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Chile, officially known as the Republic of Chile, is situated in western South America. It holds the distinction of being the world’s southernmost country and is positioned closest to Antarctica. Its geography spans a slender land strip between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Encompassing an area of 756,096 square kilometers (291,930 sq mi) and accommodating a population of approximately 18.5 million (est. 2023), Chile shares its borders with Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, and the Drake Passage to the south.
Its territorial waters include the Pacific Ocean to the west and the southern Atlantic Ocean to the south and east. The country also exercises control over various Pacific islands such as Juan Fernández, Isla Salas y Gómez, Desventuradas, and Easter Island. Additionally, it claims a substantial portion of Antarctica, about 1,250,000 square kilometers (480,000 sq mi), as the Chilean Antarctic Territory.
The capital city and largest urban center is Santiago (pop. 5.5 million), and the official language spoken is Spanish. Chile is predominantly a Catholic nation with a few minor religions.
In the mid-16th century, Spain successfully conquered and colonized the region, supplanting Inca rule. However, Spain was unable to subdue the independent Mapuche people who resided in what is now south-central Chile. By 1818, following a declaration of independence from Spain, Chile emerged as a relatively stable authoritarian republic during the 1830s.
Throughout the 19th century, the country underwent significant economic and territorial expansion. This period saw the resolution of Mapuche resistance in the 1880s and the acquisition of its current northern territory through the War of the Pacific (1879–83), where Chile triumphed over Peru and Bolivia adding close to 1/3 more territory to its original borders.
In the 20th century, leading up to the 1970s, Chile embarked on a democratization process, accompanied by rapid urbanization and population growth, as its economy increasingly relied on exports from copper mining from the Atacama Desert in the extreme north.
The 1960s and 1970s brought about pronounced political polarization and unrest, culminating in the CIA-backed 1973 Chilean coup d’état that ousted Salvador Allende’s democratically elected left-wing government. This was succeeded by a 16-year right-wing military regime under Augusto Pinochet, during which over 3,000 deaths or disappearances occurred. The dictatorship came to an end in 1990 following a 1988 referendum, and a center-left coalition assumed power, governing until 2010.
The origin of the word “Chile” has sparked various theories. According to the 17th-century Spanish chronicler Diego de Rosales, the Incas referred to the Aconcagua valley as “Chili” due to a corruption of the name of a Picunche tribal chief, Tili, who governed the area during the Incan conquest of the 15th century.
The Spanish conquistadors learned of this name from the Incas, and the few survivors of Diego de Almagro’s initial Spanish expedition south from Peru in 1535–36 referred to themselves as the “men of Chilli”. Ultimately, Almagro is credited with popularizing the name “Chile” by bestowing it upon the Mapocho valley. The earlier spelling “Chili” was used in English until the early 20th century, after which it transitioned to “Chile”.
Stone tool evidence suggests that humans intermittently visited the Monte Verde valley area as far back as 18,500 years ago. Around 10,000 years ago, Indigenous Peoples on the move settled in fertile valleys and along coastal regions of what is now modern-day Chile. Notable early human settlement sites include Monte Verde, Cueva del Milodón (Patagonia), and the lava tube of Pali-Aike Crater (Patagonia).
While the Inca Empire briefly expanded its domain into present-day northern Chile, the Mapuche people (referred to as Araucanians by the Spanish) successfully resisted multiple Inca attempts to conquer them, despite their decentralized organization. They engaged in battles against the Sapa Inca Tupac Yupanqui and his forces. The outcome of the intense three-day clash called the Battle of the Maule marked the end of Inca attempts to conquer the territories of Chile, with the Maule River serving as the boundary.
In 1520, during his attempt to circumnavigate the globe, Ferdinand Magellan discovered the southern passage that is now known as the Strait of Magellan, making him the first European to set foot on what is now Chile. The subsequent European arrivals in Chile were led by Diego de Almagro and his group of Spanish conquistadors, who arrived from Peru in 1535 in search of gold. The Spanish encountered various cultures in Chile that primarily relied on slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting for sustenance.
