A Beginner’s Guide to Chile: Culture, History, Language, and More
According to Lonely Planet, “Chile is nature on a colossal scale, but travel here is surprisingly easy if you don’t rush it.”
This long and narrow country spans over 2,670 miles along the west coast of South America. For any adventurous traveler, a trip to Chile can include a wide array of experiences both in its vast regions of incredible natural beauty and its scenic cityscapes.
If you’re into hiking, rock climbing, sailing, red wine, and laid-back Latin American vibes, Chile is an ideal destination. This country is a great place for first-timers to South America to explore, as it happens to be the most prosperous South American nation, leading all of Latin America in peace, per capita income, and democratic development.
Chile has stepped up its tourism game in recent years. Reliable transport connections can take you from the capital, Santiago, to the Andes to the Pacific Coast, and from the northern regions of Chile to the southernmost tip of the continent.
Let’s delve into Chilean history, culture, and language—and explore eight of its many fascinating attractions for travelers!
A Brief History of Chile
The first humans came to what is now the country of Chile around 12,000 BC. In northern Chile, people were farming by 2,500 BC, while agriculture didn’t take hold until much later in the southern part of the country.
The Incas conquered northern Chile in the 15th century, only to be conquered themselves by the Spanish in 1533. The South was home to a people called the Araucanians (Mapuche) who raided many of the Spanish settlements. The spirited Mapuche people still live in the central and southern heartlands to this day. Visit them to learn about the healing properties of the medicinal plants they grow, sleep in a ruca (communal dwelling place), and taste their traditional dishes. By the end of the 18th century, Chile’s population had swelled to almost 500,000, most of whom were mestizos or people of mixed race.
In 1808, Napoleon made his brother, Joseph, the new King of Spain. Hence, in Chile citizens elected a junta (council) in 1810. They introduced a number of reforms and moved towards independence from Spain. However, Peru remained loyal to the mother country and went to war with Chile. In October 1814, the royalist army defeated the Chileans and occupied Santiago. Four years later, Chile formally won independence from Spain in February of 1818.
In 1833, Chile implemented a new constitution, followed by a long period of relative stability with economic growth and the first railways being built. By the late 19th century, Chileans were at war with both Peru and Bolivia. In 1881, the Chileans captured the Peruvian capital of Lima. The wars had ended by 1884 with Chile gaining territory at the expense of Peru and Bolivia. In the final years of the 19th century, Chilean nitrate exports boomed, leading to renewed prosperity for the country.
When World War I began in 1914, exports of nitrates collapsed. This led to a great deal of unrest in Chile. The military began to intervene in national politics beginning in 1924. The following year, a new constitution was drawn up. The Great Depression caused economic collapse and political instability in Chile with many strikes and changes of government.
By the 1950s, Chile had a multi-party system with right-wing, left-wing, and liberal parties. When Socialist Salvador Allende narrowly failed to win the presidency in 1958, the right wing was alarmed. In September 1970, Allende won the presidency. He nationalized industries and began radical agrarian reform, which led to widespread economic unrest. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean army staged a coup led by Augusto Pinochet, a brutal military dictator who held power until 1989.
In the nineties, Chile enjoyed rapid economic growth, which continued in the early years of the 21st century. Today, poverty in Chile is declining. The country has seen its worst violence in the Pinochet regime in late 2019 and early 2020 as widespread protests broke out over the increased cost of living and inequality. Surprisingly, the uprising is “on hold” for now due to the Covid-19 crisis.
Chilean Culture 101
Chile’s culture is influenced by its geographic isolation and relatively homogeneous population. Indigenous cultures of Chile blended with European (primarily Spanish) cultures to create modern Chilean culture. Its northern and southern regions have distinct dance, music, and art forms.
Religion and Festivals
Nearly three-quarters of Chileans are Catholic and 15% of the population is Protestant. There are small pockets of Jews, Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists and non-religious people. Chile observes numerous religious festivals. La Tirana is one of the most colorful, with over 150,000 people dancing in the streets of the village of La Tirana donning bright costumes and devil masks. On December 8 each year, Chileans celebrate the festival of the Immaculate Conception.
