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The city's long history reveals itself unselfishly when you know where to look. 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 from the people of the precordillera and altiplano. You can pore over their fascinating remains in the nearby Azapa Valley and marvel at their geoglyphs at several other sites, including the Lluta Valley.

With the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, Arica became the port for the bonanza silver mine at Potosí, which was present-day Bolivia. 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.

The War of the Pacific left Bolivia completely landlocked. Chile has periodically proposed territorial compensation to provide Bolivia sea access. As recently as 2005, proposals for a narrow Bolivian landing strip near the Peruvian border were being tossed around.