Chile doesn’t get the attention it deserves! At least, that’s what I think. It’s an incredibly diverse country which is (at least in Europe) wrongly perceived as some kind of a third-world country. And that’s far from reality. To change the perspective regarding Chile and to give you some background knowledge of Chile to flex with when you’re in there (or at an intellectual gathering you surely attend regularly) I wrote down the useful info about Chile geography, history, economics and threw in some culture facts. Read in and thank me later.
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Coming down to geography features, Chile is as unique as you can get. It’s basically a long thread stretching across half of South America, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Andes on the other. What can tell you more than numbers? Here are a few intriguing facts:
- Chile extends over 4 329 km (2 690 mi) from north to south, which makes it almost the longest country in the world. Technically that title belongs to Russia, which is two times longer from east to west (around 9 000 km/ 5 600 mi).
- Chile is one of the narrowest countries in the world with an average width of only 180 km (112 miles) and 64 km (40 miles) at its narrowest point.
- With only 18 million people, it’s like half of the Canadian population.
- Chile is also a land of earthquakes. It holds a record for the strongest earthquake in the history of the world of magnitude 9.5.
- There are 9 sub-climates in Chile according to Köppen Climate Classification.
- Easter Island is officially a special territory of Chile, even though it’s 3 540 km (2 200 miles) far from the west coast of Chile and the flight takes around 6 hours.
If you’re deeply interested in that matter, reach out for this scientific article on the Chilean climate for further information. To give you an idea of what Chile has in store for you, I will now go through the geographical areas in particular.
The red and pink color on the map above represents the area of the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile. I bet you didn’t know that it’s actually the driest non-polar place on Earth. Yep, it receives less than 1 mm precipitation a year! I’ve been there and agree with that.
Besides that, it’s also very rich on earthquakes. There are multiple earthquakes that happen here every day. The reason being, Chile lies in the Ring of Fire—a belt of Pacific Ocean rim, where most of the volcanic eruptions take place. Today, for example, there were 49 earthquakes in the country! And that’s nothing unusual.
Unfortunately, in the last decades, Atacama also struggled with modern global problems. It has become a dump for European discarded clothes. There are tons of fashion leftovers covering the dunes further from the tourist places. For better visualization, here’s a brief report from German Deutsche Welle News.
On a happier note, there are some stunning settings in Atacama. Among the tourists’ favorites belong Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), the highest located geysers in the world, and the salt flats. Sounds interesting? Read also my travel guide to San Pedro de Atacama top highlights.
Central Chile is the area in between the desert in the north and Lakes District in the south to put it simply. It’s a Mediterranean climate covered by the yellow-ish colors on the map. Its central point is Santiago de Chile with the majestic peaks of the Andes towering on the east side and picturesque towns and vineyards along the Pacific coast on the west. I covered the best of Santiago and its surroundings in one of my earlier articles.
Tip: We’ve already filtered out the best Santiago hotels for you, so it’s easy to just click and book!
Lakes District (Northern Patagonia)
The Chilean Lakes District (sometimes referred to as Lake District) is a stretch of dense forests, volcanos, and myriads of lakes in the northern part of Chilean Patagonia. It’s represented by the light green in the map, and geographically correct term for this area is Zona Sur, but as a tourist, you wouldn’t get far with that name. There are plenty of National Parks with 205 endemic plants, 19 of them only to be found in this area. The most famous is Araucaria araucana tree or Chile’s national flower Lapageria rosea. From the animal kingdom, the endemic celebrity of this region is the Chilean rose tarantula (Araña Pollito), the most common tarantula species in pet stores.
Southern Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego
Southern Patagonia has a mostly cool oceanic climate and tundra with freezing, super strong wind, mountains, glaciers and penguins, marked by dark green and grey parts on the map. On the border of Chile and Argentina stretches the impressive Southern Patagonian Ice Field—one of the largest non-polar glaciers on Earth. It spans over 13 000 sq km, but as a tourist, it’s hard to catch a glimpse of its endlessness. In fact, the part of it you can see around the Glacier Gray is only the melting rim.
Tip: By the way, Glacier Gray is a part of the wonderful Torres del Paine NP, I wrote about in 5 Things You Need to Know About Torres del Paine National Park. You can book your hotel in Patagonia here.
Further south, things get rough, and the wind gets stronger. The southernmost point of Chile is formed by archipelagoes and fjords an the most famous Magellan Strait. Tierra del Fuego, as the Magellan called the region, has an average temperature during summer around 8 °C (46.5 °F) and you can almost see the Antarctica from the shores. However, Chile splits shares that with Argentina, which holds the title of the southernmost city in the world with Ushuaia.
