The Geographical Diversity of Chile

Chile, or Chilli in the language of the indigenous peoples, means “where the world ends.” You can understand where they got this notion from when you consider that the country stretches to the southernmost point of any land mass in the world apart from Antarctica, to a latitude of 56 degrees south. To give you an idea of how far south this is, consider that South Africa is located at about 35 degrees south and mainland Australia is around 39 degrees south! However, the string bean geography of Chile also stretches far northward. The distance between Arica, the northernmost city, and Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the country and the world, is about 4,000 kilometers. This distance is equal to the span between Madrid and Moscow, or San Francisco and New York.

On its western border, the Pacific Ocean washes up against Chile’s long and rambling coastline, providing for a rich diversity of marine life. The cool Humboldt current that brings water from Antarctica is felt along the entire coast, with the water temperature decreasing significantly as one moves south. At certain points along the coast, the ocean is more than 8,000 meters deep.

The Andes mountain range is the backbone of the country as well as the continent of South America. The soaring peaks catch the moisture laden clouds that blow across from the Pacific, causing the precipitation that feeds the rivers cascading down from its snow-capped heights. These rivers not only irrigate the land on their way back to the ocean, but also provide Chile with its main source of electricity. In the north, the rugged peaks reach altitudes well over 6,000 meters, including the famous Ojos Del Salado, the highest volcano in the world at 6908 meters. The Andes diminish in size as one heads south, becoming a string of snow-capped volcanoes and rugged faces reaching skyward from plush temperate rainforests. The range then disappears in the deep south and runs along the ocean floor before reemerging in Antarctica.

The Coastal Range runs parallel to the Andes, but has lower elevations. These mountains are very much alive due to their position between two tectonic plates, giving way to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Chile contains roughly 10% of all active volcanoes on the planet and has had several earthquakes over 8.0 this century.In the southernmost reaches, the Coastal Range breaks up and the valleys submerge, forming gulfs, channels, estuaries and countless islands.

Between the two ranges lies the Central Depression, which in the north contains the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world. As one moves southward through central Chile, the valleys, although arid, become more fertile due to the rich volcanic soil and the abundance of rivers. Farther south is where ChileĀ“s majestic 2000-4000 year old ancient forests are located; carpeting valleys, covering the many islands and lining the shores of glacier strewn fjords and pristine lakes.