In a classic book on the natural setting and people of Chile, Benjamín Subercaseaux Zañartu, a Chilean writer, describes the country's geography as loca (crazy). The book's English translator renders this term as "extravagant." Whether crazy or extravagant, there is little question that Chile's territorial shape is certainly among the world's most unusual. From north to south, Chile extends 4,270 kilometers, and yet it only averages 177 kilometers east to west. On a map, Chile looks like a long ribbon reaching from the middle of South America's west coast straight down to the southern tip of the continent, where it curves slightly eastward. Cape Horn, the southernmost point in the Americas, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans turbulently meet, is Chilean territory. Chile's northern neighbors are Peru and Bolivia, and its border with Argentina to the east, at 5,150 kilometers, is one of the world's longest.
Chile's shape was determined by the fact that it began as a Spanish settlement on the western side of the mighty cordillera of the Andes, in the central part of the country. This range, which includes the two tallest peaks in the Americas--Aconcagua (6,959 meters) and Nevado Ojos del Salado (6,880 meters)--is a formidable barrier, whose passes to the Argentine side are covered by a heavy blanket of snow during the winter months. As a result, Chile could expand beyond its original colonial territory only to the south and north. The colony grew southward by occupying lands populated by indigenous groups, and it grew northward by occupying sections of both Peru and Bolivia that were eventually awarded to Chile in the aftermath of the War of the Pacific (1879-83).
The northern two-thirds of Chile lie on top of the telluric Nazca Plate, which, moving eastward about ten centimeters a year, is forcing its way under the continental plate of South America. This movement has resulted in the formation of the Peru-Chile Trench, which lies beyond a narrow band of coastal waters off the northern two-thirds of the country. The trench is about 150 kilometers wide and averages about 5,000 meters in depth. At its deepest point, just north of the port of Antofagasta, it plunges to 8,066 meters. Although the ocean's surface obscures this fact, most of Chile lies at the edge of a profound precipice.
The same telluric displacements that created the Peru-Chile Trench make the country highly prone to earthquakes. During the twentieth century, Chile has been struck by twenty-eight major earthquakes, all with a force greater than 6.9 on the Richter scale. The strongest of these occurred in 1906 (registering an estimated 8.4 on the Richter scale) and in 1960 (reaching 8.75). This latter earthquake occurred on May 22, the day after another major quake measuring 7.25 on the Richter scale, and covered an extensive section of south-central Chile. It caused a tidal wave that decimated several fishing villages in the south and raised or lowered sections of the coast as much as two meters. The clash between the earth's surface plates has also generated the Andes, a geologically young mountain range that, in Chilean territory alone, includes about 620 volcanoes, many of them active. Almost sixty of these had erupted in the twentieth century by the early 1990s. More than half of Chile's land surface is volcanic in origin.
About 80 percent of the land in Chile is made up of mountains of some form or other. Most Chileans live near or on these mountains. The majestically snowcapped Andes and their precordillera elevations provide an ever-present backdrop to much of the scenery, but there are other, albeit less formidable, mountains as well. Although they seemingly can appear anywhere, the non-Andean mountains usually form part of transverse and coastal ranges. The former, located most characteristically in the near north and the far north natural regions, extend with various shapes from the Andes to the ocean, creating valleys with an east-west direction. The latter are evident mainly in the center of the country and create what is commonly called the Central Valley (Valle Central) between them and the Andes. In the far south, the Central Valley runs into the ocean's waters. At this location, the higher elevations of the coastal range facing the Andes become a multiplicity of islands, forming an intricate labyrinth of channels and fjords that have been an enduring challenge to maritime navigators.
Much of Chile's coastline is rugged, with surf that seems to explode against the rocks lying at the feet of high bluffs. This collision of land and sea gives way every so often to lovely beaches of various lengths, some of them encased by the bluffs. The Humboldt current, which originates northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula (which just into the Bellingshausen Sea) and runs the full length of the Chilean coast, makes the water frigid. Swimming at Chile's popular beaches in the central part of the country, where the water gets no warmer than 15° C in the summer, requires more than a bit of fortitude.
Chilean territory extends as far west as Polynesia. The best known of Chile's Pacific Islands is Easter Island (Isla de Pascua, also known by its Polynesian name of Rapa Nui), with a population of 2,800 people. Located 3,600 kilometers west of Chile's mainland port of Caldera, just below the Tropic of Capricorn, Easter Island provides Chile a gateway to the Pacific. It is noted for its 867 monoliths (Moais), which are huge (up to twenty meters high) and mysterious, expressionless faces sculpted of volcanic stone. The Islas Juan Fernández, located 587 kilometers west of Valparaíso, are the locale of a small fishing settlement. They are famous for their lobster and the fact that one of the islands, Isla Robinson Crusoe, is where Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel, was marooned for about four years.
|Country Studies main page | Chile Country Studies main page|