With its glorious sands and million-dollar vacation homes, Zapallar is Chile’s most exclusive coastal retreat. But the breezy, laid-back way of life is what keeps families coming back, year after year. By Pilar Guzman
Several years ago, my Chilean cousin Andrea and I were descending a steep path leading to the horseshoe-shaped, white-sand beach in Zapallar, a couple of hours northwest of Santiago. We paused at a tiny stucco house with exposed timber and a thatched roof about
halfway down that, thanks to a micro-climate that shields the area from coastal winds, was
empowered by an exuberant mix of palm, eucalyptus, cypress, and pine trees. It looked
just like the family compound at the foot of the Andes my late father grew up on. Though my aunts, cousins, and their kids still live in that idyllic place, Andrea and I fantasise about
creating a separate retirement compound for ourselves and a handful of friends. Zapallar’s
mountain-ringed bay, protected from overdevelopment by the government, seemed at
that moment as good a place as any to grow old.
Often referred to as the Hamptons of Chile, Zapallar offers travellers a chance to observe the most affluent segments of Chilean society—and their kids—at play. The village traces its roots as an exclusive vacation-home enclave to the late 19th century when Santiago’s
elite began etching their aeries into the mountain to capitalise on the breathtaking ocean views. These days, there’s a growing number of handsome new wood, glass, and steel
homes blanketing the hillside, many of which have more in common with Austrian and Swiss modernism than with the typical white stucco coastal look. There are also stylish—and surprisingly affordable—hotels, like the boutique Hotel Casa Zapallar (doubles from INR 12,000; casazapallar.com). Yet, enough of the old village still remains, like the red and blue fishing boats, to remind me of the more remote Greek islands and make the place feel caught in time.
For road-trippers en route to northern Chile, or anyone wanting to spend a couple of days at the beach before flying out of Santiago, Zapallar is the perfect place to swim, hike,
or pop just-caught sea urchins into your mouth right off the dock. For a sit-down seafood lunch, go to the oceanfront El Chiringuito (entrées INR 1,360–INR 1,889; Caleta de Zapallar; 56-33-274-1024), where you can wash down gratinéed scallops, a local
speciality, with a couple of frothy pisco sours. If you’re staying more than a couple of days, there are villas with ocean views available on Airbnb—both in Zapallar and the neighbouring town of Cachagua, which has an equally lovely but bigger beach that’s also filled with families during the January and February high season.
Zapallar is the kind of place where everyone seems to have eyes on one another’s kids. Maybe that’s why no one panicked when my five-year-old niece, Manuela, ran ahead to the
beach from my aunt’s house one afternoon. I have always admired my niece’s fearlessness and social fluidity—traits that seem to be as much of a national birthright as the Chileno
aversion to planning, booking, or scheduling of any kind.
We found Manuela on the beach, laughing along with a group of eight or so family friends while biting into an empanada in the midst of a picnic lunch. The scene typified the free-range parenting that, as in most of South America, is rooted in a social contract that puts family—and especially children—first. I was reminded of that trait on our way home that evening. Somewhere along the path, my cousin lifted a little boy she didn’t know who
had stumbled, kissed his neck loudly, then set him back on his feet so he could catch up with his older siblings.
Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) offers connecting flights from New Delhi to Santiago. From there, it’s a two-hour drive to Zapallar.