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Isla Negra

125km (78 miles) W of Santiago

Isla Negra is mostly known as "the place where Pablo lived" -- Pablo Neruda, that is. His third -- and favorite -- home is here, perched high above the sand and sea that inspired him, and it is now a museum. The endearing little town is about 1 1/2 hours south of Valparaíso, and anyone planning to spend the night in that city might consider this recommended destination as a first stop. Another idea is to include a visit to Isla Negra before or after a tour of the San Antonio wine region. After lunch here at one of two good restaurants, you can head north for a beautiful coastal drive to Valparaíso. The Casa Museo Pablo Neruda, at Calle Poeta Neruda s/n (tel. 35/461-2844; www.fundacionneruda.org), has been afforded quasi-mythical status by many Chileans. Larger than Neruda's other two homes, ethereally perched on a cliff overlooking the crashing waves of the Pacific, it harbors a remarkable depository of travel mementoes: glass bottles, wooden sirens salvaged from ships' bows, butterflies, shells, African masks, Hindu carvings, ships-in-bottles, and more. Neruda, it seems, when not penning verse, liked to travel, hunt out treasures, and spend a lot of cash. The museum is a wonderful place to visit, and kids love it, too. The tomb of Neruda and his wife is also on view here. Tours in English cost $7 (£4.70), and reservations must be made in advance. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm.

At the back of the museum is Café del Poeta (tel. 35/461774), with pleasant outdoor seating and a direct view of the rocky beach and crashing waves below. You'll find good pisco sours, seafood dishes, and fixed-price lunches here. If you are tempted to stay, Hostería La Candela, Calle de la Hostería 67 (tel. 35/461254; www.candela.cl), is a charming, rustic little hotel and restaurant owned by a local filmmaker and his musician wife. Neruda photographs and memorabilia line the walls of the lobby and stand as testament to the author's time here. The rooms are all decorated differently, in theme with Neruda's "20 Poems of Love"; a few have balconies with sea views and fireplaces. The restaurant is open all day and serves primarily simply prepared seafood.

The coastal strip of Isla Negra has been declared a Zona Típica (Heritage Zone) to preserve the area from becoming overrun by multistoried apartment buildings. You can get here from Valparaíso by bus with Tur Bus (tel. 600/660-6600; www.turbus.cl) and Pullman (tel. 600/320-3200; www.pullman.cl), which leave from the Terminal Alameda in Santiago, located at Av. Alameda 3750 (Metro: Univ. de Santiago). I recommend that visitors rent a car, stop along the way in Pomaire or wine taste, visit Isla Negra, and return to Santiago or head up to Valparaíso. To get here by car from Valparaíso, drive back out toward Santiago on Rte. 68 and follow the sign to Algarrobo (Isla Negra is south of Algarrobo); the trip should take about 2 hours.

Zapallar, Maitencillo & Cachagua

Continuing north along the coast road, some 80km/50 miles from Viña del Mar you will reach Zapallar, which is a refuge of Chile's moneyed elite. The stalwart residents who have lived here over the past century have lobbied successfully to keep the riffraff out and construction to a minimum. Accordingly, it is the loveliest residential cove along the shore of the Central Coast. Each home flourishes with exotic landscaping, and the beach is so pristine, it looks as though it has been raked with the meticulousness of a Zen master.

All this aside, Zapallar is also where you'll find one of the region's most popular restaurants, El Chiringuito (tel. 33/741024), on the south end of town. Birthed from humble beginnings, Chiringuito serves the same tasty but simply prepared seafood dishes it always has, so bring your bourgeois manners and your proletarian bite; the crashing sea views and outdoor seating here encourage you to linger for a long lunch. Credit cards aren't accepted, and reservations are strongly recommended for weekends and during the summer. The place to spend the night here is the Hotel Isla Seca, Rte. F-30 E, no. 31 (tel. 33/741224; www.hotelislaseca.cl). The hotel has 38 handsome, comfortable guest rooms, two swimming pools, and a full-service restaurant. Rates are $150 to $180 (£100-£120) for a standard double, $185 to $220 (£123-£147) for a double with a terrace and ocean view.

Neighboring Zapallar is Cachagua and farther south, Maintencillo, two middle-class weekend retreats for Santiaguinos. In this region, individual private cabins and weekend homes are really the only lodging options here, with one exception: Cabañas Hermansen, one of the more interesting places to bunk for the night (Av. del Mar 592; tel. 32/277-1028; www.hermansen.cl). These self-catering, Swiss Family Robinson-style cabins are handcrafted to be individually different and are scattered amid thick foliage on a hilly slope. Although perfectly comfortable and a hit with kids, you've got to have a sense of adventure to stay here and a rental car to get around. The cost is $50 to $70 (£33-£47) for two people, $60 to $125 (£40-£83) for six; no credit cards are accepted.

