Official name: Republic of Chile
Area: 756,950 square kilometers (292,260 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Ojos del Salado (6,880 meters/22,573 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Southern and Western
Time zone: 8 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 356 kilometers (221 miles) from east to west; 4,270 kilometers (2,653 miles) from north to south
Land boundaries: 6,171 kilometers (3,835 miles) total boundary length; Argentina, 5,150 kilometers (3,200 miles); Bolivia, 861 kilometers (535 miles); Peru, 160 kilometers (99 miles)
Coastline: 6,435 kilometers (3,999 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
Chile is a long, narrow country fringing the southwestern edge of South America, between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east. It reaches to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the continent, and it touches the Atlantic Ocean at the Strait of Magellan. It also extends beyond the Strait of Magellan to include part of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago that it shares with Argentina. The Andes Mountains span almost the full length of the country, which has an area of 756,950 square kilometers (292,260 square miles), or slightly less than the state of Montana. Measuring 4,270 kilometers (2,653 miles) between its northern and southern extremities, Chile has an average width of not much more than 161 kilometers (100 miles), making it the world's longest and narrowest country. Its 38-degree latitude span gives it an extremely varied climate and vegetation.
Chile has several island dependencies in the Pacific Ocean, including Easter Island, which is situated more than 3,218 kilometers (2,000 miles) west of the mainland. The most remote possession of any Latin American country, Easter Island is volcanic land mass with an area of 117 kilometers (45 miles) and a subtropical climate. Chile's other island possessions are Sala y Gómez, San Felix, San Ambrosio, and the Juan Fernandez Islands. Like Easter Island, these islands are preserved as part of a national park. Chile is also one of several nations that claim land in Antarctica.
Due to its great length, Chile covers a wide range of latitudes, so its climate varies considerably. Temperatures steadily cool as the country extends southward, away from the equator and toward Antarctica. The mean temperature at Arica, in the far north, is 18°C (64°F), while that of Santiago, in the center of the country, is 14°C (57°F), and Punta Arenas in the extreme south averages 6°C (43°F). Winter temperatures are moderated by winds off the Pacific Ocean, and sea winds also temper the heat in summer.
Central Chile, where most of the country's population is concentrated, has a pleasant Mediterranean climate, with well-differentiated seasons; its winters are mild, and its summers are warm and dry.
The southern part of the country is subject to frequent storms.
While average temperatures in Chile steadily drop with increasing southerly latitude, the amount of rainfall gradually rises. It ranges from virtually no precipitation north of 27°S latitude to around 406 centimeters (160 inches) annually at 48°S latitude (the heaviest precipitation in any region outside the tropics). Between these extremes are Copiapó at 3 centimeters (1 inch), Santiago at 33 centimeters (13 inches), and Puerto Montt at 185 centimeters (73 inches). In the far south, precipitation once again decreases, to 46 centimeters (18 inches) at Punta Arenas. Snow and sleet are common in the southern third of the country. The coastal archipelagos are among the world's rainiest regions.
Chile is commonly divided into regions by latitude from north to south. Major regions are: the Norte Grande (a desert); the Norte Chico (a semiarid region); the Central Valley (a temperate heartland); the south-central region (a dense rain forest and the picturesque Lake District); and the southern region (a cold and windswept landscape). The coastline of the southern region includes thousands of islands, extending down to Cape Horn.
Chile borders the South Pacific Ocean, and the curved southernmost portion of its coast reaches to the Atlantic Ocean at the Strait of Magellan. The Humboldt Current, an ocean current flowing northward from Antarctica, chills the waters of the Pacific off the Chilean coast.
Chile's offshore islands consist of submerged mountaintops that are a continuation of the Andes Mountains.
At the southern tip of the country, the Strait of Magellan lies between Tierra del Fuego and the rest of Chile, providing Chile with an opening to the Atlantic Ocean. Numerous other inlets separate the islands of Chile's southern coast, including the Gulf of Corcovado, the Gulf of Penas, and the Nelson Strait.
