At this point in the winter season, when we've all had our fill of snow and frigid temperatures, our sights turn to warmer climates and waterside escapes. One appealing antidote? Chile. And specifically, Chile's Central Coast featuring the towns of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.
After a long holiday season filled with seemingly endless work hours for both myself and my friend Jessica (a dear friend of mine from my time in Rome who returned to her childhood hometown of Providence, Rhode Island when she left Italy), we were looking for an escape. She's a jewelry designer in constant search of quirky keepsakes from her travels, which she then "translates" into original pieces of wearable art. I'm a chef in constant search of new flavors and cultures from which to draw inspiration in the kitchen. We travel well together. And we decided Chile would be the perfect spot: it offered warm weather in December and January (southern hemisphere summer), good food (ceviche!), good wine (more on that in another post), and interesting and eclectic culture and history (always a good thing for market trips, sightseeing, and interesting travel). An added bonus for me? The beach! With the help of suggestions from a dear high school friend who'd moved to Chile a few years ago, we were able to cobble together a nice 10 day vacation with work benefits built in. We began and ended our journey in the Chilean capital of Santiago (look for my Santiago dining post to come soon), but spent New Year's Eve, and several relaxing days afterwards, kicking off the new year in sunny, 85 degree weather on the Pacific. And though these two sister towns are right next to each other, they offer visitors a yin and yang of Chile's central coast.
Valparaiso ("Paradise Valley") is historically a port town -- until the Panama Canal opened, it was South America's busiest -- a working class city-on-a-hill. Actually, it's built on more than 45 hills, or cerros, which are covered with colorfully-painted houses, often constructed out of the corrugated metal torn from shipping containers, that look like candy confections tossed on undulating hills tumbling towards an azure sea. "Valpo" as it's called, is Chile's second-largest metropolitan area, and though it's on the sea, it's not a beach town. It's a somewhat chaotic jumble of South American culture and topography, Caribbean color, Germanic and Slavic immigrant influences in architecture and food, and a summertime climate that mirrors L.A. in the daytime and San Francisco at night. Confusing, yes. Eclectic, of course. And it's a lovely place to pass a few languid days recovering from New Year's Eve.
First off, I must mention Valpo's impressive fireworks display. Until the last couple of years (when a certain Middle Eastern city decided theirs needed to be the biggest and brightest on the planet), Valpo's fireworks show was the most expansive and explosive in the world. After having seen it, frankly I'm not sure I'd want one larger or longer. At just under a half an hour, and done over the C-shaped bay that runs along the Pacific coast to several towns north, the fireworks display was synchronized so you could see the grand fireworks right in front of you as well as those in the distance, all themed the same with the same colors displaying at the same time: really something to behold. We celebrated at a restaurant/bar/music hall called La Piedra Feliz, right on the water in the Errázurizneighborhood.
It was probably the busiest area in the city that night, and knowing public transportation was sketchy for the holiday, forewarned was forearmed: we walked from our lovely apartment across town to the restaurant, and were able to see most of the waterfront area of Valpo in the process. Once we (finally!) arrived, we enjoyed a prix fixe dinner with plenty of champagne and pisco sours. We watched the fireworks out of the window of the restaurant on the second floor, and many locals were gathered on the street below us. Once we toasted to 2014, we wandered around the place -- live music and dancing were everywhere, but of course as a chef, I found my way to hanging out at the bar with the staff: our waiter and the Uruguayan chef, and some locals who were friendly and fun...and made sure we never saw the bottoms of our glasses of delicious Chilean red wine.
We were excited to eat the fresh seafood for which Chile is justly famous, so our dinner hours were spent seeking out great fish spots -- and of course for me, this trip was the "Cevichepalooza" I'd been craving, so I had it at every meal I could manage! At Oda Pacifico, we had the place practically to ourselves, and enjoyed the view out over the hills down to the water (it got windy and chilly the night we went, though it would normally be lovely to sit at a table outside on the back patio). Service here, as in most places we went, was slow but extremely warm, and our waiter advised us on what was fresh that evening. We started with a massive portion of mixed seafood ceviche with passion fruit -- two of my favorite things in the world, together in a big bowl! It was delicious, and perfect with our crisp Chilean sauvignon blanc.
Main courses couldn't live up to the ceviche, but I enjoyed a local specialty: conger eel, here grilled and served over a stew of tomatoes, corn, and peas, topped with peppery watercress. Jess had tilapia cooked in a banana leaf, with a coconut-laced sauce. Again, the portions were huge and we couldn't come close to finishing them, but we did manage to wash it all down with more vino blanco. We were on vacation, after all.
