120km (74 miles) NW of Santiago; 8km (5 miles) N of Valparaíso

Viña del Mar is Chile's largest and best-known beach resort town. The city was founded in 1874 as a weekend retreat and garden residence for the wealthy elite from Valparaíso and Santiago, and it has remained a top destination for Santiaguinos ever since, although the ultrafashionable are now electing to build their second home in less-developed and therefore more exclusive coastal areas such as Tunquen and Quintay. Viña's manicured lawns, monolithic 1960s apartment buildings, and sandy beaches filled with sunbathers are an extreme contrast to the ramshackle streets of Valparaíso. Most Chileans call Viña del Mar simply "Viña"; you'll call it "chaos" if you come any time between December and late February, when thousands of vacationers arrive, crowding beaches and snarling traffic. On the other hand, there exists a heightened sense of excitement during these months with so much activity happening in the area. If the lure of the ocean is compelling for you, remember that Viña is certainly no beach paradise. The ocean is icy and too rough for swimming, and the characterless and crowded beaches pale in comparison to the Mediterranean or Caribbean. But, having said that, if you enjoy the overarching indulgence and expectation that such resorts imbue, a couple of days in Viña may be to your liking -- especially if you reside for a night at the superlative Hotel del Mar.

Along the coast of Viña are plenty of fine beaches, but the beach to see and be seen at is in Reñaca, about 6km (3 3/4 miles) north of Viña. Unfortunately, the Humboldt Current that travels up the coast from Antarctica makes for chilly swimming conditions, even during the summer, but regardless of the season, Viña is a wonderfully relaxing place to spend 1 or 2 days.

The city is divided into two sectors: downtown and the beachfront. Travelers are happiest lodging near the beach; however, the downtown area is a tad more "Chilean," and you're really only a 15- to 20-minute walk from the beach.