Pre-Hispanic peoples have roamed this area for millennia. Arica itself was the terminus of an important trade route where coastal peoples exchanged fish, cotton and maize for the potatoes, wool and charqui (jerky) from the people of the precordillera and altiplano.

With the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, Arica became the port for the bonanza silver mine at Potosí, in present-day Bolivia. As part of independent Peru, the city's 19th-century development lagged behind the frenzied activity in the nitrate mines further south. Following the dramatic battle over Arica's towering El Morro in the War of the Pacific, the city became de facto Chilean territory, an arrangement formalized in 1929.