That Viña del Mar is beautiful, stylish, and infinitely more refined than its wild and bohemian sister city Valparaíso is hardly a revelation. The two cities sit side-by-side on the Pacific coast west of Santiago and the Casablanca wine valley, and maybe their proximity is what has led to the polarization of their images: it’s either street art or gleaming condominiums; indie pop and chorrillanas or machas a la parmesana with a glass of white wine.
The truth is that the two cities are woven seamlessly into each other, and a visit to Valparaíso, the “Jewel of the Pacific”, would be incomplete without stopping by Viña del Mar, Chile’s “Garden City” and the home of the country’s most spectacular botanical gardens.
The gardens are tucked behind a hillside studded with native Chilean palms, erasing the sights and sounds of the busy harbor with only a lingering smell of the ocean as a hint that you haven’t gone as far as you think.
At the entrance to the park, take a look at the map to figure out your game plan. Want to snag a picnic table and throw a steak on the barbie? Take yourself and your cooler (packed with meat and beer) to the “hot picnic” section, a wide swatch of sun-baked barbecuing heaven, where you’ll find people laying out tablecloths and lighting coals as early as 10 a.m. If your idea of the perfect day outdoors is standing by a grill and flipping meat, you’ll probably be happy here all day.
If you’re not of the barbecue variety or if you’re still feeling queasy from an enthusiastic introduction to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar nightlife – not a problem. Leave the barbecue junkies to their grills and start walking towards Laguna Lineo. The shaded path weaves back and forth over a little stream, passing through stands of native and exotic trees that may seem familiar to travelers from abroad, like the group of California redwoods near the Chilean alerces.
During the summer – December to February – the park operates a canopy route with ziplines, and rents bicycles, tricycles and bike-carts for the whole family. With the warmer weather starting even earlier in October or November, the park also becomes a popular venue for outdoor concerts.
The entrance to the park is on Camino El Olivar 305 in Viña del Mar. If you’re arriving on public transport (see here for our guide), you can take a bus for a few hundred pesos (less than US$1) to the bridge before the Botanical Garden and enter on foot. Look for buses near Viana street in downtown Viña del Mar that say “Jardín Botánico” in their front window.