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    Land of winds > The land > Geography | Issue 07 (Sep.-Oct. 2011)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The Chilean Andes


The Chilean Andes

Chile stretches over 4,300 kilometres (2,880 mi) north to south and only 445 km (265 mi) at its widest point east to west. This long and narrow country is located in a region of high volcanic and seismic activity known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, which surrounds the majority of the Pacific Ocean Basin. The south-eastern side of this horseshoe is the result of the Nazca plate forced beneath the South American plate. The region is the home of many of the most famous and well known fault zones such as the one off the coast of Chile. The geologic forces in play helped shape the country’s topography: east to west, the Andes Cordillera (running north to south and forming a sharp natural border with Argentina), the Intermediate Depression (Central Valley), the Coast Cordillera (a coastal range less formidable than the Andes) and the coastal plains.
Spanning half a subcontinent, Chile landscapes features the Atacama Desert, the snow-capped Andes, more than 600 volcanoes, native forests, grazing lands, remote lakes, an intricate labyrinth of channels, fjords, inlets and twisting peninsulas, a multiplicity of islands and the Cape Horn, the southernmost point in the Americas. If something characterizes this slender strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific, it is the impressive diversity of natural beauties. Geographically Chile is usually divided into five regions: the Big/Far North, the Small/Near North, central Chile, the south, and the far south.


Chile (geography), in Wikipedia.
Geography of Chile, in Wikipedia.
The Andes, in Wikipedia.
Chilean Central Valley, in Wikipedia.
Chilean Coast Range, in Wikipedia.
Chilean Coastal Plains, in Wikipedia [es].


Picture 01. Chilean Andes from the air.
Picture 02. Santiago de Chile; The Andes in the background.
Picture 03. Chilean vineyards landscape, The Andes in the background.
Picture 04. Chilean Patagonia (Torres del Paine).


The Chilean Andes

The Norte Grande (Chilean Big/Far North) extends from the Peruvian border to about 26º south latitude (regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá, and Antofagasta). This part of the country includes a large section of the Andean high plateau (which also comprises northern Argentina and southwest Bolivia), known as the Puna de Atacama or Atacama Plateau. Within this area there are a number of salt beds (Atacama, Pocitos, Pastos Grandes, Arizaro, Hombre Muerto), volcanoes, snow-capped mountains and alkaline lakes, whose striking colours change according to the level of salt, sediments or algae present. Some of the water from the plateau trickles down the Andes in the form of narrow rivers. Many of them form oasis before being lost into the desert sands, while few others manage to reach the Pacific after having carved fertile valleys in the desolated plains that lie between the puna and the coastline, including the Pampa del Tamarugal and the Atacama Desert, one of the driest areas in the world. One of those rivers is the Loa River, whose U-shaped course across the desert makes it Chile’s longest river.

The highest peaks in this section of the Chilean Andes are volcanoes Llullaillaco (6,739 m), Incahuasi (6,638 m), Antofalla (6,409 m), Socompa (6,050 m), Licancabur (5,916 m) and Vilama (5,653 m.), as well as mountains such as Cerro Diamante (5,857 m), Cerro Zapaleri (5,653 m), and Cerro Rincón (5,594 m). Many of these summits are shared with neighbouring Argentina.

Besides the rich vegetation in the valleys and the fruits and vegetables grown on the irrigated land, subterranean aquifers have permitted the development of forests made up mainly of tamarugos, spiny trees native to the area, queñoas, algarrobos, alpatacos and chañares. This arid wilderness is also home to ichos, pajas bravas, tolas and yaretas, as well as cacti. Among the fauna are the Andean camelids (vicuña, llama, alpaca), deer taruca, chinchilla, condor, parinas or Andean flamingos, puma and cat colocolo.

This region was the homeland of the Atacama or Lickan Antay people, and was influenced by Aymara people coming from Bolivia.

The geoglyphs discovered at Cerro Pintado, both Quitor and Lasana pukara (fortress), and the mommies found at the top of Llullaillaco mountain are all vestiges of Pre-Hispanic human presence. At present, the region’s main economic foundation is its great mineral wealth (copper, silver, gold, iron, lithium, boron, saltpetre, potassium salt and bischofite). Most of the population live in large towns such Arica, Iquique and Antofagasta, while the rest live in small villages scattered throughout the puna. These rural communities have deeply-rotted cultural traditions (such as the use of lichiguayos).

