Like many other Chilean coastal towns and cities, Viña consists of two areas: one of winding streets and houses precariously clinging to the hills, the other, following the traditional colonial grid plan, takes up most of the flat area between the hills and coastline. Hailed as the tourist capital of Chile, it is constructed on some 172,25 square kilometres with just over 300 thousand inhabitants. From Abarca Cove to Salinas the resort stretches for 3,5 kilometres with made up by Acapulco, Mirasol and Los Marineros beaches, among others. Added to all this are the 2kms. of beach in the Reñaca district, which has become a new centre of holiday activities, with a wide offering of hotels, shopping centres, restaurants and discotheques.
Only thirty years ago all this land was claimed by dunes and forests, but today it is an important tourist and residential area with new neighbourhoods such as El Jardín del Mar, Las Golondrinas and Los Pinos appearing in a relatively short period of time.
More to the North one finds the gastronomic quarter with restaurants ranging from the humble Don Chicho to the chic Stella Maris, serving the local specialities of fish and shellfish.
Facing the mighty Pacific Ocean as it rages against the coastal rocks, are the popular Cochoa and Lilenes beaches, although on the new administration map of the area these no longer form part of Viña del Mar but of the newly-created Concón district. Between the two, a visitor to the city will find many places of interest such as Mirador Cochoa, la Roca de Lobos Marinos with sea lions basking in the mid-afternoon sun or a rock outcrop called the Oceanic rock. This coastal stretch finishes in Higuerillas Cove where an exclusive Yacht Club has its home as well as the popular Negra and Amarilla beaches.
Narrow strips of the original dunes still remain, serving local children as slopes from which they slide down at neck breaking speed on makeshift sand-toboggans.
The City Centre
Formed in the shape of a rectangle, its southern border is established by the railway line and to the north by the Marga Marga Estuary. Towards the east the Plaza José Francisco Vergara can be found, and to the west the gently wooded Castillo Hill. These then are the confines of the main financial and shopping area in the city, whose main street is the Avenida Valparaíso.
Being true to the tourist character of their city, it is not uncommon to see the inhabitants stop whatever it is they are doing at around midday to have a cup of coffee in one of the many traditional cafeterias to be found here. Two hours later, at 2pm, all local banks cease their activity as do many of the stores, the latter only to open at 4.30pm when the afternoon begins to cool down. Most of the city's shops serve customers late into the evening ' a custom considered provincial but which caters well for visitors and locals alike.
Following the axis of Avenida Libertad one will find the famous colonial grid street system locally called 'de los nortes'. On the left of the Avenue six streets shoot off to the west, on the right seven head east. From north to south there are in total fifteen streets completing the grid. This is one of the most sought after residential neighbourhoods, with the spirit of the past stamped firmly in its architecture. But today, many of what used to be private dwellings are home to restaurants and pubs, so making their contribution to the city's leisure and recreation facilities.
The climate is generally considered to be Mediterranean, with rains restricted exclusively to the winter season. Proximity to the sea means that the land temperatures are regulated by ocean currents during the summer and winter months (October to March and April to September respectively) making the former warm and pleasant and the latter mild, with temperatures ranging between 10 and 22 degrees C. The mild climate and lack of morning frost in winter has helped the growth of robust vegetation, including both autochthonous and imported species, with such plants as the bougainvillaea, hibiscus and golden thimbles, whose gilted petals can often be seen creeping up between railway sleepers.
Viña is located 119 kms from Santiago, 75 minutes by car from the capital's international airport. The main access point is through Agua Santa by Motorway 68 (Ruta 68) from the South. One of the main advantages of this road is the spectacular view of Valparaíso Bay, especially at night-time when lights twinkle on surrounding hills and from ships anchored in the bay. As soon as you reach the outskirts of Viña del Mar, you will see dozens of residential dwellings so clearly representative of the early 20th century.
Another access point coming from the direction of the interior valley is Camino Troncal, following the railway line, which leads to the eastern part of the city. Regional buses come down route 68 but they take a detour which takes them first to Las Palmas, then the area called El Salto, now a bustling industrial sector, and finally to Rodoviario. Along the way are some of the most important Chilean palm tree plantations in the country ' an autochthonous variety similar to the type that used to forest Easter Island. Formerly rampant in the Central Valley, the plant is now in danger of following its distant cousin into extinction. Despite a strict prohibition, local inhabitants from squats and shanty towns, collect the diminutive coconuts, the size of a small plum, and sell them as confectionery on the central streets of the city.
Motorway 60 (Ruta 60) is the main road used by visitors coming from neighbouring Argentina, passing first through Quillota and Concón. One of the main attractions of this road is the picturesque landscape along the way. This route is also used by those coming to Viña del Mar from the coastal villages further to the north.
History of Vina Del MarBefore the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the original inhabitants of central Chile belonged to the ethnic group known today as the Changos, who called the area now occupied by Viña del Mar 'peuco', which prosaically meant, 'here there is water'. With the arrival of the Europeans, the land gained a curious merit it had never known before: economic value. By 1580 the area had become an 'encomienda' (land and inhabitants entrusted to a particular conquistador); vineyards were planted so physically creating the 'vines by the sea' la viña del Mar.
A century later, these same lands were divided into two: south of the Marga-Marga estuary up to Barón Hill was known as 'The Homestead of the Seven Sisters', while the area northwards, all the way to Concón, retained the original name, this time under the righteous ownership of Jesuit priests.
