The Chilean Andes

The Andes run the length of this long thin country, connecting deserts with temperate rainforest and a thrumming metropolis.

Friday, August 12, 2011  
The Andes are the world’s second-tallest mountain range. (Photo by Juan Nosé/Flickr) The Andes are the world’s second-tallest mountain range. (Photo by Juan Nosé/Flickr)

Welcome to the world’s longest continuous mountain range, which forms the spine of South America’s diverse geographical landscape.

The Chilean Andes are characterized by the arid extreme of the Atacama Desert in the north and temperate rainforest in the south, as well as some of the tallest peaks outside the Himalayas and the world’s highest volcanoes.

These towering mountains have sheltered human civilization for thousands of years, and are the birthplace of the potato and tobacco. The name of the mountain range is widely considered to come from the Quechua word anti, which means “high crest.”

The North: Ancient Cultures and Mineral Wealth

In the north, the altiplano plateau joining Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia is the second-highest plateau in the world, eclipsed only by Tibet. The area surrounding modern tourist mecca San Pedro de Atacama has hosted human life for thousands of years, and is the site of the world’s oldest mummies.

The Atacama region is home to some of the world’s largest copper deposits, making Chile the world’s top copper exporter, followed closely by Peru. At the turn of the last century, the region’s nitrate deposits played a central role in regional politics and led to a mining boom. Now, the presence of the world’s largest deposits of lithium are keeping the region at the forefront of international mining efforts.   

Near Copiapó, the Ojos del Salado volcano on the Chile-Argentina border is the world’s largest active volcano and the highest, reaching 22,615 ft (6,893 m). Chile is also home to nearly 50 volcanoes over 20,000 ft (6,000 m), as well as one of the world’s most popular volcanoes, the Villarrica volcano in the southern Chilean city of Pucón.

Central Chile: Snow-capped Mountains in the Capital

Visitors to Santiago are treated to the sight of the towering mountains that ring the capital as they fly into the international airport. Even in the hustle-and-bustle of downtown Santiago, the presence of the Andes cannot be ignored, and the city celebrates its Andean identity in creative ways.  You can get right into the mountains just an hour from the capital, either in the beautiful Cajón de Maipo or at one of Chile’s top ski resorts like Valle Nevado or Portillo.

The South: Treasure Trove of Biodiversity

Geographers consider the Maule River in central Chile to be a natural border between the arid mountains to the north and the water-rich mountains to the south. The southern Andes are home to one of the world’s largest temperate rainforests, and the most biodiverse. The Andes are home to animals like the vicuña and guanaco, closely related to the domestic llama and alpaca, as well as chinchilllas and vizcachas, pumas, foxes, and the two animals on the Chilean crest: the Andean condor and the huemul.

The southern Andes are one of Chile’s most popular tourist attractions, with beautiful national parks for summer backpacking adventures and pristine slopes for winter skiing and snowboarding.

In the Patagonian Andes, glaciers have carved the peaks into some of the world’s most extreme mountainscapes, with towering spires rising from sea level -- a mountaineer’s dream. The mountain range runs all the way through Tierra del Fuego until plunging underwater and re-emerging in Antarctica.