History of Vina Del Mar

Mother Earth Travel > Chile > Vina Del Mar > History

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the original inhabitants of central Chile belonged to the ethnic group known today as the Changos, who called the area now occupied by Viña del Mar 'peuco', which prosaically meant, 'here there is water'. With the arrival of the Europeans, the land gained a curious merit it had never known before: economic value. By 1580 the area had become an 'encomienda' (land and inhabitants entrusted to a particular conquistador); vineyards were planted so physically creating the 'vines by the sea' la viña del Mar.

A century later, these same lands were divided into two: south of the Marga-Marga estuary up to Barón Hill was known as 'The Homestead of the Seven Sisters', while the area northwards, all the way to Concón, retained the original name, this time under the righteous ownership of Jesuit priests.

Another hundred years passed. Rich Portuguese merchants sailed into the bay of Valparaíso, and one of them, Francisco Álvares, liked the lands he saw so much he bought them all, installing his estate house in the area now occupied by the Quinta Vergara park, and taking as his wife one Dolores Pérez. Both Francisco and Dolores took an enthusiastic interest in the remoulding of the physical and cultural appearance of their property, visibly expressed in the church Nuestra Señora de Dolores (the Church of our Madame Dolores), and the landscaped gardens around the estate house. These same gardens were to take on almost botanical status, thanks to the exotic plants contributed by the couple's son, Salvador, collected on his trips to the Far East and Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.

However, during the same period another event was to take place that was to have a major influence on the future development of the Vines by the Sea: the railway arrived, linking the settlement with Valparaíso and the central valley region.

Assistant engineer in these major public works was one José Francisco Vergara Etchevers, who was eventually to marry Mercedes Álvares, granddaughter of Francisco and sole heiress to the now immense family fortune. His wealth assured, José Francisco then went about laying the foundations for the development of the modern city, beginning this glorious task in 1874.

However, Vergara's life was not only to be fervently dedicated to commerce and urban development: he became a politician, was elevated to the post of Interior Minister in the government of President Domingo Santa María, and became Minister of War under President Anibal Pinto. He also took part in the armed skirmish between Chile, Peru and Bolivia known as the War of the Pacific (won by the British-backed Chileans) ' which led him to choose the Peruvian names of Chorrillos and Miraflores for two new districts in Viña del Mar.

Vergara ceded lands for such necessities as water services, schools, a slaughter-house and cemetery, and sold the lands around the railway track which became Álvares and Viana Streets. Mansion houses were constructed, the back entrances of which led onto the road linking Valparaíso with Quillota. The commerce that was carried out at the back of these buildings literally paved the way for present day Valparaíso Avenue, the city's main shopping street.

One of the main effects of the railway line was to increase the city's population, and new installations needed to be built to cater to the ever increasing needs of the people, including the local train station itself.

Afterwards the Miramar station was build, proposed by Dr Teodoro Von Scroeders, so that more people might have access to the local thermal baths. Von Scroeders also helped encourage the urbanisation project around Castillo Hill. More neighbourhoods were created as a result of the railway link, including Recreo in 1894, whose name (Spanish for recreation) alludes to the custom of local inhabitants to enjoy their leisure time faces turned to the sea. Around this period two city dignitaries by the names of Luis Barros Borgoño and Alfredo Azancot (architects responsible for the Rioja and Carrasco Palaces), undertook the redevelopment of the Recreo shoreline, filling in the original reefs and replacing them with a sand beach, so creating one of the most popular resorts along the whole coastline.

New stops were also created for the trains at Chorrillos and El Salto, the latter being named after a nearby waterfall.

Neighbouring landowner and politician Benjamín Vicuña Mackena, then took his part in the creation of the present day Garden City. It was partly Mackena's influence that led to Viña del Mar being developed as a seaside holiday resort in the first place. He proposed the creation of plazas and parks, of more attention put into landscaping, of new and more flamboyant hotels to emphasise the town's recreational credentials, as well as to receive the coveted visitors. These changes were highly successful, both with the inhabitants of Viña del Mar, as well as people living in the surrounding area. The Caleta Abarca cove area was the sector initially chosen for this type of development.

By 1878 the growth in the population had spurned the need for establishing some form of municipal authorities; permission to organise such a body was requested from the Governor of Valparaíso, who took a year to reply in the affirmative.

This heralded a golden period in the history of Viña del Mar; new industries and public institutions made their appearance, spurning the city's development especially in the sector around Libertad Avenue. In part this was also the result of the economic heights being reached by merchants in neighbouring and then extremely prosperous Valparaíso.

Local industry, led by the sugar refinery, demanded modernisation, which led to the instalment of electric light in 1882, giving Viña del Mar a status enjoyed by a highly select club of cities around the world (in the same year Paris also switched on the electric current).

In 1889 José Francisco Vergara, the city's founding father, departed for the great garden city in the sky, and his lands were divided among his offspring. Daughter Blanca inherited everything south of the Marga-Marga, and Salvador his son took the northern territories, which he started to urbanise in 1892.

The major earthquake of 1906 brought a great part of all previous constructions crashing to the ground, and a huge task of reconstruction was undertaken by the local inhabitants. It was during that period that such ostentatious projects as the Vergara and Carrasco Palaces, the Délano mansion (that was to become the Fonck Museum), and Wulff Castle were undertaken. By the nineteen thirties, Viña del Mar was deemed so imporant that even the Chilean State stepped in to help, part-financing the Hotel O'Higgins and Municipal Theatre in Plaza Vergara, as well as the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Casino, Salinas resort, and an urbanisation programme for the whole stretch of coastline between Reñaca and Concón.

By then Avenida Valparaíso was totally built up, with a strong tendency for the neo-classical in design and the historical-monumental in proportions. European fashion trying to distance itself from the excesses of Baroque. Foreign merchants who arrived and took up residency at that time, opted for the same architectural style, albeit using lighter materials such as wood in their neo-gothic, colonial English or North American town-houses. An eclectic form of architecture still to be found today in many of the buildings dating back to that vertiginous period.

During the nineteen fifties the Caleta Abarca resort took shape, as did the Marina and Perú avenues. And the sixties and seventies also saw the city's changing face, with special emphasis placed on the development of the Reñaca district, with the construction of numerous hotels and other tourist infrastructure that completely transformed this previously industrial sector.

And so it was that in the course of 126 years, this one time coastal vineyard has become one of the most affluent holiday playgrounds in Chile and South America, its once verdant shoreline now almost completely urbanised, but with the saving grace of parklands, plazas and gardens that help personify this City of Vines by the Sea.

Mother Earth Travel > Chile > Vina Del Mar > History