The southern third of the Chilean coast consists of an extensive series of islands and archipelagos stretching for some 1,130 kilometers (700 miles). Separated by thin channels and fjords, they form a long chain from Chiloé Island slightly south of Puerto Montt to Tierra del Fuego. Cape Horn, located on an island to the south of Tierra del Fuego, is the southernmost point in South America.
There are few beaches and natural harbors along Chile's long, narrow coast. In the north, the coastal mountains rise close to the shoreline in steep cliffs; however, rocky outcroppings do provide good protection from the sea at the harbors of Valparaíso and Talcahuano. The Brunswick Peninsula, separated from Tierra del Fuego by the Strait of Magellan, is the southernmost point on mainland South America.
There is a picturesque district of lakes, hills, and waterfalls at the eastern edge of the Central Valley, between Concepción and Puerto Montt. In the southern part of this district lies Lake Llanquihue, the country's largest lake, and the third-largest natural lake in South America. It has a maximum length of 35 kilometers (22 miles), a maximum width of 40 kilometers (25 miles), and maximum depths of 1,500 meters (5,000 feet).
Because most of Chile's rivers flow across the narrow country in a westward direction—down the Andes and into the Pacific—they are short. Nevertheless, their steep path down the mountainsides makes them a good source for hydroelectric power. There are around thirty rivers, including the Loa, Aconcagua, Huasco, Coquimbo, Limari, Mapocho, Maule, Maipo, Bío-Bío, Copiapó, and Toltén. The longest is the Loa River in the north.
The Atacama Desert, which extends from the northern border to the Aconcagua River, consists largely of dry river basins and salt flats, with a few rivers and oases. It is both the warmest and driest part of the country, and is said to be the world's driest desert. The region immediately to the south of the Atacama Desert is semiarid.
Chile has no notable flat or rolling terrain.
The Andes Mountains reach their greatest elevations in Chile, where they span nearly the entire length of the country, starting with the peaks of the Atacama Desert in the north. The Andes chain forms most of Chile's border with Argentina to the east. The crests of the Andean range are higher in the northern half of the country. In this northern sector is Ojos del Salado, Chile's loftiest peak, and—at more than 6,857 meters (22,500 feet)—the second-highest point in the Western Hemisphere. Chile's tallest volcano, Guallatiri (6,060 meters/19,882 feet) lies in the far north, near the borders with Bolivia and Peru. A little to the south, near the borders with Bolivia and Argentina, lies Lascar (5,990/19,652), another volcano.
South of Santiago, the peaks of the Andes become progressively lower. In the far south, the Andes continue to decline in elevation, merging into the lowlands of Chilean Patagonia on both sides of the Strait of Magellan. The mountain system makes a final appearance at Cape Horn, which is also the crest of a submerged mountain.
By contrast, the peaks and plateaus of the coastal mountain range in the west are lower than those of the Andes, with elevations ranging from 300 to 2,100 meters (1,000 to 7,000 feet) in the northern half of the country. The system declines in elevation south of Valparaíso and plunges into the sea in the far south. Its peaks reappear as the islands of the southern archipelagos.
The Cueva del Milodon (Cave of the Milodon) National Park features a 30-meter-deep (100-foot-deep) cave. The milodon is a mythical prehistoric animal believed to have been a plant-eating mammal that was twice the size of a human. The caves in the park also house remnants of human settlements. Archaeologists believe ancient humans lived in these caves thousands of years ago.
In northern Chile, there are dry, barren plateau basins at elevations of 610 to 1,219 meters (2,000 to 4,000 feet) between the eastern and western mountain ranges. In the north-central part of the country, much of this plateau land gives way to spurs of the Andes, with fertile valleys in between.
Chile has no significant man-made features affecting its geography.
Chile has experienced many earthquakes throughout history, including the worst earthquake ever to occur anywhere on Earth since 1960, as measured by the U.S. Geological Service. This earthquake, centered just off the Chilean coast on May 22, 1960, registered 8.6 on the Richter scale. On July 30, 1995, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck near the northern coast of Chile, causing three deaths and leaving hundreds of people homeless.
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Wheeler, Sara. Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile . New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Chile Online. http://www.chile-online.com/ (accessed March 10, 2003).
Lonely Planet World Guide. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/south_america/chile_and_easter_island/ (accessed June 29, 2003).