Viña del Mar is a happening coastside resort town on the Pacific Ocean. Rich Chileans and fashionable international tourists horde the beaches, flock to the trendy bars and restaurants, browse the high-fashion boutiques, gamble their earnings away at the casino, sway to the live music being performed beachside at the main plaza, or take the new train to Viña’s next-door neighbor, the famous port city Valparaíso. Brand new houses and highrise condos mingle with 19th century churches and castles, giving Viña an intriguing ambiance of modern chic colonial.
My mid-afternoon arrival from Santiago allowed plenty of time for me to scout out the town of Viña before the sun went down. From my hostel on the top of Cerro Castillo, a hill that served as a fort in colonial Viña and today serves as an opulent haven from the fever of the town below, I reverse hiked to the bottom of the hill and headed straight for the beach. I had no plans to spend time at the beach as I wasn’t equipped for sunbathing. It must have been the invisible magnet present at all beaches that mysteriously pulls me to the seaside.
Turns out, I wouldn’t have been able to find a spot to lay on the beach anyway. I have never seen a beach more congested with people than the Playa Caleta Abarca in Viña that afternoon. Fortunately, there were other interesting attractions nearby. Engineered on a bluff over the coast near the base of Cerro Castillo is Castillo Wulff, a building that is a unique medley of French villa and medieval castle. Built as a chalet in 1908 by a German businessman, Castillo Wulff was transformed into a castle in 1916 and turned into an art exhibition center in 2005.
It would be really fun to live in a castle. Inland from the castle are a gothic-looking church and some old palaces turned museum or library. A layer of spooky black clouds was pouring in from somewhere east, casting an eerie aura around the historical buildings. The Palacio Carrasco, now the city library and cultural center, looked like a haunted mansion with its backdrop of black clouds and the sun illuminating its ghost-colored facade.
I strolled around the neighborhood of new condos, restaurants, and shopping interspersed with old Viña landmarks before making my way towards home. On my way back to Cerro Castillo, I noticed another castle commanding the top of the hill, demanding that I get a closer look before I went in for the night. (That must be why they call it “Castle Hill.”) I absorbed the quiet of the blocks of gated mansions and trees in the wealthy hill neighborhood until I finally came across the towering castle. Slowly walking by, I surreptitiously snapped a few pics, trying to be sly in case it was one of those places of which photographs are forbidden.
All of a sudden, a man’s voice called out “hijita,” which I knew to mean something like “little girl.” There was no one else around, so I figured it had to be for me. He was saying something about a photo, so I thought he was either mad at me for taking a photo of something I wasn’t supposed to or wanted to take a photo with me.
Wrong on both accounts. He gestured for me to follow him, unlocked the heavy door of the castle, and led me into the gated castle garden, overlooking the ocean and the casino and plaza area. He was letting me into the castle so I could take pictures! What a totally unexpected and welcome surprise. I took a flurry of pictures from the garden. My new friend then proceeded to give me a personal tour of the entire castle, from dining room, parlor, banquet room, and balconies, all the way up to the turret at the top.
The Brunet family began construction on their castle in 1923 but never finished it. Castillo Brunet is currently owned by the Carabineros of Chile and is used as a sort of hotel and events center for very high ranking officials in the police department. It is open to the public only one day out of the year, in May. Needless to say, I was very lucky to be receiving this private tour!
Viña’s beachside promenade stretches all along the coast and is crowded with runners and bikers. With the Pacific erupting over rocks to the left, new condos rising up to the right, and beautiful people running and riding in both directions, it is the perfect running spot. I had no excuse but to join the other motivated exercisers for a Sunday morning run, speeding (well, slowly jogging) past jam-packed beaches and rocky crags.
Bursting with exercise endorphins, I prepared for a busy afternoon in Valparaíso, a city built on dozens of steep hills and one of the main ports for Atlantic-Pacific traversing ships before the construction of the Panama Canal. To get to the top of the precipitous hills, locals and tourists ride ascensores, which are old and creaking elevators and cable cars built into or along the hillsides. My first impression of the city was that it was quite grimy. It seemed the best way to view the city would be from one of the hills, so I found the entrance to an elevator, trudged through a sewer-like tunnel, and screeched my way up Cerro Polanco in the ancient elevator.
The city was indeed less dingy from above, a mosaic of brightly painted houses stretching in a colorful downward slope from the top of the hill behind me all the way to the harbor below. Next, I climbed into a packed local bus that twisted and turned its way to the top of Cerro Florida before dropping me off in front of La Sebastiana, one of three homes of Pablo Neruda, the internationally exalted Chilean poet. A staunch supporter of communism and a Nobel Prize of Literature winner, Neruda seemed like he was an eccentric but extremely fun guy.
His Valparaíso house is full of crazy artifacts and art that were meaningful to him for some reason or another, gifts and things he acquired because he loved them, including an old merry-go-round horse, a stuffed bird, and a life-size portrait of Walt Whitman, his “father in poetry.” He loved to have parties and entertained well, serving cocktail concoctions to his guests from behind his bar, forbidding any one but himself from tending bar. His best parties were on New Years Eve, when the harbor fireworks show provided stunning midnight entertainment for his lucky invitees.
Inspired by the poetry of Neruda’s house, without actually having read any poetry, I set off for another hill. The cable car up the side of Cerro Concepción slowly scraped its way along its rails, unhurriedly rising from the coastline to the upbeat and expressive hill neighborhood of flattop buildings in every color imaginable, from foam green to salmon pink to Husky purple to canary yellow. I disembarked and set out into the neighborhood, only to find that in order to continue to the top, I had to climb a series of colorful steps that took the place of the sidewalk.
I have always felt a bit of pride for San Francisco’s hills, but I have to admit, our hills are nothing compared to those in Valparaíso. The locals must be in really good shape. Restaurants, bars, galleries, boutiques, churches, palaces, hotels, and harbor views rounded out the hip artsy neighborhood, making it so there’s really no reason to go down once you make the trek up to Cerro Concepción.
Alas, I eventually had to go down. Near the bottom of the hill is the Port, where huge shipping vessels congregate and overpriced tourist boats depart. I gazed at the ships for awhile – after all, they are what puts Valparaíso on the map – then took the new coastal train back to Viña. My legs needed a day to recover from my coastside run and hours of traversing Valparaíso, so I spent the next day getting sunburnt at the Playa Los Marineros.
Rested and rejuvenated, although with some very pink skin, it was time for me to leave central Chile. I was gearing up for a long walk with my luggage to the bus terminal from my hostel, when the owner of my hostel, Patricio, asked if I wanted him to give me a tour of the outskirts of Viña before dropping me off at the bus station. Um, yes! Patricio grew up in Viña del Mar, so he had great memories from each of the places he showed me. As a kid, each summer he’d gotten to visit Palacio Presidencial, the president’s vacation home, to play in the yard and meet the president. During his childhood, he’d met four presidents, from liberal Frei to dictator-esque Pinochet.
We stopped at Laguna Sausalito, a pond named after Sausalito, California, a sister city of Viña. Apparently there is a square in Sausalito called Viña del Mar. I will have to check that out when I get home! We also drove through Con Cón, where the rolling sand dunes are slowly being replaced by new highrise condos, and Reñaca, where the “rico” people go to sunbathe and flaunt their hotness. After a camarón and queso empanada lunch, Patricio dropped me off at the bus terminal. Now I am waiting for the overnight bus that will take me south to Puerto Montt.