Chile: Latin America's odd child

From the driest desert in the world in the north to the bitter coldness of the Antarctic south, boxing Chile's terrain into one category is impossible. So maybe we shouldn't be overly surprised that efforts to neatly sum up the culture and people of the country prove equally challenging.

For those of you familiar with Chile's geography, it won't surprise you to be told that this elongated stretch of land is a country of extremes.

From the driest desert in the world in the north to the bitter coldness of the Antarctic south, boxing Chile's terrain into one category is impossible. So maybe we shouldn't be overly surprised that efforts to neatly sum up the culture and people of the country prove equally challenging.

In our efforts to simplify the world we live in, one-word summations of countries have become the norm. Argentina-tango, Brazil-samba, Colombia-salsa (or coffee if you please); you get the drift. But Chile, what? It's difficult, eh? Thanks to the extraordinary survival story of the trapped miners in 2010, maybe we could throw in mining there, but that's just seasonal in a sense. Yes they’ve got some excellent wines of course, but there is much competition in that regard.

For visitors - and indeed many locals - to this weird and wonderful land, 'getting Chile' has and still proves to be a difficult task. It's in Latin America, but it's not quite 'Latino'.

The pre-Spanish indigenous influence exists, but it's no Inca bastion as its neighbours to the north, Peru and Bolivia. Can it match the style and swagger – or is that arrogance - of its counterpart over the Andes, Argentina? Well let's not go there, just to say that bumbags were big in the eighties, if indeed they were at all.

When it comes to native cuisine, it seems that Chile was missing the day they were ‘serving up’ the national dishes in these parts. At best it’s a mix and match of the least attractive offerings from a host of countries, deep-fried.

Although at this point the delightfully addictive street snack, sopaipilla, must be mentioned. Cheap and cheerful, this pumpkin-based wonder is the perfect hunger-buster on a ‘chilly’ Chile evening. Heck it’s almost that good to make up for the general lack of culinary quality on offer.

Physically, Chile is a very isolated country. Alongside its aforementioned harsh northern and southern borders, it has the world’s largest ocean submerging its western frontiers while the biggest peaks of the imposing Andes Mountains saddle its eastern extremes. Such isolation alone ensured, over the country's fledgling years, that it was pretty immune to the influences of its more - dare we say - illustrious neighbours. Furthermore, for visitors from Europe and North America, Chile was - and still very much is - the last stop on any voyage to South America, considering one even made it that far.

What's more, while the majority of Latin America venerates Simón Bolívar as its saviour from Spanish rule, the Chileans have a different, more controversial liberator to honour – Bernardo O’Higgins. It’s surely more than just a coincidence that this unacknowledged, ‘illegitimate’ son of an Irishman emerged to become the founding father of modern-day Chile. The correlations between the man and the country – comparing both to their apparent peers - could hardly be more salient. The atheist, ‘bastard’ child in a place - and a time - where religion mattered.

On top of all this, the nation is still 'finding its feet' after the General Pinochet dictatorship - a past that is proving unsurprisingly difficult to move on from.

Indeed when you put all these factors together, it is quite remarkable that the country is as stable and relatively successful - in a South American context - as it is at the moment. Part of the reason for this may be down to the fact that Chileans are possibly the least 'emotional' of the Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America.

This may be explained by the strong German influence that exists there. Herr Steffan is more noted for his business acumen than his sensitive side. This is a characteristic that has helped Chile, arguably, make much more out of the natural resources at its disposal compared to some of its, lets say, more laid-back neighbours.

So putting all this together, what exactly ‘is’ Chile? A ‘western’ nation trapped in the craziness of South America? Well, outwardly speaking, perhaps. But scrape away at the surface and you’ll notice a much different beat than what you get in much of Europe or North America – thankfully so you might say.

In this way, maybe it’s an example of how the rest of the Latino world would operate if it acquired a bit more order? Whatever it is, this baffling land has plenty to offer – from the truly amazing to the utterly annoying and everything else in between.


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