This region is also noted for its National Parks (Lauca, Volcán Isluga), National Reserves (Las Vicuñas, Salar del Surire, Pampa del Tamarugal, Los Flamencos), and Natural Monuments such as the Nevados de Payachatas (Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes), the Azapa Valley, the Pica Oasis, the Tatío geysers and the Mamiña hot springs.


Norte Grande (Chielan Big/Far North), in Wikipedia.
Atacama Desert, in Wikipedia.
Desierto del Pacífico, in Wikipedia [es].
Salar de Atacama (saltflat), in Wikipedia.
Puna de Atacama (high plateau), in Wikipedia.
Incahuasi (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Llullaillaco (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Socompa (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Licancabur (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Zapaleri (mountain), in Wikipedia.
Vilama (mountain), in Wikipedia [es].
Nevados de Payachatas (volcanoes), in Wikipedia.
Map of the Chilean Big/Far North, in GoChile [es].


Picture 05. Atacama Desert.
Picture 06. Puna de Atacama.
Picture 07. Atacama salt flat.
Picture 08. Llullaillaco volcano.
Picture 09. Parinacota.
Picture 10. Laguna Roja (Red Lagoon), northern Chile.
Picture 11. Church of Socoroma, north of Chile.
Picture 12. Tamarugos (flowering tree) in Pampa del Tamarugal.


The Chilean Andes

The Norte Chico (Chilean Small/Near North) extends from the Copiapó to the Aconcagua River, about 32º south latitude, just north of Santiago (regions of Atacama and Coquimbo). It is a transition zone between the arid north and the fertile Central Valley. In this part of the country, the Andes become a single large mass consisting of a succession of mountains such as the Nevado Ojos del Salado (the highest volcano in the world, 6,893 m) and the Cerro Mercedario (6,770 m). Though rivers are scarce and their flow varies with the seasons, their deep transverse valleys provide broad areas for cattle raising and fruit growing. Important rivers are the Elqui, the Limarí and the Choapa.

The higher elevations are covered with shrubs and cacti of various kinds. Tamarugos, alpatacos and algarrobos trees complete the picture.

The Norte Chico was inhabited by the extinct Diaguita, whose area of influence included part of north-western Argentina. Today, this area is home to a unique musical expression in Latin America: the “bailes de chinos”, groups of dancers who dance and blow huge whistles in honour of their patron saints.

As in the Norte Grande, several minerals are extracted from this ground including iron, manganese and copper. Within this region there are important towns such as Coquimbo, La Serena and Copiapó. Finally, among its touristic attractions we find several National Parks (Pan de Azúcar, Llanos de Challe, Nevado Tres Cruces, Fray Jorge), National Reserves and Natural Monuments (Pingüino de Humboldt, Pichasca), as well as numerous beaches and resorts.


Norte Chico (Chilean Small/Near North), in Wikipedia.
Ojos del Salado (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Cerro Mercedario (mountain), in Wikipedia.
Elqui River, in Wikipedia.
Limarí River, in Wikipedia.
Choapa River, in Wikipedia.
Map of the Chilean Small/Near, in GoChile [es].


Picture 13. Valley of the Elqui River.
Picture 14. Nevado Ojos del Salado.
Picture 15. Cerro Mercedario.


The Chilean Andes

Central Chile (regions of Valparaíso, O’Higgins and Maule) extends from about 32° to 37° south latitude, including the three largest metropolitan areas (Santiago, Valparaíso and Concepción). Other major cities are Viña del Mar, Los Andes and Talca.

The region encompasses a coastal range of mountains running parallel to the Andes and the so-called Central Valley, which lies between the two mountain ranges containing some of the richest agricultural land in the country, especially in its northern portion. Between the coastal mountains and the ocean, there are large stretches of flat land that are lower than the Central Valley, where the longest beaches can be found. The southern portion of central Chile was originally covered with old-growth forests, which were cleared for agriculture. However, many of these agricultural lands were soon exhausted and have been reforested for the lumber.

Some of the highest summits in this part of the country are the Aconcagua (6,962 m, the highest mountain in the Americas), Cerro Tupungato (6,570 m) and Cerro Juncal (6,110 m). Other natural beauties worth to mention are the rivers Maule and Aconcagua, Chile’s vineyards flowering in the warm, fertile valleys, La Campana National Park and Altos de Lircay and Laguna Torca National Reserves.


