The central region of Chile features a mild, Mediterranean climate. This is Chile’s breadbasket, with fertile valleys and rolling fields that harvest a large share of the country’s fruit and vegetables; it is also Chile’s wine-producing region. From ski resorts, beach resorts, and the idyllic countryside, with its campestral and ranching traditions and colonial estates, the central region offers plenty for the traveler to see and do.
POINTS OF INTEREST
VIÑA DEL MAR
This popular coastal destination is less than a 1-1⁄2 hour drive from the capital. Viña del Mar is the largest and best-known beach resort town, founded in 1874 as a weekend retreat for wealthy Santiaguinos and located 120km (74 miles) northwest of Santiago. Viña is made of manicured lawns, exuberant gardens, a bustling little downtown, and a waterfront lined with towering apartment buildings, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, and a casino. Some refer to the town as Chile’s Riviera, but most simply call it Viña— you’ll call it chaos if you come during the high season between December and late February when thousands of visitors arrive for summer vacation. There is, however, a heightened sense of excitement during these months with so much activity happening in the area. Viña is home to plenty of fine beaches, but the beach to see and be seen at is in Reñaca, about 6 km north of Viña.
Built in 1930, the Casino Municipal was the most luxurious building in its day and is worth a visit even if you’re not a gambler. The interior has been remodeled over time, but the facade has withstood the caprices of many a developer and is still as handsome as the day it opened. Semiformal attire (that is, no T-shirts, jeans, or sneakers) is required to enter the gaming room.
MUSEO DE ARQUEOLOGÍA E HISTORIA FRANCISCO FONCK
The natural history display at the Museo Fonck spans the entire second floor, but what really warrants a visit here is the museum’s 1,400-piece collection of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) indigenous art and archaeological artifacts, including one of the only six Moai sculptures found outside the island. The display is more complete than the archaeological museum on Easter Island itself. Also on display are art and archaeological remnants of all cultures in Chile, and the size of the museum is just right to not grow tiresome—you’ll need about 45 minutes here. There is also an on-site store selling jewelry, Easter Island art replicas, woolen goods, and more.
MUSEO PALACIO RIOJA
This enormous 1906 Belle Epoque stone mansion has been preserved in the architectural and decorative style of one of Viña’s elite families in the early-20th-century elite. Built by Spaniard Fernando Rioja, a banker, and originally spanning 4 blocks, the palace took opulence to a new level, with a stone facade featuring Corinthian columns and a split double staircase. Interiors are made of oak and stone, with enough salons to fit a family of 10. Although a fraction of what it once was, the palm-fringed garden surrounding the house is idyllic for a quick stroll. Though much is self-explanatory, there are, unfortunately, no tours in English.
QUINTA VERGARA PARK/MUSEUM OF FINE ART
A compact but absolutely lovely park, the Quinta Vergara pays homage to the future with its spaceship-like music amphitheater, and to the past, with its converted 1910 Venetian-style palace, the former home of historical heavyweights the Alvarez/Vergara family, now converted into a fine arts museum. Every February, this park fills with music lovers who come for the yearly Festival of Song; the rest of the year the park is an idyllic spot for a quiet stroll. The park, which features many exotic, imported plants from Europe and Asia, was once the residential grounds of Portuguese shipping magnate Francisco Alvarez and his wife, Dolores; their old mansion now houses their collection of baroque European paintings, as well as oil paintings of Chilean VIPs during the 19th and early 20th century.
Just 15 minutes north of Viña is one of Chile’s most captivating cities, Valparaíso. The historical importance of this city paired with its vibrant porteño culture make Valparaíso a far more interesting destination to visit and to spend the night, especially now that there are several boutique hotels and many outstanding restaurants. The jumble of multicolored clapboard homes and weathered Victorian mansions that cling to sheer cliffs and other unusual spaces provide endless photo opportunities. You could spend days exploring the maze of narrow passageways and sinuous streets that snake their way down ravines and around hillsides. The city has a bohemian flair so lacking in overdeveloped coastal towns.
CEMENTERIO 1, 2 & DE DISIDENTES
Featuring fascinating, baroque antique mausoleums, this museum offers stunning views and a walk through the past. Focus your visit on the Cemeterio de Disidentes; this is where the tombs of British and European immigrants lie, having been shunned from the principal cemeteries for not being Catholic. This cemetery is by far more intriguing than the other two for its matter-of-fact gravestones spelling out often dramatic endings for (usually very young) adventurers who arrived during the 19th century. It’s a short, but hearty, walk up Ecuador Street to get here.
La Sebastiana is one of poet Pablo Neruda’s three quirky homes that have been converted into museums honoring the distinguished Nobel laureate’s work and life. Neruda is Chile’s most beloved poet and its most famous literary export. Even if you haven’t familiarized yourself with Neruda’s work, this museum is worth visiting to explore this eccentric home and view the whimsical knickknacks he relished collecting while traveling. There are self-guiding information sheets that explain the significance of important documents and items on display, and visitors are allowed to wander freely at their own pace––something you can’t do at Neruda’s other museums. The walk from Plaza Victoria is a hike, so you might want to take a taxi.
MUSEO NAVAL Y MARÍTIMO
This museum merits a visit even if you do not particularly fancy naval and maritime-related artifacts and memorabilia. The museum is smartly designed and divided into four salons: the War of Independence, the War against the Peru–Bolivia Confederation, the War against Spain, and the War of the Pacific. Each salon holds antique documents, medals, uniforms, and war trophies. Of special note is the Arturo Prat room, with artifacts salvaged from the Esmeralda, a wooden ship that sank while valiantly defending Valparaíso during the War of the Pacific.
CAJON DE MAIPO
Cajón de Maipo is a quick city escape that puts visitors in the middle of a rugged, alpine setting of towering peaks and freshly scented forest slopes along the Río Maipo. A highlight in this area is El Morado National Park, but it is certainly not a requisite destination. Cajón de Maipo offers a wide array of outdoor activities, such as rafting, horseback riding, hiking, climbing, and more, but it also offers a chance to linger over a good lunch or picnic, stroll around the area, and maybe even lay your head down for the night in one of the cabañas that line the valley.
EL MORADO NATIONAL PARK
This park is just 90km (56 miles) from Santiago, yet the dramatic, high-alpine landscape makes visitors here feel as if they are hundreds of miles away from the city.
Just outside the city limits of Santiago, the scenery opens into a patchwork of poplar-lined agricultural fields and grapevines, and tiny towns hearken back to a quieter, colonial-era where it is common to see weathered adobe homes, horse-driven carts, and dirt roads. This is Chile’s breadbasket, a region that boasts a mild, Mediterranean climate, fertile soil, and plenty of irrigation thanks to the Andes, and testament of this natural bounty can be seen at the myriad of roadside stands hawking fresh fruit and vegetables and unbelievably cheap prices. Beyond the central valley is one of Chile’s largest and most deluxe ski and summer resorts, Termas de Chillán.