Chile: Natural Landscape
Spanning about 2,700 miles north to south, Chile’s natural landscape includes deserts, grasslands, shrublands, and temperate and tropical forests. Geographers generally divide Chile into five regions or zones, each with its characteristic vegetation, fauna, climate, and topography.
The Natural Landscape of Chile
Chile is located along the western coast of South America and is bordered by Peru and Bolivia in the north, Argentina in the east, and the Pacific Ocean in the west.
Chile's territory spans approximately 4,300 km (2,700 mi) from north to south, with an average width of only about 177 km (110 mi). From its boundary with Peru and Bolivia in the north and south to only about 645 km (400 mi) north of Antarctica, it is the longest north-south trending country in the world, extending across 38 degrees of latitude.
Chile's natural landscape includes deserts, grasslands, shrublands, and temperate and tropical forests. The ecoregions of Chile are primarily unique to South America's ecosystems.
Pacific Island Territories
Far out in the Pacific are two Chilean island possessions; the Juan Fernández Islands and the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, the most isolated inhabited spot on earth.
According to the Global Biodiversity Index, Chile ranks 66th in the world in terms of its biodiversity, with 434 species of birds, 58 amphibian species, 775 species of fish, 151 species of mammals, 143 species of reptiles, and 5,155 species of vascular plants.
Because of its extreme length, Chile has a variety of climates. Temperatures are progressively cooler, and rainfall increases, moving from the Atacama Desert in the far north to the agricultural regions of Central Chile and Tierra del Fuego in the deep south.
Rain Shadow Effect
In northern Chile, prevailing winds from the east are interrupted by the Andes Mountains. The height of the Andes causes any moisture from rain clouds to fall on the eastern slopes, causing extreme desert conditions in the Atacama region.
Central Chile receives a more significant amount of rainfall because the prevailing winds at that latitude come from the west. The Andes are not as high in elevation in the south, which allows some precipitation to fall on the rain shadow side.
Map depicting the countries on the continent of South America
Natural Geography of Chile
The major landforms of Chile are manifested as three parallel north-south features:
the Chilean Andes to the east
the intermediate depression, or longitudinal valley, in the center
the Chilean Coastal Range to the west
Most of Chile's rivers originate in the Andes and flow westward to the Pacific Ocean, draining the intermediate depression and the coastal ranges.
Chile is divided from north to south into five regions or zones, plus an insular region, each having its characteristic vegetation, fauna, climate, and topography.
Far North (Norte Grande)
Most of the Far North region is covered by the Atacama Desert. The climate here is arid.
The Coastal Range in the east features peaks over 2,000 m (6,500 ft). and cliffs are found along the Pacific coast.
Large salt flats and mineral deposits exist in the intermediate depression, while the Andes in the east feature Chile's highest mountains. The region also hosts the Altiplano and Puna high plateaus.
Near North (Norte Chico)
The Near North region is characterized by the transition from the Atacama Desert in the north to Mediterranean Matorral vegetation in the south.
The climate is semi-arid. Here the Coastal Range and the Andes merge. Agriculture is limited; however, important gold, copper, and iron deposits are located here.
Central (Zona Central)
The Central zone features a Mediterranean climate and Matorral vegetation. The Andes here are massive and high.
The Coastal Range and the Andes lose height as they separate from each other to the south. As a result, the summer runoff of large rivers is heavily dependent on glaciers and snowmelt.
The Intermediate Depression of central Chile extends from Santiago to the south. It is a fertile region and is considered the agricultural heartland of Chile.
South (Zona Sur)
The Southern Zone features a rainy, temperate climate and Valdivian temperate rainforest vegetation. The Coastal Range and the Andes are low, with an intermediate depression near sea level.
The rivers that descend from the Andes rush over volcanic rocks, forming numerous white-water sections and waterfalls. This region features many glacial lakes and intensive volcanic and geothermal activity.
Far South (Zona Austral)
The Far South region covers all of Chilean Patagonia and the Chiloé Archipelago. It features a subpolar oceanic climate, and the vegetation includes Magellanic forest and Magellanic moorland in the west, with Patagonian grasslands in the east.
The landscape is glacial, and the Coastal Range consists of islands. Fjords penetrate the Andes, where there are also two ice sheets, the Northern Patagonian Ice Field and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, along with several glacial lakes.
Insular Chile (Chilean Islands)
Chile also includes several islands off its coast. The most significant among them are the Juan Fernández Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, and the remote Easter Island (Rapa Nui), famous for its Moai statues. These islands have distinct ecosystems and cultural traditions.
Map depicting the geographic regions of Chile
See: Cultural Landscape of Chile
Islands and Archipelagos
Due to its extended coastline, Chile has sovereignty over thousands of islands, most in the country's south. Some of the largest islands and archipelagos include:
Easter Island: in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle, approximately 3,500 km (2,200 mi) west of the Chilean mainland
Juan Fernández Archipelago: a group of islands situated 670 km (416 mi) off the Pacific coast of Chile in the Valparaíso Region
Tierra del Fuego Archipelago: lies off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland, across the Strait of Magellan in the Magallanes Region.