The conquest of Chile began in earnest in 1540 and was spearheaded by Pedro de Valdivia, a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro. Valdivia founded the city of Santiago on 12 February 1541. Although the Spanish did not find the vast quantities of gold and silver they sought, they recognized the agricultural potential of Chile’s central valley, leading to Chile becoming a part of the Spanish Empire.
The process of conquest unfolded gradually, marked by repeated setbacks for the European colonizers. A significant Mapuche uprising began in 1553, resulting in the death of Valdivia and the destruction of many key colonial settlements. Subsequent major uprisings took place in 1598 and 1655, causing the southern boundary of the colony to be pushed northward with each revolt. The Spanish crown abolished slavery in 1683, acknowledging that enslaving the Mapuche only fueled their resistance instead of subduing them. Despite attempts at prohibition, tensions persisted due to consistent colonialist interference.
Isolated by the desert to the north, the Mapuche to the south, the Andes Mountains to the east, and the ocean to the west, Chile became one of the most centralized and homogenous colonies in Spanish America. It operated as a defensive outpost, tasked with preventing encroachments from the Mapuche and European rivals of Spain, notably the English and the Dutch. The colony faced threats not only from the Mapuche but also from buccaneers and pirates, as exemplified by Sir Francis Drake’s raid on Valparaíso in 1578. Chile maintained one of the largest standing armies in the Americas, making it among the most militarized of Spain’s possessions and a financial burden on the Viceroyalty of Peru.
In 1808, Napoleon’s installment of his brother Joseph as the Spanish King triggered a movement for independence from Spain in the colony. A national junta, acting in the name of Ferdinand, the heir to the deposed king, was formed on 18 September 1810. This junta proclaimed Chile as an autonomous republic within the Spanish monarchy. As a tribute to this historic event, Chile celebrates its National Day on 18 September each year.
Subsequently, a movement advocating complete independence gained momentum, led by José Miguel Carrera and his brothers Juan José and Luis Carrera, garnering broader support. Spanish attempts to reimpose arbitrary rule during the Reconquista prompted a prolonged struggle, marked by internal conflicts including Bernardo O’Higgins challenging Carrera’s leadership.
Intermittent warfare persisted until 1817. With Carrera imprisoned in Argentina, Bernardo O’Higgins and his associate José de San Martín, a hero of the Argentine War of Independence, led an army that crossed the Andes into Chile and defeated the royalists. On 12 February 1818, Chile declared itself an independent republic. However, the political upheaval did not bring significant social changes, and 19th-century Chilean society retained many aspects of the stratified colonial social structure, influenced by family politics and the Roman Catholic Church. A potent presidency eventually emerged, but affluent landowners maintained significant power. Bernardo O’Higgins had once contemplated expanding Chile’s influence by liberating the Philippines from Spanish rule and integrating the islands. He entrusted Scottish naval officer Lord Thomas Cochrane with this mission, but the plan didn’t materialize as O’Higgins was exiled.
Chile gradually expanded its borders and influence. Through the Tantauco Treaty, the archipelago of Chiloé was incorporated in 1826. Economic growth was spurred by the discovery of silver ore in Chañarcillo and the thriving trade of Valparaíso, which also led to conflicts over maritime control in the Pacific with Peru. Simultaneously, efforts were made to enhance sovereignty in southern Chile, with deeper penetration into Araucanía and the colonization of Llanquihue with German immigrants in 1848. The founding of Fort Bulnes by the Schooner Ancud, commanded by John Williams Wilson, in 1843 incorporated the Magallanes region into Chile, while the Antofagasta region, initially part of Bolivia, began to see an influx of settlers.
