Life in Chile
On this supposed island between the Andes and the sea, isolation may have nurtured Chilenos for decades but globalization has arrived. Social media and the internet are radically recalibrating the values, tastes and social norms of this once ultraconservative society. Yet change is uneasy. There is still a provincial side to Chile – witness the sacred backyard barbecue and Sundays reserved for family, all generations included. At a cultural crossroads, Chile leaves the visitor with much to enjoy, debate and process.
The National Psyche
Centuries with little outside exposure, accompanied by an especially influential Roman Catholic Church, fostered a high degree of cultural conformity and conservatism in Chile. If anything, this isolation was compounded during the Pinochet years of repression and censorship. Perhaps for this reason outsiders often comment on how Chileans appear more restrained than other Latin American nationalities: they seem a less-verbal, more heads-down and hard-working people.
But the national psyche is now at its most fluid, as Chile undergoes radical social change. The Catholic Church itself has become more progressive. Society is opening up, introducing liberal laws and challenging conservative values. Nowhere is this trend more evident than with urban youth.
In the past, Chileans were known for compliance and passive political attitudes, but read today's news and you'll see that unrest simmers. Social change comes at the behest of Generations Y and Z – the first to grow up without the censorship, curfew or restrictions of the dictatorship. As a result, they are far more questioning and less discouraged by theoretical consequences. Authorities may perceive it as a threat, but Chile's youth has stood up for what's theirs in a way their predecessors would not have. The momentum has also influenced the provinces, namely Magallanes and Aisén, to protest higher costs and general neglect by the central government.
Yet, above all, this is a harmony-loving society. The most lasting impression you'll take away of Chileans is undoubtedly their renowned hospitality, helpfulness, genuine curiosity and heartfelt eagerness to make travelers feel at home.
Travelers crossing over from Peru or Bolivia may wonder where the stereotypical 'South America' went. Superficially, Chilean lifestyle has many similarities to Europe. Dress can be conservative, leaning toward business formal, the exception being teens. And while most Chileans are proud of their traditional heritage, there's a palpable lack of investment in it.
The average Chilean focuses energy on family, home and work. Children are not encouraged to grow up too quickly, and families spend a great deal of time together. Independence isn't nearly as valued as family unity and togetherness. Regardless, single motherhood is not uncommon. Though the Bachelet administration legalized abortion in certain, very limited cases, the new administration has since introduced new rules that human rights advocates fear will largely undermined the authority of the ruling.
The legalization of divorce a decade ago helped remove the stigma of failed partnerships and created a backlog of cases in the courts. While not aggressively antigay, Chile had long denied public support for alternate lifestyles. Yet with the approval of civil unions for homosexual couples (as well as heterosexual unmarrieds) in January 2015, Chile took a big step forward.
Generally, the famous Latin American machismo (chauvinism) is subtle in Chile and there's a great deal of respect for women. However, this doesn't mean that it's exactly liberal. In Chile, traditional roles still rule and close friendships are usually formed along the lines of gender.
Chileans have a strong work ethic, and often work six days a week, but are always eager for a good carrete (party). Military service is voluntary, though the right to compulsory recruitment is retained. More women are joining the military and serving as police officers.
A yawning gulf separates the highest and lowest incomes in Chile, resulting in a dramatic gulf in living standards and an exaggerated class consciousness. Lifestyles are lavish for Santiago's cuicos (upper-class yuppies), with swish apartment blocks and a couple of maids, while at the other end of the scale people live in precarious homes without running water. That said, poverty has been halved in recent decades, while housing and social programs have eased the burden on Chile's poorest.
A lack of ethnic and religious diversity in Chile makes racism less of an issue, although Mapuche still face prejudice and marginalization, and class barriers remain formidable.
While the vast majority of the population is of Spanish ancestry mixed with indigenous groups, several moderate waves of immigrants have also settled here – particularly British, Irish, French, Italians, Croatians (especially in Magallanes and Tierra del Fuego) and Palestinians. Germans also began immigrating in 1848 and left their stamp on the Lakes District. Today Chile's immigrant population is climbing, led by Peruvians and Argentines, but including increasing numbers of Europeans, Asians and North Americans.
The northern Andes is home to around 69,200 indigenous Aymara and Atacameño peoples. Almost 10 times that amount (around 620,000 people) are Mapuche, mainly from La Araucanía. Their name stems from the words mapu (land) and che (people). About 3800 Rapa Nui, of Polynesian ancestry, live on Easter Island.
About 75% of Chile's population occupies just 20% of its total area, in the main agricultural region of Middle Chile. This region includes Gran Santiago (the capital and its suburbs), where over a third of the country's nearly 18 million people reside. More than 85% of Chileans live in cities. In Patagonia, the person-per-sq-km ratio in Aisén is just 1:1 – in the Región Metropolitana that ratio is closer to 400:1.
