Assuming you’re not from South America, Chile might come off as a stunning if quite mysterious country. Among countless other things, Chile is known for the vast and awe-inspiring landscapes of the Atacama Desert, for politically active people, and for cities that pop with culture and excitement.
Squeezed as it is between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, in many ways Chile is a remote and isolated place. But it’s also the richest country and the one best integrated into the global economy in the whole of Latin America! We’ll be covering that and much more in this post.
In case a Chile travel guide is everything you needed right now (even if you don’t know it yet), look no further. By the time we get to point 20, you’ll be ready to pack up and go!
Chile is known for its vibrant cities
Central Chile is where 2/3 of the country’s population live. It’s no wonder, then, the three Chilean cities you can’t miss are located there.
Santiago needs no introduction; it’s the perfect synthesis of modern Chile. From the cool pubs in Bellavista to the cobbled streets of París-Londres, and from the colonial buildings around Plaza de Armas to the skyscrapers in Las Condes, Chile’s capital invites you to walk aimlessly in search of its hidden gems.
“Queen of all the world’s coasts, / True head office of waves and ships, … I love your criminal alleyways.” — that’s how Pablo Neruda defined Valparaíso.
This maze of colorful houses covering the ridges that overlook the port teems with brilliant street art, inviting restaurants, and tales from a glorious past. I easily fall for port cities in general, yet Valpo is hard to beat even among cities of this kind.
3. Viña del Mar
Where Valpo is decadent and unconventional, Viña is posh and sleek. It’s the location of a few of the nicest beaches in Chile too. The two cities are part of the same metropolitan area but couldn’t be more different from each other. You have to visit both to get the full picture of coastal Chile!
Its natural features are astonishing
From wine-covered valleys, to snow-capped mountains and the driest desert on Earth, Chile is known for truly having it all.
4. The narrowest shape
During the colonial era, roughly all Spanish territories west of the Andes made up the Vice-Royalty of Peru. At the southern end of South America, that’s not a great deal of land. Chile averages 175 km (109 mi) in width. On top of that, the Andes take up between one-third and half of that extension.
Of course that also means that, in spite of ranking 37th in terms of area, Chile has the 19th-largest coastline in the world.
When you notice that, likewise, northern and southern Chile are extremely inhospitable too, I guess it’s not actually surprising that Chileans concentrate on the tiny patch of green land around Santiago.
5. The Andes
Although the Andes cut through seven South American nations, nowhere else are they as defining of the country’s geography as in Chile.
Yet despite its undisputed beauty, to Chileans the mountain range is more of a mixed bag: no less than 90 active volcanoes are located within it. Plus, as the Andes mark the point where two tectonic plates meet, some of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded took place in Chile.
Between geysers, lunar landscapes, hot springs, and lagoons flamingos flock to, the Atacama is better seen than explained. San Pedro de Atacama, the cutest historic village, is the base to go back after every tour (including a star observation one).
Oddly, as a fog desert, all of a sudden it’ll be threatened by huge, dark clouds that will then be gone without warning as fast as they appeared at the sky. Also, the Atacama of today was really a woodland up to colonial times, but turned into a desert due to massive deforestation.
7. The cold south
Because Argentina is a lot bigger than Chile, most folks will associate Patagonia, the cold desert that covers the southernmost tip of South America, with Messi’s homeland.
Yet Chile is home to 85% of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (pictured above), the third-largest on the planet following Antarctica and Greenland. Some areas in this part of Chile are so rugged that the sole road access to towns like Punta Arenas is through Argentina.
Chile is known for an impressive traditional culture…
Modern Chile’s territory was settled by ancient tribes over 18,500 years ago. In more than one way, the country is living proof that old habits die hard.
8. Easter Island Moai
Human beings were once so crazy about their gods they would come up with ingenious methods for building shrines and idols in their honor. Easter Island natives were no different: they sculpted 900+ statues as a tribute to the ancestors they worshipped.
Hundreds of them were carried around and lined on platforms such as the one above. Others remained at the quarry, in many cases buried to their shoulders. (Yup, all of them have bodies.) Today, Easter Island is the location of Rapa Nui National Park, styled after the Polynesian name for the island.
9. The Mapuche nation
Overall, the indigenous peoples of the Americas didn’t meet the happiest of fates upon the arrival of the conquistadors. While they resisted bravely, most were no match for horses and gunpowder. Not the Mapuche, though.
Not only did the Mapuche survive the conquest, they managed to preserve a good deal their original culture and identity. They nowadays make up 80% of Chile’s indigenous population and around 10% of Chileans altogether. But the Mapuche still face plenty of challenges like the fight for an autonomous territory and respectful treatment from the rest of society.
10. The minga
Folks in Chiloé, the second-largest island in South America, have a one-of-a-kind notion of moving. Instead of packing their belongings and taking them someplace else, families will move their very houses!
