Introduction to Chile

Chile, or Republic of Chile, a country in South America. It occupies a long, narrow strip along the Pacific coast, stretching from north of the Tropic of Capricorn to Cape Horn at the southern tip of the continent. Bordering nations, from north to south, are Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Chile is 2,600 miles (4,200 km) long but its width averages only about 110 miles (180 km) and seldom exceeds 200 miles (320 km). Its area totals 292,135 square miles (756,626 km2).

Physical Geography

ChileChile is a country on the west coast of South America.

Chile divides into northern, central, and southern regions, with the great Andes mountain system common to all three.

Northern Chile consists largely of the desolate Atacama Desert, which stretches roughly 600 miles (1,000 km) southward from the Peru border and eastward from the Pacific coast into the foothills of the Andes. Lofty Andean peaks, some of which are volcanic, rise abruptly along the edge of the desert. Snowcapped Ojos del Salado, Chile's highest peak, reaches 22,572 feet (6,880 m) above sea level on the Argentina boundary.

Central Chile extends about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the southern edge of the Atacama Desert to the Corcovado Gulf. Much of the region is occupied by the Andes and the Cordillera de la Costa, a coastal mountain range. Between them is the Central Valley of Chile—the country's principal agricultural region and the home of most of its people. The valley lies some 300 to 2,300 feet (90 to 700 m) above sea level and is crossed by several spurs of the Andes. Central Chile usually suffers most during the country's frequent earthquakes.

Southern Chile is a rugged region with many islands and a fjorded coast where the Andes drop into the sea. The mountains here are lower than those in central or northern Chile. Although only a few peaks exceed elevations of 11,000 feet (3,350 m), there are extensive glaciers. Tierra del Fuego, an island group south of the Strait of Magellan, in the far south, is shared by Chile and Argentina.


With few exceptions, Chile's rivers begin in or near the Andes and drain westward into the Pacific. Many are used for irrigation, and some provide hydroelectric power. The longest, flowing 270 miles (435 km), is the Loa. It is the only river that crosses the Atacama Desert. Other rivers include the Bio-Bio, Maipo (Maipu), and Copiapo. North of the city of Puerto Montt lies a district of glacial mountain lakes known for their outstanding natural beauty.

Climate. Because of great differences in latitude and altitude, Chile has a variety of climates. Throughout the mountainous areas, temperatures steadily decrease as altitude increases, and at high elevations the climate is always cold.

In the Atacama Desert, temperatures are mild, mainly because of the influence of the cold Peru (Humboldt) Current offshore. It is one of the most arid deserts on earth; in places, no rainfall has ever been recorded.

Much of central Chile has a climate like that of southern California: dry, relatively hot summers and cool, rainy winters. In Santiago, for example, average temperatures are 69° F. (21° C.) in January and 46° F. (8° C.) in July. Rainfall averages 14 inches (360 mm) annually. Temperatures in the Central Valley are usually Chile's highest, occasionally reaching 100° F. (38° C.).

In southern Chile the climate is generally cool and rainy throughout the year, resembling that of the North American Pacific coast from Oregon to the Alaska Panhandle. Annual precipitation in certain highland areas of the south is extremely heavy, sometimes exceeding 200 inches (5,080 mm) a year. In the Patagonia section of Chile, which adjoins the eastern half of the Strait of Magellan, yearly rainfall is usually less than 20 inches (508 mm).

Plants and Animals

Chile's vegetation is as varied as its climates. The northern coastal desert is virtually barren. In the Central Valley are low evergreen bushes, scrubby trees, and cacti. Much of southern Chile and parts of mountain ranges in other regions are blanketed with forests of conifers, laurels, and other middle-latitude trees. Grasses predominate in Patagonia and on some mountain slopes.

Mountain lions (also called cougars and pumas), guanacos, vicunas, deer, and wolves are among Chile's mammals. There are many kinds of birds, including rheas, condors, pelicans, gulls, and penguins.


