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From north to south, Chile extends over 4,270 km (2,650 mi), yet is only 177 km (110 mi) east to west. Most of Chile’s coastline is rugged, with the sea lying below high bluffs. The northern part consists mainly of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest areas of the world, while the central valley is Chile’s agricultural hub and here you’ll encounter the famous wine region. Then, to the south, Chile’s coastline breaks up into numerous archipelagos, fjords, and channels. With such amazing topography, Chile offers endless possibilities for lovers of the great outdoors, whether its skiing, horse trekking, hiking in the rainforests, volcano climbing, sea kayaking in the fjords, whale watching, or fishing. You can explore a variety of ecosystems, from the world’s driest deserts to the southern hemisphere’s largest glaciers. Make sure Chile is on your list of places to adventure!
Being bordered by the Andes, the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean, and the polar region, Chile’s geographic isolation has created a large variety of unique ecosystems. Amphibians and reptiles are particularly noteworthy, with 78% and 59% of those species being endemic to the region. Other famous wildlife found in Chile is the guanacos, a relative of the llama, and cougars. Chile is also well known for its diverse aquatic ecosystems. There is an abundance of plankton just off the coast, attracting large numbers of whales, dolphins, and sharks.
Chile, like many countries around the world, suffers from a variety of conservation issues. Habitat degradation and deforestation began in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish colonists. Within a few years, huge tracts of forests were cleared for the timber and fuel wood industries and continued well into the 20th century. In the 1970s, deforestation was especially brutal, with the establishment of large-scale pine and eucalyptus plantations, which cleared 20,000 sq km (12,400 mi) of native vegetation.
Other conservation issues include overgrazing by domestic animals, the construction of hydroelectric dams in Patagonia, the illegal trade and export of native species, particularly reptiles, the melting of the glaciers, and accidental and intentional forest fires.
The Chilean government currently recognizes nine indigenous groups: Atacameño, Aymara, Colla, Diaguita, Kawashkar, Mapuche, Quechua, Rapa Nui, and Yagán peoples, totaling 4.6% of the population. By far the largest of the indigenous groups are the Mapuche, accounting for 95% of all indigenous people in Chile. The majority of these people live in the south, although there is a significant population that lives in the metropolitan area of Santiago. There are only a few survivors left of the Kawashkar and the Yagán peoples, who live in the Torres del Paine area. Other ethnic groups include small populations of Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Afro-Chileans.
The history of the native peoples of Chile is marked by exploitation, discrimination, and disease. For example, the Rapa Nui people, who are of Polynesian descent, numbered around 4,000 people during the early 19th century. In the 1860s, Peruvian slavers carried out a ruthless raid, capturing over a thousand people, including the king, and forced them to work on the guano deposits of Peru’s Chincha Islands. After an international outcry, about a hundred of them were put on a ship to return to Rapa Nui. Unfortunately, smallpox broke out on board the ship, only fifteen islanders survived, and brought the disease back with them to Rapa Nui. By 1877, only about 100 of the Rapa Nui people were alive. The population of Rapa Nui is now 2,000 people, with about a third of them from Chile, while the others are descendants of the original inhabitants.
In 1993, the Indigenous Peoples Act marked the first time that the Chilean government recognized indigenous rights, such as the right to participation, the right to land, and the responsibility of the State to establish specific mechanisms to overcome the marginalization of indigenous people. Under this Act, the Historical Truth and New Deal Commission was also established, consisting of various representatives of Chilean society and indigenous people. Its purpose was to investigate historical events between Chilean society and indigenous people and to submit proposals for reconciliation. Despite these victories, there remain many conflicts and fights between the Chilean government and indigenous peoples. For example, land and resource disputes continue between the indigenous peoples and private landowners, as well as forestry companies and hydroelectric projects. In 2003, the United Nations gave sharp criticism to the Chilean government for its treatment of the Mapuche activists. In response, the Chilean government agreed to new laws that would supposedly protect natural resources under indigenous control; however, indigenous rights advocates continue to criticize these initiatives for not doing enough.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
Valparaíso: This coastal city is known as Chile’s cultural capital. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was a booming merchant city, linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via the Strait of Magellan. It’s situated atop 48 steep hills that are full of colorful colonial buildings and offer spectacular views of the city and the harbor. Be sure take one of the historical elevators, which maintain their original wood and metal designs, up to the top.
