The 120-kilometre-long valley of the Río Tinguiririca is known locally as the Colchagua Valley after the province through which it runs. This is serious fruit-production territory, as signalled by the numerous fruit stalls and large Del Monte factories lining the highway on the approach to San Fernando. Forty-one kilometres west is Santa Cruz, a starting point for visiting various vineyards. Still further east, high in the cordillera, the Termas del Flaco is an inexpensive option for soaking in hot springs. Around San Fernando, the Ruta del Vino del Valle de Colchagua takes in a trail of local vineyards as well as the world-class Museo de Colchagua, with historical regional and international artefacts, while if you continue to the coast, you’ll get to the hip, budget seaside town of Pichilemu, popular with surfers.
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Surrounded by low, rippling hills washed golden in the sunlight, SAN FERNANDO, some 55km south of Rancagua, is a busy little agricultural town that makes for a pleasant amble along its streets. The main commercial artery is Manuel Rodríguez, which, on the corner with Valdivia, has the huge nineteenth-century Iglesia de San Francisco, a Neo-Gothic church with a 32m-high tower, which took quite a blow in the 2010 earthquake and is in urgent need of repair. There is a similar monument, the Capilla San Juan de Dios, eight blocks north, on the corner of Negrete and Manso de Velasco. The verdant Plaza de Armas is surrounded by handsome colonial buildings, with the cavernous nineteenth-century Parroquia San Fernando Rey church on its southeastern corner.
Santa Cruz and around
Santa Cruz and around
Forty-one kilometres west of San Fernando, the paved road running through the Colchagua Valley to the coast takes you past a trail of wineries. The small, well-preserved town of SANTA CRUZ, 40km from San Fernando, sits in the heart of this renowned wine-making district and boasts the Museo de Colchagua, one of the best museums in the country.
The private Museo de Colchagua is housed in a splendid, plum-coloured colonial hacienda. Owned by international arms dealer Carlos Cardoen (the so-called “king of cluster bombs”), it has a well-designed, extensive and eclectic collection, including fossils, a huge amount of amber, pre-Columbian pottery and jewellery, relics from the War of the Pacific and memorabilia from the Chilean Independence movement. Among the most evocative exhibits are the beautiful old saddles, carved wooden stirrups and silver spurs in the huaso display, as well as the multimedia exhibit on the 2010 rescue of “Los 33”, complete with a reconstruction of their “refugio”.
The bustling surfer town of PICHILEMU lies 87km west of Santa Cruz. Built around a wide, sandy bay at the foot of a steep hill, the town dates from the second half of the nineteenth century, when Agustín Ross Edwards set out to create a European-style seaside resort. Today Pichilemu wears the charming, melancholy air of a faded Victorian seaside town. From the seafront, a broad flight of steps sweeps up the hillside to the splendid Parque Ross, planted with century-old Phoenix palms and extravagant topiary.
On the edge of the park, jutting out over the hillside, the grand old casino – Chile’s first but now functioning as a cultural centre – is perhaps the most evocative of Ross’s legacies. In contrast, Pichilemu’s central streets are crammed with snack bars and schoperías catering to the crowds of young surfers who come to ride the waves – among the best in all of Chile.
The most challenging surf is at Punta de Lobos, 6km south, where the national surfing championships are held. Look out for the sea lions in the beach’s peculiar escarpments. Closer to town, surfers wade into the chilly sea (the ocean temperature rarely rises above 14°C) at La Puntilla, which juts out at the western end of the calmer main beach, Playa Las Terrazas. Just south of here lies Playa Infiernillo, with a faster wave for more experienced surfers. Pichilemu took a battering in the 2010 tsunami and earthquake, but bounced back faster than a surfer after a wipeout.
La Ruta del Vino del Valle de Colchagua
La Ruta del Vino del Valle de Colchagua
The Valle de Colchagua lies in the heart of one of Chile’s finest wine-making districts. Seven wineries in the area have formed an itinerary called La Ruta del Vino del Valle de Colchagua. Tours run daily and include visits to two to three wineries with multilingual guides and the chance to sample wines at each. Lunch is taken in some of the best restaurants in the valley. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance at the office at Plaza de Armas 298 in Santa Cruz (rutadelvino.cl). Tours can also include a visit to the Museo de Colchagua. The best time to take the tour is in late March, when the wineries organize their own Fiesta de la Vendimia (grape-harvest festival). The following are some of the best wineries to visit independently:
Viña Casa Silva Hijuela 3, Casa Lotel A Angostura, 7km north of San Fernando, 72 913117, casasilva.cl. Founded in 1892, this picturesque vineyard has classic wine-tasting facilities, an exclusive hotel in a beautifully restored colonial building, a polo pitch and a top-notch restaurant. Hour-long tours are offered five times daily.
Viña Clos Apalta Ruta I-50 Camino San Fernando to Pichilemu Km36, Cunaquito, 72 953350, lapostolle.com. The titular tipple produced at Lapostolle’s gravity-fed winery is organic and biodynamic. Standard one-hour tasting tours of the 445-acre estate are offered as well as visits with horseriding or lunch. Four enchanting, luxurious cabins are nestled into the forested hillside above the vineyards in case you want to stay the night.
Viña Laura Hartwig Camino Barreales s/n, 72 823179, www.laurahartwig.cl. On the outskirts of Santa Cruz, this compact winery has 198 acres of vines dating from 1979. As well as tasting tour, there’s the option of sleeping among the grapevines at the Hotel Terra Viña or dining on first-rate Italian fare at the adjacent restaurant Vino Bello.
Viña Montes Parcela 15, Millahue de Apalta, Santa Cruz, 72 817815, monteswines.com. A tractor ride through the picturesque 23-year-old vineyard is included in the tours of Monte’s Apalta estate 43km northeast of Santa Cruz. As well as standard 1hr tours, they offer guided nature hikes and a lunch option.
Viña MontGras Camino Isla de Yáquil s/n, Palmilla, 72 822845, www.montgras.cl. This 494-acre bodega 12km west of Santa Cruz produces, among others, the rare Carmenère wine. It is well set up for visits, with vineyard tours, blind tastings, a harvest experience and a make-your-own-wine activity all on offer.
Viña Santa Helena Angostura s/n Km133 Sur, 72 913081, santahelena.cl. Set on 222 acres of vineyards 5km north of San Fernando. Daily tours are offered of their century-old cabernet sauvignon vineyard and cellar.
Viña Viu Manent Carretera del Vino Km37, Santa Cruz, 72 858751, viumanent.cl. Just 7km east of Santa Cruz, a visit to this third-generation, family-owned winery includes a vintage carriage ride through the 370-acre estate. Wine-making, and wine and food pairing workshops are also offered, and there is a gourmet restaurant if you’re inspired to lunch among the grapes.