Chile is a long and narrow country that lies along the southwestern coast of South America. It is partly isolated from its neighbors by geography. In the east, the Andes, one of the world's highest mountain chains, separates Chile from Argentina. The Atacama Desert in the north separates Chile from Peru and Bolivia. To the west, Chile is bounded by the Pacific Ocean. Southern Chile ends at Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America.


About half of Chile's people are of Spanish and other European descent. And about half are mestizos. (Mestizos are people of mixed Indian and European descent.) Indians, or Araucanians (mainly Mapuche), make up only about 3 percent of the population. Most Indians live on reservations in southern Chile. They live by fishing, farming, and making handicrafts. Immigrants from other parts of South America, Europe, and the Middle East also contribute to Chile's ethnic makeup.

Language and Religion

Spanish is the national language. It is spoken by all Chileans. Mapuche is still spoken in the south, particularly among the Indians.

Most Chileans are Roman Catholics. About 15 percent of the population is Protestant (mainly Anglican and Lutheran).


Schooling is required for all children from ages 6 to 14. But most Chileans do not attend school beyond the fifth grade because they must work to help support their families. Only about one-third of those who complete primary school attend secondary school. Most high school students train in technical fields such as accounting, agricultural management, and mechanics. Until recently, not many students prepared for college because few institutions of higher learning existed. But a number of small, mainly private universities have been created in recent years. And today a small but growing number of Chileans complete a college education.

The University of Chile in Santiago is the leading public university. The Catholic University of Chile, with branches in Santiago and Valparaíso, is the major private university.

The Biblioteca Nacional de Chile ("Chilean National Library") in Santiago was founded in 1813. It is one of the oldest libraries in Latin America.

Rural Life

Many people live in Chile's rural areas, working in the fruit or fishing industries. They are not as wealthy as urban workers, although incomes are rising. The rural poor toil in the fields from dawn to dusk.

City Life

Most Chileans live and work in urban areas. In upper-middle-class families, both husband and wife often work outside the home while a maid takes care of the house and children. The urban poor live in slums called callampas ("mushrooms"), which surround the cities, and work in the service industries.

Food and Drink

Food is plentiful throughout Chile. Many wealthy and middle-income Chileans eat four meals a day. For breakfast they usually have just a roll and coffee. Lunch is large and lengthy. Teatime at the end of the afternoon includes breads and pastry. Dinner is often not served until nine or ten o'clock at night. Appetizers usually consist of shellfish or meats and cheeses.

The most common national dishes are empanadas (meat pies filled with onions, raisins, and olives), chicken soup, fish stew, noodles, and steak topped with fried eggs. Chilean food is not spicy. Even children drink the local wines (in very moderate amounts) with their meals.

Sports and Recreation

Chileans enjoy many sports. The national pastime is soccer, or futbol. But other popular sports include basketball, polo, golf, tennis, cricket, boxing, and horse racing. Livestock shows and rodeos draw big crowds outside the capital city. Ski resorts are located in the mountains. People enjoy swimming and fishing in the lakes and the ocean.

Chileans also attend movies, plays, and operas and other musical events. The International Song Festival takes place each year in the seaside resort of Viña del Mar. The cueca is the national dance. It is a fast-moving, stomping courtship dance between a man and a woman wearing traditional costumes.

National Holidays and Festivals

Chileans celebrate traditional Roman Catholic holidays. The July Feast of the Virgin of Carmen, the patron saint of the armed forces, attracts much attention. The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul is celebrated as a national holiday. Many rural villages hold wine and food festivals at harvest time. The biggest national holiday is Independence Day, September 18.


Chile stretches more than 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) from north to south but averages only 100 miles (160 kilometers) in width. It can be divided into four natural regions: the Great North, the Little North, the Central Valley, and the south.

Land Regions

Chile's Great North is very dry and barren, and it is dominated by the Atacama Desert. Chile's highest mountain peak, Cerro Ojos del Salado, is located at the southern end of the desert. It rises to about 22,664 feet (6,908 meters) on the border with Argentina.

Below the Great North is the Little North. This area receives slightly more rainfall than the Great North, and so it is slightly greener. It is a mixed zone of mining and farming.

The heart of Chile's mid-section is the Central Valley. It lies between the Andes and a range of coastal mountains. This fertile region extends from the Aconcagua River in the north to the Bío-Bío River in the south.

Chile's southern region is densely forested and includes many small islands. Snowcapped volcanoes and many rushing rivers and mountain lakes add to the scenic beauty of the area. Chile claims part of Antarctica, but claims to Antarctica are not recognized internationally.


The Loa is Chile's longest river, running about 275 miles (445 kilometers) through the Atacama Desert in the northern half of the country. The Bío-Bío River is the second longest. It is a 238-mile (383-kilometer)-long waterway that flows through forests and granite canyons. Its rapids are popular with rafters. There are plans to build a dam across the river to provide electricity for central Chile.


