The great variety of landscapes found in Chile occurs in no other country of comparable size. Chile extends through 38 degrees of latitude, from the barren Atacama Desert to the wind-swept south, only 950 km from the Antarctic Circle. Yet despite its size, 70% of its people are concentrated in the Central Valley - 20% of the country's area.
Chile is dominated by the Andes, a lower range along the coast and a depression between them. It has six natural regions. The Atacama (Norte Grande) has temperatures over 27°C during the day but below freezing at night. Some areas have no recorded rainfall.
Dried-up salt-flats, highly colored by minerals including nitrates, cover much of the high puna (tableland) in the Andes, where copper is mined.
The Norte Chico scrubland to the south is a semi-arid region, with 13-50 cm of rain a year. Agriculture in irrigated areas, stock raising in the valleys, and copper and iron mining in the mountains are the main economic activities.
The Central Valley is the agricultural heart of Chile, and contains its three largest cities. The rivers, fed by Andean snows, irrigate rich farmland and provide hydroelectricity. The region's Mediterranean climate has mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Santiago averages 20°C in January and 8°C in July. Rainfall averages 36 cm a year.
South of the Bio-Bio river and extending to Puerto Montt is Chile's Lake District.
It is notorious for its winter rainfall. Valdivia averages 255 cm a year. Dairy farming, forestry, fishing and tourism provide most jobs.
The western mountains emerge as islands off the fjord coast of the Aisen Magallanes region. This region has mountains, dense forests and heavy rainfall; Puerto Aisen has more than 280 em a year. But it is still a frontier region where development is difficult.
Patagonia is flat and grass covered. It is dry, and Punta Arenas - the world's southernmost city - has temperatures of only 3-12 °C. Sheep raising and oil production are the main occupations.
History of Chile
Apart from 200,000 Arauconians living on reservations, most of Chile's aboriginal tribes have died out. However, 65% of Chileans are mestizos of mixed Indian and European stock.
The Incas briefly ruled Chile's Indians in the late 15th century. Spanish conquistadors began colonization when Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago in 1541, but the almost inaccessible colony was neglected for nearly 300 years.
The Chileans, led by Bernardo O'Higgins, the native-born son of an Irishman, declared their independence in 1818, and after a brief time of violence, Chile became the most peaceful state in Latin America. A succession of enlightened governments exploited the republic's ore reserves and expanded communications and education.
Victory in the War of the Pacific (1879-83) brought Chile the nitrate-rich provinces of Tarapaca and Antofagasta. Nitrates were the basis of the economy for the next 40 years, but there was no investment in agriculture and industry.
The First World War suddenly removed Chile's markets for its nitrates and its supplies of manufactures. The postwar depression brought even more economic chaos and unrest to the rapidly increasing population. The army deposed President Arturo Alessandri in 1924 when Congress stopped his reforms.
The military administration of General Carlos Ibanez encouraged foreign investment from 1927 to 1931, when the economy again collapsed in the Great Depression. The Popular Front gained power in 1938 and instituted reforms. However, by the 1950s political parties had proliferated and basic problems remained; the economy depended on copper exports, land was owned by a few families - although 30% of the people lived off it - and health care, education and housing were poor.
The Christian Democrats, led by Eduardo Frei, gained a large majority in 1964. They partly nationalized the largely US-owned copper mines and passed a law for the redistribution of land, but the opposition curtailed their plans for reform.
In 1970, Salvador Allende's Marxist coalition was elected, and instituted sweeping nationalization and reforms.
However, inefficiency in nationalized industries and costly welfare schemes brought economic chaos and street violence.
The armed forces took over in September 1973 in a bloody coup in which Allende died. The new rulers, led by General Augusto Pinochet, revived the economy, but at the expense of brutal suppression of all political activity.