Chile

Chile, officially the Republic of Chile, is a country in South America occupying a long, narrow strip between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It borders Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, and the Drake Passage in the far south. Along with Ecuador, it is one of two countries in South America that does not border Brazil. The Pacific coastline of Chile is 78,563.2 kilometres. Chilean territory includes the Pacific islands of Juan Fernandez, Salas y Gomez, Desventuradas and Easter Island. Chile also claims about 1,250,000 square kilometres (480,000 sq mi) of Antartica, although all claims are suspended under the Antarctic Treaty.

The shape of Chile is a distinctive ribbon of land 4,300 kilometres (2,700 mi) long and on average 175 kilometres (109 mi) wide.Its climate  varies, ranging from the world's driest desert – the Atacama – in the north, through a Mediterranean climate in the centre, to a rainy temperate climate in the south. The northern desert contains great mineral wealth, principally copper. The relatively small central area dominates in terms of population and agricultural resources, and is the cultural and political centre from which Chile expanded in the late 19th century, when it incorporated its northern and southern regions. Southern Chile is rich in forests and grazing lands and features a string of volcanoes and lakes. The southern coast is a labyrinth of fjords, inlets, canals, twisting peninsulas, and islands.

Atacama and the Altiplano

The high Altiplano of the Atacama Desert has rivers, green canyons, lakes, geysers, salt flats with flamingos, sand dunes and natural hot springs. The Andes Mountains and the Domeyko Range glorify the area with their spectacular forms. More than eight volcanoes are visible from San Pedro de Atacama, two still active. Their peaks reach a height of nearly 21,000 feet (6,000m).

 

The desert air is clear and the light is magical. The stars and the Milky Way are unforgettable and amazing, so much so, that the world's largest observatory and telescope, Project ALMA is now under construction with financing from the US, the EU and Japan.

Stretching 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from Peru's southern border into northern Chile, the Atacama Desert rises from a thin coastal shelf to the pampas—virtually lifeless plains that dip down to river gorges layered with mineral sediments from the Andes. The pampas bevel up to the altiplano, the foothills of the Andes, where alluvial salt pans give way to lofty white-capped volcanoes that march along the continental divide, reaching 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). 

At its centre, a place climatologists call absolute desert, the Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth. There are sterile, intimidating stretches where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it. You won't see a blade of grass or cactus stump, not a lizard, not a gnat. But you will see the remains of most everything left behind. The desert may be a heartless killer, but it's a sympathetic conservator. Without moisture, nothing rots. Everything turns into artifacts.

It is a shock then to learn that more than a million people live in the Atacama today. They crowd into coastal cities, mining compounds, fishing villages, and oasis towns. International teams of astronomers—perched in observatories on the Atacama's coastal range—probe the cosmos through perfectly clear skies. Determined farmers in the far north grow olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers with drip-irrigation systems, culling scarce water from aquifers. In the altiplano, the descendants of the region's pre-Columbian natives (mostly Aymara and Atacama Indians) herd llamas and alpacas and grow crops with water from snowmelt streams. 

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