Located 120km (75mi) away from the heart of Santiago, the cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar are two major touristic destinations in central Chile. They both stand by the Pacific coast, have approximately the same population (some 300,000 people each) and, well, that’s pretty much all they have in common. Even though both these cities are contiguous and only 8km (5mi) stand between their central areas, each city lives in its own rhythm.
On one hand, Valparaiso is hectic thanks to its popular commerce, markets and the bureaucratic institutions common to a regional capital (the National Congress still sits here, as it did when this city was the national capital). Life in Valparaiso is all set around its very own and sometimes chaotic microcosms made of a never ending parade of micros (small city buses), colectivos (shared taxis that follow pre-defined routes), trolleys (buses connected to the electric network), students, tourists, street vendors and dogs. Oh yes, dogs: I was never able to collect concrete figures regarding the canine density of Chile, but it’s pretty high; in Valparaiso they are a constant and friendly presence in the urban landscape.
In spite of that, even among dog lovers, very few people come to Valparaiso in order to marvel at its hundreds of street dogs. The Pearl of the Pacific, as the city is fondly known, captivates its visitors mainly due to the way urban development took over the hills surrounding the city center. No visit to this city would be complete without a walk through the narrow streets of the Alegre and Concepción Hills, stopping at the Gervasoni and Yugoslavo viewpoints, admiring the old buildings and taking a delicious breakfast , lunch or dinner at one of its restaurants. These hills are easily accessible through two asensores (funicular railways): Concepción and Reina Victoria. The funiculars of Valparaiso are, by the way, attractions on their own right and, although they are still used as regular transportation between the low and high areas of the city, they are nevertheless a great opportunity to travel back in time while contemplating excellent views over the city and the Valparaiso Bay.
For spectacular views of the city and the bay you should take, for example, ascensor Artillería, near the harbour, which grants access to the Maritime Museum, or asensor Barón, in the city’s east end. A broader view, although not as impressive, can be obtained from La Sebastiana, one of the three houses owned by Pablo Neruda (the other two are Isla Negra, in San Antonio, and La Chascona, in Santiago). This house deserves a visit from those interested in architecture and in getting familiar with the lifestyle of this Nobel Prize laureate. Not far from La Sebastiana, towards downtown, there is another nice attraction offered by the city: the Open-air Museum. Spread over a sector of the Bellavista Hill, and requiring trekking several stretches of staircases, it is possible to view 20 murals painted over some of this neighborhoods’ walls. Besides the murals, the local architecture and panoramic views are also worth it.
Neighboring Viña del Mar, on the other hand, functions on a much calmer rhythm, at least between March and December. San Martin, Peru, Marina and Borgoño, the main avenues forming the coastal drive are well cared for and are usually pedestrian friendly. The main streets and avenues of the city are carefully and periodically decorated and have earned the city a nickname: Garden City. The main postcard of Viña del Mar is, by the way, its Flowers Clock, located at the southern slope of the Castillo Hill, next to the Sheraton hotel. Another attraction worth a visit while in the city is the Fonck Museum: its external garden features an Eastern Island moai. This is the only place, apart from the British Museum, in London, where an authentic moai can be seen outside the island.
Although it is true that the city is relatively calm for its size during most of the year, things change completely between New Year’s week and the end of February. As hundreds of thousands of summer vacationers arrive, mostly coming from Santiago but also from Argentina and other parts of Chile, Viña del Mar is converted into the Chilean “summer capital”. Reñaca, a district 6km (3.7mi) north of downtown Viña, is the busiest during the season and every inch of both its boardwalk as sand strip become sought after pieces of real estate. The peak of the season happens during the second half of February, when Viña del Mar hosts its International Music Festival, which has been featuring mostly Latin but also other high profile international artists for decades. During that week, Viña del Mar becomes a mandatory stop for all Chilean celebrities and wannabes.
Since the area doesn’t have its own commercial airport, the easiest way to get to Valparaiso or Viña del Mar is through Santiago’s airport, located 110km (70mi) from both cities. The Casablanca Valley makes for an excellent stop halfway down the road, mainly for those interested in knowing more about the wine riches of Chile. Those willing to continue exploring the country can, for example, head north to La Serena, gateway to the Elqui Valley, located 430km (265mi) north of Viña del Mar.