Like many countries in South America, Chile is famously friendly to families, no doubt inspired by the great cultural importance that Chileans place on family and children. That said, the country’s unique geography, spread over the 5,000 kilometers of its elongated shape, can be a big challenge for young travelers. The Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, while definitely unforgettable, is all the way in the north of Chile and Patagonia is very far in the south.
Fortunately, there is a welcome host of outstanding kid-ready diversions right in the middle of the country, in an area fittingly known as Middle Chile or Central Chile. They promise full satisfaction, but without as much wild unpredictability, travel time or cost. Better yet, Middle Chile’s top family attractions are within easy striking distance of Santiago, Chile’s capital city, greatest metropolis and most likely point of departure for journeys in the country.
The best times to visit Middle Chile are the seasons of spring (September to November), when green nature is resurgent, and autumn (March through May), when the foliage is changing color, grapes are in harvest and temperatures, crowd sizes and prices are dropping.
Here are some outstanding examples of pleasant beachfront communities, outdoor escapes and easygoing agricultural towns that deliver a full menu of family-friendly enticements, not the least of which is the delicious cuisine.
Valparaíso and Viña del Mar
The historic port of Valparaíso looks and feels like a city straight out of a child’s imagination. Spilling haphazardly down coastal slopes in a tumble of bright colors, architectural fancy, funiculars, and a labyrinth of staircases and back alleys covered in street art, Valparaíso is less about the kid-centric sights – of which there are nevertheless a few, including the superb Natural History Museum, the Parque Cultural arts center and even La Sebastiana, the former residence of Pablo Neruda – and more about the urban vibe. The Plaza Sotomayor, adjacent Barrio El Puerto and nearby industrial port offer a somewhat dilapidated vision, but it’s the history, energy and civic art of the hill-bound neighborhoods, now complemented by a reliable range of good hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants, that really make this a joyous place to explore as a family.
For a fascinating change of pace, visible just up the coast and easily reached by local bus and train are the extensive beaches, vast gardens, orderly boulevards, a quality museum and other fine attractions of Viña del Mar.
Both cities are less than two hours by comfortable bus from central Santiago.
Tres Valles (La Parva, Valle Nevado, El Colorado)
A short distance and easy day trip east of Santiago are the Tres Valles, a trio of popular mountain ski centers. The massive snowscape, well suited to skiers of all levels, includes a full range of family-friendly services and amenities. Valle Nevado and La Parva are dedicated to more posh resorts, while El Colorado serves all budgets. Weekend traffic and crowds can be a concern, as can the variable snow quality and, especially with children, the high elevation.
La Parva, the closest of the three resorts, is less than an hour by taxi from central Santiago.
Cajón del Maipo
For families keen on fresh air and adventure, one much-loved nature escape from Santiago’s urban verve is the Maipo River valley, whose mountains, glaciers, thermal baths and plentiful opportunities for outdoor activity – hiking, biking, climbing, white water rafting, kayaking, fishing, zip-lining – are a day trip southeast of the city. A self-driven or guided visit typically passes through fertile vineyards and orchards before hitting the town of San José de Maipo. Beyond it, a wandering road follows the ruggedly beautiful and wide canyon carved out by the the valley’s namesake river. Not to be missed is the Embalse el Yeso, a stunning reservoir hemmed in by snowcapped summits.
The Cajón area is about 45 minutes by road from central Santiago.
Rancagua and Sewell
Although a city of historical significance and plenty of natural and viticultural appeal, the Rancagua many families find most alluring is the one focused on its Medialuna Monumental, a large crescent-shaped corral used by local huasos (Chilean cowboys). After all, Rancagua is the birthplace of huaso culture, hosting a three-day Fiesta Huasa in March and two international shows of cowboy skills in April and November. The nearby town of Doñihue is the weaving center for traditional huasoponchos and cloaks, which can take a year to craft. For adults, Rancagua also boasts one of Chile’s superior wine regions.
A short distance east of Rancagua is Sewell, a historic copper mining ghost town and World Heritage Site known as the “city of stairs,” notable for its brightly colored timber buildings and the world’s largest underground copper mine, called El Teniente.
Rancagua is one hour by train and a little longer by bus from central Santiago.
Talca and Constitución
Once one of Chile’s leading cities (and the place where the country’s 1818 declaration of independence was signed), Talca today an easygoing place sometimes used as a base from which to visit premium Maule Valley wineries, an enjoyable experience for people of all ages. For families, however, Talca promises other great opportunities to go local with the fantastically hospitable local population. Worthy of exploration are the CREA regional supply center for fresh and seasonal products; the botanical gardens at the University of Talca, which has some excellent art galleries; and the balneario on the Río Claro, a busy community riverside park complete with boat rentals, barbecue facilities and small eateries serving mote con huesillo, the delicious sticky-sweet drink with soaked barley grain and sun-dried peaches.
From Talca, Chile’s last remaining narrow-gauge Buscarril, a rustic two-car passenger train service, makes daily runs to the coastal town of Constitución, once a seaside resort. The picturesque route of this Ramal de Maule – recognized in 2018 by the World Monument Fund – passes through sweeping vineyards and forest on the way to the coast, where Constitución’s primary attractions are the Sahara-like Putu Sand Dunes and five kilometers of grey sand beaches made majestic by towering rocky outcroppings.