Many visitors to the Central Region of Chile focus on Santiago and rightly so, as the capital has much to offer. They view a trip to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar as a chance to visit the coast, maybe taking in the wineries in the Casablanca valley on the way. There is much to see and enjoy in both these cities and winery visits are always relaxing and enjoyable. So precious days are consumed merely with this itinerary.
However, if you have access to a car and time available, then try to make the coastal journey from Valparaíso all the way north to Concón – you will be rewarded with outstanding scenery all the way. This is coastal scenery ‘up close and personal’ – the narrow road winds around huge rock formations, through many coastal fishing communities and beach playgrounds, and past sky-high dunes with the pounding surf never far away. Vegetation is clearly Mediterranean, with riots of colour from the many bouganvillas that cascade over the terraced homes and rental apartments. This is where Santiaguinos, Argentinians, Brazilians and other neighbours come in their thousands to spend their summer vacations. January and February are the peak months, when the vast beaches of Viña and Renaca are swarming with oiled and bronzed sun-seekers.
Viña has a very extensive beach extending north to include the Salinas area opposite the Naval Academy, with exercise equipment, children’s play areas and other distractions on the wide promenade. After a short and twisting section of the coast, the next main beach centre is Renaca. This is party central for all nationalities during the summer months. Beach activities are never-ending and when the sun begins to set, the party moves to the beachfront outdoor-drinking establishments until the wee hours. Along the entire expanse of Renaca, apartments and condos seem to climb up the hillside in terraces.
Immediately after Renaca, the small bay of Cochoa shows how development can blight the landscape, as huge towering apartment buildings seem to cover all of the land. The inhabitants can all certainly enjoy a wonderful view of the Pacific from their vantage point, but I doubt if the sea creatures looking landward could feel the same. However, the drive continuing north still provides outstanding views despite rental properties everywhere and developers only too eager to satisfy the incessant demand. Development continues unabated mostly land-side of the sea-hugging coastal road. On the ocean side between the fishing communities, there are a few restaurants that seem to cling precariously to the rocks. The road towards Concón is memorable at this point and there are several stopping points where it is possible to clamber amongst the rocks, get thoroughly soaked from sea spray or simply admire the ocean scenery. This is where you will see rock-climbers and surfers practising their skills and pelicans swooping among the waves. Drivers need to be cautious, as each turn in the winding road brings new visual stimuli.
The small fishing community of Higuerillas seems to have avoided the main excesses of the apartment building boom (at least for now) as its hillside slopes are mostly covered by homes and low apartment buildings, which permits greenery and colourful blossoms to still be visible. Like all of the fishing communities along this coastal stretch, you will find welcoming restaurants, all with a guaranteed view of the ocean, a menu dominated by simple but fresh seafood and friendly service.
A little further on is the town of Concón, which is a much more bustling and larger beachfront community. It is certainly very colourful in many respects but maybe lacks a little of the charm of the others. It is here that the coastal road ends its love affair with the ocean and turns a little inland for about a 30-minute stretch before reaching the other holidaymakers’ playgrounds of Maitencillo, Cachagua, Zapallar and Marbella. It is also here that the connector to the Ruta 5 begins which provides an alternative route back to Santiago through the fertile Aconcagua valley. That is for those who need to be back to the capital in a hurry, otherwise turn around and once again let all your senses enjoy the feast on the journey back.
January and February is peak season so expect heavy traffic on the narrow coastal road, multitudes of sun-worshippers everywhere and difficulties finding parking spaces. In peak season expect the journey, without planned stops, from Valparaiso to Concón to take maybe one and a half to two hours. The same journey out of high season will take much less time and will be much more relaxing.
View Valparaíso to Concón in a larger map