Towards the late 19th century, the government in Santiago solidified its presence in the south through the Occupation of Araucanía. The Boundary Treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina confirmed Chilean control over the Strait of Magellan. The War of the Pacific with Peru and Bolivia (1879–83) resulted in Chile expanding its territory by almost one-third, cutting off Bolivia’s access to the Pacific and gaining valuable nitrate deposits. The exploitation of these resources led to a period of national prosperity. By 1870, Chile had joined the ranks of high-income countries in South America.
The 1891 Chilean Civil War led to a reconfiguration of power dynamics between the President and Congress, establishing a parliamentary-style democracy. However, the civil conflict also represented a struggle between proponents of local industrial development and influential Chilean banking interests, particularly the House of Edwards, which held strong connections to foreign investors. Following this, Chile found itself embroiled in a costly naval arms race with Argentina that nearly escalated to armed conflict.
Chile, a country that stretches along the western side of the Andes Mountains in the Southern Cone, is characterized by its long and narrow shape. It extends over a distance of 4,300 km (2,670 mi) from north to south, while its width varies significantly, measuring only 350 km (217 mi) at its widest point east to west and a mere 64 km (40 mi) at its narrowest. The average width is approximately 175 km (109 mi). This geographic diversity encompasses a wide range of climates and landscapes within its land area of 756,950 square kilometers (292,260 sq mi). Chile is situated within the Pacific Ring of Fire and is positioned between latitudes 17° and 56°S and longitudes 66° and 75°W.
Among the world’s longest north–south countries, Chile stands out due to its unique narrowness from east to west, especially when considering its mainland territory. In contrast to other elongated north–south countries like Brazil, Russia, Canada, and the United States, Chile’s width from east to west is notably smaller by a factor of over 10. Chile also lays claim to 1,250,000 km2 (480,000 sq mi) of Antarctica as part of its territory, known as the Chilean Antarctic Territory. However, this claim is currently suspended under the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty, an agreement of which Chile is a signatory. Remarkably, Chile holds the distinction of being the southernmost country in the world that is geographically situated on the mainland.
Chile’s territorial reach extends to encompass Easter Island and Sala y Gómez Island, the easternmost islands of Polynesia, which were incorporated into its territory in 1888. Additionally, the Juan Fernández Islands, situated more than 600 km (370 mi) from the mainland, are controlled by Chile and are only temporarily inhabited by local fishermen. Notably, these islands extend Chile’s jurisdiction over territorial waters from its coast into the Pacific Ocean.
The northern Atacama Desert is a region of great mineral wealth, particularly in terms of copper and nitrates. The relatively compact Central Valley, which includes the capital city of Santiago, holds significant importance for the country due to its population concentration and agricultural resources. This area served as the historical nucleus from which Chile expanded in the late 19th century as it integrated its northern and southern regions. Southern Chile is characterized by its abundant forests, grazing lands, and a striking landscape marked by a chain of volcanoes and lakes. The southern coast is a labyrinthine network of fjords, inlets, canals, winding peninsulas, and islands. The Andes Mountains form Chile’s eastern border, creating a stunning natural backdrop to the country’s diverse terrain.
Chile occupies a region of significant seismic and volcanic activity, situated within the Pacific Ring of Fire. This geological activity arises from the subduction of the Nazca and Antarctic plates beneath the South American plate. In the Late Paleozoic era, approximately 251 million years ago, Chile was part of the Gondwana supercontinent. It initially constituted a depression that gradually accumulated marine sediments. Around 66 million years ago, the collision between the Nazca and South American plates initiated a rising process, resulting in the formation of the Andes mountain range. Over millions of years, the topography of the country evolved through rock folding, giving shape to the current landscape.