The cuisine of Chile is a fusion of indigenous and European foods. Spanish, Italians, British, French, and Germans influence Chilean cuisine. Seafood is essential in Chilean cuisine, including machas (razor clams), cochayuyo (seaweed), locos (abalone), and erizos (large sea urchins).
Here is a list of typical Chilean foods:
Arrollado de Chancho – chunks of pork wrapped in pork fat smothered in red ají (chili)
Carbonada – meat soup with finely diced beef and all kinds of vegetables such as potatoes, onions, carrots, broccoli, green pepper, and parsley
Caldillo de congrio – a soup made of conger eel, potatoes, tomatoes, spices, herbs, and onions; it’s another typical delicacy
Curanto en Hoyo – a typical dish from the south of Chile, traditionally prepared by wrapping fish, seafood, potatoes, meat, milcaos, and bread in large leaves over red hot rocks that have been placed in a hole in the ground
Empanada de Queso – typical turnover filled with cheese
Ensalada a la Chilena – sliced tomatoes and onions with an oil dressing
Humitas – boiled corn leaf rolls filled with seasoned ground corn
Palta Reina – an avocado half filled with tuna fish or ham, covered with mayonnaise, and served on lettuce leaves
Pastel de Choclo – a typical Chilean summer dish with ground corn and meat, chopped onions, small pieces of chicken, pieces of hard boiled egg, and dried olives
Pollo Arvejado – chicken served with peas, onion, and sliced carrots
Porotos Granados – fresh bean dish with ground corn and pieces of pumpkin, served hot
Sopaipilla – a flat circular deep fried “bread” made of pumpkin and flour
Popular forms of Chilean music include the lively national dance called the Cueca and melancholy, slow-moving folk music, called the Tonada. Folk music grew in popularity in Chile because of music groups such as Los de Ramón, Los Cuatro Huasos, and Los Cuatro Cuartos. The sixties saw a revival of native musical styles, and music began representing sentiments of political activism. During the military rule in the 1970s, all forms of expressions against the military regime were repressed. New musical bands started emerging again after the return of democracy. The new generation of Chileans favored heavy metal and alternative rock bands.
Art and Literature
Established in 1849, the Chilean Academy of Painting has inspired and produced brilliant artists and painters. Roberto Matta, Carlos Sotomayor, and Claudio Bravo are some famous contributors to Chilean fine arts. Two famous Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poets, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, are among the writers who have significantly influenced Chilean culture through their literary work.
Sports and Recreation
As in most of Latin America, soccer is the most popular sport in Chile. Its snow-capped Andes Mountains are conducive to skiing and snowboarding activities. On many of Chile’s plethora of beaches, surfing is the thing to do. Basketball and rodeo are two other popular sports in Chile.
Chilean Spanish is known for its distinctive accent and liberal use of slang words that can make it seem like a completely new language. Fortunately, once you’ve learned some of the key vocabulary used by locals, it will be considerably easier to follow the conversation.
Chilean Spanish has a unique way of frequently dropping the letter s. For example, the question ¿cómo estas? becomes ¿cómo estai? The tú form of the verb is conjugated with the ai ending. It definitely takes some getting used to.
Here are a few everyday phrases you can sprinkle into your conversations to sound like a local.
al tiro – right now, immediately
¿cierto? – right?
¿no es cierto? – isn’t it right?
eso no más – just that, that’s it
fíjate – look, pay attention
igual – equally
ponte tú – for instance
sí, poh – yeah man
¿te fijai? – you see?
¿te tinca? – sound good?
capaz que – perhaps
¿cuál es la gracia? – what’s the big deal?
da lo mismo – doesn’t matter, who cares
ná que ver – that’s way off, not even close
no estoy ni ahí – I couldn’t care less
quedó pá la cagá – it’s all screwed up
¿te imaginai? – can you imagine?
¿cachai? – you know?, you got it?
8 Marvelous Sites to Visit in Chile
1. Atacama Desert
The Atacama desert’s ancient cultures offer a warm welcome to modern travelers. The world’s driest desert is astonishingly biodiverse. On this high Andean plateau, picturesque villages are perched up to 4,000 meters above sea level. Here, age-old traditions thrive amid gorgeous natural settings. The town of San Pedro de Atacama features unique landscapes from vast salt flats to active geysers and intense blue lagoons, among many other extraordinary features found in the region. Enjoy the endless stretches of perfect landscapes to discover. This area is also known for the excellent stargazing opportunities it provides each night.
2. Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
Easter Island (Isla de Pascua) is a territory of Chile situated at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle in Oceania. A tiny island, thousands of miles from the mainland, Rapa Nui (the island’s indigenous name) draws curious travelers to contemplate 800+ volcanic rock moai statues that dot this fascinating island. The strikingly enigmatic moai are massive carved figures standing on stone platforms. They are believed to represent clan ancestors. It’s a mystery as to how these giant statues were transported here.
Lively, artistic Valparaiso (known as Valpo) overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is full of colorful buildings, galleries and coffee shops. Generations of poets, artists, and philosophers have been inspired by its vibrant hills. Valparaiso’s winding paths are home to fantastic street art and stunning views of cityscape and coastline, and an ever-present cool ocean breeze. This UNESCO-recognized city is also home to lovely colonial architecture. Its annual carnival and regular craft and food markets are impressive. One of Chile’s most famous citizens started his ode to his hometown thus:
what an absurdity
a crazy port.
What a head
that you never finish
did you have
time to dress yourself,
you were surprised
tiempo de vestirte,
— Pablo Neruda
4. Elqui Valley
The lush Valle del Elqui (Elqui Valley) may inspire you to channel the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral who grew up in the region. This wholesome land features spiritual retreat centers, eco-friendly inns, hilltop observatories for gazing at the starry night skies, and artisanal wine distilleries. Feel the valley’s mystic vibe as you sample food cooked by sun rays, have your aura cleaned, and feast on Andean fusion cuisine.
5. Parque Nacional Patagonia
Steppe, forests, mountains, lakes and lagoons comprise the 690 square kilometer Patagonia National Park. Called the Serengeti of the Southern Cone, this park is the best place to witness awesome Patagonian wildlife including thousands of guanacos, huemul (an endangered Andean deer), as well as condor, flamingo, puma, viscacha and fox. Its restoration since 2004 from a dilapidated cattle and sheep ranch has turned it into a world-class park. This park’s trails lead you to turquoise lagoons, undulating steppe and ridgetops, and plenty of wildlife sightings. If you like hiking, check out this list of the best hikes in Patagonia.
6. Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
Don’t miss this staggeringly beautiful national park in the Patagonian region. While the namesake granite mountain spires, las torres, are the main attraction of this park, its vast wilderness has plenty on offer. Ice-trek the sculpted surface of Glacier Grey, explore the quiet backside of the circuit, canoe on the tranquil Río Serrano or ascend Paso John Gardner for extraordinary views of the southern ice field. With glaciers and glacial lakes, wildlife and breathtaking mountain backdrops, Torres del Paine is world famous for trekking.
7. Puerto Williams, the Southernmost Spot
At the very end of the earth, observe the timeless culture of the Yagan, an indigenous people who canoe through the channels and inlets of Tierra del Fuego. After crossing the magnificent Beagle Channel, you’ll arrive in the friendly small town of Puerto Williams. Adventure is abundant. Take a two-day ferry from Punta Arenas that offers views of tumbling glaciers, or hike the five-day Dientes de Navarino circuit through wild highlands flanked by razor-faced peaks.
8. Colchagua Valley Wine Tasting
Cabernets and Carmeneres are the signature varieties of the Colchagua Valley, a scorched parcel of earth protected by mountains on all sides that produces Chile’s best red wines. You’ll be delighted by the epicurean treats of the valley’s wineries, orchards, bistros, and lodgings. Production here began after the Spanish conquest in the mid-16th century with the introduction of vineyards by Jesuit missionaries. The Carmenere grape of French origin was rediscovered here in the 1990s after disappearing in Europe and has become Chile’s signature grape.
Is Chile Calling You?
Often referred to as a “the country of poets” traveling in Chile is a living ode to life’s adventures. Before you set out to explore Chile and its vast natural beauty, sign up for a free class to practice your Spanish with a native speaker who would love to help you prepare for a trip to Chile or another Spanish-speaking country in South America. ¿Cachai?
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