tacna, actually. It was a really pleasant weekend getaway.

4 comments to Tacna, Peru: Health Vacation and Las Vegas South, All Rolled Into One

  • Firstly, I’d like to thank you for this informative article. Second, I would like to inquire where I can find more information regarding your post. I made it here through Bing and cannot get a hold of any other relevant sites on this matter. get a hold of me at my email. Thank you.

  • Hi Mark,
    Nice to hear from you. I only found out about this because I am living here, a hop, skip and a jump from Tacna, Peru, and my Chilean friends told me to hop the border for new contact lenses.

  • Kate

    Hi marianne,
    Just wondering if your dentist spoke English or if there was english speaking dentists in the town that you were aware of?

  • Hi Kate – the dentist I had spoke English ( not a lot but enough). Best wishes!

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