The Chilean topography comprises a central depression that runs longitudinally through the country, flanked by two mountain ranges that collectively cover about 80% of the land area. To the east lies the Andes mountains, forming a natural border with Bolivia and Argentina in the Atacama region. On the western side is the Coastal Range, which has lesser elevation compared to the Andes. The highest point in Chile is Nevado Ojos del Salado, towering at 6891.3 meters, also making it the world’s tallest volcano. The peak of the Coastal Range is represented by Vicuña Mackenna, standing at 3114 meters within the Sierra Vicuña Mackenna, located south of Antofagasta. Between the coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean, a series of variable-length coastal plains are present, facilitating the establishment of coastal towns and major ports. Some plains extend into the territory east of the Andes, while others encompass the Patagonian steppes and Magellan region, or form elevated plateaus encircled by towering mountain ranges, such as the Altiplano or Puna de Atacama.
The Far North region occupies the area between the northern boundary of the country and the 26° S parallel, spanning the first three regions. It is characterized by the presence of the extremely arid Atacama Desert, considered the driest in the world. The desert is dissected by streams originating from the region known as the Tamarugal pampas. The Andes, split into two arms with the eastern arm extending into Bolivia, boasts high elevations and volcanic activity. These factors have led to the creation of the Andean altiplano and unique salt formations like the Salar de Atacama, formed through the gradual accumulation of sediments over time.
Moving southward, the Norte Chico region extends to the Aconcagua River. The Andes gradually decrease in elevation towards the south and closer to the coast, narrowing to just 90 km near Illapel, the narrowest stretch of Chile’s territory. The two mountain ranges converge, nearly eliminating the intermediate depression. Rivers coursing through the land give rise to transverse valleys, which have become centers of agricultural development in recent years. Concurrently, the coastal plains begin to expand.
The Central region, the most densely populated part of Chile, features extensive coastal plains that provide ample space for cities and ports along the Pacific. The Andes maintain altitudes above 6000m, gradually diminishing to around 4000 meters on average. The intermediate depression re-emerges as a fertile valley conducive to agriculture and human habitation due to sediment accumulation. Heading further south, the Cordillera de la Costa makes a reappearance near Nahuelbuta, while glacial sediments contribute to the formation of lakes in the La Frontera area.
Patagonia encompasses the region from Reloncavi, parallel to 41°S, and extends southwards. This region was covered by glaciers during the last ice age, which significantly reshaped the Chilean landscape. As a result, the intermediate depression dips into the sea, and the coastal mountains give rise to archipelagos such as Chiloé and the Chonos, vanishing at Taitao Peninsula, near parallel 47°S. The Andes gradually decrease in elevation, and glacier-driven erosion has given rise to fjords. East of the Andes, on the continent, and to the north of it on Tierra del Fuego Island, relatively flat plains are found. In the Strait of Magellan, these plains extend extensively. Like the Cordillera de la Costa, the Andes also submerge into the ocean, generating numerous islands and islets, eventually reemerging as the Southern Antilles arc and the Antarctic Peninsula, referred to as Antartandes within the Chilean Antarctic Territory, spanning between meridians 53°W and 90°W.
In the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Chile exercises sovereignty over several volcanic islands known collectively as Insular Chile. The Juan Fernandez archipelago and Easter Island are situated along the East Pacific Rise, which marks the fracture zone between the Nazca plate and the Pacific plate.
Chile’s unique geography contributes to a distinctive and diverse array of flora and fauna, marked by a significant level of endemism. The geographical features of continental Chile, such as the Atacama Desert in the north and the Andes mountains to the east, have acted as barriers that have isolated its plant and animal life. The remarkable length of Chile, spanning over 4,300 km (2,672 mi), further contributes to a wide range of climates and environments, which can be categorized into three main zones: the desert regions in the north, central Chile, and the lush southern areas.
The native plant life of Chile displays relatively fewer species when compared to other South American nations. The northern coastal and central regions are largely devoid of vegetation, resembling one of the most arid deserts globally. Along the Andes slopes, grasses and scattered tola desert brush are present. In the central valley, various species of cacti, robust espinos, Chilean pines, southern beeches, and the iconic copihue flower, a red bell-shaped blossom representing Chile’s national flower, can be found.
