The Central Valley, which stretches from the Aconcagua river in the north to the Biobío in the south, is Chile's most populated area and home to the capital, Santiago. On the coast you’ll find sandy beaches and the colourful city of Valparaíso; in the Andes, excellent skiing and snowboarding. In between lie fertile valleys dotted with haciendas, pretty villages and vineyards which produce the vast majority of Chile's wine.
Founded in 1541, Santiago itself is a cosmopolitan mix of glitzy skyscrapers, shopping malls, colonial architecture, parks and grand plazas, set against a backdrop of snowy mountains (an impressive sight when not obscured by smog). The city may not be the highlight of your trip, but a day or two’s sightseeing is definitely worthwhile and will give you time to recover from your long flight. And, although Santiago covers an immense area, its central downtown core is relatively small and easy to explore on foot.
A short walk from the city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas (pictured), is the excellent Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which houses pre-Columbian art spanning 5,000 years. The nearby Museo Arqueológico features exhibits on Chile's indigenous peoples and is also well worth visiting, as is the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, which examines human rights issues in Chile and beyond. For something quirky, check out La Chascona, the eclectic house of Chile's late poet and folk hero Pablo Neruda.
For fantastic views over the rooftops to the snow-capped Andes shimmering on the horizon, walk to the top of this 860m hill in the centre of the city, or take the funicular railway which leaves from the station at the north end of Pío Nono. Only go if it's a clear day.
We recommend the Centro de Exposición de Arte Indígena at Alameda 499 (on the southwestern corner of Cerro Santa Lucía) for its selection of crafts from the Mapuche, Rapa Nui and Aymara peoples. You’ll also find good crafts in the numerous shops and galleries around calle Pío Nono in the boho Bellavista district, in particular objects and jewellery made of lapis lazuli (a deep blue semi-precious stone found only in Chile and Afghanistan). Both Bellavista and the Belle Epoque neighbourhood of Lastarria host lively street markets at weekends; for excellent seafood lunches, head to the tiny stalls inside the wrought-iron Mercado Central.
Three of Chile's best ski resorts - El Colorado/Farellones, La Parva and Valle Nevado - are just a 90-minute drive north of Santiago, making day trips possible. All have modern lift systems, international ski schools, lodges and equipment for hire. The Andean views are beautiful, but watch out for altitude sickness (all are above 2,500m). The season runs from late June to early October, depending on the weather. Snow is usually deep and dry.
An easy drive southeast of Santiago takes you to the Cajón del Maipo, a deeply incised valley in the foothills of the Andes. Popular with weekending Chileans, it's great for hiking, horse riding and white-water rafting (September-April). The thermal baths at Baños Morales are very popular but resemble a swimming pool; it’s definitely worth the extra 11km (along a track) to Baños de Colina (not to be confused with Termas de Colina), where you can sit in a series of warm mud pools, gazing up at the mountains.
Some of Chile's finest vineyards sit in the Maipo Valley, just south of Santiago. Viña Santa Carolina within the city limits offers tours at weekends, while the country’s largest producer, Concha y Toro in the village of Pirque, runs them daily; Viña Undurraga, about 35km from town and considered one of Chile's wine pioneers, has tours by prior arrangement. We recommend lunch at Viña Santa Rita, a lovely colonial hacienda which gives free tours if you have a meal.
You’ll find another concentration of vineyards in the Colchagua Valley, whose main town, San Fernando, lies 130km south of Santiago. A number of them have grouped together to create a ‘Ruta del Vino’ (Wine Route), which includes visits, demonstrations, wine tastings and lunches. Look out for the highly regarded Viña Santa Laura, a boutique winery oriented towards low-volume, high-priced wines.
Unesco-listed Valparaíso is Chile's foremost port, and in the 19th century it was an important stopover for ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It’s still full of charm today: colourful houses dot the hillside and a collection of funicular railways crawl up the steep slopes, offering fantastic views at the top. Follow emblems marking a winding walking route called the Museum of the Open Sky to see 20 murals painted by Chile’s top artists and accented over time with impromptu graffiti. The Naval and Maritime Museum and the Lord Cochrane Museum of the Sea are also worth a look.
Among the many resorts along the coast, Isla Negra and Quintay have the most charm. The latter was once a whaling station, the ruins of which have a strange beauty. Its cove is full of brightly painted fishing boats and home to small cafés selling deliciously fresh seafood. The lovely sheltered beach has powdery sand and an attractive pine-forest backdrop. Isla Negra, a small hamlet south of Valparaíso, was made famous by Pablo Neruda and his summer house, now a museum, is a must-see filled with fascinating artefacts collected from all over the world.