The Maule Valley, a hugely significant wine-producing region for Chile, is responsible for much of the country's export wine. The specialty here is full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, though intriguing bottles of old-vine Carignan and País are the real stars. Many visitors use Talca as a base for exploring the wineries and the nearby Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay.
Concepción is an important and hardworking port city that is best known for its universities and music scene (many of Chile's best rock acts got their start here). There are a few plazas and museums worth checking out, and Spanish-speakers will be rewarded with an energetic and youthful arts, music and culture scene.
Earthquakes have battered Chillán throughout its turbulent history; the 2010 earthquake was yet another hit. While this perpetually rebuilding city isn't especially interesting, it is pleasantly green and an important gateway to some of the loveliest landscapes in Middle Chile, not to mention amazing skiing and summer trekking in the nearby mountains.
Wave gods and goddesses brave the icy waters of Chile's unofficial surf capital year-round, while mere beach-going mortals fill its long black sands December through March. The town itself isn't winning any beauty pageants any time soon, but it has an odd charm and heaps of quality restaurants, cafes and hotels to keep visitors happy.
'Nice plaza' is about as much as most locals have to say about Curicó. They're right: some 60 towering palm trees ring the square, while the inside is decorated with cedars, monkey puzzles, a striking early 20th-century wrought-iron bandstand and a wooden statue of the Mapuche chief Toqui Lautaro.
Your jumping-off point for journeys into wine country is a rather sleepy place with a pretty main square, an excellent private museum, a smattering of fine restaurants and, of course, a casino. Other than a cruise around the plaza and an afternoon in the museum, there's not much else to be seen or done here.
Despite a turbulent and interesting history – the village was razed on six separate occasions during the conflict between the Mapuche and the conquistadores – Angol's only real appeal is its easy access into mountainous Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta. The town straddles the Río Vergara, an upper tributary of the Biobío formed by the confluence of the Ríos Picoiquén and Rehue.
Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay
The range of challenging hikes at this well-organized and easily accessible national park will leave you as short of breath as the fabulous views. Its 121 sq km are made up of a mix of high-Andean steppes, lagoons and deciduous forest that turns a glorious gold and red in the fall. Pudú deer, Patagonian foxes and Pampas cats also live here, though sightings are uncommon.
Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta
Between Angol and the Pacific, the coast range rises to 1550m within the 68-sq-km Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta. This is one of the last non-Andean refuges of araucarias (monkey-puzzle trees), the arboreal equivalent of fireworks. In summer other interesting plant life includes 16 orchid varieties and two carnivorous plant species.
Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja
Some 93km east of Los Angeles lies the 116-sq-km Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja. Within the park is the symmetrical cone of Volcán Antuco (2985m). Lava from this volcano dammed the Río Laja, creating the lake that gives the park its name. The lava fields immediately around the lake form an eerie lunar landscape.
A quiet little town with picturesque houses and dry walls made from local slate (a few too many that crumbled to pieces in the 2010 earthquake), Cobquecura has a long, wide beach with wild waves attracting surfers from around the world. A deep baying sound resonates from a rock formation 50m offshore: known as La Lobería, it's home to a large colony of sunbathing sea lions.