Chile Chico is one of the oldest towns in the Aysén Region.
There is evidence that nomadic Tehuelche and pre-Tehuelche hunter-gatherers inhabited the lands of and around Chile Chico as many as 10,000 years before present day. Its first Chilean inhabitants arrived in 1905, after hard years spent living in Argentina, during an era when these two countries had little tolerance of one and other. Hence they flocked to Chile Chico, where they found a micro climate similar to that in the central zone of Chile and suitable soils for agriculture and livestock. They began to settle and build a new life, however, despite finally being back in their homeland, their lives were not problem free. Little more than a decade had passed when, in 1917, their lives would again be marked by conflict and violence. In what history would term the “War of Chile Chico”, armed combat resulted between these settlers and the Chilean state when they were evicted from their homesteads, after being informed that the same lands on which they had settled had been awarded to a foreign interest as part of a large ranching concession. The settlers decided they didn’t want to relinquish the land to this group and there was a skirmish with the police, killing three settlers. This encounter caused such an uproar in Chilean society that the government was compelled to terminate the lease with the ranching company and formally recognize the presence of the area’s settlers. Thus, on May 21, 1929, Chile Chico was officially founded and soon after, constructed its first school and the initial homes of various settlers.
In the early decades, settlers raised livestock, but the area soon established itself as a trade and transportation center for its proximity to the lake and the roads that led to the Atlantic. Chile Chico became the distribution center for most of the wool produced around the borders of General Carrera Lake, including the area surrounding the Baker River. Its settlers developed the first trails in the area, including the routes through Paso de Las Llaves and later, along the northern shores of the lake, from Puerto Ibáñez and the Levicán Peninsula, allowing ranchers to also reach the markets of Coyhaique. But, without a doubt, Chile Chico’s most important contribution to the development of the area was the addition of a fleet of iron boats that moved goods through various routes in the enormous bi-national waters of General Carrera Lake. Boats, like the Andes, Manolo, Chile, Argentina, Líbano and Cóndor, converted the lake into a transportation hub, providing a viable means to import and export products, equipment, and eventually transport passengers from one coastal town to another.
With this capability already installed, Chile Chico became the major intermediary for the mining and mineral exports of the 1940s and ‘50s, when this area became the most important in the country for the extraction of lead and zinc. During those years, the town experienced its first real “boom”. There was an explosion of hotels, restaurants, theaters, dance and sports clubs, all critical factors for meeting the social needs of this small, but cosmopolitan city that was becoming more and more representative of its name. Chile Chico was converting itself into a “Little Chile”, equally full of resources and culture.
Unfortunately, progress in other sectors of the Region caught up with Chile Chico. Trails were being widened to the north and once the road between Puerto Aysén and Puerto Ingeniero Ibañéz was opened in 1958, Chile Chico’s role as a transportation hub soon diminished and the tiny city experienced a depression, which was soon worsened by the closing of the mines owned by the company, Minera Aisén.
Today, Chile Chico has found another “goldmine”, this time thanks to its favorable micro climate, and is reinventing itself as a center for the export of a different natural resource, cherries! Once again, this small port town has an important role in national development, as the difference between the timing of the cherry season in the central zone of Chile and the southern shores of General Carrera Lake, enables growers to extend the productive season for this fruit and provide a meaningful advantage to buyers in the European and Asian markets.
Begin your walking tour of Chile Chico in its beautiful Plaza of Arms.
From here, you’ll walk toward the Cerro Las Banderas Scenic Overlook, where you’ll have an excellent vantage point for viewing the entire town and its strategic location along the southern shore of General Carrera Lake. Cerro Las Banderas (Cerro of the Flags), owes its name to 1960s immigrants who arrived from countries around the world, including Belgium, Argentina, Peru, Lebanon, Spain, and Bolivia, and started the local custom of adding their homeland’s flags to that of Chile in an early demonstration of multiculturalism.
Next you can head down to the site of the city’s first public school (corner of Bernardo O’Higgins and Pedro González), which is the present site of the Gobernación Provincial, which manages the public administration of the Province. This site is where the town officially began, thanks to the vision of Professor Luisa Rabal Palma. Her choice of locations for the town’s first school set the course for urban settlement that was centered around this building.
Continue walking along O’Higgins to the Plaza Hotel (corner of Bernardo O’Higgins and Balmaceda Street). Built in 1937, this hotel was much more than lodging, it was the center of Chile Chico’s nightlife! The hotel had spacious lounges and even a movie theater, and was host for many of Chile’s famous figures, including Presidents Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, Eduardo Frei Montalva, Salvador Allende, and poet Pablo Neruda, among whose many honors is the 1971 Noble Prize in Literature.
The next stop along this tour of the historic old town takes you to the pier and newly opened waterfront. The construction of the port and the arrival of the first iron boats were vital aspects of the Chile Chico’s development, connecting the southern reaches of the region with the rest of the country and the Atlantic coast. The vessel that best represents this era is the Andes, which began operating in 1922. It has been conserved and converted into a museum which you can visit on the corner of Bernardo O’Higgins and Lautaro, next to the Casa de la Cultura.
As you head east through town along Bernardo O’Higgins, which is the same road that leads to the Paso Río Jeinimeni Border Crossing, you’ll come to an area known as “the chacras” where there are fields lined with huge poplar trees and a series of houses that are the living testimony of the Belgian colonization in 1948. After World War II, a group of Belgians decided to seek a new life at the end of the world. They brought 57 adults and children, including a teacher, a doctor and a priest, to settle in Chile Chico, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Punta Arenas via ship, with an incredible amount of cargo that included 18 huge overland trucks, left over after the war. From the Magallanes port, they traveled through the Argentine pampas in a convoy toward their new Chilean home. Learn more about their adventures by visiting some of these houses that are now restaurants and hotels, including the Hostería de la Patagonia or the restaurant, La Mercé.