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Chile

Santiago and Central Chile

The heart of Chile: bustling Santiago, colourful Valparaíso and some great vineyards.

The central zone of Chile, with its vineyards and rolling hills set between the Andes and the Pacific, separates cosmopolitan Santiago, South America's most orderly capital, and Valparaíso, its quirky opposite.

Santiago

Set stunningly against the backdrop of the Andes, Santiago is a colonial city, turned republican capital, turned modern metropolis-the cultural, economic and political hub of the country. Over 40% of Chileans live in its pleasant climate with easy escapes into the countryside, out to the beach in summer and up to Andean ski-slopes in winter.

There is lots to keep a visitor busy. Within the downtown area there is an excellent range of accommodation and restaurants with small boutique style properties springing up in the lively neighbourhoods of Lastarria and Bellavista.

The affluent zones of Providencia and Las Condes east of the centre also make a good base, well-served by the easy to use metro system.

Scattered across these central barrios are the country's best museums and galleries, including the principal national and contemporary art collections at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the very special Pre-Columbian Art museum, and smaller private galleries.

For panoramic views of the city and mountains, San Cristóbal Hill is an essential stop. A funicular lift climbs through the various levels in the park, including a botanical garden, public swimming pools and eventually the terraced restaurant and cafe at the summit.

Back at ground level, Santiago's Mercado Central was named one of the top 10 food markets in the world by National Geographic, with which we would agree.

The city's important political and church buildings are mostly set around and about the Plaza de Armas. Here you'll find the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Congress, the present and former Supreme Court buildings, the City Hall, and Santiago's very grand Central Post Office.

You should also see the Plaza de la Constitution, a fine open space in front of the Palacio de la Moneda-the Presidential Palace that in 1973 had such a key role in Chile's history.

Santiago is a commercial city, some areas are downright dull, and sometimes its air becomes trapped and the NOx level rises. A quarter of a century of democracy has healed many wounds and life blooms warmly and with open arms, though fairly quietly, and with a very Chilean sense of good order.

Into the Central Valley

Chile's lengthy Central Valley runs north/south between the Andes and the coastal hills that look out to the Pacific. This middle portion enjoys a Mediterranean climate in which agriculture-particularly viticulture-thrives. Rivers from the mountains cross the plain from east to west, and their valleys within the valley are the basis for Chile's wine appellations.

Country villages, market towns, churches, fields, forests and vineyards dot the rolling landscape. Traditions are deeply felt, land-owning families hold strong sway, and life on the land is spartan and reserved.

Valparaíso

Some have said that Valparaíso is a 'Berlin' of Latin America. Around an hour and a half to the west of Santiago this quirky port on the Pacific is Chile's second largest city.

Valparaíso's bright-painted houses are stacked higgledy-piggledy on more than 40 hills around a broad bay. Like Berlin, it's a town that knows what life is for and how to enjoy it. Unlike Berlin, Valparaíso is all innocence.

The city's challenging topology, by turns inspiring and exhausting, creates a thousand little neighbourhoods and this seems to put its citizens in a permanently cheery state of mind. When we are all struggling just to get to the top of the street, then why shouldn't we give each other a grin and a pat on the back when we get there?

It also helps that this house is painted bright red, the one next door is yellow, and the neighbours opposite have painted theirs cornflower blue. And the sea below us is looking crystal clear today with jolly tugs parading back and forth to docks lined with toy cranes. We are in a permanent live-in-the-moment childhood.

Of course, the cars are ordinary saloons, Big Ears is not sitting behind the wheel, and Mr Plod has not rid the streets of every rapscallion. But where else would you find a supposedly serious city with 15 little funicular railways chugging up and down the hillsides? Built at the start of the 20th century and restored to former glory these little chaps are much the greatest way to gain some elevation. Otherwise, you take the steps and take your time - distracted by pots of flowers, arty murals, humorous signs, and cats curled on window sills as you puff past.

Visit the trendy area around the exit to the 'Concepción' funicular or the 'Peral'. Either marks the start of a flâneur's walk with lots to see, local street art, bars, cafes and corner shops.

Down at sea level there are some serious-looking naval buildings, a proper port, and the commercial trappings believed essential for life today. There is a thoroughly straight-faced monument to a national hero who played a key role nearly a century and a half ago in the three-way War of the Pacific with Peru and Bolivia: Arturo Prat.

Valparaíso has made money from time to time, and around the hills there are marble mansions and fine houses. Some are museums, and some are boutique hotels. The greatest concentrations are scattered across Cerro Alegre, Cerro Concepción and Cerro Florida. Paseo Atkinson has a fine terrace that would do nicely in Harrogate or Bath, but with the advantage of a gorgeous view over a Pacific bay and a lot more sunshine.

There is plenty that is ramshackle and unkempt. The lavish investment programme that spawned the city's UNESCO World Heritage status only went so far. But a thriving arts community overflows onto the street, not only directly in the quantity and quality of street art (for which Valparaíso is unrivalled) but also in the sound of a cello wafting from an upstairs window, a street juggler, and a pair of actors rehearsing their lines in the park.

Pablo Neruda, poet, diplomat, Nobel Laureate and sensible man, was very fond of Valparaíso. He created a particularly enviable home here: 'La Sebastiana'.

You can visit Valparaíso in a day from Santiago. Another good option is to have lunch at a winery in the Casablanca Valley on the way from the capital, spend that night in Valparaíso, and explore it properly the following day.

It is also possible to connect from Valparaíso for overnight flights back to the UK leaving Santiago airport.

Any keen birder should fit in a pelagic boat trip from Quintero 45 miles north, one of the world's best open-sea birding experiences.

Start planning your trip to Chile

Let us know what kind of trip to Chile you are most interested in, and when you are thinking of travelling. Our travel experts know Chile extremely well, and will be delighted to offer some initial ideas and advice, and to develop a more detailed design for your holiday as your ideas evolve.

Call us on 020 7281 7788 ( Mon-Fri 9:15-5:45). Or we'd be happy to call you back.

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Holiday designs that visit central Chile

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