Most of Chile's gross domestic product (GDP) is accounted for by service industries and manufacturing. However, mining has a very significant role in the economy of Chile than in the economies of most other countries. Copper is its most valuable resource and export. Many other industries of Chile are dependent on the country's mineral production.Until well into the 20th century, Chile depended largely on farming and mining. Now it has one of the more advanced economies in Latin America, primarily because of the growth in manufacturing since the early 20th century. The economy has long been troubled, however, by rapid inflation, a huge foreign debt, dependence on international credit, and social and political unrest.

During 1970-73, when Chile had a Marxist government, many of the nation's industrial, banking, mining, farming, and other enterprises were nationalized. Upon taking control in 1973, a military government announced a policy of denationalization. The government retained control of some activities, such as oil production and refining, and exercised regulatory powers. The dramatic changes in economic policies in the the late 20th century caused many economic problems, including widespread unemployment and a rapid rise in the rate of inflation. The economy recovered during the late 20th century.

Chile's middle class, most of which lives in urban areas, especially Santiago, is small but growing. Great differences in income exist between the professional and skilled urban workers and rural inhabitants, many of whom live at a subsistence level.

Chile's basic currency unit is the Chilean peso.

Service industries make up almost half of Chile's GDP and employ more than half of the country's workers. Businesses that engage in trade, including stores and restaurants employ many service workers. Government agencies, banks, health care facilities, and social service organizations also employ many Chileans. Other sources of employment for service workers in Chile are in industries such as transportation and communication and in such professions as teaching and law.


The manufacturing industries of Chile constitute approximately one-sixth of the country's GDP and provide jobs for about one-seventh of the nation's workers. The food-processing and textile industries are the oldest, largest, and most highly developed. Also important are iron and steel, cement, copper, pulp and paper, chemicals, motor vehicles and parts, and electric appliances. Santiago and its many suburbs form the principal industrial area. Other sizable manufacturing centers include Concepcion, with the nearby steel city of Huachipato; Valparaiso; and Valdivia.. Consumer products such as beverages, clothing, processed foods, textiles, and wood products are also produced by most Chilean factories.


About 25 per cent of Chile's land is used for growing crops or raising livestock. The cultivated land consists of only 3 per cent; hence Chile is unable to meet the food needs of its people entirely. Obsolete farming methods have also constricted Chile's agricultural harvest. Agriculture employs about 13 per cent of the workers and makes up about a third of the nation's GDP. Fruit, which makes up most of Chile's agricultural exports, is an especially important crop and wheat is also a valuable crop.

Most of the land under cultivation lies in central Chile, particularly in the fertile, highly irrigated Central Valley. Crops produced include fruits, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, sugar beets, corn, rice, barley, oats, and onions. Grapes, used mainly for making wine, are grown in vineyards between Santiago and Concepcion. Other fruits grown are apples, citrus fruits and peaches. Cattle are raised in the central region, as well as chickens and hogs. Sheep production is a major economic activity of the southern provinces.

Most of Chile's farmland was under the control of a few wealthy landowners until the mid 20th century. However, a rural reform movement in the late 20th century led to the division of large estates and today, most land is controlled by small farmers or large corporations. Less than 25 acres (10 hectares) of land is covered by most of Chile's farms. Poverty prevents small farmers from using modern, technological equipment to work their land. Nevertheless, corporate farm production is on the rise. Fruits and vegetables grown by many corporate farms are exported to Europe and North America during their winters.


Chile is rich in minerals. Metals, especially copper, make up a large percentage of the nation's exports. In the northern and central parts of the country, mainly in the Andes and their foothills, lie some of the world's most extensive copper ore deposits. Chile possesses about one third of the world's known copper reserves and is ranked as the world's leading copper-producing country. One of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world is Chuquicamata in the Atacama Desert., Southeast of Santiago is situated El Teniente, the world's largest underground copper mine. Other metals and ores mined include iron ore, manganese, molybdenum, zinc, silver, and gold. Chile is also a producer of natural gas, petroleum, iodine and lithium. It also leads in the production of molybdenum.

