A 15min bus or train ride is all it takes to exchange the colourful cerros and chaotic alleys of Valparaíso for the tree-lined avenues and ostentatious high-rises of Viña del Mar. This is Chile’s largest and best-known beach resort, drawing tens of thousands of mostly Chilean vacationers each summer. In many ways, it’s indistinguishable from beach resorts elsewhere in the world, with oceanfront condos, bars, restaurants and a casino. But lurking in the older corners of town are extravagant palaces, elegant villas and sumptuous gardens. Many date from the late nineteenth century when Viña del Mar – then a large hacienda – was subdivided into plots that were sold or rented to the wealthy families of Valparaíso and Santiago who came to spend their summers by the sea. The city also has a pair of beautiful botanical gardens and a museum with an important collection of Easter Island art.
North of Viña, the coast road meanders to the small fishing village of Papudo, about 75km away, and beyond to the farming town of La Ligua from where you can reach the family resort of Los Vilos. Hugging the oceanside in some stretches, darting inland in others, the northern coast road is far quieter than its southern counterpart, and very beautiful in parts. Cachagua and Zapallar are the most exclusive resorts along this coast. Countless local buses head to Reñaca and neighbouring Concón, but services to the other resorts further north are less frequent; most can also be reached from Valparaíso and Santiago. Unless you have your own vehicle, the best option is to pick one or two places and head for these, rather than resort-hopping on public transport.
Lively, developed Reñaca, 6km north of central Viña, is a 1.5km stretch of coast lined with bars, restaurants and apartment blocks. The beaches are among the cleanest (and busiest) in the country, and the resort is particularly popular with Chile and Argentina’s beautiful young things. Reñaca’s clubs are pricey but remain lively throughout the summer. Accommodation is generally overpriced; you’re better off staying in Viña.
Concón, 10km north of Reñaca, is a strange sort of place: part concrete terraced apartment blocks, part elegant villas with flower-filled gardens, and part rundown, working-class fishing village, with six beaches spread out along the bay. When the wind is blowing south, nasty fumes drift over from the nearby oil refinery.
The most interesting bit of town is La Boca, the ramshackle commercial centre at the mouth of the Río Aconcagua. The caleta here was used to export the produce of the haciendas of the Aconcagua valley in the nineteenth century and is now a bustling fish quay, lined with modest marisquerías.
The most popular beaches are the rapidly developing Playa Amarilla and Playa Negra, south of La Boca, both good for bodyboarding. More attractive, and quieter, is Playa Ritoque, a long stretch of sand a few kilometres north of town.
The charming and picturesque – if slightly tatty – fishing village of Horcón, about 30km north of Concón, is a chaotic tumble of houses straggling down the hill to a rocky bay. (En route, you’ll pass Quintero, a scruffy, forbidding town with filthy beaches, to be avoided at all costs.) In the summer, Horcón is taken over by artisans on the beach selling jewellery made from seashells and unfeasible numbers of young Chileans who come to chill out for the weekend; this is the hippy alternative to Reñaca.
The beach in front of the village is crowded and uninviting, but a short walk up the main street and then along Avenida Cau-Cau takes you down a steep, rickety staircase to the remote Playa Cau-Cau, a pleasantly sheltered beach surrounded by wooded hills, though a hideous condo mars the beauty of the area. An hour’s walk along the beach north towards Maitencillo takes you to Playa Luna, a nudist beach.
Stretching 4km along one main street, Maitencillo is little more than a long, narrow strip of holiday homes, cabañas and hotels along the shoreline. The chief reason for coming here is Playa Aguas Blancas, a superb white-sand beach sweeping 5km south of the village, backed by steep sandstone cliffs.
The classiest and most attractive of all the Litoral’s resorts, Zapallar is a sheltered, horseshoe bay backed by lushly wooded hills where luxurious holiday homes and handsome old mansions nestle between the pine trees. Apart from the beach, you can also stroll along the coastal path around the bay, or walk up Avenida Zapallar, admiring the early twentieth-century mansions. More strenuous possibilities include hiring a sea-kayak or climbing the 692m Cerro Higuera.
The development in Papudo, just 10km around the headland, hasn’t been as graceful as in Zapallar, and several ugly buildings mar the seafront. However, the steep hills looming dramatically behind the town are undeniably beautiful, and the place has a friendly, local atmosphere. The best beach is Playa Grande.
North of the Papudo–La Ligua crossroads, the Panamericana follows the coast for some 200km before dipping inland again, towards Ovalle. This stretch of highway takes you past a succession of gorgeous, white-sand beaches dotted with a few fishing villages and small resorts. Set 4km back from the Panamericana, 50km beyond the Papudo–La Ligua interchange, is Pichidangui, with a lovely beach, up there with Chile’s finest: 7km of white, powdery sand fringed by eucalyptus trees, with little beachfront development to spoil the view.
Local legend has it that Los Vilos, 30km north of Pichidangui, takes its name from the Hispanic corruption of “Lord Willow”, a British pirate who was shipwrecked on the coast and decided to stay. The town later became notorious for highway robberies. Today it is a great place to spend a couple of days by the sea without paying over the odds. However, it gets incredibly packed in January and February. The town’s chief attraction is its long golden beach, but there’s also a fish market and Isla de los Lobos, a seal colony 5km south of the bay.
Top image: Sea beach rock Chile Viña del Mar © Giova Garcia/Shutterstock