Dos & Don'ts
- Keep your behavior circumspect around indigenous peoples, especially in the altiplano and in the Mapuche centers of the south.
- Upon greeting and leaving, cheek kisses are exchanged between men and women and between women. Both parties gently touch cheek to cheek and send the kiss to the air. Men exchange handshakes.
- For Chileans, their dictatorship past is old news. Discussions should start with a focus on more contemporary issues.
- Chileans often reserve strong opinions out of politeness. Quickly asserting an opinion is frowned upon.
For an inside scoop on Mapuche culture and issues, check out the four-language Mapuche international site (www.mapuche-nation.org), created with foreign collaboration.
Explore everything from tripe stew to tongue-twisters and dirty riddles at www.folklore.cl, a website that aims to rescue Chile's folkloric traditions.
Literature & Cinema
While poetry has long been the golden nugget of this narrow country, Chilean cinema is gaining world recognition. The previous generation saw censorship and an artistic exodus with the military dictatorship, but today's Chile has rebounded with a fresh and sometimes daring emphasis on the arts.
Literature & Poetry
Twentieth-century Chile has produced many of Latin America's most celebrated writers. The most acclaimed are poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, both Nobel Prize winners.
Mistral (born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga; 1889–1957) was a shy young rural schoolmistress from Elqui Valley who won great acclaim for her compassionate, reflective and mystical poetry. She became South America's first Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1945. Langston Hughes' Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral provides an introduction.
Nicanor Parra (1914–2018) drew Nobel Prize attention for his hugely influential and colloquial 'antipoetry.' De hojas de Parra (From the Pages of Parra) and Poemas y antipoemas (Poems and Antipoems) are his best known. Bohemian Jorge Teillier (1935–96) wrote poetry of teenage angst and solitude.
Fragile social facades were explored by José Donoso (1924–96). His celebrated novel Curfew offers a portrait of life under the dictatorship through the eyes of a returned exile, while Coronación (Coronation), made into a hit film, follows the fall of a dynasty.
Chile's most famous contemporary literary export is Isabel Allende (b 1942), niece of late president Salvador Allende. She wove 'magical realism' into best-selling stories with Chilean historic references, such as House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia and Maya's Notebook. My Invented Country (2004) gives insight into perceptions of Chile and Allende herself. She was granted the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
US resident Ariel Dorfman (b 1942) is another huge literary presence, with plays La negra Ester (Black Ester) and Death and the Maiden. The latter is set after the fall of a South American dictator, and is also an acclaimed movie.
Novelist Antonio Skármeta (b 1940) became famous for Ardiente paciencia (Burning Patience), inspired by Neruda and adapted into the award-winning film Il postino (The Postman).
Luis Sepúlveda (b 1949) is one of Chile's most prolific writers, with such books as Nombre de torero (The Name of the Bullfighter), a tough noir set in Germany and Chile; and the excellent short-story collection Patagonia Express. For a lighter romp through Chile, Roberto Ampuero (b 1953) writes mystery novels, such as El Alemán de Atacama (The German of Atacama), whose main character is a Valparaíso-based Cuban detective.
Justly considered one of the greats in Latin American literature, the work of Roberto Bolaño (1955–2005) is enjoying a renaissance. The posthumous publication of his encyclopedic 2666 seals his cult-hero status, but it's worth checking out other works. Born in Santiago, he spent most of his adult life in exile in Mexico and Spain.
Best-selling author Marcela Serrano (b 1951) tackles women's issues in books such as Antigua vida mia (My Life Before: A Novel) and others. Homosexuality and other taboo subjects are treated with top-notch shock value by Pedro Lemebel (b 1950), author of novel Tengo miedo torero (My Tender Matador).
Younger writers rejecting the 'magical realism' of Latin literature include Alberto Fuguet (b 1964), whose Sobredosis (Overdose) and Mala onda (Bad Vibes) have earned acclaim and scowls. Among other contemporary talents, look for the erotic narratives of Andrea Maturana, fiction writer Alejandro Zambra, novelist Carlos Franz and writers Marcelo Mellado, Gonzalo Contreras, María Luisa Bombal, Lina Meruane and Claudia Apablaza.
Poet-politician Pablo Neruda
The combative, sentimental, surreal and provocative poetry of Pablo Neruda (1904–73) tells much about the soul of Chile while his own life story has played an intimate part in its history.
