Destinations, History, South America, Travel Tips

A historical look at Chile

July 9, 2009 • By

A narrow but long country Chile measures at its greatest width 430 kilometers (265 miles) east to west.  This isn’t a small country as it measures 4,630 kilometers (2,880 miles) in length and includes as part of its territory Easter Island, parts of Antarctica and a few other smaller islands.  Chile shares a border with Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and the Pacific Ocean, which runs the entire length of the country.

The Spanish arrived in Chile in the mid-sixteenth century and found a pleasant climate and fertile soil.  They were also confronted with strong and stable native tribes; the Araucanian(descendants of the Incas) in the north and the Mapuche in the south.  While the Spanish tried to occupy these regions, they were relatively unsuccessful and kept to the center region in what is present-day Valparaiso and Santiago. Today, Chile is home to many immigrant populations including the Spanish, Italians, Germans, French, Croatians and Palestinians.  In the last century, Chile has welcomed its Bolivian, Argentine and Peruvian neighbors seeking better opportunities.  Spanish is the official language but it’s not unusual to hear German and Croatian in the southern part of the country where people from those respective countries landed.  I also found it interesting to learn that Chile maintains the largest Palestinian population outside of Israel/West Bank territories.

Chile is a country rich in natural resources but it’s also completely dependent on these resources for it’s livelihood.  In fact, mountains occupy 80 percent of the land and the people rely heavily on water for electricity.  There are two mountain ranges within the country’s borders, the Andes and the Coastal Mountains, and they converge at two points: in the South near Atacama and another point close to Santiago.  While many think Chile is famous for it’s wine and salmon exports, Cooper is actually its biggest export and accounts for 35 percent of the country’s income.  The United States is Chile’s largest trade partner importing cooper, nitrates and fruits and wood.

Santiago is the largest city with 6.5 million people (40 percent of the population) and divides the dry north from the temperate south of Patagonia.  The country’s population has been shrinking in the last 20 years but it’s estimated to be around 15 million.  Santiago is a large city but with the Andes running right through the middle of it, I had to remind myself I was in a city.  There are a number of financial districts, pedestrian walkways, museums and universities.  Some of the continents top educational centers reside right here in Santiago.  A number of high-rise towers grace the skies and construction has not halted despite the economic downturn in the States.  Here tourists arrive primarily from Argentina, Uruguay and Brasil.  People from the States tend to visit during our winter (December and January).

Millions flock to Santiago every year for its wine, skiing and culture.  Chile claims to rival some of the world’s best ski resorts and vineyards (it’s the world’s 5th largest exporter of wine) and all of them reside within an hour’s drive of Santiago.  It’s a much calmer, quieter city than Buenos Aires.  In Buenos Aires, I noticed everyone looked like they were from Europe but in Santiago it’s hard to figure out a person’s origin without asking.  People are very much a mix of indigenous and European and officials claim 70 percent of the population is white or a mix of white.  There is a more local feel to Santiago.  Artisans fill the streets selling sweaters, jewelry and other handcrafted materials.  It’s less commercialized and you realize quickly you are indeed in South America (or our stereotype of it anyway).  People keep to themselves and there are certainly less cafes and restaurants filling the streets.  After work hours and on weekends the streets are relatively empty and it’s my understanding people do not socialize as much in Santiago.

As for the wine, I visited a few Bodegas and I admit the wine I sampled does rival Argentina’s Malbec.  Chile specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, a wine similar to Merlot, and Syrah.  The vineyards producing top red’s are located at the foothills of the Andes about 30 minutes from Santiago, while the vineyards producing fine white’s are located between Santiago and Valparaiso and closer to the Pacific Ocean.  I’ve given it my all to try many labels in my short time here but with only two meals a day it’s difficult.  My vote goes to the Carmenere, a Chilean favorite.

After my day of touring bodegas, I decided to check out Valparaiso, a port city located about 90 miles from Santiago.  Valparaiso provided a strategic stopover for ships crossing the Straits of Magellan (connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans) until 1914 when the opening of the Panama Canal virtually paralyzed the city. Today, Valparaiso is home to the National Congress and serves as a playground for the rich and tourists alike.  The day I visited the skies were blue and the temperature rose to 25(75F) – not bad for winter.  As what usually happens, 5-star hotels and expensive condominiums have sprung up along the Pacific coastline and pushed development north of Valparaiso.  We first stopped at a place called Vina del Mar (a few kilometers from Valparaiso), which seemed to be home to yuppies, restaurants, cafes and many expensive vacation homes.  Our guide told us many rich Chileans have homes in both Santiago and Vina del Mar.

We toured Valparaiso also known as the Jewel of the Pacific after a scenic lunch on the Pacific.  This is one of the few places in the world I have visited where the poor have incredible ocean views.  The underprivileged live high above the city (overlooking the Mighty Pacific), since the business owners and rich wanted to be closer to the center of activity at the port.  Valaparaiso, similar to San Francisco, was founded on the hilltops.  It even calls Sausalito its sister city.  There are dilapidated homes and buildings crowded along the slopping curves of the mountains.  Frequent earthquakes caused homes to be abandoned or rapidly repaired in a manner that gives the city an artistic feel.  Here the homes are painted in bright colors of hot pink, turquoise and yellow.  The architecture is distinct to Valparaiso.  There are beautiful mansions (now museums) sprinkled throughout the city in Spanish, Portuguese and Roman style.  Many funicular elevators or cable cars hide between the narrow streets.  Just to get a glimpse of this city’s past and present emerging as one was worth the visit.  In 1990, UNESCO declared Valparaiso a World Heritage Site.  My trip to Valparaiso had all the makings of a perfect day: hours watching the waves, architecture, history and an amazing sunset over the Andes.