Nitrate mining was a major industry in Chile until about 1930, when synthetic nitrates captured much of the market. Some nitrate deposits are still worked. Chile's production of mineral fuels provides a large share of its domestic requirements. Almost all of the petroleum and natural gas come from Tierra del Fuego and nearby offshore sites. Coal is mined in the central part of the country, near Concepcion; and in the south, near Punta Arenas.

Forestry and Fishing

Lumbering and the forest-products industry contribute significantly to Chile's economy. Much of the woodland, however, remains unused, mostly because of its inaccessibility to commercial loggers. Insignis pine, or Monterey pine, accounts for a large part of all timber production. Forest products include lumber, pulp and paper, and veneers.

Chile has one of the world's largest fishing industries which yield an annual catch of 5 million tons (4.5 million metric tons) of fish and shellfish. Many kinds of fish and shellfish abound off the north coast and provide the basis for Chile's fishing industry, which is one of the largest in Latin America. Pacific mackerel makes up most of the catch, as well as anchovettas, jack mackerel and sardines. Exports from the fishing industry include fish oil and fish meal, and also fresh fish such as salmon and bass which are raised on fish farms in the southern part of the country. They export mainly to Europe, Japan and North America.


Virtually all of Chile's surface transportation facilities are in the central and northern provinces. Overland routes in the south are virtually nonexistent, primarily because of the scant population and difficult terrain. The Pan American Highway runs southward from Peru to central Chile, where it turns eastward to cross the Andes into Argentina. Most of the other roads are unpaved. Railways link the larger cities from Iquique in the north to Puerto Montt in the south.

Valparaiso is the chief seaport; others are Antofagasta, Coquimbo, Talcahuano, Puerto Montt, and Punta Arenas. There is much coastal shipping. None of the rivers is navigable for more than a short distance.

Airplanes are a common means of travel within Chile. The major airlines, state-owned Linea Aerea Nacional de Chile (LAN), provides international as well as domestic service. Santiago's airport, served by a number of foreign airlines, is the largest and busiest in the nation.

The People

The largest racial group is composed of mestizos, persons with a mixture of European (mainly Spanish) and Indian ancestry. The rest of the people are considered to be white (20 per cent) or Indian (5 per cent). Besides Spanish, there are Irish, French, British, and German groups in the population. The Indians live primarily in the southern part of the country.

In 1992 Chile had a population of 13,348,401. The general population trend is a movement toward the cities, where roughly four-fifths of the people live.

Spanish is the official language. Most of the people are Roman Catholics.

Primary schooling is free and compulsory from age 6 to 14, but it is not always available in rural areas. Students may go on to secondary schools, which offer academic and vocational programs. About 93 per cent of the population is literate.

Higher education is available at national and private universities. The University of Chile, under control of the national government, is the oldest and largest; it is located in Santiago.

The excellent climate of the central zone makes outdoor sports popular there. Tennis, skiing, fishing, swimming, horseback riding, and golf are among the most common. Soccer is the favorite spectator sport.

Independence Day is celebrated on September 18. Many of the religious holidays observed by Chileans are celebrated with lively fiestas (festivals).


Under the constitution of 1980, as amended in 1989 and 1994, the president—who is both chief of state and head of government—is elected to a single six-year term. The legislature has two houses, the senate and the chamber of deputies. The senate consists of 38 elected members, 8 appointed members, and all former presidents. The chamber of deputies has 120 elected members. Senators serve eight-year terms; deputies, four-year terms. The judiciary is headed by the Supreme Court. Appellate and lower courts are distributed throughout the country.

For administrative purposes the country is divided into 15 regions, including the Metropolitan Region, which contains the capital, Santiago. Each region is presided over by an appointed governor. Voting is mandatory for all adult citizens.