Born in a provincial town as Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Neruda devised his famous alias fearing that his blue-collar family would mock his ambition. The leftist poet led a flamboyant life, building gloriously outlandish homes in Santiago, Valparaíso and Isla Negra. His most famous house, La Chascona, was named after his third wife Matilde Urrutia's perpetually tangled shock of hair.
Awarded a diplomatic post after early literary success, he gained international celebrity wearing his political opinions on his sleeve. He helped political refugees flee after the Spanish Civil War and officially joined the Communist Party once back in Chile, where he was elected senator. After helping Gabriel González Videla secure the presidency in 1946, he had to escape over the Andes into exile when the president outlawed the Communist Party.
All the while Neruda wrote poems. A presidential candidate in 1969, he pulled out of the race in support of Salvador Allende. While serving as Allende's ambassador to France, he received a Nobel Prize, becoming only the third Latin American writer to win the award.
Shortly afterward he returned to Chile with failing health. Pressure was mounting on Allende's presidency. Mere days after the 1973 coup, Neruda died of cancer and a broken heart. His will left everything to the Chilean people through a foundation. The Pinochet regime set about sacking and vandalizing his homes. Later his widow lovingly restored them, and they are now open to the public.
Neruda's works include Heights of Macchu Picchu, Canto General and Passions and Impressions, available in translation.
Before the 1973 coup Chilean cinema was among the most experimental in Latin America and it is now returning to reclaim some status. Alejandro Jodorowsky's kooky El Topo (The Mole; 1971) is an underground cult classic mixing genres long before Tarantino.
There was little film production in Chile during the Pinochet years, but exiled directors kept shooting. Miguel Littín's Alsino y el condor (Alsino and the Condor; 1983) was nominated for an Academy Award. Exiled documentary-maker Patricio Guzmán has often made the military dictatorship his subject matter. The prolific Paris-based Raúl Ruiz is another exile. His English-language movies include the psychological thriller Shattered Image (1998).
Post-dictatorship, Chile's weakened film industry was understandably preoccupied with the after-effects of the former regime. Ricardo Larraín's La frontera (The Borderland; 1991) explored internal exile, and Gonzalo Justiniano's Amnesia (1994) used the story of a Chilean soldier forced to shoot prisoners to challenge Chileans not to forget past atrocities.
Then the mood lightened. The most successful Chilean movie to date, Cristián Galaz's El chacotero sentimental (The Sentimental Teaser; 1999) won 18 national and international awards for the true story of a frank radio host whose listeners reveal their love entanglements. Silvio Caiozzi, among Chile's most respected veteran directors, adapted a José Donoso novel to make Coronación (Coronation; 2000), about the fall of a family dynasty. Comedy Taxi para tres (Taxi for Three; 2001), by Orlando Lübbert, follows bandits in their heisted taxi. Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero (2008) sends up a disco-obsessed murderer.
A period drama about the referendum on the Pinochet presidency, No (2013), directed by Pablo Larraín and starring Gael García Bernal, was the first Chilean film nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Larraín has gone on to direct internationally, as with award-winning Jackie (2017), and make other Chilean classics like El club (2015), about sex offenders in the Catholic Church, and Neruda (2016), a fictionalized account of Neruda's forced exile when communism was outlawed.
In a kind of celluloid therapy, the film industry has worked through Chile's traumatic past while gaining international success. Machuca (2004), directed by Andrés Wood, shows two boys' lives during the coup. Sub terra (2003) dramatizes mining exploitation. Mi mejor enemigo (My Best Enemy; 2004), a collaboration with Argentina and Spain, is set in Patagonia during the Beagle conflict (a 1978 territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile over three islands in the Beagle Channel). El perro (2017), directed by Marcela Said, explores the uneasy friendship between an upper-class woman and a former member of the secret police.
It's not all war, torture and politics, though. The new breed of globally influenced teen flicks originated with Promedio rojo (loosely translated as Flunking Grades; 2005) from director Nicolás López. Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus (2013) cast comedic actor Michael Cera as an arrogant tourist on a quest to trip on San Pedro cactus. Director Matías Bize's La vida de los pesces (The Life of Fish; 2010) and En la cama (In Bed; 2005) both gained attention abroad. La once (Tea Time; 2015), directed by Maite Alberdi, is a quiet documentary about female friendships through the decades. Filmmaker Alicia Scherson's moody Bolaño adaptation Il futuro (The Future; 2013) was well-received at Sundance.
Emerging tendencies include examining the rich theme of class conflict and using more female protagonists to tell Chilean stories. Darling of the Sundance Film Festival, Sebastián Silva's La nana (The Maid; 2009) tells the story of a maid whose personal life is too deeply entwined with her charges. On its heels, Gloria (2013), directed by Sebastián Lelio, was another favorite of international film festivals. From the same director, groundbreaking A Fantastic Woman (2017) is a spellbinding portrait of a transgender woman in Santiago.