As one ventures into southern Chile, particularly south of the Bio-Bío River, the substantial rainfall gives rise to dense forests featuring laurels, magnolias, a variety of conifers, and beech trees. These forests gradually become smaller and more stunted further south due to the colder temperatures and strong winds. In the extreme southern areas, the climate prevents extensive forestation, and grasslands dominate the landscape, particularly in the Atlantic region of Patagonia. Interestingly, much of Chile’s flora differs from that of its neighboring Argentina, reflecting the presence of the Andean barrier during their evolutionary development.
Some of Chile’s plant species can be traced back to their Antarctic origins, facilitated by land bridges formed during the Cretaceous ice ages, allowing plants to migrate from Antarctica to South America.
Chile’s fungal diversity is also notable, with over 3,000 recorded species, though this is likely an underestimate. It’s believed that only about 7 percent of all fungi worldwide have been discovered, suggesting that Chile’s actual fungal diversity is far greater. Efforts have been made to identify fungal species endemic to Chile, with around 1,995 species tentatively identified as potential endemics.
Chile’s geographical isolation has restricted the influx of fauna, resulting in a relatively small number of distinct South American animals. Larger mammals include the puma or cougar, the guanaco (similar to a llama), and the chilla (resembling a fox). In forested areas, marsupials and the diminutive pudu deer can be found.
While a variety of small bird species inhabit Chile, many of the larger and more common types typical of Latin America are absent. The presence of North American trout in Andean lakes is a result of successful introduction efforts, as native freshwater fish species are limited. The influence of the Humboldt Current in Chile’s ocean waters supports a diverse marine life, including numerous fish species and waterfowl such as penguins. The marine environment is rich in whales and hosts around six species of seals.
The Andes Mountains in Chile present a spectacular and diverse landscape that’s ideal for capturing breathtaking photographs. Here’s an overview of what you can expect:
Longest Mountain Range:
The Andes in Chile make up a significant portion of the world’s longest mountain range, stretching along the entire length of the country. This range offers a variety of landscapes and climates.
Chile’s Andes are home to numerous volcanoes, many of which are active. Volcanic peaks such as Villarrica and Osorno provide dramatic and photogenic scenes, especially when their summits are capped with snow.
In the northern reaches of the Andes, the landscape transforms into high-altitude deserts like the Atacama Desert. The contrast of arid terrain against the rugged mountains offers unique photography opportunities.
Lakes and Glacial Rivers:
The Andes in Chile are adorned with stunning lakes and glacial rivers, such as Lake Chungará and Lake Llanquihue. The reflections of mountains on the water’s surface create captivating scenes.
Indigenous communities like the Mapuche have a rich cultural heritage that is tied to the Andean landscape. Capturing their traditional ceremonies, clothing, and daily life adds depth to your photographic narrative.
Atacama Salt Flats:
The vast salt flats in the Atacama Desert, like the Salar de Atacama, create mesmerizing landscapes that change with the light. These natural mirrors are perfect for unique and creative photography.
The Andes of Chile offer opportunities for adventure sports such as skiing, snowboarding, hiking, and mountaineering. Capturing the thrill and excitement of these activities can add dynamic shots to your portfolio.
The southern Andes extend into the stunning landscapes of Patagonia. The Torres del Paine National Park is a paradise for nature and landscape photography, with its iconic granite peaks, glaciers, and wildlife.
Glaciers like the Grey Glacier in Patagonia provide awe-inspiring scenes with their blue ice formations. The contrast between ice and mountains offers striking photography subjects.
Overall, the Andes Mountains in Chile offer a wide range of photographic opportunities, from volcanic landscapes and high-altitude deserts to glacial rivers and iconic peaks. The intersection of natural beauty and cultural diversity, along with the unique geological features of the region, make the Andes of Chile a captivating destination for photography.