With an area of about 800,000 square kilometers, slightly larger than Texas and roughly twice the size of California, Chile is one of South America’s smallest countries—only Ecuador, Uruguay, and Paraguay are smaller. This statistic is misleading, though: The country stretches more than 4,300 kilometers from the border with Peru and Bolivia, at a tropical latitude of 17° 30’ south, to sub-Antarctic Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn), at 56° south.
On the other hand, Chile is never wider than about 285 kilometers between the Pacific and the Andean crest. The Andes run the length of the country; from Santiago north, elevations often exceed 4,000 meters, and the highest summits reach well above 6,000; to the south, the cordillera is generally lower but still scenically spectacular.
One of the world’s most seismically active countries, Chile lies where the Nazca and South American tectonic plates collide. Positioned along the Pacific “ring of fire,” it also has numerous active volcanoes—some very active—and earthquake faults. In 1906, only a few months after earthquake and fire rocked and scorched San Francisco, its Chilean counterpart, Valparaíso, suffered a similar disaster. The massive 1960 earthquake near the southern city of Valdivia brought a tsunami that devastated coastal areas from Concepción to Chiloé, and left many thousands homeless. Seismic safety has improved, but earthquakes are not going away.
Chile’s most imposing physiographic feature is the longitudinal Andean range, which extends from its northern borders to southern Patagonia, where it gradually disappears beneath the Pacific Ocean. The highest point is the 6,885-meter summit of Ojos del Salado, east of the city of Copiapó, but much of the northern Andes and altiplano (high steppe) exceeds 4,000 meters. Throughout most of the country, there is a lower coastal range, but even some parts of it exceed 2,000 meters.
From the Andes, transverse rivers flow generally west toward the Pacific; in the desert north, they rarely reach the sea, but even then they often provide ample irrigation water. From Santiago south, several carry enough flow for good to world-class white-water rafting and kayaking, and some still irrigate the fields of the Mediterranean Valle Central.
The largest and most important rivers are the Biobío, whose lower stretches are navigable (its upper basin, once a magnet for white-water daredevils, now lies mostly submerged beneath hydroelectric reservoirs); the Futaleufú, still providing recreational thrills but also threatened with major dam projects; and the remote but equally threatened Baker, which carries the largest flow of any Chilean river.
Chile is famous for its southern lake district, where Pleistocene glaciers have left a legacy of indigo bodies of water. Even in the desert north, though, there are surprises such as Lago Chungará, home to a wealth of birdlife, including flamingos and giant coots. The remote Aisén region has countless lakes barely touched by anglers—not to mention its inland seas.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition