Chile is home to world-class wineries, but it offers so much more.

From the lunarlike landscapes of the Atacama Desert in the north to Patagonia in the south to the towering Andes in the east to the cosmopolitan capital of Santiago, it's a country of vibrant cultures, stunning vistas and countless opportunities to make memories.

But so what? You're going for the wine.

If you have only a few short days in the longest north-south country in the world, fear not: Here's a step-by-step guide for a whirlwind wine tour starting in Santiago and ending in one of Chile's premier winemaking regions, the Colchagua Valley.

Step 1: Head south -- far, far south

Unless you're planning a weekslong drive down the Pan-American Highway -- complete with a short flight over a rain forest -- then you'll likely be flying commercial out of a hub such as Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth or Miami. Consider catching a red eye and expect to be in the air for nine to 12 hours down to Santiago.

Step 2: Plan smart for the seasons

The seasons in Chile, like in the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, are opposite ours, meaning a 90-degree-Fahrenheit Christmas and a springtime wine harvest can make for intriguing trips. The top travel season is October to March, with a climate in Santiago and the main wine regions comparable to what you'll find in the Bay Area, from a chillier coast to a toasty valley.

Step 3: Make a quick stop in the city

After a morning arrival in Chile, grab a taxi or bus or rent a car to steer you into Santiago, about a half-hour from Aeropuerto de Santiago de Chile (SCL). Strap on the seat belt tight; many motorists on Chilean freeways drive like they've been on a wine tour of their own for a few weeks.

Santiago is a sprawling city of more than 5 million people flanked by the Andes in the east and a coastal mountain range to the west. Within this valley of views are many neighborhoods worth exploring. Given the whirlwind nature of this trip, however, you might only get to see a few. So, the crib notes: bohemian Bellavista to shop; the financial district, Sanhattan ("Santiago" plus "Manhattan"), for the high-end and the high-rises; Providencia for the food; and downtown to see the historic sites that have survived revolutions, earthquakes and multilingual graffiti artists.

Step 4: Sip and splurge in Santiago

Enough exploring. It's time for wine, and Santiago is home to some of the finest restaurants and wine lists in the country. The hot spots don't get busy for dinner until nearly 10 p.m., so wait around if you're looking for a scene or head out early if you're worried about getting a table.

The capital specializes in whatever flavor you're craving. Pair sauvignon blancs and pinots with the Pacific's bounty at chef Coco Pacheco's iconic Aqui Esta Coco seafood restaurant in the Providencia district. Or head downtown to the upscale restaurant Opera, get a taste of Peru at the renowned Astrid y Gaston, or grab a glass of carmenere at Argentine steakhouse Happening in Sanhattan. For a nightcap, wherever you are, put the wine aside and try a pisco sour, Chile's national drink. You'll be told to order them again and again, so get the egg white-lime juice-sugar overload out of the way early, and try not to wake up late.

Step 5: Follow senses, find the fresh air

With the morning sun shining and the skyscrapers and swarms of humanity in your rearview mirror, head south about three hours to the Colchagua (kohl-CHA-gwa) Valley, a winemaking region that has risen to international prominence in only a few decades because of an ability to produce quality red varietals for reasonable prices. It's the southern portion of the famed Rapel Valley and includes other, smaller valleys, such as the picturesque Apalta. On your way south, you'll cruise past dozens of fresh-fruit stands, gypsy camps, rock quarries and grapevines galore.

Step 6: Just cruise into Santa Cruz

Grapevines cascade down a hill at the Vina Santa Cruz winery in Lolol in Chile’s Colchagua Valley in March 2013.
Grapevines cascade down a hill at the Vina Santa Cruz winery in Lolol in Chile's Colchagua Valley in March 2013. (Tim O'Rourke/Bay Area News Group)

The city of Santa Cruz serves as an ideal base of operations in the Colchagua Valley, and the aptly named Hotel Santa Cruz is a swanky spot to stay. Haven't had enough "Santa Cruz"? The hotel owners run a winery a short drive outside town, in the laugh-out-loud-named Lolol region, and offer hotel-winery deals. The wine isn't renowned, but the vineyards are charming, with llamas, a faux-moai (Easter Island) statue and a chairlift that climbs high above the vines to a perch with a spectacular valley vista.

Step 7: Go big and make it Montes

If you're in the Colchagua region, make sure you visit the noted Montes winery. Able to spend big? For 30,000 Chilean pesos (about $60), you can sample some of the winery's best selections and get the primo vino tour. Outside, hop on a horse-drawn carriage, take in panoramic views of the Apalta Valley and taste the carmenere, cabernet sauvignon and other sugary grapes. Inside, tour the area filled with giant stainless steel and French oak vats and listen to the Gregorian chants filling the dark, damp barrel room, two steps from private tables for tastings. There, you'll sip at least one of Montes' Icon varietals. After these two tastings, bedtime will likely beckon.

Step 8: Meet the French connection

Wake up! There's more to explore in the Colchagua region. First up: Lapostolle's Clos Apalta Winery, one of the most beautiful vineyards in Chile, perched on a slope above the horseshoe-shaped Apalta Valley. Lapostolle was founded in 1994 by the French family that makes the Grand Marnier liqueur, and they've put a lot of money, thought and time into the architecture and experience. The massive display of exposed granite in the wine library speaks to their intentions to link man and nature, and the tall wood posts in the garden rise high and frame visitors' views across the valley. But don't forget about the purple stuff. Lapostolle's wines from this vineyard have garnered some of Chile's top ratings.

Step 9: Viva la Viu; it's not a secret

After an extended tasting at Lapostolle, you'll be hungry. Head to Viu Manent's nearby San Carlos de Cunaco vineyard and grab a table out back at the Rayuela restaurant and settle in for a memorable meal filled with simple, seasonal ingredients highlighting the Colchagua Valley's world-class agriculture and Chile's nearly 4,000 miles of coastline. For an affordable bottle to remember, order from the Secreto line. The base grapes are carmenere, syrah, malbec or pinot noir, but the blend, as the name implies, is a secret. After lunch, take a tour of Viu, one of the country's first wineries, where some of the vines are more than 120 years old.

Step 10: It's time to make a choice

At this point, you've gotten more than a taste of the Colchagua Valley, so what's next? Well, that's up to you. Chile has other renowned wine regions -- including the Casablanca Valley for white varietals and the oldest region, the Maipo Valley -- that beg for a visit. And there's Valparaiso, a coastal city that's a World Heritage Site. Or you could grab a short flight to Argentina and savor some of the world's best malbecs. But, after a whirlwind tour, the choice might be clear: a few more days in the Colchagua Valley.

Follow Tim O'Rourke at Twitter.com/timothyorourke.

  • Don't count on carry-ons. Your wine will get confiscated -- even if you buy it from the duty-free shop -- if you transfer flights in the U.S. and don't put the purchases in your checked bags before boarding your plane to the Bay Area.

  • Bring sturdy luggage and don't fill it up all the way. You'll need the room for the purple stuff.

  • Buy the wine at a vineyard or the El Mundo del Vino wine store in Santiago. It's about the same price as at duty-free, and you'll be able to prepack your bags.

  • Purchase inflatable plastic wine bags for protection. The wine stores sell them for a few bucks each.

  • Go for the carmenere. It's considered Chile's national grape, and it's tough to find good, reasonably priced varietals in the U.S. In Chile, $15 buys you a great bottle.