Fabulous scenery makes Chile a dream location for foreign movies too; contemporary films to have been shot here include The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), Bond movie Quantam of Solace (2008) and The Colony, based on a Nazi sect in Chile, with Emma Watson. The documentary-style film 180° South (2010) uses a surfer's quest to explore Patagonia to highlight environmental issues, with gorgeous scenery footage. Blockbuster The 33 (2015) dramatized the real-life Chilean mining disaster.
Lauded Chilean filmmaker, Andrés Wood, may have studied in New York, but his subject matter is purely Chileno, from Fiebre de Locos (Loco Fever), the story of a Patagonian fishing village, to the acclaimed Machuca and Sundance Jury Prize–winner Violeta Se Fue a Los Cielos (Violeta; 2012), about artist-musician Violeta Parra. He fills us in on Chilean cinema.
You tell stories from a microperspective that also reflects a globalized Chile… Do you think that perspective is missing in Chilean cinema? It's very difficult to generalize…but we are more interested in what foreigners think of us, and gaining approval in their eyes. It's a country with a kind of identity crisis, caused by different factors, but with insecurity in our own thoughts and feelings.
Chilean cinema is having a lot of international success. Is this a good moment? The younger generations are more profoundly connected to the world, making barriers more and more invisible. The problem is that often we find ourselves creating works to explain who we are to the world rather than being mirrors that can allow us to think, argue and self-reflect. This gap needs to close for us to better connect with our audiences.
Are there certain characteristics that define Chilean cinema? We don't have a solid body of work but that's fine by me. Chilean film is pretty heterogeneous in aesthetics and subject matter.
Sex, drugs, and poetry recitation drive Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), late literary bad-boy Roberto Bolaño's greatest novel. Like him, the main character is a Chilean poet exiled in Mexico and Spain.
Chile: A Traveler's Literary Companion (2003), edited by Katherine Silver, is an appetite-whetting whiz through Chile's rich literary tradition, with snippets from the work of many top writers, including Neruda, Dorfman, Donoso and Rivera Letelier.
The Natural World
With the Andes dwarfing Santiago skyscrapers, nature can't help but prevail in visitors' impressions of Chile. Geography students could cover an entire syllabus in this slinky country measuring 4300km long and 200km wide, reaching from the driest desert in the world to the ice-capped south. Stunning in variety, more than half the country's plant and animal species are found nowhere else on earth. As pressures build for more mining, industry and electricity, conservation remains a key issue.
Chile's rugged spine, the Andes, began forming about 60 million years ago. While southern Chile was engulfed by glaciers, northern Chile was submerged below the ocean: hence today the barren north is plastered with pastel salt flats and the south is scored by deep glacially carved lakes, curvaceous moraine hills and awesome glacial valleys.
Still young in geological terms, the Chilean Andes repeatedly top 6000m and thrust as high as 6893m at Ojos del Salado, the second-highest peak in South America and the world's highest active volcano.
Much like a totem pole, Chile can be split into horizontal chunks. Straddling the Tropic of Capricorn, the Norte Grande (Big North) is dominated by the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world with areas where rainfall has never been recorded. The climate is moderated by the cool Humboldt Current, which parallels the coast. High humidity conjures up a thick blanket of fog known as camanchaca, which condenses on coastal ranges. Coastal cities here hoard scant water from river valleys, subterranean sources and distant stream diversions. The canyons of the precordillera (foothills) lead eastward to the altiplano (high plains) and to high, snowy mountain passes. Further south, Norte Chico (Little North) sees the desert give way to scrub and pockets of forest. Green river valleys that streak from east to west allow for agriculture.
South of the Río Aconcagua begins the fertile heartland of Middle Chile, carpeted with vineyards and agriculture. It is also home to the capital, Santiago (with at least a third of the country's population), vital ports and the bulk of industry.
Descending south another rung, the Lakes District undulates with green pastureland, temperate rainforest and foothill lakes dominated by snowcapped volcanoes. The region is drenched by high rainfall, most of which dumps between May and September, but no month is excluded. The warm but strong easterly winds here are known as puelches. Winters feature some snow, making border crossings difficult.
The country's largest island, Isla Grande de Chiloé, hangs off the continent here, exposed to Pacific winds and storms. The smaller islands on its eastern flank make up the archipelago, but there's no escaping the rain: up to 150 days per year.
The Aisén region features fjords, raging rivers, impenetrable forests and high peaks. The Andes here jog west to meet the Pacific and the vast Campo de Hielo Norte (Northern Ice Field), where 19 major glaciers coalesce, nourished by heavy rain and snow. To the east, mountainous rainforest gives way to barren Patagonia steppe. South America's deepest lake, the enormous Lago General Carrera, is shared with Argentina.
