The Pacific Ocean on one side, the Andes mountain range on the other. Chile is a country of extremes. Over 4500 kilometers long, but only around 100 kilometers wide. From the Atacama desert in the north, the world’s driest place, to glacier-rich Patagonia and the Land of Fire in the far south.
- OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Chile
- FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Republic
- CAPITAL: Santiago
- POPULATION: 17.5 Million people
- OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Spanish
- MONEY: Chilean peso
- AREA: 756,102 square kilometers (291,932 square miles)
Nearly 95 percent of Chileans have a mix of native and European roots. About 40 percent of the population lives in the area around the capital of Santiago.
Today only about 5 percent of the population is native Mapuche and other indigenous groups. The Mapuche live mostly in the south.
Easter Island, the Rapa Nui call home.
The flora and fauna of Chile are characterized by a high degree of endemism, due to its particular geography.
In continental Chile, the Atacama Desert in the north and the Andes mountains to the east are barriers that have led to the isolation of flora and fauna.
Among the larger mammals are the puma, the llama-like guanaco and the fox-like chilla.
Owing to the vicinity of the Humboldt Current, ocean waters abound with fish and other forms of marine life, which in turn support a rich variety of waterfowl, including several penguins.
Whales are abundant, and some six species of seals are found in the area.
Chile’s geographical isolation has restricted the immigration of faunal life, so that only a few of the many distinctive South American animals are found.
Stone tool evidence indicates that humans were at least sporadically roaming the area as long as 18,500 years ago. About 10,000 years ago, migrating Indigenous Peoples settled in fertile valleys and coastal areas of what is present-day Chile.
Before the Spaniards arrived in 1535, the northern part of Chile was under Inca rule, while the south was the territory of the Mapuche.
The Spaniards recognized the agricultural potential of Chile’s central valley, and it became part of the Spanish Empire. Conquest took place gradually, and the Europeans suffered repeated setbacks.
Cut off to the north by desert, to the south by the Mapuche, to the east by the Andes Mountains, and to the west by the ocean, Chile became one of the most centralized, homogeneous colonies in Spanish America.
In 1810, the country declared independence from Spain. Later in the 19th century, many Europeans began to settle, including Germans, Italians, British and French.
Chile was considered to be a very stable and free country. Until in 1973, the legally elected marxist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military and their leader General Augusto Pinochet. The country suffered until 1989 under the dictatorship when democracy was restored.
In 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.8 (on the moment magnitude scale) struck the central region of Chile, where around 80% of the population lives. It is considered one of the strongest earthquakes in history.
Chilean cuisine is a reflection of the country’s topographical variety, featuring an assortment of seafood, beef, fruits, and vegetables. Traditional recipes include asado, cazuela, empanadas, humitas, pastel de choclo, pastel de papas, curanto, and sopaipillas.
Lemon and onions were brought by the Spanish colonists, and the (sometimes heavy) use of mayonnaise and yogurt was introduced by German immigrants, as was beer.
Spanish is the major language.
The Spanish spoken in Chile is distinctively accented and quite unlike that of neighboring South American countries because final syllables are often dropped, and some consonants have a soft pronunciation.
There’s not much of a differentiation between the North and the South, because the Chilean population was formed in the central region and spread out to more remote areas.
Indigenous languages still spoken are Mapudungun, Aymara, Rapa Nui and Quechua.
Other languages in use are for example Italian, English or Greek. German is still spoken to some extent in the south of Chile.
English is mandatory to learn in schools from 5th grade and up, thanks to government initiatives.
Geography, Climate, Economy, Tourism
The North (Norte Grande)
In the far north of Chile, the Atacama desert dominates the landscape. Often called the driest area on earth, there are spots within the desert that haven’t experienced any rain in more than a hundred years. Atacama is rich in minerals and metals, therefore mining is the most common economic activity.
Places of great touristic interest are for example San Pedro de Atacama, with its museums, geyser fields, the Atacama Salt Lake, or the ‘Valley of the moon’.
Further south, due to its ultra clear skies, Chile has some of the strongest scientific space observatories in the world, and Astro Tourism is a big thing here!
The Near North
Norte Chico is famous for its valleys of great beauty and fertility. It is a highly mountainous district. The highest Chilean mountains are found here. Ojos del Salado with almost 6900 meters being the highest peak.
The most famous is probably the Elqui valley. Here, almost all Chilean pisco, a grape liquor, is produced.
This is where the majority of Chileans live. It might be best described as mediterranean.
Santiago, the capital, has its own charm, with great gastronomy, a lot of culture, and museums. Of course, it is also the economic center of the country.
The coastal area here is dominated by Valparaiso, a city with a great history. During its golden age, between 1850 and 1914, Valparaiso was one of the wealthiest cities worldwide. Then the Panama Canal opened, ships didn’t have to surround South America anymore, and Valparaiso became a sleeping beauty.
A few steps further north, Viña del Mar, a more modern city and tourism hotspot, offers great beaches and hosts one of the most important music festivals in the world.
Santiago’s airport is also the main hub for travelers coming in and going out of the country, and most planes have a layover here when going north to south or vice versa.
The Southern Zone (Zona Sur)
This zone stretches from the Bio-Bio river to south of Chiloe Island.
Let’s call the climate rainy-mediterranean.
The lakes in this area are remarkably beautiful. The snow-covered Andes form a backdrop to clear blue or even turquoise waters.
Places of interest are the aforementioned Chiloe, the lakes, but also Araucania, a region that stands out as the agricultural center of Chile, nicknamed as its ‘granary’.
The Austral Zone
This is basically the Chilean portion of Patagonia and also includes Tierra del Fuego (Land of fire) in the very south of the continent until Cape Horn.
Majestic mountain ranges, national parks like Torres del Paine or Navarino Island with the world’s southernmost town, Puerto Williams, are highly attractive for every adventurous traveler.
While the northern part still receives a lot of rain, the south receives way less. The summer months average a temperature of 11°C but the virtually constant wind from the South Pacific Ocean makes the air feel much colder.
Easter Island (Isla de Pascua)
More than 3500 kilometers off the coast of continental South America, Easter Island is one of the most remote places on earth.
Rapa Nui, the original name given to the island, is also used for the people inhabiting the island, as well as for their native language.
Most famous for the nearly 1000 moais, monumental statues that are mostly erected along the coast facing inland, Easter Island isn’t easy to travel to, making it even more a bucket list item for so many travelers.
Only 7750 people live here, most in the one big settlement of Hanga Roa.
The climate can be described as subtropical. Its isolated location exposes it to winds that help make the temperature fairly cool.
Juan Fernández Islands
Situated around 670 km off the coast of mainland South America, the islands are composed of 3 major islands: Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe and Santa Clara.
The islands have a population of around 800 people and are mostly known as a possible inspiration for Daniel Dafoe’s book Robinson Crusoe, after the Scottish seaman Alexander Selkirk was marooned by his captain and spent more than 4 years as a castaway here.