Chile owns several important islands off its west coast, including the Juan Fernández Islands. The most famous Chilean island is Easter Island, about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) off the coast, which is known for the great stone heads that people carved long ago. The origin and purpose of these statues continue to puzzle archaeologists. Tierra del Fuego ("Land of Fire"), controlled by both Chile and Argentina, was given its name by early explorers who saw Indians burning fires along the coast.


Chile is generally hot and dry in the north. There are sections of the Atacama Desert where no rainfall has ever been recorded. The southern part of the country is cold and rainy, especially in the winter when rainfall can exceed 100 inches (2,500 millimeters). The Central Valley has warm and dry summers, and cool and moderately rainy winters.

Natural Resources

Chile's greatest natural resource is its abundance of copper. Chile also has the world's largest deposits of nitrate, which was the country's major source of export income before copper. Timber, from the thick forests in the south, is another important resource.


Until the 1930's, agriculture was the primary economic activity in Chile. Since then, the government has discouraged farming and encouraged the growth of urban business and industry. Despite a growing economy, unemployment remains a concern, though it has begun to drop. The number of poor people in the country has declined, and the middle class has become the largest economic class.


Service industries, the most important element of the country's economy, employ more than half of the country's labor force. These industries include occupations such as doctors and other health care professionals; teachers and other government employees; clerks in shops, banks, and insurance companies; and restaurant and hotel workers. Tourism is of growing importance.


Chile manufactures processed foods, steel, wood and wood products, transportation equipment, cement, and textiles. About one-quarter of the people work in manufacturing.

Agriculture and Fishing

Agriculture employs about 14 percent of the Chilean workforce. Primary crops include wheat, corn, grapes, beans, sugar beets, potatoes, and various fruits. Chile has recently become one of the world's greatest producers of fruit, and its exports of fruit almost rival its exports of copper. The major farming region is the fertile Central Valley, which also has many vineyards producing excellent wines. Sheep and cattle are raised throughout the country, and Chile's long coastline has made commercial fishing a major industry.


Chile is the world's largest producer of copper, which has been the country's major source of export income since the early 1900's. Chuquicamata, in the Andes, is one of the world's largest copper mines. Copper mines are found throughout the country, but those in the north are the most productive.


The Pan-American Highway, which extends to the U.S.-Canadian border, runs from north to south through Chile. It is vital for the transport of goods throughout the country. All the larger cities, particularly Santiago, have major airports.


Chile has more than 200 radio stations and more than 60 television stations nationwide. Cable television provides access to international news and programs. Major newspapers include El Mercurio, La Segunda, and La Tercera, all out of Santiago. More than 3 million people have access to the Internet.

Major Cities

Santiago is the capital and largest city. About 40 percent of all Chileans live in metropolitan Santiago, which is spread over a wide plain along the Mapocho River. The city consists of tall skyscrapers, buildings dating from colonial times, numerous parks, modern suburbs, and old and new slums. Some of these poorer neighborhoods are created by new arrivals from the countryside. An article on Santiago appears in this encyclopedia.

Valparaíso, the second largest city, is Chile's major Pacific port. Built on steep hills encircling a bay, it reminds visitors of San Francisco, California. Cable cars carry passengers up the steep hillsides. Adjoining Valparaíso is the beach resort of Viña del Mar. Another large Chilean city is Concepción, which was founded in 1550. It grew from a frontier outpost to a regional industrial center.

Cultural Heritage

Chilean crafts include colorful weavings, rugs, ponchos, black-glazed pottery, and copper sculptures. Many handcrafted items are sold to tourists. In rural Chile, folk songs, creative folk tales, and legends are handed down from generation to generation.

Chileans have made important contributions to world literature. Two poets have won Nobel Prizes for literature—Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy Alcayaga) in 1945 and Pablo Neruda in 1971. Novelist Joaquín Edwards Bello gained fame in the 1920's for his book about Chile's urban poor. Several Chilean authors, notably José Donoso and Isabel Allende, became well known during the international boom in Latin American novels that began in the 1960's.

Chile has also inspired writers from other countries. The British author Daniel Defoe based his novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) on the adventures of a Scotsman stranded on one of Chile's islands in the early 1700's. The British scientist Charles Darwin developed some of his ideas about evolution during a visit to Chile in the 1800's.


Chile is a republic based on a constitution approved in 1980 and amended seven times, most recently in 2005. The country's head of state and government is the president, who is elected to a 4-year term and is not eligible for immediate reelection. The legislative body is the National Congress, which consists of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate includes elected members who serve 8-year terms and former presidents who serve 6-year terms. Members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected to 4-year terms. The judicial branch is headed by a 21-member Supreme Court.

Drake, Paul W. "Chile." Reviewed by Guillermo I. Castillo-Feliú. The New Book of Knowledge®. Grolier Online (accessed March 1, 2010).