The Campo de Hielo Sur (southern ice field) walls off access between the Carretera Austral and sprawling Magallanes and Tierra del Fuego. Weather here is exceedingly changeable and winds are brutal. At the foot of the continent, pearly blue glaciers, crinkled fjords, vast ice fields and mountains jumble together before reaching the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego. The barren eastern pampas stretches through northern Tierra del Fuego, abruptly halting by the Cordillera Darwin.
A bonus to Chile's glorious scenery is its fascinating wildlife. Bounded by ocean, desert and mountain, the country is home to a unique environment that developed much on its own, creating a number of endemic species.
Chile's domestic camelids and their slimmer wild cousins inhabit the northern altiplano. Equally unusual are creatures such as the ñandú (ostrich-like rhea), found in the northern altiplano and southern steppe, and the plump viscacha (a wild relative of the chinchilla) that hides amid the rocks at high altitude.
Though rarely seen, puma still prowl widely through the Andes. Pudú, rare and diminutive deer, hide out in thick forests throughout the south. Even more rare is the huemul deer, an endangered species endemic to Patagonia.
Chile's long coastline features many marine mammals, including colonies of sea lions and sea otters, as well as fur seals in the south. Playful dolphin pods and whales can be glimpsed, while seafood platters demonstrate the abundance of fish and shellfish.
Birdwatchers will be enthralled. The northern altiplano features interesting birdlife from Andean gulls to giant coots. Large nesting colonies of flamingos speckle highland lakes pink, from the far north down to Torres del Paine. The three species here include the rare James variety (parina chica, in Spanish). Colonies of endangered Humboldt and Magellanic penguins scattered along Chile's long coastline are another crowd-pleaser seen at Parque Nacional Pingüino de Humboldt, off the northwestern coast of Chiloé and near Punta Arenas. Recently, a colony of king penguins was discovered on Tierra del Fuego.
The legendary Andean condor circles on high mountain updrafts throughout Chile. The ibis, with its loud knocking call, is commonly seen in pastures. The queltehue, with black, white and grey markings, has a loud call used to protect its ground nests – people claim they are better than having a guard dog.
In Defense of the Big Guys
The largest animal in the world came perilously close to extinction just a few decades ago. So it was with great excitement in 2003 that what seems to be a blue whale 'nursery' was discovered in sheltered fjords just southeast of Chiloé in the Golfo de Corcovado. More than 100 whales gathered here to feed, including 11 mothers with their young.
In 2008 Chile banned whale hunting off the entire length of its coast. Then in early 2014, the Chilean government created the 120,000-hectare marine sanctuary of Área Marina Costera Protegida de Tic Toc, to help recover declining populations of marine wildlife. In 2017, Chile added two new marine parks that preserve an area the size of France, one surrounding the Archipiélago Juan Fernández and the other off Cape Horn. For conservation information, try the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org).
Whale-watching is increasingly popular in Patagonia. A variety of species can be spotted, including fin, humpback, killer and sperm whales. Current hubs for Patagonian whale-watching trips include the coastal village of Raúl Marín Balmaceda, and, in Argentina, Puerto Madryn.
For millennia, Andean peoples have relied on the New World camels – the wild guanaco and vicuña, and the domesticated llama and alpaca – for food and fiber.
The delicate guanaco, a slim creature with stick-thin legs and a long, elegant neck, can be found in the far north and south, at elevations from sea level up to 4000m or more. It is most highly concentrated in the plains of Patagonia, including Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. It is less common and flightier in the north, where you're most likely to get photos of guanaco behinds as they hightail it to a safe distance.
The leggy vicuña is the smallest camelid, with a swan neck and minuscule head. It lives only above 4000m in the puna (Andean highlands) and altiplano (high plains), from south-central Peru to northwestern Argentina. Its fine golden wool was once the exclusive property of Inka kings, but after the Spanish invasion it was hunted mercilessly. In Parque Nacional Lauca and surrounds, conservation programs have brought vicuña back from barely a thousand in 1973 to over 25,000 today.
Many highland communities in northern Chile still depend on domestic llamas and alpacas for their livelihood. The taller, rangier and hardier llama is a pack animal whose relatively coarse wool serves for blankets, ropes and other household goods, and its meat makes good charqui (jerky). It can survive – even thrive – on poor, dry pastures.
The slightly smaller but far shaggier alpaca is not a pack animal. It requires well-watered grasslands to produce the fine wool sold at markets in the north.
