Most people head to the Central Coast for a single reason: the beaches. And while yes, many are drawn here by the rough grandeur of the windswept coastline, with its rocky islets inhabited by sea lions and penguins, this stretch of coastline west of Santiago has much more than sun and surf. The biggest surprise is the charm of Valparaíso, Chile's second-largest city. It shares a bay with Viña del Mar, but the similarities end there. Valparaíso is a bustling port town with a jumble of colorful cottages nestled in the folds of its many hills. Viña del Mar has lush parks surrounding neoclassical mansions and a long beach lined with luxury high-rises. Together they form an interesting contrast of working class and wealth at play.
The balnearios (small beach towns) to the north and south of the twin cities have their own character, often defined by coastal topography. You can take a long stroll along the stone path built between the mansions and rocks that jut out into the Pacific in Zapallar; watch or join the surfers in Maitencillo; indulge yourself in the culinary delights of Concón; gawk at the sculpted bodies that strut around Reñaca’s hip beach; visit a former whaling station in quaint Quintay; discover Pablo Neruda’s infatuation with the sea in Isla Negra; and take a dip in clear-blue and, yes, chilly water in Algarrobo’s El Canelillo.
Proximity to Santiago has resulted in their development—and in some cases overdevelopment—as summer resorts. At the beginning of the 20th century, Santiago's elite started building vacation homes here. Soon after, when trains connected the capital to beaches, middle-class families started spending their summers at the shore. Improved highway access in recent decades has allowed Chileans of all economic levels to enjoy the occasional beach vacation.
Late December through mid-March, when schools let out for summer vacation and Santiago becomes torrid, the beaches are packed. Vacationers frolic in the chilly sea by day and pack the restaurants and bars at night. The rest of the year, the coast is relatively deserted and, though often cool and cloudy, a pleasantly tranquil place to explore. Local caletas—literally meaning "coves," where fishing boats gather to unload their catch, usually the site of local fishing cooperatives—are always colorful and lively.