Chilean central zone, in Wikipedia [es].
Aconcagua, in Wikipedia.
Tupungato (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Cerro Juncal (mountain), in Wikipedia [es].
Maule River, in Wikipedia.
Aconcagua River, in Wikipedia.
Map of the Chilean Central Valley, in GoChile [es].


Picture 16. Aconcagua.
Picture 17. Tupungato.
Picture 18. Santiago de Chile.


The Chilean Andes

The territory known as Araucanía (regions of Bío Bío and La Araucanía) lies within Southern Chile, which also comprises the regions of Los Ríos and Los Lagos and stretches from below the Bío-Bío River to Chacao channel at about 42° south latitude. This is the country’s most lacustrine area. There are hundreds of rivers (Itata, Bío Bío, Toltén, Valdivia, San Pedro, Cruces, Bueno and famous Calle-Calle) that descend from the Andes forming waterfalls and beautiful lakes (Villarrica, Caburga, Budi, Colico, Panguipulli, Calafquén, Ranco, Riñihue, Llanquihue, Puyehue and Rupanco) framed by snow-covered summits. Since the south is also one of the rainiest areas in the world the vegetation is a lush green, including many ferns in the shady areas, pretty wild flowers and secular forests of larches and araucarias (also known as pehuenes). While the pastures are well suited for raising cattle, the abundant supply of clear running water allows the farming of various species of trout and salmon. In addition, all kinds of berries are grown in the area and the lumber industry is also important.

The Araucanía is home to the Mapuche, a native people who has courageously resisted the colonizers’ efforts to subjugate, dominate and conquer them, and today continue to the fight against government oppression and corporative greed. To the south lies the homeland of the Huilliches, the southern branch of the Mapuche ethnic group.


Zona Sur (Chilean southern zone), in Wikipedia.
Araucanía region, in Wikipedia.
Araucanía (historic region), in Wikipedia.
Los Ríos region, in Wikipedia.
Los Lagos region, in Wikipedia.
Itata River, in Wikipedia.
Bío Bío River, in Wikipedia.
Toltén River, in Wikipedia.
Valdivia River, in Wikipedia.
San Pedro River (Chile), in Wikipedia.
Cruces River, in Wikipedia.
Calle-Calle River, in Wikipedia.
Bueno River, in Wikipedia.
Villarrica Lake, in Wikipedia.
Caburga Lake, in Wikipedia.
Budi Lake, in Wikipedia.
Colico Lake, in Wikipedia.
Panguipulli Lake, in Wikipedia.
Calafquén Lake, in Wikipedia.
Ranco Lake, in Wikipedia.
Riñihue Lake, in Wikipedia.
Llanquihue Lake, in Wikipedia.
Puyehue Lake, in Wikipedia.
Rupanco Lake, in Wikipedia [es].
Map of the Araucanía, in GoChile [es].
Map of the south of Chile, in GoChile [es].


Picture 19. Araucanía landscape 01.
Picture 20. Araucanía landscape 02.
Picture 21. Bío Bío River.
Picture 22. Valdivia River.
Picture 23. Calle-Calle River.
Picture 24. Villarrica Lake.
Picture 25. Panguipulli Lake.
Picture 26. Llanquihue Lake.


The Chilean Andes

In southern Chile the Andes begin to lose altitude. Volcanoes in this section of the mountain range include Chillán (3,212 m), Callaqui (3,164 m), Llaima (3,125, last erupted in 2008.), Antuco (2,979 m), Copahue (2,965 m), Villarrica (2,814 m), Osorno (2,652 m, one of the most active), Puntiagudo (2,498 m), Mocho-Coshuenco (2,422 m), Michinmahuida (2,404 m), Corcovado (2,300 m) and Calbuco (2,.003 m).

Off the coast, the last important elevation of the Coast Cordillera is the Chiloé Island. It is separated from the Chilean mainland by the narrow Chacao Strait to the north and by the Gulf of Ancud and the Gulf of Corcovado to the east. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west, the Sea of Chiloé lies to the east hosting most of the other islands in the archipelago, and the Chonos Archipelago lies to the south.

The most important towns in southern Chile are Temuco, Talcahuano, Los Ángeles, Valdivia, Osorno, Puerto Montt, and Castro, Chiloé’s capital.

