Chile - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Chile Highlights: the Bradt Guide


Inca dominion was not to last long, as the Spanish conquistadores made their first incursion from Peru between 1535 and 1537, when Diego de Almagro led what might be called a military exploration, enduring a disastrous winter crossing of the Andes. In 1540, Pedro de Valdivia set out from Cuzco on a more serious invasion. He founded the city of Santiago in 1541; it was burnt down by the Mapuche later that year and then rebuilt as a fort. There was another uprising in 1553 – during which Valdivia was killed – and further revolt between 1598 and 1608. The Spanish subsequently left Araucanía in semi-autonomy for the next 250 years.

In 1641 a frontier was established along the Río Biobío, and Valdivia was resettled in 1645. The colony, consisting of little more than seven towns between La Serena and Castro, stagnated due to trade restrictions designed to benefit Spain and stifle its colonies. Some gold was found, but it was largely exhausted by the late 17th century. This resulted in cattle-ranching becoming the colony’s main economic activity, and the formation of huge estates which belonged to an oligarchy of about 300 families. The native peoples were decimated by Old World diseases such as measles, smallpox and influenza, but a mestizo (mixed-blood) population rapidly replaced them, boosted by settlers from the Basque country and elsewhere. More gold was found, and reforms permitted Chile to trade with other Spanish colonies such as Argentina, though not with other countries. Perhaps the best known of Chile’s colonial governors was the Irish-born Ambrosio O’Higgins, who rose through the Spanish service to become governor of Chile in 1788 and then Viceroy of Peru in 1796. Among his other reform projects, he built the Santiago–Valparaíso road and resettled Osorno.

It was, however, too little too late. Chile’s mestizos and criollos (nativeborn Hispanics) resented their exclusion from power and their country’s exploitation by Spain, and things came to a head after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 left the colonies uncertain who was supposed to be ruling them. The local elite, who had economic but not political power, set up a junta or governing council on 18 September 1810, led by Mateo Toro y Zambrano, who had been appointed as Chile’s first criollo governor. In 1811, a Royalist revolt began, while radicals led by José Miguel Carrera set up their own junta and dissolved the congress.

In 1813, Bernardo O’Higgins, son of Ambrosio, took command of the Patriot Army, just in time to save Santiago from the Royalists. A treaty would have granted Chile some autonomy, but was rejected by the viceroy in Lima, who marched on Santiago again; the patriots, split between Carrera and O’Higgins, patched up their differences, but not well enough. O’Higgins made a heroic stand in Rancagua, but reinforcements never arrived from Carrera, and both leaders had to flee to Argentina with about 2,000 men.

The Royalists took Santiago and abolished the junta’s reforms. Repression naturally fuelled the desire for independence, and in 1817 the Argentine José de San Martín led an army across the Andes and caught the Royalists off-guard, defeating them in the Battle of Chacabuco. His second-in-command O’Higgins consequently took charge of Chile, finally declaring independence after another Spanish army was defeated by San Martín in April 1818 at Maipú, although the south remained under Royalist rule.


Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Chile Highlights: the Bradt Guide

Stretching for over 4,200km (2,650 miles) from tropical deserts to sub-Antarctic bogs whipped by the gales of the ‘roaring forties’, Chile has perhaps the world’s widest range of geographical and climatic settings. The far north is dominated by the Atacama Desert, but there’s a chain of Andean volcanoes along the border and Aconcagua, the highest peak outside Asia, is only a few miles to the east. Nearer Santiago the climate is still dry but with irrigation plentiful, crops can be produced. South of the capital is Chile’s agricultural heartland, the broad Central Valley, lined with vineyards and orchards, and with the Andes never far to the east. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the country is the Lakes District, dotted with lakes, volcanoes and cows, beyond which a colder climate and heavy rain produce near-jungle and huge icecaps. The far south is wild and windy, with little other than sheep and penguins flourishing, although spectacular peaks and wildlife make it popular with visitors.

