Concentrated in the country's central regions – which are home to the cities of Santiago, Concepción, Temuco and Valparaiso/Viña del Mar–, the inhabitants of Chile work mainly in the production of raw materials in areas such as mining, agriculture and fishing. Another important economic factor is tourism, which has shown a sustained growth since democracy was restored. Chile has a per capita GDP of US$14,992.
Chile has a democratic government, with elections held every four years to select the President (the principal figure of the Executive Branch), senators and representatives, and members of Congress and the Legislative Branch. In 1989, the democratic process was restored after 17 years of military rule, marking a return to a national tradition.
Chileans have an average of 10 years of education, and the country's illiteracy rate is one of the lowest on the continent (3.9%). In fact, Chile boasts two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. In terms of health, life expectancy is 79 years, with low infant mortality (7.9%) and malnutrition rates.
That's what the numbers have to say. But the Chilean identity is something to be discovered and experienced by visitors. You will no doubt observe distinct differences between the hurried residents of the big cities and the inhabitants of the valleys, coasts and mountains, where the pace of life is calmer and time seems to pass more slowly. Generally speaking, the people of Chile are friendly, open to foreign visitors (despite the fact that only 8% of them speak English with relative fluency), and have a strong sense of identity linked to rural Chile. The iconic figure is the "huaso," which refers to a country dweller known for his friendliness and wit.
Chileans speak Spanish rapidly, often dropping the last letters of words including the plural-denoting "s." The vernacular includes a series of slang terms and invented words that is always evolving and reveals a healthy dose of humor and mischief. Visitors may feel a bit lost at first, but the locals are more than happy to explain the nuances of the Chilean idioms.
Chileans' most distinctive physical attributes are brown skin tones, medium heights (1.6 meters for women, 1.7 meters for men), black hair and medium to thick builds.
The official language of Chile is Spanish. However, there is an idiomatic tendency to "Chileanize" the language, creating new words and usages. Other languages spoken in Chile include Mapudungún (the language of the Mapuches), Aymara (in the northern Andean region of the country) and Rapa Nui (on the Polynesian locale of Easter Island).
According to the 2002 census, 7,853,428 of Chileans (or 69.96%) aged 15 or older identify as Catholic. According to the same source, 15.14% of Chileans identify as members of Evangelical Christian groups, 1.06% as Jehovah's Witnesses, 0.92% as Mormons and 0.13% as Jewish. Meanwhile, 8.3% identify as atheist or agnostic, and 4.39% identify as belonging to another religion.
Celebrations: Chile is known for its celebrations, which primarily consist of religious festivities and the anniversaries of cities and towns (mainly held during the summer). There's a wide variety to be found throughout the country, though many include rodeos, where a pair of "huasos" on horseback chase and rope a young bull. Special days include September 18th and 19th, national holidays commemorating the First Assembly of Government in 1810, the genesis of national independence, and the Glorias del Ejército ("Military Glories"). These dates are marked by a series of popular celebrations in parks or places with traditional fare and dances.
Colorful religious festivities with Aymara, Incan and Catholic roots abound in the country's northern regions, the most famous of which is the Fiesta de la Tirana. There are also celebrations to be found in Chiloé (the "tiraduras de casas" which involve physically transporting homes from one site to another), small fishing coves (the celebration of San Pedro), cities like Valdivia (Valdivian Week) and Valparaiso (a celebration featuring fireworks displays and illuminated ships on December 31), rural parts of central Chile (the celebration of the threshing season), and the country's wine-producing valleys (wine harvest celebrations).
Food: Chileans typically eat simple breakfasts, larger lunches and an "once" (tea service) that is served between 5:00 and 6:00 pm and often takes the place of dinner. Bread is a fundamental part of the Chilean diet. The most popular varieties are hallullas, dobladitas and marraquetas (also referred to as "French bread").
The most famous local dishes include cazuela (a hearty soup made with beef or chicken, which includes squash, a potato, an ear of corn, green beans and rice), porotos con riendas (beans with noodles), humitas (mashed, steamed corn seasoned with onion and wrapped in the corn stalk), pastel del choclo (similar but baked in clay dishes, a traditional artisanal product of Chile's central and southern regions), pino empanadas (savory pies filled with meat, onion, egg, raisins and olives) and seafood empanadas. There is also a large number of dishes featuring fresh fish and seafood such as the Chiloé curanto. This unique dish is made with beef, pork, chicken and seafood which are arranged in layers and cooked over hot rocks in a hole in the ground covered with the leaves of a local plant called nalca, which trap the steam.
