Five of Chile’s best coastal towns


By Sarah Gordon

Photography by Kseniya Ragozina / Alamy

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March 2017

Stretching for more than 4,300km, from the Atacama Desert in the north to the fjords and glaciers of Patagonia in the south, local writer Sarah Gordon picks her top spots along the Chilean coast.

Iquique

Set in the far north of Chile, sunny Iquique is a unique mix of elegant Georgian-style buildings, glitzy hotels and laid-back surf culture. Its rich architecture can be traced back to the nitrate mining boom in the 19th century, while its long beaches and soaring sand dunes, rolling waves and coastal escarpment make it both a top surf spot and also one of the premier places for paragliding in South America.

The parched landscape around Iquique is dotted with the geoglyphs of ancient indigenous groups that used to inhabit the region as well as eerie ghost towns

As well as enjoying Iquique’s natural delights, head to the town’s Museo Regional to see masked Chinchorro mummies, which predate the Egyptian mummies by up to 2,000 years. The parched landscape around Iquique is also dotted with the geoglyphs of ancient indigenous groups that used to inhabit the region as well as eerie ghost towns, left abandoned after the nitrate crash in the early 20th century.

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    While neighbouring La Serena boasts beauty, Coquimbo – its grittier cousin – comes into its own at night where bars and clubs bring the port town to life.

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La Serena

Chile’s second oldest city after Santiago, La Serena’s pretty plazas, tree-lined boulevards and colonial-style architecture make it a delight to stroll around. Its long golden beaches are a major draw too, with swimming, sailing, windsurfing and surfing all possible on the many beaches that stretch south from La Serena to the port of Coquimbo.

The charming city is also a great gateway to the Elqui Valley, where you can explore vineyards of grapes that make the famous national drink, pisco. Also don’t miss some of the best stargazing opportunities in the country at the many international observatories that take advantage of the region’s exceptional clear skies. Alternatively, head an hour north to the Reserva Nacional Pinguïno de Humboldt  to spot not just besuited Humboldt penguins waddling along the coast, but sea otters, sea lions and bottle-nosed dolphins.

Valparaíso

This extraordinary port city is packed with character, from its chaotic hills (known as cerros) filled with brightly-coloured houses and steep tangled streets to its awe-inspiring array of street art and the creaking lifts (ascensores) that have cranked passengers up from sea level for more than 100 years. A hugely important port since colonial times (Sir Francis Drake ransacked it various times on the hunt for gold), Valparaíso was a hub of commerce, international residents and elegant mansions until the Panama Canal almost put it out of business.

Today the port is on the rise again. Its old buildings house boutique hotels, unique restaurants and cafés and its colourful hilltop buildings, murals and street art are the stuff of Instagram dreams. Don’t miss the astounding views and quirky décor of La Sebastiana, the house owned by late Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who always loved Valparaíso.

Castro, Chiloé

Drifting just off the coast of Chile’s Lake District, Chiloé is only separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water but has its own distinct culture. Head to the pretty capital Castro, set on a sheltered estuary, to explore the traditional palafito houses built on wooden stilts over the water and the elegant churches of San Francisco de Castro and Nuestra Señóra de Nercón, two of 16 pretty wooden churches built in the 1800s and early 1900s that have been given Unesco World Heritage status.

Castro will give you a flavour of this seafaring island, the last Spanish stronghold in Chile during the Wars of Independence and little-explored until the 1850s. It is a place where legends of ghost ships and forest gnomes swirl over the verdant landscape with the fog and locals cook the traditional curanto dish of meat and shellfish in the ground using hot stones.

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Punta Arenas

Perched on the Magellan Strait, right in the south of Patagonia, Punta Arenas is surrounded by deep fjords and inlets, islands and chiselled glaciers. An important port when ships would sail around the world via Cape Horn and a veritable boom town in the late 19th century when Patagonian wool was in demand, it has mansions of faded elegance, a grand cemetery and a museum, Museo Naval y Maritimo that recounts the rescue of Ernest Shackleton and his team from Antarctica.

Beyond the port town itself, visit the sites of failed settlement attempts such as Puerto Hambre, which translates as Port Hunger, and Fuerte Bulnes to learn how explorers tried to cope with the difficult conditions in Patagonia. Then enjoy the region’s amazing wildlife as you spot penguins at Seto Otway penguin colony and Monumento Natural Los Pinguïnos on Isla Magdalena. Take a boat to explore Parque Marino Francisco Coloane where you can spot humpback and minke whales.