A weekend in the Chilean Central Coast: Viña del Mar, Valparaíso and Isla Negra
This article is specially designed for those visiting Chile for few days. In previous entries we have already mentioned the attractions of Santiago, so this time we’re going to propose a complementary route because it is one that can be done in just one weekend and is also very close to the capital. We’ll explore a circuit of the Chilean Central Coast that includes Viña del Mar, also known as the "Garden City", then the port of Valparaíso, also known as "The Pearl of the Pacific", and we’ll end up in one of the most important coastal towns that form part of the Litoral de los Poetas. We’re referring to Isla Negra, where the famous poet and lover of the sea, Pablo Neruda, lived.
Viña del Mar
Viña is one of the most important tourist cities in all of Chile. It’s located 120 kilometers from Santiago and can be reached in two and a half hours of travel either by private vehicle or passenger buses. The latter depart every day and every twenty minutes from the San Borja, Alameda and Pajaritos terminals.
The first thing that will call your attention when you arrive in this city is the great care of the surroundings, the beautiful park gardens and squares, and the varied offer of entertainment and gastronomy. Viña is known for its casino located in a historic Greco-Roman style building, in which the visitor will find elegant and spacious rooms where you can play endless games of chance, from the noisy slots to the classic roulette and the inevitable blackjack.
Viña also has one of the most popular beaches for young people, we’re referring to Reñaca, whose summer beach explodes and transforms into a stage for outdoor musical events. Many local and international television programs are also set up in Reñaca during the summer to cover the Viña Festival, which adds a touch of glamor and a bit of entertainment to the summer nights.
However, if you’re searching for a little more peace and quiet, Viña also has other beaches such as the Marineros, Las Salinas and Playa Estero. Another suitable family-friendly panorama is to visit the botanical garden located within the Quinta Vergara Park. The Vergara Palace stands in its interior, which in turn contains the Museum of Fine Arts. Some other interesting buildings here are the Rioja Palace, the Fonck Museum, the Anquetín Museum, the Carrasco Palace, Wulff Castle, or the Municipal Theater. Viña's most famous postcard at in the Clock of Flowers, a beautiful and colorful garden of plants and flowers that form the numbers and hands of a clock.
Travel Tip: In Viña del Mar there are a variety of hotel offers, but we recommend choosing one with an ocean view. Prices for a double room fluctuate between USD 50 and USD 245. The difference is noticeable, but it has to do mainly with location of the hotel, its internal offer of entertainment and relaxation (spa, restaurant, etc.) and the size of its facilities. Regardless, there’s nothing a good boutique hotel won’t offer compared to the best Viña Hotel if you’re staying just for one night.
Valparaíso and Viña del Mar are urban cities that are literally right next to each other and can be reached by public transport or even by taxi. However, Valpo is very different from Viña. Of course it’s a matter of personal preference, but if you’re expecting to find beautiful and neat gardens like in Viña, we must warn you that this will not be the case. You’ll need be prepared to tour the main port of Chile with an open mind, because it’s a strange city that was built without a regulatory plan, meaning that it emerged in a chaotic and impromptu way.
Valparaiso has an aroma of poetry, of artists' gatherings, of bohemianism and of the melancholy from past glories. It’s the city of murals and graffiti, of and stray cats and dogs, of cobblestone, and of passages. It’s a place where creativity flows without limits, and this can be seen not only on its walls, but also in the hundreds of cultural spaces and the ateliers that many artists have decided to install here.
The attractions of "Valpo" can be appreciated from the moment you arrive in the city, starting with the peculiar public transport. Being located on several hills, the authorities had to develop a system of elevators that connect different points of the flat areas with the neighborhoods that are up higher, which greatly alleviates the walk that otherwise is done by climbing stairs of infinite steps. The old trolley buses or "trolleys" are also preserved, a type of bus that runs off the energy of the cables that hang over the streets through which they circulate. These begin their journey from the flat areas and reach Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion, without a doubt the most touristic neighborhoods of Valparaíso. Once there you will find a varied offer of hostels and boutique hotels (not large hotels).
In Valparaíso the best panorama is seen simply by walking, it’s a city to get lost in, explore, and take pictures. We recommend visiting the Bismarck Square, the Yugoslavo Walk, the Atkinson Passage, the Polanco Hill lift, the Matriz Square and the Market. If you visit the latter, you can’t miss out on the opportunity to eat a good plate of fried fish with a side or a paila marina, very fresh dishes with good prices (7 USD approximately).
Travel tips: Staying up in the hills of Valpo is not recommended for people with some type of motor disability; for the simple reason that they will need to go up and down many stairs and walk along small streets that do aren’t always perfectly paved or have cobblestones in the best conditions. For these visitors the most comfortable option will be to stay in the flat downtown, and to take taxis if they wish to visit a bar, restaurant or museum that is up in the hills.
Accommodations in boutique hotels in Valparaíso usually have the same prices as Viña del Mar although they do not include a spa or restaurant inside their facilities. This is because they’re usually restored buildings with heritage and architectural value, or in some cases because they have been designed by renowned artists or interior decorators. The added value of the hotel is also the aesthetic experience of lodging in a place with these characteristics. Undoubtedly the cheapest option which is also a good one is to stay in a hostel, which is usually the most popular choice among young American and European tourists. One night in a single room in Cerro Alegre will cost on average about USD 60 per night and USD 30 if it’s in a shared room.
Assuming that it’s Sunday morning and that you’re having breakfast in Valparaiso looking out over the sea and getting ready to leave for Isla Negra, you have the necessary directions to get there provided here: you’ll need to go to the bus terminal located on Pedro Montt Street and buy a ticket from the company Peñuelas Pullman Bus. The trip costs about 5 USD in low season and 7 USD in high season. The trip takes an hour and a half, so you’ll be able to sleep for a while and recover if you went out in Buenos Aires the night before.
When you get to Isla Negra you’ll experience the contrast with what you saw in Viña and Valpo, since now you’ll find yourself in a much smaller and rustic village with low wooden houses and the odd old house of the old santiaguina aristocracy. Originally called Las Gaviotas (the seagulls), the town officially changed its name after Pablo Neruda fell in love with this place and renamed it with its current name. Some say he called it Isla Negra because it was the refuge that this poet chose to isolate himself from the world on his return from Europe, a period in which he wrote one of his greatest works, the Canto General.
It’s not a true beach, since the it’s access impeded by extensive and dark rocks. Isla Negra is rather a place where tourists can connect with the emotional impression that invaded Neruda the first time he saw breaking the furious waves of the Pacific on that jagged coast. No doubt the greatest attraction here is the museum of the poet’s house, which was expanded and refurbished little by little until it became his favorite, since he had three houses in total. The other two were the Chascona and the Sebastiana. Entrance to the Isla Negra museum house costs 6.5 USD and the operating hours are from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Travel Tip: Once you’ve finished your visit to Neruda's house, you may want to grab a bite to eat before returning to Santiago. We recommend a restaurant called El Rincon de la Florencia which is a few meters away. You won’t regret it, you’ll find typical dishes and large portions made with fresh sea products, meats, bread dough and also menus for children here. Good prices and the best service. A meal for two people costs around USD 48.
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By: Brian Gray, Chilean anthropologist and muralist specializing in urban visual culture