Qhapaq Ñan: This is the old Andean Road System, the most famous portion of which is the Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The roads cover over 30,000 km (18,600 mi) from snow-capped Andean peaks through coastal plains to the arid deserts. Along the way there are 273 sites of historical and religious significance.
Rapa Nui National Park: Rapa Nui is the indigenous name for Easter Island. From the 10th to 16th centuries, a society of Polynesian origin built astonishing structures such as the ahu, ceremonial platforms, and moai, monolithic human figures that are up to 20 m (65 ft) tall and represent their ancestors.
Bernardo O’Higgins: Covering more than 21,700 sq km (13,500 sq mi), this is the biggest national park in Chile and one of the world’s largest freshwater reserves. One of the main attractions in this amazing park is the glacier Pio X, which is the greatest glacier in the Southern Hemisphere, measuring 1,264,900 km (786,000 mi). There is a diverse amount of wildlife from condors to humules and otters to wolves. Climate change has been blamed for the disappearance of a glacial lake that faded away in just two months, leaving an empty crater behind.
Chiloé: As one travels south in Chile, the coastline fragments into a series of archipelagos. Chiloé is the most northern one and a must-see destination for any ecotraveler. There are two particularly noteworthy types of architecture. The first are the palafitos, which are colorful homes constructed on stilts close to the water’s edge. Then there are the wooden churches, 16 of which are protected under UNESCO World Heritage Status. The national park is known for its dense Valdivian forests that shelter pudu (a type of small deer) and Darwin’s fox. The coastline is world famous for spotting flamingos, colonies of sea lions, and pygmy blue whales.
Juan Fernandez Archipelago: This park is a series of coastal volcanic islands, formed in the middle of the Nazca plate. There is a high proportion of endemic species, but what makes these islands incredibly unique are the combination of species; some are related to tropical South America, others have Antarctic affinities, and other still are closely related to Asia and Australasia. Some people believe that these islands were once a part of the ancient Gondwanaland. A trek through its Valdivian rain forests will bring you to the rare alerce, monkey puzzle trees, mushrooms, lichens, pudu, woodpeckers, firecrowns, marsupials and through snow-capped volcanoes and deep ravines.
Torres del Paine: This park is an area of great scenic beauty with glaciers waterfalls, rivers, lakes and lagoons. It includes a significant portion of the Southern Patagonian icefield. Vegetation also consists of steppe, shrubland, forest, and desert, providing a unique habitat for a large number of wildlife, such as the puma, the huemal, the Chilla fox, the Chilean flamingo, Darwin’s rhea, the Andean condor and Geoffroy’s cat. There are about 106 species of birds, some of which are endangered such as the Coscoroba Swan and the Darwin Nandu. Famous images of the park are of the Cordillera Paine Mountain Range, which rises up to 3,000 m (10,000 ft) and consist of rose-colored granite.
San Pedro de Atacama: Stretching 1,000 km (600 mi) from Peru’s southern border into northern Chile, the desert rises from a thin coastal shelf to the pampas to across the altiplano, where salt plains rise up to snow-capped volcanoes. It is known as the driest place in the world, with some areas having no recorded incidence of rain. There are very few signs of life. Along the coast, some vegetation survives from the moisture of the sea fog. You will also find flocks of flamingos that live around the salt lakes, feeding off the red algae. Then there are two rivers that are fed by the Andean snows, which create numerous oases throughout the area. Pollution and road construction from the mining industry have negatively impacted the fragile ecosystem.
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