A few attractions in this area stand out. At the northern end of the beach in Cachagua, there is a rocky pathway that takes visitors past the Island of Cachagua Nature Sanctuary, where you can view Humboldt penguins and sea lions (try to bring binoculars if you can). In Maitencillo, at Playa Caleta, there is a fishermen's market with a dozen stands hawking shellfish and fish just pulled from the sea. This is as fresh as it gets: Order a plate of raw clams or live scallops, and watch the fishmongers expertly fillet the catch of the day.

Parque Nacional La Campana

Parque Nacional La Campana is located in the dry coastal mountains, 110km (68 miles) from Santiago, close enough for a day visit or as a stop on the way to or from Valparaíso. Immortalized by Charles Darwin in Voyage of the Beagle, the park's jagged peaks afford the most spectacular views in Chile as well as a rich profusion of Palma Chilena (Jubaea chilensis), the southernmost species of palm tree in the world. It was from the summit of the 1,800m-high (5,904-ft.) Cerro La Campana that Darwin professed that he never so thoroughly enjoyed a day as the one he spent atop this summit. It does indeed offer the best 360-degree summit lookout point in the central region, but it's a strenuous hike to get to it.

While Parque Nacional La Campana may not offer the diverse array of activities that you find in Cajón de Maipo, it is wonderful hiking territory. There are three sectors with separate entrances. Sector Ocoa has the largest concentration of palms and is a lovely day hike winding through palm groves and ending at a 30m (98-ft.) waterfall. The trail is mostly flat and about 6km (3.75 miles) long. The stout-trunk palms that you see here grow very slowly and live as long as 800 years. Hundreds of thousands once blanketed the central region, but they were nearly harvested to extinction for their sap, which was used to make miel de palma, something like a pancake syrup. You can reach this sector from the Pan-American Highway; the signs for the park exit are very visible.

In the Sector Cajón Grande, the Sendero Plateaux is a 4.2km (2.6-mile) trail through oak groves (best viewed in the autumn) that is easy to moderate and takes around 2 hours to complete. Also in the Cajón Grande sector, the Sendero Portezuelo Ocoa is a 5.5km trail (3.4 miles) which meanders through magical woods with miradores that overlook the valley.

Far and away the park's most popular sector is Granizo, where you'll find Sendero Andinista, the trail head for Darwin's climb to Cerro La Campana. The trail is very steep in parts, especially the last 90 minutes, and can be slippery due to loose rock; if you can hack it, the view at the end is breathtaking, with sweeping views of the Andes mountain range and the coast. The trail is 7km (4.25 miles) and takes approximately 8 hours to complete. For a more tranquil ramble, the Sendero Los Peumos is a 4km (2.6 mile) walk through lush woodlands, which connects with the Sendero Portezuelo Ocoa Sector in the Cajón Grande sector. The Conaf station at Granizo is the most equipped, with knowledgeable rangers providing comprehensive, well-designed information. Both sectors Grande and Granizo are in the park's southern region, with both entrances close to the pleasant town of Olmué. There are campsites in all three sectors, which cost $10 (£6.70) per night for one to six people. If you plan to stay for a couple of nights, you'll find more creature comforts at the immaculate and welcoming Hostería Copihue, Diego Portales 2203 (tel. 33/441-544), which has pleasant, if spartan, rooms nestled in manicured grounds with swimming pools, a gym, and a good restaurant.

Admission to the park is $2 (£1.35) for adults and 75¢ (50p) for children; it's open year-round Saturday to Thursday from 9am to 5:30pm, and Friday from 9am to 4:30pm. Call tel. 33/441342 for more info. It is possible to reach the park by taking a bus from Santiago, Valparaiso, and Viña del Mar. From the San Borja terminal in Santiago, Golondrina run daily services every 30 minutes to Olmué, which connect with the local Agdabus bus service every 10 minutes -- this will drop you off at the park entrance at Granizo. From Valparaíso, the route is much more direct with Ciferal Express services running every 2 hours, leaving from Playa Ancha and 1 Norte in Viña del Mar and dropping you off less than half a kilometer from the park entrance at Granizo. For more freedom, rent a car, or contact Santiago Adventures, which runs day tours.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.