According to archaeological sites, the first people arrived in this territory around 12 000 BC.
Chile History: A Brief Timeline
- 12 000 BC—first settlements. Various tribes just chilling, fighting each other, and hunting.
- 1471-1493—the Incas are trying to invade Chile and annex the territory under their empire. Too bad, the Mapuche tribe (like the most badass warriors) said no way, José. And because everyone hated Incas, they finally had to bugger off.
- 1533—the Incas themselves were conquered by Spaniards, who consequently invaded southern Chile and founded Santiago in 1540.
- Up until the 19th century, the Mapuche continued in the guerilla warfare against Spaniards and become the only uncolonized Chile native tribe. Vive la Résistance!
- Early 19th century—Napoleon occupied Spain, and subsequently Chileans elected their own government in place of the deposed King. Peru however, stayed on the dark side of the force and marched in Santiago in the name of the Spanish monarchy. Meanwhile, Napoleon abdicated, and the largely independent Chilean junta was screwed for good. Spanish rule is back.
- February 12, 1818—Chile officially declares independence, thanks to José de San Martíno who defeated the royalist in the battle at Chacabuco.
- By the end of the 19th century, Chile grows politically and economically, stealing gold and territory in wars with Peru and Bolivia (called the Pacific War, in case you want do dig deeper).
- First half of the 20th century—the spread of socialism, political unrest, economic collapse due to WWI, followed by the Great Depression led to changes of government. Chile became a multi-party system in parliamentary democracy.
- During the 50s and 60s, the political spectrum in Chile became severely divided between the left and the right.
- 1970—the socialist president Salvador Allende was elected, and he began with several radical reforms. Initially a good idea escalated to inflation, strikes, and food shortages.
- September 11, 1973—military coup led by the right-wing general Augusto Pinochet started the era of strict dictatorship in Chile. The communists’ nightmare on one side, economic success on the other. However, that didn’t last long…
- In the 80s, Chile entered a recession and Pinochet surprisingly decided to let people vote whether they desire to keep the status quo or have a fresh new start.
- 1989—a Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin won the election and became the president of Chile. The country entered a new decade of economic growth, declining poverty, and increasing development.
The recent history is still very sensitive as many of the Chileans remember the coup and the military regime, horrific for some and promising for others. I wouldn’t dare to comment on that and on the current political problems in Chile as I’m not educated enough in that area.
However, if you’re interested in that part of Chilean history, I recommend the film trilogy of Chilean director Patricio Guzmán: Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button (2015), and The Cordillera of Dreams (2019).
Today, Chile is one of the richest and most peaceful countries in the Americas with thriving tourism (book your hotel in Chile here). And that’s a topic for another chapter.
Chile Government & Politics
The Republic of Chile was inaugurated in 1825 and except for the Pinochet military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, Chile was a democratic state.
Chile government type in short
- The elected president is both, chief of state and head of government.
- The president picks cabinet members and is elected every four years.
- Chile has two houses of congress. The National Congress is divided into the Chamber of deputies (155 seats) and the Senate (43 seats).
- The constitution drawn up during the Pinochet regime in 1980 is still valid, complemented by several democratic amendments added during the 1990s.
The current president Sebastian Piñera lost the last election in December 2021, and he is to be succeeded by the youngest voted president of Chile, Gabriel Boric on March 11, 2022. Fun fact, Boric is a former student leader and activist in the recent extensive protests. Now, that is a bit complicated, let me explain.
Estallido social (literally translated as social outburst) was the largest political protest since the dictatorship era that took place from 2019 to 2021. It started with the mild protest in the capital against the increase in the tariffs of the Santiago transport system. The trouble was the citizens were already unhappy about the costs of living, corruption, inequality and called for a new constitution. So, you know how it goes. It started in Santiago and spread all over the country in the bigger cities.
Unfortunately, Piñera is and old school politic and honestly, he didn’t choose the best option to communicate with the rioters. The military forces using rubber pellets and raping the protesters naturally didn’t go unnoticed. According to the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH), there were 36 dead, thousands injured and arrested. And the international response, including the Amnesty International and solidarity protests in New Zealand followed.
After that, the current government was forced to lead the dialogue with the protesters. And there was the leftist member of the Chamber of Deputies, Gabriel Boric. Many people later criticized him for this step, however, the government eventually decided to launch the referendum for a new Constitution and several ministers and other government members were forced to resign. If you are interested in the cause and the aftermath of the protests, go deeper with a BBC article explaining the whole story from the beginning.