Chiloé Archipelago: a group of islands lying off the coast of Chile in the Los Lagos Region
Diego Ramírez Islands: a small group of subantarctic islands located about 105 km (65 mi) west-southwest of Cape Horn in the southernmost extreme of Chile
Chonos Archipelago: a series of low, mountainous, elongated islands separated from the mainland by the Moraleda Channel in the Aysén Region
Wellington Island: located west of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in the Magallanes Region
Riesco Island: located west of the Brunswick Peninsula in the Magallanes Region
Hoste Island: located south, across the Beagle Channel, from Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego in the Magallanes Region
Santa Inés Island: part of the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, lying southwest of the Brunswick Peninsula in the Magallanes Region
Navarino Island: located between Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego to the north and Cape Horn to the south in the Magallanes Region
Magdalena Island: located between the Moraleda Channel and the Puyuhuapi Channel in the Aysén Region
Topographical map of Chile
Bodies of Water
Gulf of Peñas: on the Pacific Ocean, south of the Taitao Peninsula, Aysén Region
Drake Passage: Cape Horn
Strait of Magellan: Tierra del Fuego
Beagle Channel: Tierra del Fuego
Yendegaia Bay: a bay in the Beagle Channel
Corral Bay: at the mouth of the Valdivia River, southern Chile, Los Ríos Region
Most of Chile's rivers originate in the Andes and flow westward to the Pacific Ocean.
Loa River: the U-shaped river is Chile's longest and is the primary watercourse in the Atacama Desert, Antofagasta Region.
Bío-Bío River: the second largest river in Chile, flows from the Andes to the Gulf of Arauco on the Pacific Ocean, Bío-Bío Region.
Maipo River: flows from the Maipo Volcano in the Andes, through the Maipo Valley and into the Pacific Ocean, Valparaíso Region.
Maule River: flows from Laguna del Maule in the Andes, through the Central Valley to the Pacific Ocean, Maule Region.
Baker River: is Chile's largest river in terms of volume of water; it runs from the Northern Patagonian Ice Field and empties into the Pacific Ocean, Aysén Region
Rapel River: begins at the confluence of the Cachapoal and Tinguiririca rivers, O'Higgins Region.
Copiapó River: begins at the confluence of the Jorquera and Pulido rivers and flows through the city of Copiapó, Atacama Region.
Itata River: Ñuble Region
Valdivia River: southern Chile, Los Ríos Region
Bueno River: southern Chile, Los Ríos Region
Pascua River: Aysén Region
Imperial River: Araucanía Region
Limarí River: Coquimbo Region
Most of Chile's lakes (especially those in the south) are glacial.
General Carrera Lake: the largest lake in Chile, located in Patagonia, Aysén Region, shared by Argentina
Llanquihue Lake: the second-largest lake in Chile, southern Los Lagos Region
O'Higgins Lake: located in Patagonia, Aysén Region, shared by Argentina
Ranco Lake: the fourth largest lake in Chile, Los Ríos Region
Presidente Ríos Lake: lies in the middle of the Taitao Peninsula, Aysén Region
Greve Lake: a proglacial lake formed by the advance of Brüggen Glacier, situated on the western side of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field
Rupanco Lake: located in the area of Puyehue Lake and Osorno Volcano
Del Toro Lake: located in southern Chile, Magallanes Region
Todos Los Santos Lake: lies within Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, Los Lagos Region
Villarrica Lake: in Chile's Lake District, on its eastern shore is the city of Pucón, and on its western coast is the town of Villarrica
Salar de Atacama: within the Los Flamencos National Reserve, Antofagasta Region
Chile physiographic map
Natural Regions / Biomes
Biomes are natural regions distinguished by geography, climate, and associated flora and fauna. The regions are classified according to their predominant vegetation.
The Atacama Desert ecoregion is located in northern Chile between Argentina on the west and the Pacific Ocean on the east.
Running east from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains, an extremely arid, almost barren landscape predominates because, in many areas, rainfall has never been recorded.
The Altiplano is often called the Altiplano-Puna plateau, the high-altitude grassland region covering much of the plateau. It is the most extensive area of high plateau outside Tibet.
Central Andean Dry Puna
The Central Andean dry puna ecoregion is an arid, high-elevation montane grassland and herbaceous community of the high southern Andes, extending through western Bolivia, northern Chile, and Argentina.
The Central Andean dry puna is a part of the Puna grassland, occupying the southwestern portion of the Altiplano, and is located east of the Atacama Desert.
Valdivian Temperate Forests (Selva Valdiviana)
The Valdivian temperate forests ecoregion is located in the southern cone of South America on Chile's west coast and extends slightly into Argentina. It covers a narrow continental strip between the western slope of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.
The Valdivian temperate forests (Selva Valdiviana) are temperate broadleaf and mixed forests.
The Andean Patagonian Forest spreads over steep elevations along a thin strip on both sides of the Andes Mountains in southern South America.
These temperate forests in southern Chile and Argentina are the southernmost forests on earth.
Southern Andean Steppe
The Southern Andean steppe is a montane grasslands and shrublands ecoregion occurring along the border of Chile and Argentina in the high elevations of the southern Andes mountain range. This ecoregion has a cold desert climate.
The following is a list of terrestrial ecoregions in Chile, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Chile is in the Neotropical realm. Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate.
Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests
Rapa Nui and Sala-y-Gomez subtropical broadleaf forests
Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests
Juan Fernández Islands temperate forests
San Felix-San Ambrosio Islands temperate forests
Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
Montane grasslands and shrublands
Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub
Deserts and xeric shrublands
Vegetation map of Chile