Tales of Valdivia

Chile's "Rivers City" combines past and present.
Bonnie Tucker / FST
After years of insistently demanding administrative autonomy, Valdivia, the northernmost province of Chile’s Lakes Region, finally saw its dream come true in March 2007, when President Michelle Bachelet signed the law that converted it and a neighboring province into the Rivers Region.
As its name suggests, the 18,429.5 km2 it occupies between the Lakes Region and Araucanía contain many rivers.
Three of them converge in the city of Valdivia, its capital, which lies 19 km inland from the Pacific Ocean.
The Spanish, Mapuche and German place names that appear on maps of the city’s downtown area and surroundings give an inkling of its tumultuous history.
Overrun by the Mapuches 46 years after its foundation in 1552, Valdivia was reconstructed in 1684 to become Spain’s southernmost maritime stronghold, with several forts around the bay at the mouth of the Valdivia River. Its fame for being invincible came to an abrupt end following an unexpected attack by Chilean patriots in 1820. The European immigrants who arrived later in the 19th century built shipyards, sawmills and other industries that brought prosperity.

Today, the 150,000 residents of the bustling city go briskly about their business on clean streets lined with neat modern concrete buildings and a smattering of century-old wooden houses.
Valdivia is a university city that attracts artsy world travelers. It is full of hostels that cater to this sort of client, as well as several fine hotels in new buildings or refurbished early 20th-century houses.
Teja Island, where tiles were made in colonial times, is home to the Austral University whose students give city streets their young, progressive look. Bordered on all sides by the three rivers, it also houses a botanical garden, a park, and museums of history and modern art.

The city’s riverside market, behind which sea lions and cormorants compete for fish offal thrown into the water, has stalls where fishmongers sell salmon, hake and croaker, as well as clams, sea urchins and a host of other strange marine delicacies.

Between their stalls and the sidewalk facing the market, another row of stalls sells a selection of fresh produce that ranges from sea kelp (used in soups) to fresh fruit, vegetables and gigantic garlic cloves, each of which is the size of what is considered a normal head elsewhere.

Cakes, chocolates and beer
Extra spice to this mixture of the produce of the sea and the field, so typical of southern Chilean coastal areas, is added by the traditions in sweets and beverages brought to the country by German immigrants who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Entrelagos, which began business as a confectionery more than 30 years ago, today sells 50 different cakes and pies and 24 flavors of ice cream, in addition to making chocolates and retailing a selection of high-quality hand-woven clothing and crafts. Alter Fluss, a much newer confectioner’s shop, specializes in marzipan and chocolates filled with fruit such as melon, kiwi, papaya or dates, and is not above appealing to adventurous palates with another line of chocolates, to which a bit of pepper, oregano, tarragon or even garlic has been added.
However, Valdivia’s greatest contribution to southern Chilean cuisine is beer, thanks to the first group of German immigrants that the Chilean government settled in the region at the end of the 19th century.

The biggest brewery is Cervecería Kunstmann, which has a restaurant, a pub, and an interesting museum in which a guide explains how the brew is made and what it has meant to Valdivia over the years. Visitors may indulge in tastings during which they nibble on delectable hors d’oeuvres as they savor six different beers in shot glasses before ordering. In the pub, groups of serious drinkers who agree on their preferred beverage from the onset of the evening sit at large tables, each of which is crowned by a high glass column full of beer from which they serve themselves. When the waiter sees the level go down at a table, he comes and pours in some more. Several Internet pages give beer-friendly food recipes and indicate which types of brews go best with certain dishes.

The biggest tourist attractions are the ruins of the Spanish forts in the towns of Corral and Niebla, whose location on either side of the river mouth threatened to subject invading ships to a withering crossfire. In February 2, 1820, troops of a Chilean naval squadron landed on a beach to the south, took the Corral garrison in a surprise overland attack, and quickly overcame all the Spanish forts in the area as well. Locals stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Corral twice a day during January and February. After the show, the youths who played the roles of Spaniards and patriots pose for pictures in exchange for cash.

