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Four Reasons to Fall in Love with Zapallar

Just along the coast from the popular port town Valparaiso is Chile’s most exclusive coastal spot Zapallar. Travel writer Gabriel O’Rorke tells us what makes this beach town so appealing.

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Image by Rodrigo Suarez

Imagine if the Hamptons were located in the French Riviera. Well, that’s pretty much the sum of Zapallar, Chile’s most elite beach town. An hour (45 miles) further up the coast from the bohemian port town of Valparaiso, Zapallar is where Chile’s movers and shakers build their beachside pads.

Dappled over a woody hillside and leading down to a golden sandy bay, these mansions are really quite something. Good taste presides, but there’s no ‘Zapallar look’ as such: the houses range between Austrian-style chalets, colonial or Grecian villas, oversized dolls houses (one of which is white with purple shutters) and uber modern, glass and steel abodes with knock-out infinity pools.

Founded in the late 1800s, Zapallar is arguably the prettiest beach town in Chile. And, if you like the South of France, it’s an essential beach stop-off on your next trip.

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Image by Claudia.

The Beach

When visiting the beach you will realize that Chile’s bold and beautiful really are just that. Even in mid-summer (February), the Pacific Ocean is ‘fresh’ to say the least. Yet, the beach is filled with frolickers of all ages, lying on the sand and swimming in the cool waves.

If you are more akin to Caribbean temperatures, then pulling on a wetsuit and going scuba diving may be the way forward. Frequent tours leave from the beachfront harbour – easily spotted for its bright wooden boats and resident pelicans waiting hopefully for scraps.

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Eating

The best restaurant in town is the 25-year old El Chiringuito which overhangs the water on the left-hand side of the bay. This is the ideal spot to while away an afternoon sipping wine, eating seafood and watching the pelicans fly by.

Start with a Pisco Sour and crab pinchers (fished from this very bay) or scallops in garlic oil. The ‘Chiringuito way’ is shellfish to start, followed by filleted fish, either fried, steamed or battered. Ask for the local catch as they also serve salmon which is brought up from Southern Chile. Congrio and reineta both come highly recommended.

There’s a feeling of La Dolce Vita as people sip from tall glasses and nibble on mariscos (shellfish). The food is delicious, the view is divine, the people are beautiful and the waiters are proper gents.

Puddings range from lemon meringue pie to chocolate torte and cheesecake. Then there are the Chilean classics like figs stuffed with walnuts in syrup, all washed down with a compulsory cortado (Chilean cappuccino).

El Chiringuito has been going strong for a quarter of a century and is always full (call ahead to make a reservation). Past guests include Margaret Thatcher (who came to Zapallar on holiday in 1994), Kylie Minogue, Keanu Reeves and Elijah Wood.

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Image by Andres Briones.

Coastal Walks

A very manageably-sized beach town, you can explore everywhere in Zapallar on foot. In the mornings, the picturesque stone walkways hugging the coast are filled with sporty locals heading out for their daily jog. Join them, or just go for a wander – you can explore both coastlines, heading right or left from the beach, and the paths are very easy to follow.

Just past El Chiringuito there’s a small hill with a tree on the top which makes a nice little climb, plus the bench up top is a good spot for admiring the view and catching another perspective of the super mansions. If you’re anything like me, you will spend the entirety of your stay agonizing over which house you would buy if money were no object… hours of fun.

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You can visit Zapallar on a day trip from Valparaiso.

Hotels

Zapallar is just 45 miles up the coast from Valparaiso, so it makes for a very manageable day trip if you are set to stay in Chile’s colourful port town. However, there are two very nice boutique hotels that may tempt you for a night or two.

Hotel Isla Seca

 Falling into the ‘dolls house’ category, the green and white Hotel Isla Seca is less than five minutes on foot from the beach. A large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees reaches out in front of the hotel with sea views that stretch to the horizon. A sense of occasion exudes from the main building with its library, bar and smart waiters.

The 41 rooms are split between two houses, the main one has the highest room categories and a second stand-alone house just alongside has other bedrooms which are ideal if travelling with older children. The restaurant has outdoor and indoor seating spread across a harlequin floor. Service is very attentive, but not all the waiters speak English – don’t forget your phrase book. There are some great Chilean classics on the menu, such as caldillo de congrio (fish stew that was a favourite of Pablo Neruda).

Hotel Casa Zapallar

This seven-bedroom boutique hotel is surrounded by greenery outside and filled with flowers within. There’s a roof terrace with a plunge pool, a dining room-cum-sitting room with a large wood-burning stove and an outdoor terrace with a fire pit and candle-dotted tables. Although there are no sea views, it’s just a 10-minute walk down to the bay.

All the rooms have little balconies with chairs and tables, the bed linen is heavenly soft and the whitewashed planked walls create a relaxing, cottage atmosphere. Food is homely and tasty (there’s a daily menu) – think courgette soup followed by trout cooked in lemon, olive oil and herbs with coriander mash. Then pancakes and ice cream for pudding. Breakfast goes on until midday and includes fresh fruit salad, cereal, croissants, ham, cheese and avocado.

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Image by Juan Jose Richards Echeverria.