Chile is noteworthy for its unique topography: it is a long, narrow country lying between the ANDES MOUNTAINS and the Pacific Ocean. From north to south it is 2,650 mi (4,265 km) long and nowhere more than 221 mi (356 km) wide. The north has an and plateau, the ATACAMA DESERT, and contains several peaks above 16,000 ft (4,900 m), but most of the highest peaks are on the borders with Bolivia and Argentina. The rivers, including the Bio-Bio, are limited in size. There are many takes, including Lake LLANQUIHUE. The extreme southern coast is marked by many inlets, islands, and archipelagos; the western half of TIERRA DEL FUEGO (including the island on which Cape HORN is located) is in Chilean territory, as are small islets of JUAN FERNANDEZ and FASTER ISLAND. Chile has a partially developed free-market economy based mainly on mining and manufacturing. It is a republic with two legislative houses; its head of state and government is the president. Originally inhabited by native peoples, inducting the Mapuche, the area was invaded by the Spanish in 1536.
A settlement begun at Santiago in 1541 was governed under the Viceroyalty of Peru but became a separate captaincy general in 1778. Its people revolted against Spanish rule in 1810; independence was finally assured by the victory of Argentine and Chilean forces under Jose DE SAN MARTIN at the Battle of Chacabuco in 1817. The area was governed by Chilean Gen. BERNARDO O'HIGGINS until 1823. In the War of the PACIFIC (1879-83) against Peru and Bolivia, Chile won the rich nitrate fields on the coast of Bolivia, effectively severing that country's access to the coast. Chile remained neutral in World War I (1914-18); it entered World War 11 (1939-45) on the side of the Axis but cut ties with them in 1943. In 1970 SALVADOR ALLENDE was elected president, becoming the first avowed Marxist to be elected head of state in Latin America. Following economic upheaval, he was overthrown in 1973 in a coup led by AUGUSTO PINOCHET, whose military regime harshly suppressed internal opposition. A national referendum in 1988 and elections the following year removed Pinochet from power and returned the country to democratic rule. Throughout the 1990s Chile's economy remained one of the strongest in Latin America.
Chile has achieved cultural unity in spite of its long (2,600 miles or 4,184 kilometers) and narrow (100250 miles or 161 402 kilometers) shape. Central Chile, between 30' and 42' S. latitude, is the heart of the nation, and it is within this area that a cohesive society was formed. To the north is the bone dry Atacama desert, sparsely populated but possessed of nitrates, copper, and iron that provide most of the nation's exports. To the south is a very humid, rough, and rugged area also sparsely inhabited but with abundant forest and water power potential. In the far south some coal and petroleum are found, and on the windy and wet tip of the continent is sheep raising with wool destined for export.
It is within central Chile that most of the population lives and where most of the industry and agricultural lands are located. Chile is an urban country (85 percent), and most of the cities are in the middle section. Santiago (4.7 million) is the largest center, with Valparaiso (780,000), Concepcion (760,000), and Temuco (215,000), the second, third, and fifth principal metropolitan areas of the nation, respectively Chile's fourth largest city is Antofagasta (225,000) in the north. All these cities except Valparaiso are growing at rates substantially above the national growth rate.
Chile's unified society is of recent vintage. In colonial times the economy revolved around rural estates with a patron peon organization. The peon class Was derived from mestizos (Spanish Araucanian Indians); many Araucanians, however, retained their societal integrity until early in the twentieth century. The patron's hold was not strong, however, for population pressure was low, and to the north, south, and east across the Andes in Argentina were frontier areas. From 1879 to 1883, Chile successfully pursued a war against Peru and Bolivia over nitrate deposits in the northern Atacama area, which united the Chilean population in a common cause. Nitrates for fertilizer and explosives became the nation's major export, and mining it provided an alternative economic opportunity for the peons. Later, copper mining provided more jobs. Early in the twentieth century,especially during World War I when goods from the industrialized world were difficult to obtain, industrialization for the local market began. In Chile, the landed aristocracy invested in manufacturing activities and services more readily than in Andean South America. The alternative economic opportunities in the cities provided another and increasingly important outlet for the rural farmer.
Cultural unity, national allegiance, valuable export products, lack of heavy rural population pressure, and diversification of the economy by manufacturing and service have played major roles in explaining Chile's development. To this list is added education; about 95 percent of the population is literate. Also of basic importance are government stability and execution of development policies. Throughout most of Chile's history, political stability has been characteristic. In recent years political power has passed to urban oriented parties who have campaigned for economic and social reform. These reforms are pointed along two lines. The first is greater control of foreign investment, especially the mining industries which provide most of the nation's exports. During the regime of Eduardo Frei (1964 - 1970), the government, for example, purchased majority ownership of part of the copper industry. The second major reform is in the rural sector and involves land redistribution. Large estates were purchased by the government and divided into small farms, although Frei's government was criticized for not moving reforms rapidly enough.
Chile's south sparkles with emerald and sapphire lakes, the north allures with the world's driest desert, pastel salt flats and fuming geysers, while the island of Chiloe charms with ocean lore. Then, of course, are the miles of milky blue glaciers calving icebergs, upstaged only by the crowning jewel of Torres del Paine. Desolate desert, Patagonia paradise, endless beach, creaking ghost towns, aqua rivers, jumbles of fjords and wind tossed inlets this is a hiker's delight, a rafter's goal, a climber's mecca. And for everyone, Chile is a fun and easy country to explore, with excellent transportation, congenial folk, and added pleasures of excellent wine and seafood.
Rates for accommodations are reasonable by North American or European standards. Summer prices may be 10% to 20% higher than the rest of the year. The free, worthwhile pamphlet'Backpacker's Bed & Breakfast' fists gringo trail favorites throughout the country.