The most popular ingredients in everyday Chilean cuisine are meat, seafood, rice, potatoes, squash, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and greens like lettuce, cilantro and parsley. The most popular seasonings in Chilean homes include ají (chili pepper), "ají color" (similar to paprika), garlic and cumin. Recent years have seen the popularization of merkén, a traditional Mapuche seasoning made from an ají known as "cacho de cabra" which is sun-dried, smoked and ground, and rounded out with cilantro seeds. It's become a popular export product.
Typical beverages include wine, pisco (a grape distillate), and chicha (an artisanal fermentation made with apples or grapes). Favorite desserts include mote con huesillo (cooked wheat served with dried peaches in syrup). Sandwiches are a Chilean specialty, with an enormous variety of options, such as the "chacarero" (beef with tomato, green beans and optional aji), the German colonist-derived "lomito" (cooked pork with mayonnaise, avocado, tomato and sauerkraut), and traditional favorites like the "Barros Jarpa" (grilled ham and cheese) and "Barros Luco" (steak and melted cheese), which take their names from early 20th century political figures. "Completos" are a popular Chilean version of North American hot dogs, featuring mayonnaise, chopped tomato, avocado and sauerkraut.
Sports: Rodeo is the national sport, though it hasn't been established whether it's more popular than soccer. It is practiced in a "half moon" (similar to a bullfighting ring but smaller in size), where a pair of huasos on horseback rope young bulls for points. However, soccer is the talk of the day, dominating the national consciousness. The most popular national clubs are Universidad de Chile, Colo-Colo and Universidad Católica, although there are local teams in cities, towns and neighborhoods throughout the country, all with devoted supporters.
Crafts: The most popular crafts among tourists are those made with lapis lazuli, a blue, semi-precious stone mined in the foothills of the Coquimbo region. Although it is quite industrialized, the work done with these stones shines in jewelry and ornaments, with animal figures, vases and mosaics among the varieties. Lapis lazuli only exists in Chile and Afghanistan.
But artisans can be found all over Chile, creating pieces rich in cultural and artistic value with materials like wool (alpaca, vicuna and sheep), baked clay, volcanic rock, dyed horsehair (which is used to make jewelry), local wood carvings and metals like copper and silver. Native Chilean artisanal culture is one of the few that still preserve traditional production techniques, natural dyes made from roots and fruit, and 100% handmade processes.
The people of Chile also evince strong respect for religion. Some of the country's biggest celebrations are dedicated to the Virgin Mary (in the case of Catholics) or the evangelical Te Deums. There is also a palpable respect for public, law enforcement and economic institutions. Despite the fact that Chile has long been considered one of the most conservative nations in South America, it has developed over the past two decades. Along with sustained economic growth and a greater openness to the outside, the country has taken a more open view to sexual, religious and social minorities.
Getting together with family and friends to celebrate any occasion is a fundamental Chilean pastime. Although the current socio-economic system seems to value the external more than the internal (social status, clothing and car brands, neighborhoods, level of income and access to consumer goods and educational level according to social strata given the social prestige of certain schools and universities), all Chileans are proud of the country's natural wonders and geography. They consider the Andes, Easter Island, the Atacama Desert, lakes and volcanoes, fishing coves, the island of Chiloé, and Patagonia as the most representative features of their nationality. Most of all, they recognize and appreciate a collective fighting spirit that involves facing the difficulties presented by nature, topography (living between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean) and tectonics with optimism and solidarity.
The country's negative qualities include a stubborn adherence to doing things "The Chilean Way," which generally means at the last minute or tentatively. It's a quality that speaks of a flair for improvisation and confronting problems with immediate solutions, but one that allows for little vision of the future. Nevertheless, this tendency is quickly changing, leading to a sense of commitment that is reflected in the prestigious social and economic standing Chile has achieved abroad. Doing things "The Chilean Way" has increasingly come to mean doing them with world-class efficiency and quality standards. This can be seen in the country's export products, as well as Chile's investments in industry, services, technology, commerce and agro-industry abroad.