Extending south from Santiago as far as the Río Bío Bío, Chile’s Central Valley is a long, narrow plain hemmed in by the Andes to the east and the coastal range to the west, with lateral river valleys running between the two. This is the most fertile land in Chile, and the immense orchards, vineyards and pastures that cover the valley floor form a dazzling patchwork of greenery. Even in urban zones, country ways hold sway, and the Central Valley is perhaps the only part of Chile where it is not uncommon to see horse-drawn carts plodding down the Panamericana Highway.
While the main artery of the Panamericana runs all the way south from Santiago, through Rancagua to Los Angeles and beyond, the kernel of the Central Valley lies between the capital and the city of Chillán, some 400km south – a region where, during the colonial era, the vast private estates known as estancias, or haciendas, were established. The people have held on to many of their rural traditions and the cult of the huaso, or cowboy, is as strong as ever, as can be witnessed at the frequent rodeos held in stadiums known as medialunas.
Further south again, the busy city of Concepción guards the mouth of the Bío Bío, the mighty river that for over three hundred years was the boundary between conquered, colonial Chile and unconquered Mapuche territory, whose occupants withstood domination until 1883. Traces of the frontier still linger, visible in the ruins of colonial Spanish forts, the proliferation of Mapuche place names and the tin-roof pioneer architecture. Beyond the Bío Bío, towards the Lake District, the gently sloping plains giving way to verdant native forests and remote Andean lakes.
Many visitors bypass the Central Valley altogether, whizzing south towards the more dramatic landscapes of the Lake District and beyond. Certainly the agricultural towns dotted along the highway – Rancagua, San Fernando, Curicó, Talca and Los Angeles – are, on the whole, rather dull, but stray a few kilometres off the Panamericana and you’ll catch a glimpse of an older Chile abounding with pastoral charms. Chief among these are the region’s small, colonial villages, with their colourful adobe houses topped by overhanging clay-tiled roofs, many of which were, unfortunately, damaged in the 2010 earthquake and are now in various states of repair. Among the prettiest examples are Vichuquén, west of Curicó, and Villa Alegre, south of Talca in the Maule Valley, where you can also visit a trail of lush, emerald vineyards.
Away from the valley floor, you’ll find attractions of a very different nature. To the west, up in the coastal hills, a couple of lakes offer great watersports facilities, notably Lago Rapel, while further west a number of inviting beaches and cheerful seaside towns are scattered down the coast, among them the popular surfer hangout of Pichilemu. East of the valley, the dry, dusty slopes of the Andes offer excellent horseriding and hiking opportunities, particularly along the trails of protected areas such as Reserva Nacional Altos del Lircay, near Talca. After a strenuous day in the mountains, relax in one of the many hot springs in the area, including the Nevados de Chillán at the base of a booming ski and adventure resort.
The amount of annual rainfall picks up steadily as you head south; by the time you reach the Bío Bío there is a significant amount of rain every month. While winter is never too cold, most visitors come here between October and March.