Valpo has countless great vistas from which to view the port and the water below, but one destination on a hill, and viewpoint not to be missed, is poet Pablo Neruda's local home, La Sebastiana. The cozy multi-level house resembles part of a ship and fits in perfectly among the pastel houses surrounding it. The decor is often nautically themed, and is quirky and built to entertain, much like the man himself. It's filled with glasses and plates and artwork and bric-a-brac from Neruda's world travels, and like all of his homes, there is a dedicated bar area where he would mix libations for his guests after a day of writing. The view from his home is undoubtedly inspiring.
Viña del Mar
Just next door is Valparaiso's louder, more social sibling,Viña del Mar. It is the Miami Beach of Chile, to put it in U.S. terms, and it's bustling and full of life while Valpo is relaxed and laid back. The shoreline is both rocky and sandy at turns, and the lawns and flower beds are as manicured as the high-rise hotels and condos lining the beach. There is a downtown as well, and boulevards lined with shops and malls and churches and outdoor arcades. This is no sleepy beach town, and it's been the place where locals and the wealthy and famous from Santiago come to play, where they have second homes. It lacks the character and vistas that Valparaiso has, but it makes up for that with the beauty of the coast and the lively, infectious atmosphere in its streets.
As for the food scene in Viña? Again, seafood is king here, but the variety of dining options is greater. Chile has great primary ingredients, great wine, great pisco. But as for a native cuisine, its neighbor Peru is better known. Case in point? All the ceviches. Seviche, as it's usually written here, comes in so many varieties that it makes sense to go for a sampling of types. At Sazon Peruana, we indulged in the trio at left, which included an octopus seviche with aji amarillo, the spicy Peruvian yellow pepper, as the base. We had local white fish with sweet potato and choclo, the ubiquitous oversized corn kernels. And we had salmon and shrimp with leche de tigre (the citrus juice and spice base of most seviches) with red pepper. I could have bathed in the stuff. We enjoyed mixed grilled seafood atop a salad.
Jess had the seafood soup, a slightly spicy stew of local treats from the Pacific made more substantial with yellow potatoes. And I pushed the boat out, as it were, with a light-as-air fried seafood platter (shrimp, squid, Chilean sea bass) with yucca, tartar sauce, and salsa criolla -- a topping of thinly sliced red onion, cilantro, and fresh chile pepper. The meal at the Peruvian restaurant turned out to be one of the best meals of my trip to Chile!
In Valpo, we lived like locals, renting an apartment in a residential area with a gorgeous view of the entire city from our balcony. In Viña del Mar, we went touristy -- but sometimes, you need to splurge.
The Sheraton Miramar is perched on a rocky curve of the coast, on the way into town, and it jettisons out into the bright blue-green Pacific. All glass-and-steel, with soaring ceilings, this location was clearly built to allow guests the greatest appreciation of the sea. The shot above was taken from our balcony: the seats to the left are outdoor restaurant tables, as scenic for a seaside lunch as they are in the evening for dinner and drinks, to view the sparkling lights of the bay surrounding you. The pool overlooking the sea is a dramatic spot for sunbathing, by water both salty and fresh. Attached, there is a wonderful spa and gym where you can work up a sweat and then relax with a massage or facial. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon in January!
All in, we had a wonderful time on Chile's central coast -- not enough time, in fact. There were so many small beach towns lining the coasts both north and south of the Valpo area and we weren't staying long enough to explore them. Places like nearby Reñaca, surfer's paradise Concón, former whaling town Quintay, and the beautiful and aristocratic town of Zapallar: each offer a different taste of this stretch of the Chilean coast. We did make it to Quintero for an afternoon of lazing on the beach and eating empanadas, though it took a mini-hike to discover some less-trodden beach paths. Most of the beaches are rocky, and it's hard to get out of sight of the huge tankers that seem to be permanently parked in this part of the Pacific. But the water is beautiful and the trees and topography are stunning. Another positive? We were the only gringas in sight, always a good sign.
La Piedra Feliz
Avenida Err 1054
+56 (32) 225.6788
+56 (32) 223.8836
+56 (32) 225.6606
Avenida Marina 15
Viña del Mar
+56 (32) 238.8600
3 Norte 370 Esquina 3 1/2 Poniente
Viña del Mar
+56 (32) 319.1160