With its desert northern fringes, its toes dipped in the Antarctic, and its slender core spliced by the serrated peaks of the iconic Andes, Chile is a landmass which is at once as absurd to contemplate as it is extreme to experience. Unfathomable in its breathtaking diversity, which ranges from crystal blue lakes to majestic mountains, rugged wilderness, and planes that carpet infinitely lush vineyards and ethereal desert-scapes, Chile presents any traveler with an epic, stirring journey.

Unlike its more edgy neighbors, Chile also has a solid democracy and strong economy. Its excellent transport infrastructure, fine hotels, gourmet restaurants, and warm and inclusive denizens invite camaraderie at every turn and facilitate a smooth travel adventure. Fans of culture will have a surplus of sophisticated options in such cities as Santiago and Valparaíso. Adrenaline junkies will have plenty of chances to travel off the beaten path by rafting one of the wildest rivers in the world, hiking the sublime towers of Torres del Paine, or climbing the peaks of Parque Nacional Campana.

What follows is a historical and cultural introduction to a country where adventure, beauty, and hospitality await the receptive traveler.

Today -- The Chilean economy is the strongest in Latin America, both admired and scorned by its envious neighbors. Chile is rich in natural resources -- copper mining is booming with China's demand for the raw product -- and forestry, salmon harvesting, agriculture, high-quality wines, and tourism are also economic heavyweights. But the country still has a long way to go to solve social problems such as poverty and lack of education. The minimum wage is still less than $300 (£200) a month, and even the country's top universities come under fire for not meeting international standards.

The global financial meltdown in 2008 presented serious challenges for Chile's economy. With the fall in commodity prices and a weakening peso, a slowdown in growth took its toll on many sectors of Chile's economy. In the municipal elections in October 2008, Chile's governing center-left Concertación coalition, which has ruled Chile ever since the end of General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990, faced its first-ever defeat. Countering South America's steady drift to the left, the center-right opposition, Alliance, won 41% of the vote for mayors, which was sufficient to win 8 of the 14 regional capitals. Riding high on the crest of victory, Alliance leaders frothed that their success augurs well for a presidential win in December 2009.

One-third of Chile's 16 million people live in the Santiago metropolis alone. This disproportionate centralization in a country that stretches 4,200km (2,600 miles) from north to south often leads to accusations that the government does more for the local populace than for residents in far-flung locales such as Punta Arenas. About 90% of the population is mestizo, a mix of indigenous and European blood that includes Spanish, German (in the Lake District), and Croatian (in southern Patagonia). Other nationalities, such as Italian, Russian, and English, have contributed a smaller influence. In general, visitors will find that the average Chilean looks like a southern European. Indigenous groups such as the Aymara in the northern desert and the Mapuche in the Lake District still exist in large numbers, although nothing compared to their size before the Spanish conquest. It is estimated that there are more than a half-million Mapuches, many of whom live on poverty-stricken reducciones (literally "reductions"), where they continue to use their language and carry on their customs -- if traveling through those areas you can't miss their trademark silver and nickel jewelry. In southern Chile and Tierra del Fuego, indigenous groups such as the Alacalufe and Yagan have been diminished to only a few people, and some, such as the Patagonian Ona, have been completely extinguished.

Defying the stereotype of the flamboyant and eternally gregarious Latino, Chileans tend to be more conservative than their Latin American counterparts, arguably the result of Chile's unique geography, cut off by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. Elite Chileans have been accused of looking to the outside world for comparisons rather than looking within themselves for original inspiration in everything from architecture to fashion to cuisine. In spite of this, Chileans are enormously patriotic, evidenced by celebrations during the multiday festival surrounding Independence Day, when Chileans festoon streets and vehicles with Chilean flags and decorations in a display of national pride. In rural areas and small towns outside Santiago, Chileans are usually warmly affectionate and hospitable to strangers.

Though not inherently a racist country (there is little racial diversity here), Chile suffers from an unhealthy amount of classism. The elite are known as cuicos, and the poor as rotos or ordinarios. Chile's economy, which was booming until the 2008 meltdown, has produced a burgeoning middle class, evidenced by jam-packed shopping malls and new condominium buildings springing up around Santiago, yet few talented Chileans from middle-class and poor families stand a chance at rising to the top without the right connections, known as pituto.

Given the provinciality of Chileans and the country's former era of dictatorship and censorship, Chileans have created an art form out of gossiping; no topic, it seems, is out of bounds for a good dish, invented or real. Chileans also tend to be indirect: When asking for directions, you may find that Chileans use constructive guesswork, often sending you on a false path, rather than admitting that they can't help.

Most Chileans strongly value the family unit, and they love kids. Unless a young adult marries or travels outside his or her hometown to study, most leave home at a late age. It is common to see a young adult who is 25 or 27 still at home and without any pressure to leave. Because kids and young adults are coddled by their mothers and maids (especially males), travelers often remark that Chilean young adults seem more immature than their foreign counterparts. Because young adults live at home, you'll also see heaps of amorous couples kissing and strolling through parks. Most Chileans marry before 30 and have kids shortly thereafter, the reason why slightly less than half the population is under 25. Divorce was only recently pronounced legal, with Chile being the last Latin American country to grant dissolution of marriage.

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