Chile has a wealth of interesting and unique plant life. While few plants can eke out an existence in its northern desert, those that manage it do so by extraordinary means. More than 20 different types of cacti and succulents survive on moisture absorbed from the ocean fog. One of the most impressive varieties is the endangered candelabra cactus, which reaches heights of up to 5m.
The high altiplano is characterized by patchy grassland, spiky scrub stands of queñoa and ground-hugging species like the lime-green llareta, a dense cushiony shrub. The native tamarugo tree once covered large areas of Chile's northern desert; it digs roots down as far as 15m to find water.
The desert's biggest surprise comes in years of sudden rainfall in Norte Chico. Delicate wildflowers break through the barren desert crust in a glorious phenomenon called the desierto florido, which showcases rare and endemic species.
From Norte Chico through most of Middle Chile, the native flora consists mostly of shrubs, the glossy leaves of which conserve water during the long dry season. However, pockets of southern beech (the Nothofagus species) cling to the coastal range nourished by the thick ocean fog. Few stands of the grand old endemic Chilean palm exist today; those that remain are best viewed in Parque Nacional La Campana.
Southern Chile boasts one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world. Its northern reaches are classified as Valdivian rainforest, a maze of evergreens, hugged by vines, whose roots are lost under impenetrable thickets of bamboo-like plants. Further south, the Magellanic rainforest has less diversity but hosts several important species. Equally breathtaking is the araucaria forest, home to the araucaria – a grand old pine that can age up to 1000 years. The English name became 'monkey puzzle,' since its forbidding foliage and jigsaw-like bark would surely stump a monkey.
Meanwhile, in the southern lakes region, the alerce is one of the longest-living trees in the world, growing for up to 4000 years. You can admire them in Parque Nacional Alerce Andino and Parque Pumalín.
On Chiloé, in the Lakes District and Aisén, the rhubarb-like nalca is the world's largest herbaceous plant, with enormous leaves that grow from a single stalk; the juicy stalk of younger plants is edible in November.
The Archipiélago Juan Fernández is a major storehouse of biological diversity: of the 140 native plant species found on the islands, 101 are endemic.
With industry booming, Chile is facing a spate of environmental issues. Along with Mexico City and São Paulo, Santiago is one of the Americas' most polluted cities. The smog blanket is at times so severe that people sport surgical face masks, schools suspend sports activities and the elderly are advised to stay indoors. The city has no-drive days for private cars and is looking to add bike lanes and extend subway lines. As a result, the country is investing US$1 billion in Santiago Breathes, a program to decrease global emissions of particulates by 60%. In the south, where wood stoves are the most common form of heating, new incentives promote converting to pellet-based or paraffin stoves to lower emissions.
Water and air pollution caused by the mining industry is a longtime concern. Some mining towns have suffered such severe contamination that they have been relocated. Part of the problem is that the industry also demands huge energy and water supplies, and mining locations can interfere with water basins, contaminating the supply and destroying farming. Unusually high rates of cancer around mining centers are not uncommon. According to a research report by BMI, Chile's environmental regulatory body has been cracking down on water mismanagement by mining operations, with charges against Antofagasta Minerals' Los Pelambres copper mine and Kinross Gold's Maricunga gold mine effectively being suspended in 2016.
In 2017, Chile experienced the worst wildfires in its history, losing 200,000 hectares of forest and killing 11 people. Some attribute the extent of wildfires to the deregulation of the forestry industry under the Pinochet regime. With global warming, forests throughout the country are deemed at risk. Chile's forests continue to lose ground to plantations of fast-growing exotics, such as eucalyptus and Monterey pine. Caught in a tug-of-war between their economic and ecological value, native tree species have also declined precipitously due to logging.
Another issue is the intensive use of agricultural chemicals and pesticides to promote Chile's flourishing fruit exports, which during the southern summer furnish the northern hemisphere with fresh produce. In 2011, the Chilean government approved the registration of genetically modified seeds, opening the door for the controversial multinational Monsanto to shape the future of Chilean agriculture. Likewise, industrial waste is a huge problem.
Chile is the world's second-largest producer of salmon. The continued expansion of salmon farms in southern Chile is polluting water, devastating underwater ecology and depleting other fish stocks. In 2016, the industry lost US$800 million due to an algae bloom, which also killed off other sea life, and viral infections in fish. A study published by Oxford University Press notes that the use of antibiotics has created antibiotic-resistant bacteria in fish and polluted fish-farming environments in Chile.
Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is under mounting pressure from increasing visitor numbers. Limited natural resources mean that the island must depend on the distant mainland for all supplies and fuel. In good news, one of the world's largest marine reserves was created off the coast of Easter Island in 2017. The Rapa Nui Rahui Marine Protected Area is home to 140 species found nowhere else.
