Chile is famous for its poets. The progenitor of them all was conquistador Alonso de Ercilla (1533–1594), who paid his indigenous adversaries tribute in the 16th-century epic La Araucana. The first notable Chilean-born poet was Pedro de Oña (1570–1643), whose Arauco Domado (Arauco Tamed) extols the Spaniards’ martial achievements.
The dean of modern Chilean poets was Paris-based Vicente Huidobro (1893–1948), whose French contemporaries included Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé. Chile’s most famous literary figure, though, was the flamboyant, politically committed poet Pablo Neruda (1904–73), who earned the 1971 Nobel Prize for a body of work including Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu (The Heights of Machu Picchu, first published 1948) and Canto General (1950). Neruda’s work is widely available in English translation.
Despite her 1945 Nobel Prize, Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957) is less widely known, perhaps because she left Chile at age 30 and rarely returned, possibly because she was a woman, and maybe even for (a)political reasons—the Communist writer Volodia Teitelboim left her out of his and Eduardo Anguita’s Antología de la Poesía Chilena (Anthology of Chilean Poetry, 1953). Translations of her work are fewer than of Neruda’s, but look for Langston Hughes’s Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral (Indiana University Press, 1957).
The Chilean novel didn’t really find its voice until the late 20th century, though Alberto Blest Gana’s 19th-century work has historical interest. Though not a novelist, the Venezuelan polymath Andrés Bello (1781–1865) influenced Chilean intellectual life through his essays and his transformation of the educational system.
The most famous contemporary Chilean writer is novelist Isabel Allende (born 1942), a niece of the late president. Though she now lives in Marin County, California, she continues to write on Chilean (and Californian-Chilean) themes.
Antonio Skármeta (born 1940) is a novelist who became known as the author of Burning Patience (New York: Random House, 1987), which served as a very rough template, cleansed of its political content, for director Michael Radford’s Oscar-winning film Il Postino (1995); Neruda was a key character in the story.
Marco Antonio de la Parra (born 1952) is a playwright, novelist, and psychiatrist whose The Secret Holy War of Santiago de Chile (New York: Interlink, 1994) uses Chile’s capital city as the backdrop for a “magical realist” interpretation of the Pinochet dictatorship’s last years. California-raised Alberto Fuguet (born 1964) is the author of Bad Vibes (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), a tale of disaffected affluent youth whose families profited from the dictatorship.
Roberto Ampuero’s place-oriented mystery novels explore locales such as Valparaíso  and San Pedro de Atacama, but unfortunately none of his Cayetano Brulé novels have yet appeared in English. Ampuero’s unadorned style makes his books a good choice for neophytes easing their way into Spanish-language literature.