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.
Rancagua makes a good base for exploring several attractions in the adjacent Rapel Valley, including the 40km-long Lago Rapel, the largest artificial lake in Chile. In the opposite direction, a paved highway known as the Carretera del Cobre heads 60km east into the cordillera to the copper mine of El Teniente and the Chapa Verde ski centre, while a southern fork takes you to the Reserva Nacional Río los Cipreses.
The forty-kilometre-long artificial Lago Rapel nestles in the low coastal hills southwest of Rancagua. Most of the action is centred around the main town of El Manzano, on the lake’s eastern shore. The lake’s main attractions are its excellent watersports facilities, with speed boats, windsurfers and jet skis available for rent from several hotels and campsites.
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.
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.
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.
The Valle de Colchagua lies in the middle of one of Chile’s finest wine-making districts. Eight wineries in the area have formed an itinerary called the Ruta del Vino. Tours (half-day/two wineries CH$66,000, full-day/three wineries CH$99,000) run daily and include multilingual guides and the chance to sample wines at each winery. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance via Ruta del Vino. The agency can also arrange accommodation and transfers from Santiago. Tours run year round but the best time to go is in late March, during harvest. The following are some of the best wineries to visit.
Founded in 1892, this picturesque vineyard has classic wine-tasting facilities and a top-notch restaurant. Hour-long tours cost around CH$20,000. Five tours daily.
The titular tipple produced at Lapostolle’s gravity-fed winery is organic and biodynamic. There are standard 1hr tasting tours of the 445-acre estate (CH$20,000) as well as private visits (CH$35,000). Accommodation at Clos Apalta Residence is also available. Standard tasting tours 10.30am, 12.30pm, 4pm & 5.30pm.
On the outskirts of Santa Cruz, this compact winery has 198 acres of vines dating from 1979. As well as tasting tours (CH$12,000–16,000), the winery has the excellent hotel Terra Viña (see below) and restaurant Vino Bello. Tasting tours daily 9.30am–7pm.
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 (CH$7000–30,000), they offer guided nature hikes and a lunch option (CH$30,000). Standard tours daily 11am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm & 5.30pm
This 494- acre bodega 12km west of Santa Cruz produces, among others, the once rare and now classic Chilean Carmenère wine. The vineyard tours (from CH$12,000) are packed with interesting information about Chilean wine, and include a tasting. Three or four tours daily.
Just 7km east of Santa Cruz, this is one of the most visited vineyards in the area. A trip to the third-generation, family-owned winery includes a vintage carriage ride through the 370-acre estate and a comprehensive tasting (CH$13,000). There’s also a nice on-site wine and crafts store and gourmet restaurant, Rayuela. Four tours daily.
Central Chile was devastated by one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history when an 8.8-magnitude quake struck off its coast on February 27, 2010, triggering a powerful Pacific-wide tsunami. The earthquake cost 521 lives, injured 12,000 and left more than 800,000 people homeless. Concepción, 115km southeast of the epicentre, was hardest hit, with looting and violence bringing further chaos to the city. The cities of Curicó, Talca and Chillán also suffered severe damage, while the tsunami washed away parts of the coastal towns of Constitución, Talcahuano, Pichilemu and Iloca. The cities of Valparaíso and Santiago sustained some, albeit comparatively small, damage.
Roads and bridges were repaired soon after the earthquake, and in the ensuing months and years the region has picked itself up and rebuilt with heroic determination. Note however that many of the region’s century-old adobe homes and haciendas, particularly those in the Colchagua Valley, are lost forever or have expensive and lengthy renovations ahead of them.
The Teno and Lontué rivers converge to form the broad Río Mataquito, which meanders west through Chilean wine country towards the Pacific. The town of Curicó (54km south of San Fernando) sits in the Mataquito Valley and makes a convenient place to break your journey. Curicó aside, the main attractions of the Mataquito Valley are the wineries, the Lago Vichuquén, near the coast, and the Siete Tazas waterfalls, southeast towards the mountains.
Bustling little Curicó, founded in 1743, is the only town of any significance in the Mataquito Valley. An agro-industrial centre servicing the surrounding vineyards, it suffered badly in the 2010 earthquake but a construction boom is currently underway. While Curicó has little to hold your interest for more than a few hours, it is the gateway for excursions to both nearby wineries and Parque Nacional Radal Siete Tazas.
