Without a doubt, Viña del Mar (about 1:45 by car via superhighway WNW of northeastern Santiago) is the second most livable city in Chile. Note that when I make that claim I am not considering the many beautiful smaller Chilean towns with First World amenities reasonably close: Pucón, Zapallar, Puerto Varas, Rocas de Santo Domingo, Coyhaique or even Pica, San Félix, Vicuña (and surrounding towns), Vichuquén, Corral and Bahía Inglesa. I am referring to the most livable larger city in Chile outside of northeastern Santiago.
Viña del Mar is precisely that place, with La Serena running a distant third, followed by spots mostly in the southern and eastern parts of Concepción (as well as Pingueral) and then possibly Valdivia, Temuco and maybe Rancagua (in that order). Remember that the metro area formed by Viña del Mar and Valparaíso (Chile’s second most important port and home of the Chilean navy and Chilean Congress) has almost one million inhabitants, making it a commercial center, full of culture and attractions.
One can live and work in Viña del Mar, even though it is harder to do so than in Santiago, far more than he can in smaller regional cities in Chile. Only Concepción comes close to offering the same employment possibilities for professionals outside of Santiago.
The Viña del Mar area has three Jumbo supermarkets (if one counts the branch in Valparaíso), several Líder stores, Homecenter and Easy builder’s supermarkets and home improvement centers, all banking and medical services, car and replacement parts dealers, a hospital that is the best among the regions of Chile (the Clínica Reñaca), good bilingual private schools (Mackay and St. Margaret’s), several universities (including one of Chile’s top three engineering schools, the Universidad Federico Santa María in nearby Valparaíso), an elegant Casino, an upscale mall with a bowling alley, cinemas, good restaurants, fast food chains and most everything else one can think of.
Of course, it probably goes without saying that there are much less of these things in Viña del Mar than in northeastern Santiago. However, the level of infrastructure and amenities is more than adequate. Viña del Mar also has a better climate than Santiago, just like coastal southern California is more temperate than inland areas, with warmer winters and cooler summers (but with 7% to 19% more rainfall during the winter months).
The city seems to be full of flowers and gardens, including its famous flower clock. The people tend to be among the friendliest I have met in Chile.
Viña del Mar is a tourist city and hosts the famous Festival Internacional de la Canción de Viña del Mar, where many singers and musicians begin their rise to fame. There is still felt much of the British influence from the past when the port of Valparaíso was thriving and wealthier than before the Panama Canal era. For instance, the British institute has a good English language library and one can find several Anglican churches.
The cost of living is lower in general (by about 17.8%) than in Santiago. Comparable housing in the upper class sections of Viña del Mar is about 30% to 50% cheaper than in northeastern Santiago, as are the costs of property taxes and community fees in apartment buildings and condominios (gated communities with common areas). Maid service is cheaper, too, along with public transportation costs (metro, bus, train).
Busses leave for Santiago every 10 minutes from downtown Viña del Mar, making the big city very accessible for just a few dollars. The air is far cleaner in Viña del Mar than Santiago, there is much less noise (other than the constant sound of rolling waves for homes near the shore) and, outside of the dreadful summer months, less traffic congestion.
On the hills above the city, one will find good ocean views looking one way and mountain views the other. Many pine forests run along the hills overlooking the coastline and there are areas with significant sand dunes just to the north in Reñaca and above Concón. Viña del Mar (up through Concón) features the interesting phenomenon of something like 90% vacancy in the thousands of apartments during the non-summer months, other than long weekends and holidays. Most of the beachfront apartments are owned by upper class people in Santiago, as are some a little bit further inland, although most of those tend to be owned by year-round residents.
Housing is well defined by sectors of Viña del Mar, which are strikingly more distinct than in Santiago. One can drive twenty kilometers in Santiago’s upper class area before seeing much in the way of lower or lower middle class housing. The same is not true in Viña del Mar that has abrupt and obvious distinctions. Immigrants from the First World should know before hand where to look, avoiding areas not highlighted in this article, and bearing in mind that apartments and housing closer to the shore will usually carry a much higher cost per square meter than interior properties.