Since tourism is such a significant part of this region’s economy, besides the natural wonders mentioned above we may also highlight Chillán thermal baths, Saltos del Laja waterfalls, Huife thermal baths, and Laguna del Laja, Nahuelbuta, Conguillío, Tolhuaca, Huerquehue, and Villarrica National Parks. In addition, southern Chile is famous for its numerous ski resorts.


Chiloé Archipielago, in Wikipedia.
Chiloé Island, in Wikipedia.
Chillán (volcano), in Wikipedia [es].
Antuco (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Copahue (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Llaima (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Villarrica (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Mocho-Coshuenco (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Puntiagudo-Cordón Cenizos (snow-capped volcanic chain), in Wikipedia.
Osorno (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Calbuco (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Michinmahuida (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Corcovado (volcano), in Wikipedia.



Picture 27. Chillán volcano.
Picture 28. Llaima volcano.
Picture 29. Villarrica volcano.
Picture 30. Osorno volcano


The Chilean Andes

The Chilean part of the Patagonia embraces the far south regions of Aysén and Magallanes, which extend from between 42° south latitude to Cape Horn. The Andes meet the Pacific Ocean under the watchful eyes of thousands of islands and narrow channels off the coastline, which is dotted with tiny inlets and spectacular fjords.

The most important summits are the Cerro San Valentín (3,910 m), San Lorenzo (3,707 m), Fitz Roy or Chaltén (3,406 m) and famous Torres del Paine (3,050 m).

The scenery is stunning with breathtaking views all around. There are several National Parks worth a visit (Queulat, Río Simpson, Laguna San Rafael, O’Higgins, Torres del Paine, Magallanes), magnificent lakes of glacial origin (General Carrera), gleaming white snowfields and challenging ice fields.

In the far south there are vast stretches of pastures used for raising sheep. Besides lumbering and fishing, oil and gas extraction from the areas around the Strait of Magellan is the other main economic activity. Coyhaique, Puerto Aysén, Puerto Edén and Punta Arenas are some of the few towns scattered in the area.

The western part of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego belongs to Chile. Its highest point is Mount Darwin (2,488 m) in the Cordillera Darwin, located entirely within the Chilean territory. Also in the Chilean portion of the island rises Mount Sarmiento (2,404 m), within Alberto de Agostini National Park. Another natural wonder is the Fagnano Lake (also called Khami Lake), which is shared by Chile and Argentina.

The vegetation is dominated by the Magellanic subpolar forests containing tree species such as cinnamon, notro (Embothrium coccineum), ñire (Nothofagus antarctica), lenga (Nothofagus pumilio) and coigüe (Nothofagus dombeyi), and an evergreen shrub known as calafate (Berberis microphylla).

The southernmost part of Chile was home to the Qawásqar or Alacalufes (whose mestizo descendants still live there today), the Yámana or Yagán and the Selk’nam or Onas (both extinct). Groups of Tehuelche people from neighbouring Argentinean Patagonia also inhabited this region, and they were the ones who included the Cerro Chaltén (or Fitz Roy) in their legends as a sacred mountain.


Monte San Valentín (mountain), in Wikipedia.
Monte San Lorenzo (mountain), in Wikipedia.
Monte Fitz Roy (mountain), in Wikipedia.
Lake General Carrera/Buenos Aires, in Wikipedia.
Cordillera del Paine, in Wikipedia.
Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, in Wikipedia.
Mount Darwin (Andes), in Wikipedia.
Cami Lake (also called Fagnano Lake), in Wikipedia.
Map of the Chilean northern Patagonia, in GoChile [es].
Map of the Chilean southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, in GoChile [es].


Picture 31. Mount Fitz Roy.
Picture 32. General Carrera Lake.
Picture 33. Tierra del Fuego landscape 01.
Picture 34. Tierra del Fuego landscape 02.
Picture 35. Fagnano Lake.


The Chilean geography offers an array of landscapes, which is reflected in the regional music. The northern huaynos portray the solitude of the desert, the arrogance of mountains and the caressing of the kamanchaka, the morning mist; the cuecas of the central valleys honour the vineyards, rural and urban life; the Mapuche music recreates the mysterious sounds of the forests and the lacustrine depths; and the southern tonadas speak of melancholy, distant homelands, and the snow that whitens the ground. A whole repertoire of sensations waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.


Picture A | Picture B | Picture C | Picture D | Picture E | Picture F | Picture G | Map of Chile


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