Vina del Mar, Chile

Coastline at dawn in Vina del Mar, Chile (ThinkStock)

What to do in Vina del Mar

Viña del Mar (Viña) is a beach resort town about 75 miles northeast of Santiago, the inland capital of Chile, and is considered one of the premiere beach resort destinations in South America. The town was founded in the 1870's as a weekend retreat for wealthy vacationers from Santiago, and was made easily accessible with the arrival of the railroads. The area is comprised of several towns scattered over the Pacific coastline, from the main resort of Viña del Mar to Reñaca, Concón, Valparaiso, and several smaller towns and resorts. It is often referred to as the Chilean Riviera because of its warm Mediterranean climate—it's even pleasant during the rainy winter months—and also as the Orange County of Chile because it's full of high rise condos, surfing enthusiasts, and American-style suburban houses and shops all set on a seaside roadway that recalls the Pacific Coast Highway.

Divided by a palm-lined inlet called the Estero Marga Marga, Viña del Mar is especially beautiful where it meets with the Pacific Ocean. The Casino Municipal is located here, along with gorgeous old architecture peppered along the sea amidst the high rises. Within the city of Viña del Mar, beaches include Playa Caleta Abarca, Playa Los Artistas, Playa Casino, Playa Blanca and Playa el Sol, all getting progressively less crowded as you head up the coast towards Reñaca. Accessible from both Viña del Mar and Santiago, La Serena is about two hours to the north and Pichilemú, famous for its black sand, is about two hours to the south. Both are known for excellent surfing but are difficult to reach in a day trip from Santiago.

Valparaiso was once one of the most important ports in the world. The construction of the Panama Canal changed that, as it was no longer a major fueling station, and the once wealthy town went into decline. The Chilean navy is still headquartered here—check out the Museo Naval y Maritimo, a museum that covers the naval war history of Chile. Charmingly run down and full of colorful streets running into the hills overlooking the sea, the city is undergoing a renaissance as the Chilean government spends money trying to improve its tourism infrastructure. The Chilean congress was relocated here a few years ago as part of its revitalization process. There are no beaches within the town, though the harbor is an excellent area for sailing. Many international cruise ship lines begin or end their South American tours in Valparaiso.

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