From the Viña  suburb of Concón to Papudo, the northern coastal towns offer visitors the same general sorts of attractions, but they are not quite cookie-cutter beach resorts—in fact, in terms of clientele, there is considerable diversity among them.
Contiguous to Viña  but politically separate, Concón has been a holiday destination since the construction of a coastal highway and the first beach houses in 1917. From Reñaca, Avenida Borgoño follows the coastline past Playa Amarilla, the preferred beach for swimmers and sunbathers; Playa Negra is a favorite with body-boarders.
Concón’s greatest appeal, though, is the gaggle of seafood picadas at Caleta Higuerillas, near the Club de Yates, and at Playa La Boca, near the Río Aconcagua estuary. At Caleta Higuerillas, reached via a staircase from Avenida Borgoño, La Picá Horizonte (San Pedro 120, tel. 0322/903665) is an established favorite, but Picá los Delfines (San Pedro 130, tel. 0322/814919) and other nearby places are by no means inferior. At Playa La Boca, one of the most popular choices is La Perla del Pacífico (Av. Borgoño 25007, tel. 0322/812330).
About 16 kilometers north of the Río Aconcagua, a paved road heads west to Quintero, a working-class isthmian beach town that once was Lord Cochrane’s hacienda (Maria Graham was Cochrane’s guest during the 1822 earthquake). Before turning inland to Quillota and La Campana, Darwin rode here to see “the great beds of shells, which stand some yards above the level of the sea, and are burnt for lime.”
A few kilometers south of Quintero, the hamlet of Ritoque is the place where surfing started in Chile.
In a state of advanced but apparently arrested decay, the architecturally distinctive Hotel Monaco (21 de Mayo 1500, tel. 0322/930939, US$9 pp with shared bath–US$23 d with private bath) is an economical choice, but there are several others. Like Concón, Quintero has a score or more of seafood picadas, lining 21 de Mayo, for family-style dining.
Across Bahía Quintero, in what otherwise appears to be an industrial sacrifice area with a major power plant, the Estero de Puchuncaví is a wetland reserve that appears to be a environmental mitigation project.
Just to its north, at the tiny fishing port of Las Ventanas, salvage crews have finally finished pulling scrap metal off a grounded LPG tanker whose rusting rim barely sticks above the water. Despite the coal-fired power plant nearby, this is one of the north coast’s primo surfing spots.
About five kilometers north of Ventanas, on its namesake harbor and off the main highway, the community of Horcón is a combination fishing port and artisan/artists’ colony with a holdover reputation as a hippie hideaway. Its single main street dead-ends at the small but sheltered beach, where fisherfolk sell their catch directly to waterfront picadas.
Just to the south, Playa Cau Cau is a onetime nude beach that has gentrified but is now a more conventional destination for sunbathers, surfers, and swimmers. The only remaining nude beach is Playa La Luna, immediately south.
At Maitencillo, 12 kilometers north of Horcón, rocky outcrops along Avenida del Mar separate the long sandy beaches of Playa Aguas Blancas and Playa Larga, among the region’s best. Maitencillo’s dominant tourist institution, though, is the sprawling Marbella Resort (Km 35, Carretera Concón-Zapallar, tel. 0322/772020, fax 0322/772030, US$120–195 s/d), where rates depend on whether the room has garden or sea views.
Occupying most of the broad hilltop above Avenida del Mar, Marbella is an all-inclusive resort with a conference center, restaurants, and bars, with recreational facilities that include swimming pools and tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, a 9-hole par 3, and polo grounds (Chile has few public golf courses, but guests can play here).
For everything it offers, the rates are not excessive, and there’s a variety of weekend and weeklong packages; for more details contact Marbella’s Santiago headquarters (Av. 11 de Septiembre 2155, Torre A, Oficina 604, tel. 02/2065454, fax 02/2283198, www.marbella.cl ).
Filled with Santiaguino weekend and vacation houses, 10 kilometers north of Maitencillo, Cachagua is an upscale village where kids ride docile horses and plump burros over hardpacked sandy roads. There are no accommodations, but the beachfront restaurant Los Coirones, reached via a staircase at the south end of Avenida Los Eucaliptos, is a good lunch alternative.
Opposite the west end of the beach, bring binoculars to view the Humboldt penguins and other seabirds at Conaf’s Monumento Natural Isla Cachagua, separated from the mainland by a 100-meter channel. Measuring only 300 by 150 meters, the nearly barren granitic island harbors a breeding population of 1,000 to 2,000 Humboldt penguins, roughly 10 percent of the global population and 15 percent of the Chilean population. There are also brown pelicans, cormorants, oystercatchers, Dominican gulls, and other bird species, while sea lions and otters frolic offshore, the otters subsisting on the abundant shellfish. While divers take some sea urchins and other shellfish, the human disturbance is minimal.
Three kilometers north of Cachagua and 80 kilometers from Viña , curving tree-lined streets nearly block the view of the ocean at Zapallar, originally part of Francisco Javier Ovalle’s Hacienda Catapilco. After inheriting the property in 1884 and making a tour of European beach resorts, his son Olegario began to give away lots to his friends on the condition that they build houses within two years, and Zapallar quickly became an elite community for monied Santiaguinos.
The 1906 earthquake destroyed many early buildings, but Zapallar’s inhabitants rebuilt with a vengeance, creating some of the coast’s largest and most elegant properties. Now a zona típica national monument, Zapallar is an eclectic mix of colonial-style casas, neo-Gothic mansions, and fashionably rustic villas, on large lots with extensive gardens. The Rambla, a broad footpath, follows the coastline.
Many founding families still own properties here. Among the notable mansions are those of Manuel Vicuña Subercaseaux (1912) and Carlos Aldunate Solar (1915), both designed by Josué Smith Solar; the extravagant castle of painter Álvaro Casanova; and María Luisa MacClure’s Bavarian-style Casa Hildesheim.
Directly on the highway, the 39-room Hotel Isla Seca (Camino Costero s/n, tel. 033/741224, fax 033/741228, www.hotelislaseca.cl , US$130–250 s or d) consists of two separate units a short distance apart; despite the roadside location, traffic is not heavy and the spacious rooms, which include balconies, face the ocean. Some have Jacuzzis. There’s also a handsome bar/restaurant.
On the beachfront César (Rambla s/n, tel. 033/741507) is an upscale seafood restaurant with outdoor as well as indoor seating. To the south, reached either by the curving Rambla or by road, Chiringuito (Caleta de Zapallar s/n, tel. 033/741024) has better views, more charm (with its crushed-shell terrace and asymmetrical tables), and arguably fresher fish straight off the boat.