Curicó is built around one of the most beautiful central plazas in Chile, luxuriantly planted with sixty giant Canary Island palms. Standing in their shade, on the northern side of the square, is a highly ornate, dark-green wrought-iron bandstand, constructed in a New Orleans style in 1904, while close by an elaborate fountain features a cast-iron replica of The Three Graces. In contrast to these rather fanciful civic commissions, the memorial to Toqui Lautaro – the Mapuche chief at whose hands Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia came to a grisly end – is a raw and powerful work, carved out of an ancient tree trunk.
Standing on the northwest corner of the square, the Iglesia La Matriz makes for a curious sight, its grand Neoclassical facade giving way to a spacious and modern brick interior.
West of Curicó, a scenic road follows the northern bank of the Río Mataquito through the fertile river valley. Eighty-five kilometres along the road, just beyond Hualañé village, take the right fork and follow the signs for a further 25km along a dirt road to tiny Vichuquén, one of the best-preserved villages in the Central Valley. Most of the brightly painted adobe houses date from the mid-nineteenth century, but Vichuquén’s history goes back much further: there was a settlement here long before the arrival of the Spaniards, and it was chosen by the Inca as a site for one of their mitimaes – agricultural colonies populated by Quechua farmers brought down from Peru. You’ll find relics of the Inca occupation – and a three-thousand-year-old mummy – in the Museo Colonial, on Calle Rodríguez.
Of all the natural phenomena in Chile, the Siete Tazas, 71km southeast of Curicó, must be one of the most extraordinary. In the depths of the native forest, a crystal-clear mountain river drops down a series of seven waterfalls, each of which has carved a sparkling taza (“teacup”) out of the rock. The falls are inside Parque Nacional Radal Siete Tazas, reached by a poor dirt road from the village of Molina, 18km south of Curicó – be sure to fill up with petrol there. Though busy on summer weekends, this park is practically empty the rest of the year. Also within the reserve are forests, several hiking trails and the Velo de Novia (“Bride’s Veil”), a 50m waterfall spilling out of a narrow gorge. For keen hikers, it’s also possible to trek from Siete Tazas to Reserva Nacional Altos del Lircay, but you’ll need to hire a local guide.
Zipping down the Panamericana from Santiago, you can reach the unremarkable agricultural town of Rancagua, 87km south, in about an hour. With a little more time and your own transport, however, the old road from Santiago (signed Alto Jahuel, running east along the highway) makes a far more appealing route, winding its way past estates of vines, fruit trees and old haciendas, half-hidden behind their great adobe walls.
Rancagua presents a picture that is to repeat itself in most of the Central Valley towns – large, well-tended central plaza; single-storey adobe houses; a few colonial buildings, which were damaged in the 2010 earthquake but are being restored; sprawling, faceless outskirts. Once in town, you’ll find little to hold your interest for more than a few hours – unless your arrival coincides with a rodeo – but Rancagua makes a useful jumping-off point for attractions in the adjacent Rapel Valley.
The Central Valley is the birthplace and heartland of Chilean rodeo, whose season kicks off on Independence Day, September 18. Over the following six months, regional competitions eliminate all but the finest horses and huasos in the country, who go on to take part in the national championships in Rancagua (Chile’s rodeo capital) on the first weekend in April. Rodeos are performed in medialunas (“half moons”), circular arenas divided by a curved wall, forming a crescent-shaped stadium and a smaller oval pen called an apiñadero. In Rancagua it is on the northern edge of town (on the corner of Av España and Germán Ibarra). The participants are huasos – cowboys, or horsemen – who cut a dashing figure with their bright, finely woven ponchos, broad-rimmed hats, carved wooden stirrups and shining silver spurs. The mounts they ride in the rodeo are specially bred and trained corraleros that are far too valuable for day-to-day work.
A rodeo begins with an inspection of the horses and their riders by judges, who award points for appearance. This is followed by individual displays of horsemanship that make ordinary dressage look tame. In the main part of a rodeo, pairs of huasos have to drive a young cow, or novillo, around the edge of the arena and pin it up against a padded section of the wall. Rodeos are as much about eating and drinking as anything else, and the canteen and food stalls by a medialuna are a good place to sample regional food, gourmet wine and the sweet fruity alcohol known as chicha. Rodeo events are spread over the course of a weekend and end with music and dancing. This is where you can see the cueca being danced at its flirtatious best. For the dates of official rodeos, contact the Federación del Rodeo Chileno in Santiago or visit caballoyrodeo.cl.