Two traumatic events
The well-built wooden houses that one sees in the old downtown area, remnants of the old Valdivia built by the first European immigrants, are reminders of two of the most traumatic events in Chilean history. Their structure, which gave them flexibility, allowed them to survive the world’s worst earthquake and tsunami, which on May 22, 1960 caused the city and the surrounding river valleys to sink two meters, converting rich farmlands into permanent swamps. The quake, which measured 9.5 on the Richter scale, was felt throughout southern South America, and the tidal waves it produced reached as far as Japan, Hawaii, the Philippines and the west coast of the United States, claiming hundreds of lives. The main tsunami entered Corral Bay at the mouth of the Valdivia River with a height of 10 meters and hit inland Valdivia with a 7-meter wall of water. During the next 20 days, there were more than 30 smaller quakes, and further waves as high as 6 meters. Rivers changed their course, lakes appeared from nowhere, and the Puyehue volcano erupted. Nearly half the city’s homes were destroyed and 20,000 people were left homeless. The casualties reported in Valdivia itself – 15 dead and 100 injured – were mercifully few because big quakes had hit Concepción and Curanilahue a day earlier, and most of the city’s population had fled to high ground as a preventive measure. In the rest of the 10th Region, more than 4,000 people died, 3,000 were injured and 2 million were left homeless in other locations nearer the sea. In Chile the total death toll was 24,000. See www.wikilosrios.cl/index.php/Terremoto_de_1960 for a more detailed account of how Valdivia coped with the cataclysm.
It was the determination of the local population and their authorities that headed off another disaster that would have done even more harm. Ninety kilometers to the east, the quake had caused three hills to slide into the San Pedro River, producing a gigantic earth dam that interrupted the drainage of Lake Riñihue and six other lakes linked to it by rivers. If the swiftly rising water behind the earth dam broke through, the 100,000 people in the San Pedro valley and Valdivia downriver would be killed by a wall of mud and water greater than any tsunami. All the earth-moving equipment in Chile was rushed to Riñihue, and government, military and civilian workers and volunteers began drainage work against the clock. Dams were constructed on all lakes to reduce water flow and levees were built to protect bridges and roads as the level of the big earth dam was gradually lowered to release the water in a controlled way over a period of two months – the famous riñihuazo that saved the city. See http://nereaysaraciencias.blogspot.es/ for more details on this great feat achieved by hundreds of anonymous heroes.
All that happened nearly 50 years ago, but there are still many people in Chile who remember every detail, and the Great Valdivia Earthquake figures in every tour guide’s spiel.

Connections and options
Thanks to Chile’s narrow, Andes-dominated physiognomy, summer gives Valdivia quick access to lake resorts in picturesque volcanic landscapes, and winter puts it within easy reach of several ski resorts in those same settings.

The region’s ongoing volcanism has also endowed it with several hot springs establishments that are open all year round.
In summer the 250 km of navigable rivers that surround Valdivia are used for water sports, and the broad ocean beaches beyond Niebla beckon sunbathers.
Valdivia is 178 km from the Puyehue hot spring resort at the entrance to the Cardenal Samoré border pass to Argentina and 210 km from Puerto Montt, both of which are near ski centers. It is 141km from Pucón, the exclusive resort near the Villarrica volcano that is home to another ski center, and near 13 additional hot spring spas, including Huife and Termas Geométricas. And the new regional capital is also just 220 km from the Hua Hum pass to the Argentine city of San Martín de los Andes.Information: +56-63-278100 or http://www.valdiviachile.com/ and +56-63-342300 or http://www.sernatur.cl/.

PHOTO CREDITS: An 1907 tugboat on the Valdivia River, Bonnie Tucker. Plaza de la República main square, Valdivia, Bonnie Tucker. Valdivia's port market, Bonnie Tucker. Sea food in the port market, BonnieTucker. The Kunstmann brewery's events hall, Cervecería Kunstmann. Re-enactment of the Battle of Corral, Bonnie Tucker. Tourists posing with local actors after the re-enactment, Bonnie Tucker. An old home in Corral, Marcelo Imbellone. Skiers at the Osorno Volcano ski center, Volcán Osorno. Termas Geométricas hot springs, Bonnie Tucker.