The 1868 Arica Earthquake

Posted by Karl Lundgren on

The sun began to set over the bustling port town of Arica, Peru (now Chile), on that fateful evening of August 13, 1868. Merchants closed up their shops, fishermen returned with their day's catch, and families prepared for a peaceful night's rest. Little did they know that their world was about to be shattered, quite literally, by an unstoppable force of nature.

As dusk settled, the ground beneath Arica began to tremble with an eerie foreboding. The first signs of what was to come were subtle, almost imperceptible, but they soon escalated into a violent upheaval. Panic-stricken residents rushed out of their homes and workplaces as the earth roared and buildings swayed precariously. It was the start of the 1868 Arica earthquake, an event that would go down in history as one of the most catastrophic natural disasters to strike the South American coast.

In this article, we embark on a journey back in time to witness the tragic events that unfolded on that dark day and the remarkable stories of survival, resilience, and human compassion that emerged from the chaos. We delve into the haunting memories of those who experienced the unfathomable power of the earthquake and its devastating aftermath.

But this is not merely a recounting of past tragedies; it is also a testament to the strength of the human spirit. As we explore the horrors that engulfed Arica, we discover the bravery and determination of ordinary individuals who, in the face of unimaginable adversity, found the will to survive and rebuild their lives. Their stories inspire us to appreciate the fragility of life and to reflect on our responsibility to prepare for and respond to natural disasters that may strike our own communities.

Join us as we turn back the pages of history to witness the 1868 Arica earthquake—a cataclysm that left scars on the landscape and in the hearts of its survivors. Let us walk hand in hand with the courageous souls who lived through this seismic nightmare and learn the invaluable lessons they have left behind for future generations. In the midst of darkness and despair, they found a glimmer of hope, and their stories continue to remind us that even in the face of nature's fury, the human spirit can endure, rebuild, and rise anew.

On August 13, 1868, a catastrophic earthquake struck the coastal town of Arica in Peru (now Chile), leaving behind a trail of devastation and human suffering. The 1868 Arica earthquake, also known as the Great Peruvian earthquake, stands as one of the most powerful and deadly seismic events in history. With a magnitude of 9.0, it not only devastated the region but also triggered a series of tsunamis that reached as far as Hawaii and Japan. This tragic event serves as a stark reminder of the unpredictable forces of nature and the importance of understanding and mitigating seismic hazards. In this article, we delve into the events leading up to, during, and after the 1868 Arica earthquake, exploring its impact on the people and the lessons learned that continue to shape our approach to earthquake preparedness today.

Pre-Earthquake Context

In the mid-19th century, the coastal regions of South America were marked by political unrest and social turmoil. The town of Arica, a bustling port city, was no exception. It was an important trading hub, attracting merchants and travelers from across the world. However, beneath its thriving façade, the region was vulnerable to natural disasters, as it was located near the convergent boundary of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates.

The Earthquake Strikes

On that fateful day in 1868, at approximately 5:15 PM local time, the earth beneath Arica began to tremble violently. The massive earthquake's epicenter was located just off the coast, and its force rippled through the surrounding areas. Buildings crumbled, bridges collapsed, and the ground shifted, leaving the once-thriving town in ruins. The sheer magnitude of the earthquake, coupled with the unreinforced and poorly constructed buildings of the era, led to catastrophic consequences for the residents.

Tsunami Devastation

As if the earthquake's destruction wasn't enough, the shaking of the sea floor triggered a series of massive tsunamis. These towering waves, some reportedly over 20 meters high, struck the coastline with devastating force. The tsunamis inundated the town of Arica and its surroundings, wiping out entire communities and causing widespread loss of life. But the destruction did not end there; the tsunamis traveled across the Pacific Ocean, reaching as far as Hawaii, Japan, and even New Zealand, leaving a wake of destruction in their path.

Human Toll and International Aid

The human toll of the 1868 Arica earthquake and its tsunamis was staggering. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, and countless others were left injured, homeless, and traumatized. The aftermath of the disaster brought the plight of the affected communities to the attention of the international community, prompting a wave of relief efforts and humanitarian aid.

International Response and Scientific Interest

The earthquake piqued the interest of scientists and geologists worldwide, as it provided a rare opportunity to study the aftermath of such a powerful seismic event. Several scientific expeditions were sent to the region to study the geological effects of the earthquake and tsunamis, contributing significantly to the early understanding of seismology and tectonics.

Lessons Learned and Seismic Preparedness

The 1868 Arica earthquake served as a stark wake-up call for the region and the world. The disaster exposed the vulnerabilities of urban infrastructure and construction methods of the time, which played a significant role in exacerbating the death toll and destruction. As a result, building codes were reevaluated, and seismic-resistant construction techniques were developed to minimize damage in future earthquakes.

Beyond architecture, the disaster also highlighted the need for international cooperation in disaster relief efforts. The empathy and aid extended to the victims of the Arica earthquake marked a turning point in international humanitarian efforts and paved the way for future global relief initiatives.

Modern-Day Impact

The memory of the 1868 Arica earthquake and its tsunamis still echoes through the region and beyond. Today, Arica has been rebuilt and is a vibrant city, but the disaster remains a part of its collective memory. The event has also influenced seismic research and disaster preparedness strategies worldwide. It stands as a reminder that, despite advances in science and technology, we are still at the mercy of nature's forces, making earthquake preparedness and education vital components of ensuring the safety and resilience of communities in seismic-prone areas.


The 1868 Arica earthquake was a harrowing event that shook the world, both physically and metaphorically. The tragedy serves as a somber reminder of the unpredictable nature of earthquakes and the importance of taking proactive measures to mitigate their impact. By learning from the past and applying modern scientific knowledge, we can strive to create more resilient and prepared communities, ensuring that the memory of the 1868 Arica earthquake remains an enduring testament to the human spirit's strength in the face of adversity.

So what can we do to get better prepared?


A kit is not a safety blanket you just purchase to make yourself feel better, it is an important investment in your household’s safety and preparedness. Not all emergency kits are created equal, and we highly recommend using the Province of BC and Government of Canada resources when building or buying a kit. We are also pleased to offer Earthquake Kits that developed to meet the government requirements for emergency preparedness. Visit our Gov BC Earthquake Kit product page to view the contents of our kits and feel free to use this as a guideline for assembling your own. What’s important to us is not that you buy a kit from us, but that every household have a kit at the ready in case something unexpected should occur.


The Province of BC and the Federal Government have made huge strides in this area in recent years implementing an Emergency Notifications network through mobile carriers and testing it to great success levels. This can provide seconds to even minutes of advanced notice prior to an earthquake being felt in any given location. However, a network of this complexity relies on strategically positioned censors along the coastline. We need to continue expanding this network of sensors and make sure that existing censors are being properly monitored and maintained.

We also need to expand from mobile phone notifications to physical alarms in homes, buildings, and especially schools/daycares.

For more details on how this Early Detection Grid works, please check out the following video by the CBC several years ago.


Know the Hazards

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Build Your Kits

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Make Your Plan

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Guides and Resources

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Evacuation and Recovery Resources

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Education Programs and Toolkits

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