Santiago is the capital and largest city of Chile, a long, ribbon-shaped country that runs north-south along much of the South Pacific Ocean Coast of South America. The city is also known as Santiago de Chile, and is located in the Santiago Basin, the country's central valley. It is in the approximate middle of Chile's latitudinal extent, about midway between the Pacific coast and the high peaks of the Andes Mountains that define Chile's border with neighboring Argentina. The city is at a latitude of 33°27′S and has a climate that is referred to as a Mediterranean-type climate. The Mapocho River flows from the Andes peaks and divides the city into two.
The population of Santiago is about 5.4 million (2002), while that of the wider metropolitan area is about 7.2 million. In addition to being the national capital, Santiago is the leading industrial and financial center of Chile. The country is generally prosperous and fast developing, and Santiago reflects that progress with its dramatic city skyline, many new buildings, and continual growth.
Although Santiago is the official national capital, since 1990 the National Congress of Chile has met in the city of Valparaíso, a Pacific Ocean port city located about 80 miles (130 km) to the west. With a population of about 276,000, Valparaíso is much smaller and is seen as quieter alternative to the bustle of busy Santiago. It is a very beautiful city.
Santiago was founded in 1541 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. He was attracted to the location because of climate and vegetation patterns, and because an island in the Mapocho River would be easy to defend against attacks from indigenous tribes. He named the settlement Santiago de Nueva Extremadura, Santiago in honor of St. James, and the rest after his birth city in Spain. As was typical for Spanish cities in the New World, Santiago was laid out in a rigid grid plan with square blocks and a prominent central square. The first years of the city were difficult for the settlers because of conflicts with the indigenous population and the persistent food shortages that resulted. The city's first cathedral was built in 1561 after the threats from attacks subsided.
Chilean independence from Spain was proclaimed on February 12, 1817, after a combined force of Chilean and Argentinean troops led by José de San Martin and Bernardo O'Higgins defeated Spanish royalists at the Battle of Chacabuco north of Santiago. The final break from Spain came on April 5, 1818, when Chilean patriots defeated the last Spanish army at Battle of Maipú, also near Santiago. From 1879 to 1883, Chile was involved in the War of the Pacific against neighboring Bolivia and Peru for control over mineral-rich territory to Chile's north. Chile won that conflict and annexed the disputed land. Santiago grew and prospered largely because of the productive agricultural lands of Chile and its mineral resources. Many of the wealthiest Chileans were large landowners or owners of mines and railroads. The city expanded and was modernized in the 19th century, with railway and telegraph lines, wide paved roads, beautiful parks and gardens, museums, concert halls, and at least two fine universities, the Universidad de Chile founded in 1843 and the Universidad Pontificia Católica founded in 1888. Chilean social and economic progress suffered a setback in 1973 when the elected government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup and a military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte took over the leadership of the country. Pinochet's repressive regime ruled Chile until 1990. His supporters point to economic growth in the country during his rule, but critics cite increased economic inequality, repression of basic rights, and tens of thousands of instances of torture of political opponents and thousands of “disappearances.” A strong earthquake caused considerable damage in Santiago on March 3, 1985.
The main square of Santiago is Plaza de Armas. The National Cathedral faces the square, as does the main post office. The Central Market is nearby. Other landmarks are the Palacio de La Moneda, the seat of the president of the Republic of Chile and once a colonial mint; the Municipal Theater of Santiago; the Fine Arts Museum; the Contemporary Art Museum of Santiago; the National Library of Chile; the former congress building; and the two aforementioned universities. San Cristóbal Hill has a beautiful park that includes the Santiago Metropolitan Zoo. O'Higgins Park dates to 1873 and is in the center of the city. Its Movistar Arena is a popular venue for concerts. The city's financial district El Golf has a number of impressive high-rise office towers, most notably Torre Titanium La Portada and the newer Torre Gran Costanera.
Chile's population consists of many ethnic groups, most notably those who trace ancestry to Spain (including Basques), Germans, Italians, Greeks, Irish, and British among European groups, a small indigenous population, and more recent migrants from nearby Peru and Bolivia. About 70 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, with about one-half of the rest being Protestant. Spanish is the official language of Chile. However, the Chilean form of Spanish is distinctive for its accent and the dropping of final “s” sounds and final consonants. English is widely understood in Santiago and other cities, and is a compulsive subject in public schools. Chile has a rich heritage of music and literature. Chileans call their country the “country of poets.” In 1945, Gabriela Mistral, a feminist Chilean poet and educator, was the first Latin American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. Chileans are justifiably proud of their prosperous and beautiful country.
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