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.
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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 under way. 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.
Parque Nacional Radal Siete Tazas
Parque Nacional Radal Siete Tazas
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.