The protection of marine ecosystems is a big issue. In 2015, the largest stranding of whales in history saw 343 individuals, likely Sei whales, beached in Patagonian waters. Scientists attributed the deaths to a toxic species of marine algae. These events are broadly connected to rising ocean temperatures.
The growing hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has become such an issue that medical authorities recommend wearing protective clothing and heavy sunblock to avoid cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, particularly in Patagonia.
Global warming is also having a significant impact on Chile. Nowhere is it more apparent than with the melting of glaciers. Scientists have documented many glaciers doubling their thinning rates in recent years while the northern and southern ice fields continue to retreat. In particular, the Northern Patagonian Ice Field is contributing to rising ocean levels at a rate one-quarter higher than formerly believed. Reports say that glaciers are thinning more rapidly than can be explained by warmer air temperatures and decreased precipitation. The change also stands to impact plant and animal life, water levels in lakes and rivers, and overall sustainability.
The Disappearing Lake
In April 2008, Lago Cachet 2 lost its 200 million cu meters of water in just a matter of hours, releasing water downstream to the Baker, Chile's highest-volume river and generating a downstream wave that rolled on out to the Pacific. In nature, strange things happen. But following this mysterious one, the event repeated a total of seven times in two years.
According to Nature magazine, the cause is climate change. Called a glacial-lake outburst flood (GLOF), it results from the thinning and receding of nearby Patagonian glaciers, weakening the natural dam made by the glaciers. After the lake drains, it fills again with glacial melt. It's a constant threat to those who live on the banks of the Río Colonia, though with assistance from NASA and a German university, monitoring systems are now in place.
Chile's environmental organizations include the following.
Codeff Campaigns to protect the country's flora and fauna, especially endangered species. Trips, seminars and work projects are organized for volunteers.
Fundación Terram A hard-hitting environmental activist group.
Greenpeace Chile Focuses on forest conservation, ocean ecology and dealing with toxic waste.
WWF Involved with the preservation of the temperate rainforests around Valdivia, conservation in southern Patagonia and protection of native wildlife and oceans.
In Inca times there were millions of vicuña that ranged throughout the Andes. Today in Chile, there are only 25,000.
When heading into the wild, grab a great field guide like Birds of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego & Antarctic Peninsula (2003; Enrique Couve and Claudio Vidal) and Flora Patagonia (2008; Claudia Guerrido and Damian Fernandez).
To understand the influence of natural beauty on the activism of Douglas Tompkins, check out On Beauty (1996), by Tom Butler and Sandra Lubarsky, with gorgeous photographs of Patagonia and the parks Tompkins created.
Catch up with the latest conservation headlines through English-language news portal the Santiago Times (www.santiagotimes.cl) and bilingual magazine Patagon Journal (www.patagonjournal.com).
Hikers can download the comprehensive Trekking in Chile App (www.fundaciontrekkingchile.cl/programasturismoemocional/trekkingchile-app), with trail information you can access offline.
Chile contains approximately 10% of all the world's active volcanoes.
Roughly 29% of Chile is preserved in over 100 national parks, national monuments, reserves and conservation areas. Among Chile's top international attractions, the parks receive over three million visitors yearly. Visits have doubled in the last decade. But while scene-stealing parks such as Torres del Paine are annually inundated, the majority of Chile's protected areas remain underutilized and wild. Hikers have their pick of trails, and solitude is easily found, especially outside the summer high season of January and February.
Chile's protected areas comprise three different categories: parques nacionales (national parks); reservas nacionales (national reserves), which are open to limited economic exploitation; and monumentos naturales (natural monuments), which are smaller but strictly protected areas or features.
National parks and reserves are administered by Conaf, the National Forestry Corporation. Different from a National Parks Service, the main focus of Conaf is managing Chile's forests and their development. Because of this distinction, tourism is not often a primary concern of the organization. In recent years, the management of huts and services within parks has been given to private concessionaires. Advocates are lobbying for a National Parks Service to be created, but for the time being, the status quo remains.
In Santiago, visit Conaf for basic maps and brochures. Increasingly, in-park amenities like refugios (rustic shelters), campgrounds and restaurants are being run by private concessionaires. Conaf is chronically underfunded and many parks are inadequately protected, which makes issues like forest fires a particularly serious concern. However, other government-financed projects are showing a commitment to ecotourism, including the megalong Sendero de Chile, which links 8000km of trails from Chile's top to bottom.