Another hundred years passed. Rich Portuguese merchants sailed into the bay of Valparaíso, and one of them, Francisco Álvares, liked the lands he saw so much he bought them all, installing his estate house in the area now occupied by the Quinta Vergara park, and taking as his wife one Dolores Pérez. Both Francisco and Dolores took an enthusiastic interest in the remoulding of the physical and cultural appearance of their property, visibly expressed in the church Nuestra Señora de Dolores (the Church of our Madame Dolores), and the landscaped gardens around the estate house. These same gardens were to take on almost botanical status, thanks to the exotic plants contributed by the couple's son, Salvador, collected on his trips to the Far East and Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.
However, during the same period another event was to take place that was to have a major influence on the future development of the Vines by the Sea: the railway arrived, linking the settlement with Valparaíso and the central valley region.
Assistant engineer in these major public works was one José Francisco Vergara Etchevers, who was eventually to marry Mercedes Álvares, granddaughter of Francisco and sole heiress to the now immense family fortune. His wealth assured, José Francisco then went about laying the foundations for the development of the modern city, beginning this glorious task in 1874.
However, Vergara's life was not only to be fervently dedicated to commerce and urban development: he became a politician, was elevated to the post of Interior Minister in the government of President Domingo Santa María, and became Minister of War under President Anibal Pinto. He also took part in the armed skirmish between Chile, Peru and Bolivia known as the War of the Pacific (won by the British-backed Chileans) ' which led him to choose the Peruvian names of Chorrillos and Miraflores for two new districts in Viña del Mar.
Vergara ceded lands for such necessities as water services, schools, a slaughter-house and cemetery, and sold the lands around the railway track which became Álvares and Viana Streets. Mansion houses were constructed, the back entrances of which led onto the road linking Valparaíso with Quillota. The commerce that was carried out at the back of these buildings literally paved the way for present day Valparaíso Avenue, the city's main shopping street.
One of the main effects of the railway line was to increase the city's population, and new installations needed to be built to cater to the ever increasing needs of the people, including the local train station itself.
Afterwards the Miramar station was build, proposed by Dr Teodoro Von Scroeders, so that more people might have access to the local thermal baths. Von Scroeders also helped encourage the urbanisation project around Castillo Hill. More neighbourhoods were created as a result of the railway link, including Recreo in 1894, whose name (Spanish for recreation) alludes to the custom of local inhabitants to enjoy their leisure time faces turned to the sea. Around this period two city dignitaries by the names of Luis Barros Borgoño and Alfredo Azancot (architects responsible for the Rioja and Carrasco Palaces), undertook the redevelopment of the Recreo shoreline, filling in the original reefs and replacing them with a sand beach, so creating one of the most popular resorts along the whole coastline.
New stops were also created for the trains at Chorrillos and El Salto, the latter being named after a nearby waterfall.
Neighbouring landowner and politician Benjamín Vicuña Mackena, then took his part in the creation of the present day Garden City. It was partly Mackena's influence that led to Viña del Mar being developed as a seaside holiday resort in the first place. He proposed the creation of plazas and parks, of more attention put into landscaping, of new and more flamboyant hotels to emphasise the town's recreational credentials, as well as to receive the coveted visitors. These changes were highly successful, both with the inhabitants of Viña del Mar, as well as people living in the surrounding area. The Caleta Abarca cove area was the sector initially chosen for this type of development.
By 1878 the growth in the population had spurned the need for establishing some form of municipal authorities; permission to organise such a body was requested from the Governor of Valparaíso, who took a year to reply in the affirmative.
This heralded a golden period in the history of Viña del Mar; new industries and public institutions made their appearance, spurning the city's development especially in the sector around Libertad Avenue. In part this was also the result of the economic heights being reached by merchants in neighbouring and then extremely prosperous Valparaíso.
Local industry, led by the sugar refinery, demanded modernisation, which led to the instalment of electric light in 1882, giving Viña del Mar a status enjoyed by a highly select club of cities around the world (in the same year Paris also switched on the electric current).
In 1889 José Francisco Vergara, the city's founding father, departed for the great garden city in the sky, and his lands were divided among his offspring. Daughter Blanca inherited everything south of the Marga-Marga, and Salvador his son took the northern territories, which he started to urbanise in 1892.
The major earthquake of 1906 brought a great part of all previous constructions crashing to the ground, and a huge task of reconstruction was undertaken by the local inhabitants. It was during that period that such ostentatious projects as the Vergara and Carrasco Palaces, the Délano mansion (that was to become the Fonck Museum), and Wulff Castle were undertaken. By the nineteen thirties, Viña del Mar was deemed so imporant that even the Chilean State stepped in to help, part-financing the Hotel O'Higgins and Municipal Theatre in Plaza Vergara, as well as the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Casino, Salinas resort, and an urbanisation programme for the whole stretch of coastline between Reñaca and Concón.
By then Avenida Valparaíso was totally built up, with a strong tendency for the neo-classical in design and the historical-monumental in proportions. European fashion trying to distance itself from the excesses of Baroque. Foreign merchants who arrived and took up residency at that time, opted for the same architectural style, albeit using lighter materials such as wood in their neo-gothic, colonial English or North American town-houses. An eclectic form of architecture still to be found today in many of the buildings dating back to that vertiginous period.
During the nineteen fifties the Caleta Abarca resort took shape, as did the Marina and Perú avenues. And the sixties and seventies also saw the city's changing face, with special emphasis placed on the development of the Reñaca district, with the construction of numerous hotels and other tourist infrastructure that completely transformed this previously industrial sector.
And so it was that in the course of 126 years, this one time coastal vineyard has become one of the most affluent holiday playgrounds in Chile and South America, its once verdant shoreline now almost completely urbanised, but with the saving grace of parklands, plazas and gardens that help personify this City of Vines by the Sea.
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