Of Chile’s 4000km-plus coastline, the brief central strip between Rocas de Santo Domingo and Los Vilos is the most visited and developed. Known as the Litoral Central, this 250km stretch boasts bay after bay lined with gorgeous, white-sand beaches, and a string of coastal resort towns. Valparaíso (“Valpo” for short) and Viña del Mar (or “Viña”) sit next to each other near the middle of the strip. They are geographical neighbours, but poles apart in appearance and atmosphere.
Viña is Chile’s largest beach resort and one of its ritziest. With its high-rises, casino, and seafront restaurants, as well as the beaches and clubs in nearby Reñaca, Viña typifies modern hedonism. Valparaíso, on the other hand, has far more personality, with ramshackle, colourful houses spilling chaotically down the hills to the sea (but no decent beaches). For stretches of sand, you’ll need to head south or north.
Closest to Santiago, via the “Autopista del Sol” (Ruta 78), are the resorts south of Valparaíso, which are busier and more developed. Further south, there’s an almost uninterrupted string of cabañas, villas and small, unappealing resorts. Even so, it’s still possible to find places with charm and soul, especially where Pablo Neruda found them, at Isla Negra – though it, too, is fast being swallowed up by development.
Heading north of Viña you leave most of the concrete behind at Concón, and from Horcón up, the coast begins to look more rugged and feels distinctly wild and windswept by the time you reach Maitencillo, where sandstone cliffs tower above a huge, white beach. The stretch from here to Papudo is easily the most beautiful of the region. Not even the new villas and second-home complexes that have sprung up along here have managed to spoil Zapallar, the most architecturally graceful of the resorts, or Papudo, a small town dramatically hemmed in by steep, green hills. Two more resorts lie further north: Los Vilos and Pichidangui.