The Charms of Viña del Mar, Along Chile’s Coast
Tomas Munita for The New York Times
By MICHAEL T. LUONGO
Published: May 20, 2011
DANNY DIAZ stared out into the Pacific, scanning the water, ready to dash at the right moment. “We are here to catch a sider,” Mr. Diaz, 24, said, referring to what he considers the perfect wave, as he stood on the sandy embankment where the inlet Estero Marga Marga meets the ocean in Viña del Mar, Chile. He was with a group of friends, all skimboarders, a sport Mr. Diaz described as “a mix between skateboarding and surfing.”
Tomas Munita for The New York Times
Mr. Diaz, a South American skimboarding champion, called Viña del Mar “the Chilean version of Laguna,” adding that “here you need to use more technique than in California.” The water is chilly — the reason he’s in a wetsuit — but that doesn’t stop wave fanatics in this stretch of the Pacific coast.
Up and down the coast from Viña, you’ll find other surfing hot spots, but the region is about more than just waves. It’s less expensive than some other well-known South American resorts, like Uruguay’s Punta del Este, and is popular with Argentines and Brazilians, who come for its family-friendly atmosphere. Media stars and cultural elite from Santiago, the Chilean capital, also head here during the summer high season, which runs from December to February, adding a touch of glamour. (Prices are generally lower and crowds smaller during the coming low season.)
Viña del Mar, Spanish for “vineyard by the sea,” is simply called “Viña” by Chileans, or sometimes “Garden City.” Among the largest resorts on the South American Pacific coast, with a population of about 300,000, the city is an hour and a half west of Santiago. Visitors from the United States and Canada often come only for a day, pairing it with a stop in neighboring Valparaíso, before returning to Santiago or their cruise ship. But as Chile opens its complex charms to more visitors, that routine is beginning to change. (Viña’s draw is well known to Chileans, including the president, whose summer residence is there.)
Viña began in the 1870s as a resort suburb of Valparaíso, connected to that city and to the capital by train. After a 1906 earthquake damaged Valparaíso, Viña expanded with newarchitecture transforming its seaside cliffs. One such structure is Castillo Wulff, a Germanic turreted granite castle set on a rocky point. Over the years, it has become a symbol of the city (much like the nearby giant floral clock that spells out the city’s name and faces the ocean, offering a brilliant greeting to passing cruise ships). Called Cerro Castillo, or Castle Hill, this part of town is one of the oldest, full of other century-old whimsical homes jutting from the cliffs. The city is divided by the Estero Marga Marga, lined with colorful midcentury high-rise towers, their facades faceted by balconies tilting to the sea.
Earthquakes are an ongoing part of Chile’s history, and though Viña suffered modest damage from the February 2010 quake, it is still overcoming perceptions of greater devastation, said Arturo Grez, the city’s tourism director. He added that he had told Argentine tour operators that “Viña del Mar and Valparaíso are still functioning normally,” with restaurants and hotels open. (Some museums in older structures, like the Museo de Bellas Artes, were damaged and remain closed.)
The other challenge, Mr. Grez said, is getting visitors from the United States and Canada to spend more than a day here. “If you sleep in Viña, you see more things,” he said, regardless of the season: the ski resort Portillo is only two hours away; the Casablanca Valley wineries, best visited during the harvest season in March, is a 45-minute trip. But Viña is a great place for some simple relaxation. Mr. Grez compared the city to Miami. Indeed, it’s not unusual to find health-conscious locals jogging on the waterfront promenade, which was refurbished in 2010 with beachside fitness areas.
Beyond the beach, Viña offers an interesting array of festivals, the most important being the decades-old Viña del Mar International Song Festival, held in February in Parque Quinta Vergara (Sting headlined the 2011 festival).
Quinta Vergara, a hilltop park and cultural complex overlooking the city, serves as a cultural hub for Viña. Every weekend in January, the same amphitheater where the Song Festival is held also hosts the Conciertos de Verano, or Summer Concerts, with performances by classical musicians from Santiago’s Municipal Theater.
It is also the site of the Feria de Artesanía de Viña del Mar, or Handicrafts Fair, held in January and February; this year’s edition featured artists from 15 countries. All through the summer, a local handicrafts market is open daily on the oceanfront promenade. (The park is open year-round for strolling, jogging and other activities.)
Isabella Castro Freudenthal, a college professor living in Viña, recommended using the city as a home base to explore Chile’s seaside and the neighboring towns. “I always tell people ‘See Valparaíso because it’s beautiful and romantic, but stay in Viña del Mar because it is comfortable and safe,’ ” she said.
One lodging option for travelers is the 142-room waterfront Sheraton Miramar. Ms. Castro Freudenthal is a regular at its spa: “I can work out and look at the ocean,” she said. (It will soon have competition from a property under construction on the promenade. Currently in negotiations to be branded a Hyatt, it is scheduled to open in 2014.)
As one might expect from a resort town, Viña offers a variety of night-life options, much of which is centered at the 1930s-era Casino and Hotel del Mar, set in a palm-lined oceanfront park, and Ovo, its weekend nightclub. But there’s plenty to enjoy beyond the casino. Young locals, in fact, can recommend something for any weeknight. Prisilla La Rivera, 22, a part-time clothing designer who also works in the casino’s office, likes the boisterous Bar Spartako. “I come with my friends to share beers,” she said, “and the musicis great.”
A few blocks away, Café Journal is quiet during the day. But at night, D.J.’s spinning pop and rock classics from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s liven up the place. There’s not always dancing, but the bar’s manager, Francisco Araya, said, “if the people feel like moving, yes, there is.”
And there are plenty of options for those recovering from night-life jaunts. Tiffany Norwood, from Washington, D.C., said staying in Viña over a long weekend gave her time to savor the city on a trip with friends. “We ate brunch for hours; the pace reminded me so much of Italy, just swap pasta for seafood and grappa for pisco,” she said, adding, “when it comes to the wine, there’s no swapping needed.”
But it was the setting she liked most about Viña. “The beach is beautiful,” she said. “You have the sea with a mountain backdrop.”
Though it hosts familiar chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks along its main restaurant strip Avenida San Martín, Viña also offers semihidden culinary spots. In the cluster of narrow dead-end streets called Pasajes, several blocks from the casino, you’ll find family restaurants like the lunch-only Donde Willy, run by Miguel Valdivia. “People in Viña eat too many fast things,” Mr. Valdivia, 22, said. “The idea was to have a place where people could eat traditional food of Chile.”
During a recent visit, Mr. Valdivia showed off plates of cazuela de vacuno (beef slow-cooked in a stew of pumpkin, potato and choclo, a thick native corn) and merluza frita (fried hake, served in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and cilantro) — dishes culled from his mother’s recipes.
Right on the oceanfront, the food gets even fresher. In the small beach resort of Concón, a few miles north of Viña, fish are caught offshore in small boats and brought to Restaurante La Gatita, built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the ocean.
Claudia Kravetz, a 35-year-old lawyer based in Santiago, grew up in Viña and likes to visit the restaurant on weekends. “There’s a phrase we use in Chile — ‘bueno, bonito, barato’— good, pretty and cheap,” she said. “Gatita is like this.” (She warned that in season, Gatita, which doesn’t take reservations, might have a two-hour wait. You can put your name on a list and take a leisurely walk, she said.)
Gatita is also a favorite of Ms. Castro Freudenthal’s — and not just for the food. She said driving and looking at the vistas all along Avenida Borgoño, the shore-hugging road that leads from Viña to Concón, were pleasures all their own. “This is a real Chilean view,” she said. “There’s the beach, then a hill, a valley, then the mountains in the distance. It’s what makes me love living in Viña.”
IF YOU GO
A bus ride of about 90 minutes connects Santiago’s Central Station to Viña del Mar (visitevinadelmar.cl). TurBus (turbus.cl; 56-2-822-7500) has buses every 15 to 20 minutes, about 1,900 pesos, or $4.15 at 460 pesos to the dollar, each way.
WHERE TO STAY
The waterfront Sheraton Miramar Hotel & Convention Center (Avenida Marina 15; 56-32-238-8600; sheraton.com) has 142 rooms, all with ocean views. Doubles from $220. (Hotels in Chile generally accept dollars.)
The 60-room Casino and Hotel del Mar complex (Avenida Perú at Avenida Los Héroes; 56-32-250-0800; enjoy.cl) offers several restaurants, a spa and a nightclub, Ovo. Doubles from $667.
Hotel Monterilla (Avenida Dos Norte 65; 56-32-297-6950; monterilla.cl) is a boutique hotel off Plaza Mexico. Doubles from $159.
WHERE TO EAT
Ristorante San Marco (Avenida San Martín 597; 56-32-297-5304;ristorantesanmarco.cl) offers Italian and seafood specialties. Main courses from 7,200 pesos.
Donde Willy (Avenida Seis Norte 353, No 17 Pasaje Borgoño; 56-32-269-7971) has main courses starting at 2,000 pesos.
Restaurante La Gatita (Avenida Borgoño at Higuerillas, Concón) specializes in freshly caught fish; main courses start at 2,000 Chilean pesos.
Ovo (56-32-284-6100; enjoy.cl) is a weekends-only disco at the casino.
Bar Spartako (Avenida Valparaíso 90) is a rock bar popular with young locals that’s open from 2 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily.
Café Journal (Variante Agua Santa 4; 56-32-266-6654) hosts D.J.’s at night.