Talca is mainly used as a jumping-off point for several rewarding excursions spread along the valley of the Río Maule. The city boasts its fair share of services and commercial activity, mostly centred on the main shopping street, 1 Sur, with a pedestrianized section between 3 Oriente and 6 Oriente. Away from the frantic bustle of this thoroughfare, however, the rest of Talca seems to move at a snail’s pace, not least the tranquil Plaza de Armas, shaded by graceful bougainvilleas, jacarandas and magnolias. Half-hidden beneath their foliage is a handsome 1904 iron bandstand.
The Río Maule flows into the sea almost 75km west of Talca at the industrial port of Constitución, south of which a coast road leads to the seaside villages of Chanco, Pelluhue, Curanipe and Buchupureo. To the east of Talca, the river has been dammed, resulting in Lago Colbún. Just east of Talca, the Villa Cultural Huilquilemu is a handsome nineteenth-century hacienda, now a museum, closed at the time of writing following earthquake damage, while further east, high in the cordillera, the Reserva Nacional Altos del Lircay provides trails through dramatic mountain scenery. Further south, you’ll find the neighbouring hot springs resorts of Panimávida and Quinamávida and, down on the valley floor, a proliferation of vineyards, many of them conveniently located between the town of Villa Alegre and village of San Javier on a route served by plenty of local buses from Talca.
Twenty kilometres south of Talca is a massive iron bridge over the Río Maule, followed by the turn-off to San Javier, a bustling little town sitting in the heart of the Maule Valley’s wine country. Its main interest lies in its proximity to two dozen local vineyards spread between and around San Javier and the nearby village of Villa Alegre, all of which are marked on a map distributed by Sernatur in Talca.
Nine kilometres further south South from San Javier, you approach Villa Alegre through a stunning avenue of trees whose branches meet overhead to form a dense green canopy. A stroll down the village’s main street, lined with fragrant orange trees, takes you past grand casas patronales in luxuriant grounds.
The Ruta del Vino Valle del Maule includes four wineries which are open to the public, and visits can be arranged independently or through the Ruta del Vino Valle del Maule office at the Hotel Casino in Talca at Av Circunvalación Oriente 1055. While the office doesn’t provide package tours or transport to the vineyards, staff can refer you to private Talca-based operators.
All these wineries are easy to visit on day-trips from Talca, either by taxi or on public transport down the Panamericana, into Villa Alegre, up to San Javier and back to Talca. Unless otherwise specified, all these wineries should be contacted in advance.
One of the best wineries to visit on your own, as you can drop in without a reservation for a 45min guided tour of its bodegas. With 200 acres of vineyards and beautiful grounds featuring an old casa patronal, a chapel and a parque centenario full of 100-year-old trees, this is a very picturesque example of a Central Valley winery.
This family-run winery is one of the oldest vineyards in Chile. Also known as Tabontinaja or Tabonko, it has a good set-up for tourists, with tours examining the ecology of its vineyards. There’s also a guesthouse – rooms have Jacuzzis – and spa where you can indulge in a wine bath.
North of Talca, covering 1300 acres, this is the flagship vineyard for the brand best known for its Oveja Negra (Black Sheep) variety.
As you travel east along the road to the Argentinian border, a left fork onto a poor dirt road some 30km from Villa Huilquilemu leads 27km to the mountain village of Vilches Alto and from here to the entrance of the Reserva Nacional Altos del Lircay, 2km beyond. This is an extremely beautiful part of the central cordillera, with a covering of ancient native forests and fantastic views onto surrounding mountain peaks and volcanoes streaked with snow. The road is difficult to pass in winter months, so the best time to visit is between October and May. The hiking trails here are among the best in the region. Close to the entrance, an information centre has displays on the park’s flora and fauna and the area’s indigenous inhabitants, whose traces survive in the piedras tacitas (bowls used for grinding corn) carved out of a flat rock face a few hundred metres away along a signed path.