Private Protected Areas
Chilean law permits private nature reserves: áreas de protección turística (tourist protection areas) and santuarios de la naturaleza (nature sanctuaries). But private parks started making Chilean headlines when American conservationists Kris and Douglas Tompkins started creating parks throughout Patagonia. Their first was Parque Nacional Pumalín, followed by Parque Nacional Corcovado and Parque Nacional Yendegaia in Tierra del Fuego, and most recently Parque Nacional Patagonia is open for visitors. All of these have been donated to the state or are in the process of donation. While these parks first ignited hot debate about land ownership and use, they have inspired others, including President Sebastián Piñera, who created Chiloé's Parque Tantauco. Other notable parks include Parque Natural Karukinka and Huilo-Huilo Biological Reserve.
Chile has around 133 private parks, totaling almost 4000 sq km. Codeff maintains a database of properties that have joined together to create Red de Áreas Protegidas Privadas (RAPP; Network of Private Protected Areas).
Torres in Flames
On December 27, 2011, a forest fire in Torres del Paine consumed 42,000 acres. A camper was charged with the fire, fined US$10,000 and agreed to plant 50,000 trees. New wildfire awareness campaigns are educating the public, and the Nueva Ley del Bosque (New Forest Law) has stricter regulations. This translates into visitors to Torres del Paine signing an agreement to observe the park's stated rules, which are now vigorously enforced.
Chile's National Parks
remote archipelago, ecological treasure trove of endemic plants
hiking, boat trips, diving, flora
Best Time to Visit
remote ice fields, glaciers, waterfalls; cormorants, condors
Best Time to Visit
cloud forest in dry desert, coastline
Best Time to Visit
coastal dunes, lagoons & folklore-rich forest; rich birdlife, pudú, sea lions
hiking, wildlife-watching, kayaking, horse trekking
Best Time to Visit
mountainous araucaria forests, lakes, canyons, active volcano
hiking, climbing, skiing, boating, skiing
Best Time to Visit
forest, lakes, waterfalls & outstanding views
Best Time to Visit
coastal cordillera: oak forests & Chilean palms
Best Time to Visit
Andean foothills, waterfalls, lakes, rare trees; condors
Best Time to Visit
glaciers reach the sea at this stunning ice field
boat trips, flights, hiking, climbing
Best Time to Visit
altiplano volcanoes, lakes, steppe; abundant birdlife & vicuñas
hiking, wildlife-watching, traditional villages, hot springs
Best Time to Visit
coastal plains; 'flowering desert' occurs after heavy rains; guanaco
flora & fauna
Best Time to Visit
Jul-Sep in rainy years
high coastal range of araucaria forests, wildflowers; pumas, pudú, rare woodpeckers
Best Time to Visit
volcano Ojos del Salado; flamingos, vicuñas, guanacos
climbing, hiking, wildlife
Best Time to Visit
coastal desert; penguins, otters, sea lions, guanacos & cacti
boat trips, wildlife-watching, swimming, hiking
Best Time to Visit
restored steppe & high alpine terrain; guanaco, flamingo, puma
Best Time to Visit
volcanic dunes, lava rivers, forest
hiking, skiing, hot springs, biking, lake canoeing
Best Time to Visit
hiking Dec-Mar, skiing Jun-Oct
isolated Polynesian island with enigmatic archaeological treasures
archaeology, diving, hiking, horseback riding
Best Time to Visit
Chile's showpiece park of spectacular peaks, forest, glaciers; guanacos, condors, ñandú, flamingos
trekking, wildlife-watching, climbing, glacier trekking, kayaking, horseback riding
Best Time to Visit
Chile's oldest national park, crowded with lakes & volcanoes
hiking, climbing, skiing, boat trips, rafting, kayaking, canyoning, skiing
Best Time to Visit
smoking volcanic cone overlooking lakes & resorts
trekking, climbing, skiing
Best Time to Visit
hiking Dec-Mar, skiing Jun-Oct
remote altiplano, volcanoes, geysers, unique pastoral culture; rich birdlife
villages, hiking, birdwatching, hot springs
Best Time to Visit
Available from Conaf (www.conaf.cl), a Parks Pass covers all national parks with the exception of Torres del Paine, Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos and Parque Nacional Rapa Nui. One year is CH$12,000/35,000 per individual/family.
Feature: La Ruta de los Parques
With wild rivers, kilometers of rugged coastline and gem-colored lakes cupped between mountain ranges, the scenery of the Carretera Austral has always been epic. But with this special designation, promoting tourism and conservation becomes a forward-thinking priority for Chile. The new Route of the Parks links 18 national parks over a span of 2400km, from Parque Nacional Pumalín to Parque Nacional Yendegaia at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, spanning 15 degrees in latitude and a number of diverse ecosystems. For most, that's more than a lifetime of hiking, biking and adventuring. But it never hurts to try.