Land mammals

The camelids were among those moving from North America and are now extinct there. Of the four surviving in South America, the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) is the most successful, ranging from the high-altitude grasslands of the north to Tierra del Fuego. This slender, elegant animal lives in family groups with one male guarding from four to 12 females. The guanaco’s domesticated cousin is the llama (L. glama) of which 40,000 live on the Chilean puna, and many more to the north. Llamas serve as pack animals, provide meat for food, skin for shoes and faeces for fuel. The vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) is superbly adapted for life on the arid puna. It’s the only ungulate with continuously growing lower incisors (like rodents), allowing it to eat the hard festuca (bunchgrasses). The alpaca (L. paca) is a domesticated camelid related to the vicuña. It produces a relatively rough wool and also meat; it won’t work as a pack animal and breeds relatively slowly.

Guanaco Chile Torres del Paine National Park by David Thyberg ShutterstockThe guanaco is one of Chile's last remaining camelids © David Thyberg, Shutterstock


Just shy of 500 species of birds have been recorded in Chile (5% of the world total), including ten or so endemics (although the total keeps reducing as species are discovered in neighbouring Argentina!). Unsurprisingly for a country that spans so many latitudes, there is not much overlap between the avifauna of the far north and that of the far south – and the majority of endemic species occur in central Chile. Perhaps the most wide-ranging species is also one of the most iconic: the Andean condor (cóndor; Vultur gryphus) which ranges the entire length of the country. 

Magellanic penguin Patagonia Chile by Eduardo Rivero, ShutterstockMagellanic penguins are common on the shores of Patagonia © Eduardo Rivero, Shutterstock


About 90 species of reptile occur in Chile. By far the largest grouping are the 20-plus neotropical ground lizards in the genus Liolaemus. Most have a body length of 5–8cm, with the tail the same length again. They tend to be cryptically patterned; most are covered in coarse scales but some are spiny. All bar two are terrestrial; painted tree lizard (L. pictus) and thin tree lizard (L. tenuis) are both strikingly coloured tree-climbers. Species’ ranges tend to be relatively small and to be complemented by a degree of habitat specialisation. Only one reaches Tierra del Fuego – Magellanic lizard (L. magellanicus) is the most southerly reptile in the world.

People and culture

In 2014 Chile had a population of approximately 17 million, of whom six million are in Santiago and the surrounding metropolitan region. In the far north and south almost everyone lives in major cities such as Arica and Punta Arenas; between Santiago and Puerto Montt far more people live in villages and isolated rural settlements. It’s a largely urbanised society and virtually all homes have mains electricity and water. Life expectancy is over 77 years, and population growth has fallen to a near-First World level of 0.84%.

Chile’s national dance, seen at every festival, is the cueca, derived from the Spanish fandango. It represents a cock stalking a hen, a huaso cornering a filly, or simply a couple flirting. You’ll need two clean handkerchiefs if you want to try it yourself.

The oldest art in Chile is rock art, for example the outline paintings of hands near Villa Cerro Castillo. The Diaguita culture in the 11th century produced ceramics beautifully painted with geometric decorations. The first notable artist in Chile was in fact a Peruvian, José Gil de Castro y Morales (c1786–1850), who spent the crucial period of 1814–22 in Chile, painting all the leading figures of the newly independent country. British and French artists came to teach and to record local life before Chilean artists really began to make an impact, and even these were mostly trained in Paris. They included Ramón Subercaseaux (1854–1936), Pedro Lira Rencorcet (1845–1912) and Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma (1856–1909), not to be confused with Alberto Valenzuela Llanos (1869–1925). Juan Francisco González (1853–1933) and Pablo Burchard (1875–1964) were more in the Fauvist or post-Impressionist vein.

In the field of classical music, Claudio Arrau (1903–92) was one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists, leaving a huge catalogue of recordings, especially of the Austro-German repertoire. The leading current pianist is Alfredo Perl. Chile also produces fine opera singers.

The national sport is, of course, fútbol (football or soccer), although by Latin American standards Chile is not very good. The domestic season runs from March to December, with two championships, the Apertura and the Clausura (or Campeonato Oficial). In February and from June to August, the international club games of the Copa Libertadores are played. Tickets can be bought at the gate or at agencies such as Ticketmaster or Feria del Disco. Home internationals are played at Santiago’s Estadio Victor Jara.

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