Lush and very beautiful, the broad Itata Valley is home to a string of tranquil coastal towns, including the idyllic surfing village of Buchupureo, 120km northwest of Chillán. En route, 50km northwest of Chillán, is the naval museum in the village of Ninhue. Meanwhile, the ski centre and hot-springs resort of Nevados de Chillán sits 80km east, high in the cordillera.
Lively Chillán is famous as the birthplace of Bernardo O’Higgins, the founding father of the republic, and is worth visiting for its vast handicrafts market and fascinating Mexican murals. Thanks to periodic earthquakes and regular Mapuche attacks, Chillán has repeatedly been rebuilt since being founded in 1550. Most of Chillán’s present architecture dates from just after the 1939 earthquake.
The most famous and developed mountain resort south of Santiago is the Nevados de Chillán, an all-season tourist complex which includes one of the largest ski resorts in Chile, 80km east of Chillán, nestled at the foot of the 3122m Volcán Chillán. Formerly known as the Termas de Chillán, it possesses three year-round open-air thermal pool complexes surrounded by glorious alpine scenery. The resort’s skiing facilities include eight lifts and 25 runs, one of which is almost 13km, the longest in South America. Summer activities also abound, from hiking and horse riding to mountain biking and rock climbing. One ski lift also remains open in the summer for access to the Nevados Bike Park.
South of Chillán and the Itata Valley, Chile is intersected by the great Río Bío Bío, generally considered the southern limit of the Central Valley. One of Chile’s longest rivers, it cuts a 380km diagonal slash across the country, emptying into the ocean by the coastal city of Concepción, over 200km north of its source in the Andean mountains. For more than three hundred years the Bío Bío was simply “La Frontera”, forming the border beyond which Spanish colonization was unable to spread, fiercely repulsed by the native Mapuche population.
Today, the Bío Bío Valley, which stretches 400km southwest from the mouth of the Río Bío Bío, still feels like a border zone between the gentle pastures and meadows of central Chile, and the lakes and volcanoes of the south. While the valley floor is still covered in the characteristic blanket of cultivation, dotted with typical Central Valley towns such as Los Angeles and Angol, the landscape on either side is clearly different. To the west, the coastal range – little more than gentle hills further north – takes on the abrupt outlines of real mountains, densely covered with the commercial pine forests’ neat rows of trees and, further south, there are hints of the dramatic scenery to come in the Lake District, with native araucaria trees in their hundreds within Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta.
Cut off by these mountains, the towns strung down the coast road south of Concepción – such as Lota, Arauco, Lebu and Cañete – feel like isolated outposts. To the east, the Andes take on a different appearance, too: wetter and greener, with several outstandingly beautiful wilderness areas like Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja and Parque Nacional Tolhuaca.
The sprawling, fast-paced metropolis of Concepción is the region’s administrative capital and economic powerhouse, and Chile’s second-largest city, sitting at the mouth of the Bío Bío, 96km southwest of Chillán. Surrounded by some of Chile’s ugliest industrial suburbs, Concepción’s centre is a spread of dreary, anonymous buildings. This lack of civic splendour reflects the long series of catastrophes that have punctuated Concepción’s growth – from the incessant Mapuche raids during the city’s days as a Spanish garrison, guarding La Frontera, to the devastating earthquakes that have razed it to the ground dozens of times since its founding in 1551. It does, however, have the energy and buzz of a thriving commercial centre, and the large number of students here at the Universidad Austral de Chile gives the place a young, lively feel and excellent nightlife.
From Concepción, the southern coastal route makes an appealing diversion but if you’re in a hurry, take the direct 85km trunk road back to the Panamericana. Some 50km south from there, the first major town you reach is Los Angeles; halfway along this route, the Panamericana crosses the Río Laja. Until recently the highway passed directly by the Salto del Laja, which ranks among the most impressive waterfalls in Chile, cascading almost 50m from two crescent-shaped cliffs down to a rocky canyon.
Los Angeles is an easy-going agricultural town, pleasant enough but without any great attractions. At the north end of Colón, eight blocks from the orderly Plaza de Armas, is the colonial Parroquia Perpetuo Socorro, a church whose handsome collonaded cloisters enclose a flower-filled garden. Otherwise, the town is really just a jumping-off point for the Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja.