Chile’s best coastal towns
Viña del Mar
Since the 1800s, Santiaguinos have flocked to Viña’s beaches to escape the city’s summer heat.
If you don’t mind a crowd (and the towering condominiums), the beach and accompanying boardwalk offer a variety of treats: sunning yourself on a stretch of sand, a seaside artesanía (handmade crafts) market, and smaller stands with refreshments and ice cream.
Vendors wander the beaches selling cuchuflis and dulces. You can watch sand sculptors turn tiny grains into octopi, buffaloes…even characters from the Simpsons.
Since the roads can be congested, a bus from Santiago is most convenient. The ride from the University of Santiago station takes an a hour and a half, and you arrive in Viña, a twenty-minute walk from the beach.
La Caleta (Pan de Azucar National Park)
Pan de Azucar is a beachside national park located in the Atacama Desert. Though technically too small to be considered a town, it’s too pretty not to be on this list.
Bring your tent and for 3,500 pesos a night you can sleep under a cabana at Piqueros with a view of the beach to the west and the stark beauty of the Atacama to the east.
Or for even less, camp in the more crowded, party-friendly sites at Piqueros Norte and La Caleta. La Caleta is the “town” in Pan de Azucar, with two restaurants and a mini-market for stocking up on essentials.
Once you’ve had your fill of beach fun, take a boat tour for 5,000 pesos (about $9) to the island where 5,000 penguins have taken up residence. The boat gets close enough to see rows and rows of them, the juveniles still puffy with feathers and the couples standing together in the shade.
You can also hike up to the mirador for a killer view of the desert plain as it spreads out against the coastline.
Isla Negra is the site of Pablo Neruda’s favorite beach house. The famous Chilean poet referred to himself as a “cosista,” one who collects “things.”
His retreat is filled with glass paperweights, masks from around the world, colorful dishes — anything that caught his eye.
Outside, you can admire the view that inspired Neruda’s many poems and walk the beach.
The bus from Santiago drops you five minutes from the main highway, with nearby restaurants serving up quality fish like corvina and congrio.
Located to the south of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, Algarrobo’s tall waves and expansive sand provide a peaceful respite from the crowds, especially the farther you wander from downtown.
Rent kayaks, swim in calm waters, and take a ride on a raft, all within a protective alcove that makes the ocean look like a lake. Near the private condominium resort San Alfonso del Mar, walk for miles on the beach and lay out in relative isolation — a delightful alternative to normally crowded Chilean beaches.
While you’re there, take a peek at the resort, which claims the Guinness Book of World Records title for largest swimming pool in the world.
Located 100 miles northwest of Santiago, Cachagua is a small town with a two-mile beach and not much else.
If you want to relax and enjoy the sun and the waves, Cachagua is the perfect spot. If the water is too cold to your taste (and it will likely be, thanks to the Humboldt current coming from Antartica), take a boat to the nearby rocky island Monumento Isla Cachagua to observe the Humboldt penguins that nest there from September to April. Horse-ridding and surfing are also very popular activities.
Five miles north of Cachagua is Zapallar, a secluded small town that is the favourite destination of the weathly inhabitants of Santiago.
Don’t let Zapallar’s population scare you away and enjoy the beautiful coastal trail that provides a view of the ocean like no other. The beach is usually quiet, so it’s great for those in need of tranquility; however, the water is still very cold.
Valpo, as it’s affectionately known to locals, is a place of details.
Every corner, every nook offers something different and new: a clothing flea market, a gigantic mural, a purple house, a rustic restaurant with unobstructed views of the ocean, a coffeeshop that serves black coffee and refuses to offer Nescafe (instant coffee is ubiquitous in Chile).
It’s a city that must be walked. Take the ascensor accessed from Esmeralda Street and wander Cerro Concepcion, where you’ll find Café Concepcion on Papudo. The restaurant — and the hill for that matter — has a spectacular view of the bay.
Near the main plaza, order buttery Mil Hojas ice cream at Vitamin on Avenida Pedro Montt #1746.
La Serena is a beachtown, plain and simple. Its broad sidewalks and grid layout are easy to navigate, its people chill.
Visit Mercado La Recova for handmade jewelry, musical instruments, clothing, and plenty of food. Be sure to purchase a jar of homemade manjar, a sweet cream made from condensed milk popular in Chile.
Looking for the beach? Avenida del Mar, the coastal road, provides access to at least 10 of them.