Chile is doing far better than many Europeans or Americans think. In fact, based on GDP per capita, it’s the most prosperous country in South America. Most of the GDP growth is due to the export of copper, minerals, wood, fruit, seafood, and wine. Thanks to the perfect conditions of wine agriculture, Chile made it to the top 10 wine producers in the world (7th largest). Chilean wine excels in quality, while at the same time it’s being produced in massive amounts, which means Chile is able to sell top-quality wine at a lesser price to the world market.
In a matter of economic freedom, Chile actually ranks second in the Americas. Higher than the U.S. even, with Canada leading the chart (according to heritage.org). Chile also has a generally low index of corruption. It was ranked Latin America’s least corrupt country in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index. The unemployment percentage is also very low. With 7.2 % (2022), it’s lower than that of Canada for example.
I know that charts and numbers are boring for most people, so here are some quick facts:
- The official currency is Chilean peso. At the time of writing 1 USD = 800 CLP.
- Chile is the world’s largest exporter of copper and grapes.
- The majority of export goes to by China (27.6 %) followed by the USA with 14.4. %.
Chile has a population of almost 18 million people, with 1/3 of the population living in Santiago (roughly 6 million). That’s a blast, right? Well, considering its geography, there’s no wonder. Most Chileans are mestizos with a mixture of European and native roots. However, only about 5 % of the population is represented by the native tribes.
The largest ethnic group forms the Mapuche tribe sometimes called Araucanian (the name of the central region), followed by Aymara in the northern Andes, Atacameños inhabiting Salar de Atacama, Yagán in the southernmost parts around Magallanes region and Tierra del Fuego and Rapanui in Easter Island.
During the second half of the 19th century, the colonization of the Lakes District was officially encouraged by the government, resulting in strong German and Swiss cultural trace. That’s why you can come across a German catholic church in Puerto Varas.
Religion plays a big part in the everyday life in Chile. Over 72 % of people identify as Christians with a slight prevail of Roman Catholics over Protestants. That’s understandable considering the Spanish colonization. However, there are significant minorities of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism too.
For me as a Czech (that basically equals atheist), it’s unusual to see that many people visit a church and celebrate the Christian festivities. However, I’m used to that from Spain and Italy. What really surprised me though, was that there are over half a million Mormons in Chile. I guess, Chile always has something up its sleeve.
Tip: Book some of the best hotels in Chile and visit the country for yourself!
Chile Culture Facts
There are tons of interesting things about Chile I don’t have the space to write about. So, I decided to wrap the most useful cultural facts you might actually need when visiting Chile in here:
- Chile has an “once”, as in 11 in Spanish. It’s something like tea time in England. Most people serve meals between 5-9 p.m. as a replacement for dinner.
- Pisco is a Chilean national liquor, it’s a type of brandy produced in the Atacama. Unlike the Scottish whisky, Pisco is often proudly served in a mixed drink called Piscola. Chileans are so proud of it, they even declared February 8 the “Day of the Piscola”.
- Chile is the only country on the planet to launch its own cannabis TV channel. It’s called Cultiva TV and it’s supposed to promote the “medicinal, cultural and spiritual benefits” of marijuana (in case you’re interested, there is a BBC article about it).
- Chile boasts 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Churches of Chiloé, Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaíso, Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works, Qhapaq Ñan— Andean Road System, Rapa Nui National Park, and Sewell Mining Town.
- Chile flexes the tallest skyscraper in South America. The Gran Torre Santiago is a part of the largest shopping mall in Latin America, Costanera Center, and it’s 300 m (980 ft) tall with 62 stories.
- Chile is a hub of the scientific astronomy community. It has almost 40 observatories, including ALMA observatory in the Atacama Desert with the largest radio telescope in the world.
- Chile take pride in two Nobel Prize in Literature writers: Pablo Neruda (1971) and Gabriela Mistral (1945), the latter being the first South American writer to ever become a Nobel Prize Laureate.
- Pedro pascal, portraying your favorite cop agent Peña is from Chile, Santiago to be precise.
- Chile’s tallest mountain is the tallest volcano on Earth—Ojos Del Salado (“salty eyes”).
- Tatio area is the second largest geyser area after Yellowstone NP.
- Chile is wealthy because it took the copper-rich Atacama Desert from Peru and Bolivia in the Pacific War.
- The tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas—Aconcagua—is very close to Santiago de Chile—a roughly 2-hour drive. You can imagine how mountainous the area around Santiago is.
- Chile is by far the biggest producer of salmon in the Americas.
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