Wikijunior:South America/Chile

Part of Wikijunior South America project

Chile is a long, thin country running down the southwest side of South America. The country runs in the shape of a snake between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It borders Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

A map of Chile
Easter Island, with its famous statues, is a part of Chile

History of Chile


People first came to the area now called Chile around ten thousand years ago. They may have descendants of the first Native Americans who came from Asia during the Ice Age, but some people think that their ancestors "island-hopped" across the Pacific. The area was good for fishing and offered decent opportunities for hunting and agriculture, but it was separated from the rest of South America by the Andes mountains, and so it was not as widely inhabited as other parts of the continent.

No one knows for sure why the place was called "Chile". Some people think it is a variation on the name of an ancient Indian chief called Tili. Others think it may be a word in an Indian language for "the place where the land ends", "snow", or the sound of a bird's call. No matter where the name came from, the Spanish soldiers who invaded the land in the 16th century said that the people there called themselves "men of Chile".

The Spanish, searching for gold, reported that hundreds of thousands of people lived in the area. Although they never did find any gold or silver in the region, they admired the agricultural possibilities of the area and governed it as a part of the colony they called the Viceroyalty of Peru. The native peoples were not happy about being taken over, and there were frequent uprisings and rebellions. When slavery was outlawed in 1683, the situation improved and revolts became less common.

In 1810, the Chilean people declared they were an independent country, and not under Spanish control. Spain disagreed, and war broke out. But seven years later Chile was recognized as its own country. Still, little changed for the average Chilean. The country was still run by wealthy landowners, and the average citizen had few rights. In the late 19th century, a democracy was set up, but the leaders in parliament were concerned primarily with protecting the land-owners at the expense of the working class. As poor Chileans became more politically powerful and organized, they were able to elect a leftist president in 1920 who tried to change the laws to benefit the working class. Some were promoting communism, and conservatives in the country were alarmed. So in 1924, a general took over the country by force, leading to a violent and unstable period.

When democracy was finally restored, the people voted in governments which kept the country relatively stable for many decades. Liberal parties appealed to people by promoting programs to feed the poor and provide housing and education. Conservative parties appealed to people by securing better relationships with the United States and loans from American banks. It was a healthy democracy.

In 1970, a man named Salvador Allende was elected. As a leftist, he was very popular for his programs for the poor and working class. But as part of these programs, he took over foreign mines and banks in the country, which angered foreign investors. Actions that the United States took in retaliation hurt the country economically. In 1973, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a coup that led to Allende's death and put Augusto Pinochet, a military dictator, in power.

Pinochet greatly improved relations with the United States and the economy, but took away many rights of Chileans. Thousands of people were executed, imprisoned, or tortured for their political views. Many Chileans see this as a dark time in history. When Pinochet stepped down after losing an election, democracy happily returned to the country, and Chile has had an improved human rights situation since that time.

A photo looking across the desert toward the Andes mountains that separate Chile from Argentina.

Chile's Geography

Antarctic reclamation

Chile is long and thin, giving it a ribbon-like shape. It is 4,300 kilometers long and its width averages 175 kilometers. Chile is almost double the size of California.

As a result of Chile's shape, climate varies throughout the country. Chile is dry in the north and cool and damp in the south. Chile's terrain also varies.

The north is made up of desert. This Northern Desert region extends from the Peruvian border in north to the Aconcagua River north of Valparaiso. There is hardly any rainfall which means that there is almost no plant life. The land is barren and remote which means that it is free from air pollution and bright artificial lights. As a result, it is a great place to study the stars and planets -- in fact Northern Chile is the location for the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory where astronomers do just that. In this region you'll find one of the driest spots on Earth, the Atacama desert. The Atacama desert is so dry that a 1971 rainfall was the first precipitation recorded in the desert town of Calama in 400 years.

Southern Chile is icy and has a windswept coast. In the south, there are snow-capped volcanoes, thick forests, glaciers and lakes.

Chile has a rugged coastline.

Chile's eastern border is home to the Andes mountains. The Andes extend along Chile's border with Argentina and Bolivia.

Between the Andes and the lower mountains of Chile's west coast, you'll find the Central Valley. This is a mild, fertile region. Several rivers run through this region which is considered to be the heartland of Chile and the center of its population. The Central Valley is also where most of the farms and factories are. The Central Valley is made up of orchards, vineyards, pastures and croplands.

Santiago is the capital of Chile. Other major cities in Chile include: Concepcion-Talcahuano, Vina del Mar-Valparaiso, Antofagasta and Temuco.

Chile's People


Chile is home to 16.4 million people. 6 million Chileans live in Santiago. Men are expected to live to age 75 and women to age 81. Most people in Chile speak Spanish. Christianity is the major religion in Chile. 69.9% of Chileans are Roman Catholic and 15% are Protestant.

About three quarters of Chileans are mestizos, people of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage. About a fifth of Chileans are of European descent, mostly Spanish or British. About three percent come from unmixed Indian ancestry. Just a few thousand people are of African origin, or Zambo—people of mixed Indian and African heritage.