The main section just north of downtown is no more than 15 square blocks, along with the older part west of downtown called El Plan. It is an elegant area, located mainly between Avenida 1 Norte and Avenida 15 Norte, west of Avenida Libertad to the beach, full of apartment buildings, a mall, banks, pharmacies, private hospitals, automobile dealers, restaurants, the Casino, services and nice stores. Buildings range from 5 to 80 years old, with newer part being on the northern subsection near Avenida 15 Norte.
A second section of town, housing the “old wealth” much like the comuna of Providencia does in Santiago, is called Miraflores Bajo. It is located further inland (just past the famous horse racing track), with some of the homes going up the hill having views, but nothing spectacular. Some of the homes are elegant and well kept, with nice gardens, with larger ones being 350 square meters (around 3,750 square feet) for around US$600,000. It boasts its own hospital and fire station, too.
Other sectors include areas of newer apartments east and south of the central district’s seashore, hillside sectors called Recreo and Agua Santa, as well as basin sectors called Avenida Álvarez (and Avenida Vianna) and some of Avenida 1 Norte. I do not care for these areas as much as others, even though they are usually cheaper for the same quality, because the surrounding properties are either older or often not well kept up, the views are not always as good, and they are further from amenities and job sites or many business opportunities.
Nevertheless, bargain-hunters and future-looking buyers might consider them. Small, newer apartments can be had for under US$150,000. Like Miraflores Bajo, Avenida Álvarez and Avendia 1 Norte have an important advantage of being close to the Jumbo superstore and quick superhighway access.
The fastest-growing and thus most popular affluent sections of Viña del Mar fall along the north side of the ocean crescent and several miles inland from the shore. These communities include scenic places like Reñaca (right on the beach with stair step apartments and homes lining the adjacent hillsides), with easy beach access, easy shopping access, wonderful views and ocean sounds, but horrible traffic in January and February.
More popular among year-round residents are the communities directly inland, often with hillside sea views, pine or eucalyptus forests and mountain views to the east. The oldest of these in Jardín del Mar, mostly built in the 1980s and 1990s, but new construction is still going on, with many smaller (140 square meters or about 1,500 square foot) homes and apartments selling from US$200,000 to US$300,000. There are also larger homes priced near half a million dollars. The main branch of the Clínica Reñaca is in this section and the northwestern viewscapes are wonderful from just about everywhere.
Across the valley is a new, perhaps slightly more elegant section called Los Almendros, although prices do not seem much different. Much of the building quality is the same, but some spots do not have ocean views. One does see larger homes here and fewer apartments, and there are some gated communities with cookie cutter homes that are not found on the other side of the valley. Electrical and phone wiring are also buried on this side, making views better than from many homes in Jardín del Mar.
Finally, there is the ever-expanding section that bleeds north into Concón from Reñaca, called Bosques de Montemar. This section is residential and much like Vitacura or La Dehesa (in Santiago). Most have only views of the impressive sand dunes except for housing going up the hills toward the pines that have broad ocean views. Some of the homes are much larger and prices tend to be 20% higher in these neighborhoods than they are in parts of Los Almendros and Jardín del Mar. (Of course, it is hard to generalize such things!) The sector is also loaded with many 20 to 35 story luxury apartment buildings, some right on the cliffs overlooking the sea below. These apartments tend to be very elegant and range in price from US$250,000 to US$800,000. There are Jumbo, Líder Express, Easy, Construmart and Monserrat superstores nearby, along with St. Margaret’s private school for girls and a couple of service stations.
One thing that has struck me time and again is the relative lack of mansions and estates in Viña del Mar. Sure, there are some elegant and exclusive spots. But the real concentration of wealth in Chile is clearly in Santiago.
However, looking to the future, Viña del Mar is set to continue its expansion into greater prosperity and progress. Those who settle there will enjoy a higher quality of life in many ways over Santiago and a good chance for future gains in property values. If you want to bet on Chile’s future, besides Santiago, mining areas and farmland, Viña del Mar should be a prime consideration.
Chileans I have spoken with consider that Viña del Mar is Chile’s best overall city to live in. In many ways, I think they are right. I have been in every part of Chile, and it is hard to think of any other place that ticks all the boxes like Viña del Mar does. Every immigrant should have a plan to check it out.
Chile has a new sustainable community starting called Freedom Orchard. Check it out. Invest in it, and diversify out of the decaying assets in “First World” nations.
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