Minga actually translates as “tit-for-tat” or something close to that: of course the task is so challenging the whole community has to help out. And whereas animal traction will usually do the bulk of the work, moving to a different island on the archipelago requires attaching the house to the tail of a boat!
…And for a charming contemporary one
Since the United States-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet came to an end in 1990, the Chilean art scene became increasingly celebrated abroad. Yet Chile has been known for its distinctive culture for decades before that.
11. A unique accent
In case you’re not from Britain, you might have thought once or twice how the British seem to have their mouth full of cotton as they speak. While that description doesn’t fully account for Chilean Spanish, it helps understand what it may sound like to foreigners.
Before the radio, TV, and the internet, locals were rather isolated from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. That, coupled with the way indigenous peoples spoke the language, gave rise to a peculiar pronunciation and tone — together with 2,000+ words you won’t find outside Chile.
12. The poetry of Pablo Neruda
Neruda is not the only Chilean to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to receive it in 1945. But he’s certainly the most famous. His universal poems span themes like life and death, love, politics, and cities with a hint of surrealism.
And there’s more to Neruda’s legacy than his writings. His three iconic houses in Santiago, Valparaíso, and Isla Negra are worth long visits.
13. A renowned cinema
Since the 1990s, when censorship stopped being a concern for artists, Chileans apparently realized they had a lot of catching up to do. Movies proved to be a fertile ground for this regained freedom of expression.
Directors like Pablo Larraín, Sebastián Silva, and Sebastián Lelio have directed a dozen of award-winning films between them and are the leading faces of this new Chilean cinema. Lelio, in particular, was behind A Fantastic Woman, and is seen above holding Chile’s first-ever Oscar.
Chile is known for its rich history and fast-paced politics
Por la razón o la fuerza, i.e. “By reason or force”, is Chile’s national motto — and a pretty suggestive one at that.
The mining industry has always been the backbone of Chile’s economy: copper, in all its forms, stands for about half of the country’s exports.
That has spawned a mining culture in its own right and left behind ruins and historic monuments. A few of them, such as the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works and the mountainside ghost town of Sewell (above), went on to become UNESCO World Heritage sites.
15. The feud with Bolivia
This has to be the most bitter South American conflict; it’s definitely the oldest anyway.
In the late 19th century, Chile defeated a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance and ended up annexing resource-rich areas of both countries. More importantly, it took away Bolivia’s access to the sea.
Bolivia has since continually demanded some sort of solution in the form of a minor land cession. As a result, its relations with Chile have been strained for almost 150 years now.
16. Intense activism
Chile’s economy is dynamic and prosperous: within Latin America, the country ranks third, behind Brazil and Mexico (which are far bigger), by the amount of foreign direct investment. Yet it relies heavily on the private sector for public services and is one of the most unequal in the region as well.
These contradictions turn it into a powder keg that blows up every other year. Even left-leaning President Michelle Bachelet, elected on two occasions and from 2018 serving as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, had to deal with mass demonstrations.
Chile’s been witnessing protests and riots virtually weekly since October 2019. The situation prompted the federal government to hold a referendum in which Chileans overwhelmingly voted for the creation of a new constitution to replace the one inherited from Pinochet’s regime.
It’s home to a colorful cuisine too
Why should you make stuff up, though, if the simplest things are so often the best? Chile is known for taking its bread, wine, and chocolate game very seriously.
On average, Chileans eat almost 240 g (8.8 oz) of bread every day. Thanks to this, they’re second only to Germans in per capita bread consumption.
Marraquetas, seen above, are hands-down the best-loved kind. They’re crunchy on the outside and soft inside, as much of the stereotypical South American bread.
18. Chilean wine
Because the Chilean Central Valley has a Mediterranean climate, it’s a wonderful site for winemaking. That means you’ll be able to taste the greatest local wines without straying too far from Santiago.
Chile was among the first territories in Latin America where Vines were introduced from Europe, back in the 1500s. World-class winemaking in the country is a recent development, though, having picked up in the last 40 years. Today, Chile is the fifth-largest wine exporter on the planet.
While less serious than the one with Bolivia, Chile does have another dispute with Peru. Both countries vie for the title of birthplace of pisco.
Somewhere around the 16th century, Spanish settlers invented this grape-based brandy that is now used in a handful of cocktails. These include Peruvian Pisco Sour and Chilean Serena Libre (pictured above), in which you mix pisco, papaya juice, and sugar over ice.
There’s no shame in admitting my trip to Chile was basically cuchuflí-fueled. These soggy wafers, filled with dulce de leches and often coated with chocolate, are one of the most popular snacks in Chile, and for good reason. They’re usually artisanal, and you can find them pretty much anywhere, from the beach, to parks, to shopping malls.
Now that you’re an expert in Chile facts and the awesome things Chile is known for, you might as well want to start planning your next trip to neighboring Argentina.
Gorgeous Mendoza is essentially just a thrilling crossing of the Andes away from Santiago. Then you can head east and conquer the prairies all the way to Buenos Aires!