The Chilean coast, a go-to beach destination for many South Americans, is breathtakingly beautiful. Like the more famous Côte d’Azur in the South of France, winding roads hugging a jagged, rocky coastline and a glistening, azure blue ocean make the scenic drive along the coast a must if you’re vacationing in the area.
An ideal drive begins in Viña del Mar, ending in the affluent beach town of Zapallar, less than two hours to the north. To avoid traffic in the most congested areas, it’s best to get a start before 9 a.m., when there’s still a bit of morning haze and the streets are virtually empty.
From Viña del Mar, you’ll pass quickly through the beach city of Reñaca, continuing past an array of stacked condominium developments in white, brown, and peach hues. When you’ve driven past all the condos, look to your left for what might appear like a big brown rock or ledge, with a wooden signpost; this is a lookout point and worthwhile stop for a photo op.
Perched at the top of the lookout point, the beach cities of Reñaca, Viña del Mar and Valparaíso are easily visible. The color of the ocean, depending on the time of day, is a fantastic gradient of blue jewel tones — aquamarine, blue topaz, sapphire. Breathe in the cool ocean air, and take a quiet moment to contemplate the natural charm before continuing on your journey.
Not far from the lookout point, you’ll pass through the posterior section of Concón. Take note of restaurants such as Aquí Jaime or La Gatita, well known for offering some of the best local seafood in the area; they are good dinner destinations should you wish to make the return drive in the evening.
When you reach the beach area of Concón, take a short break to try the empanadas, a local specialty. You’ll find several outlets of La Casa Del Mono, which bills itself as the best empanadas in the world, but resist the urge to indulge until you find Las Deliciosas, located near the end of the throughway, across from the city’s main gas station.
An empanada institution in Concón since 1968, Las Deliciosas is a nationally recognized Chilean treasure: for about 1000 Chilean pesos (approximately $2 USD) the extra large, plump, paper-thin pockets of empanadas de carne (meat empanadas) are some of the best you’ll ever try, period. If you’re hungry, seafood empanadas, such as the empanadas de ostiones (oysters) or empanadas de mariscos (seafood), are also worth a try.
From Concón, you’ll move a bit inland, driving through an industrial area and passing by smaller cities such as Quintero and Horcón before you begin to see a hill sprinkled with white and glass luxury homes, reminiscent of Malibu or Laguna Beach. By the time you’ve reached the sprawling, affluent, master plan golf community of Costa Cachagua, you’ll have reached Zapallar.
Look for the signs indicating that Zapallar is 200 m to the left. First, drive to the small rocky park and promenade, set low below the million dollar beach homes, for alluring vistas and fantastic snapshots. It’s a bit hidden, but worth the effort to discover this small stretch of picture-perfect oceanside.
When you’re done taking photos, drive to El Chiringuito, a traditional restaurant on the coastal tip of Zapallar, nestled close to the mountain. Inside, heavy, hand-carved chairs shaped to look like fishtails, or other sea creatures, are haphazardly arranged in this charming seaside restaurant, the “it” place to go in the area. Outside, a lovely patio with white umbrellas sits right on the water with scapes of Zapallar public beach and ocean.
With the sound of seagulls in the air and the happy noise of beach laughter drifting in from the sea, indulge in a scrumptious meal of local seafood, such as their famous machas a la parmesana, or razor clams with parmesan sauce, and the equally delicious ostiones a la parmesana, or scallops in parmesan sauce. Other options include the centolla, or king crab, or a plate of grilled fish. Wash the meal down with freshly squeezed cherimoya juice or a beer, followed by a sorbet dessert of exotic fruits such as lucuma with cherimoya.
After a laid-back lunch, take a lazy nap on the beach, rent a kayak, or frolic around at Zapallar beach until the sun goes down, then decide whether you want to stay at the local bed and breakfast, such as the delightful Casa Zapallar, or head back the way you came. Chances are, you’ll want to stay for the evening so that you can spend another day admiring the majestic scenery along the drive back.
Photos Courtesy of Mai Pham