Beach towns

North of Viña del Mar, a beautiful road snakes along the coast, passing through a string of beach towns that hum with holidaying Chileans December through February. The beaches range from small, rocky coves to wide open sands. Towering condos overlook some, while others are scattered with rustic cottages and the huge summer houses of Chile's rich and famous.

Reñaca & Concón

Viña's high-rises merge into the multitiered apartments of Reñaca, a northern suburb with a wide, pleasant beach. Come to local landmark Roca Oceánica, a rocky hill looking out over the Pacific, for a sunset hike with incredible views (it's on your left, on the oceanside, as you head north from the town). Concón, just north of Reñaca, is known for its casual and wonderfully authentic seafood restaurants. Top on the list are the crab-stuffed empanadas at Las Deliciosas and evening cocktails and machas (razor clams) at local legend La Gatita.

Horcón

Chile's hippie movement began at the tiny fishing town of Horcón, on a small curving peninsula that juts out into the Pacific 28km north of Concón. Brightly painted, ramshackle buildings clutter the steep main road down to its small, rocky beach where fishing boats come and go. These days there's still a hint of peace, love and communal living – note the happy-go-lucky folks gathering on the beach with dogs, guitars, and bottles of liquor in paper bags at sunset. If hippie chic is more your scene try La Ritoqueña, a beachfront cabin complex between Concón and Horcón that can arrange yoga, surfing and fishing.

Maitencillo

About 21km north of Horcón, Maitencillo's long, sandy beaches stretch for several kilometers along the coast and attract many visitors. Escuela de Surf Maitencillo is a relaxed place to learn how to surf. Although the town is packed with holiday homes, it retains a pleasant low-key vibe. A favorite restaurant, bar and cabin complex is Cabañas Hermansen & La Canasta for wood-baked pizzas and – of course – fresh fish.

Cachagua

This small, chillaxed town 13km north of Maitencillo sits on the northern tip of a long crescent beach. Just across the water is the Monumento Nacional Isla de Cachagua, a guano-stained rocky outcrop that's home to roughly 2000 Humboldt penguins, as well as a colony of sea lions. You can ask local fishers at the Zapallar Caleta to take you closer to the island, but you're not allowed to get off the boat.

Zapallar

Santiago's elite wouldn't dream of taking their beach holidays anywhere but here, the crown jewel of the Central Coast and the most exclusive of Chile's Pacific resorts, 2km north of Cachagua. Instead of high-rises, multi-million-dollar mansions cover the wooded hillsides leading up from the beach, which is an unspoiled arc of yellow sand in a sheltered cove. Everyone who's anyone in Zapallar makes a point of lunching at El Chiringuito, where terrace tables look out over the rocks and pelicans fishing for their dinner.

Papudo

This workaday town attracts a more grounded crowd than its ritzy neighbor Zapallar, meaning you can dine on CH$1600 empanadas right on the ocean at places such as Banana.