Named the City of Rivers after the waterways that run through or around it, Valdivia is the vibrant capital of Chile’s newest region, Los Rios XIV. ANNABEL WILSON discovers its wilderness, beaches, wildlife, graffiti and bars.
To visit Valdivia, the pearl of Southern Chile, is to be surrounded by water and wildlife. The Calle Calle river that bisects the historic port flows into the Pacific Ocean, just 18 kilometres from downtown. Sea lions bask by the famous fish market, lolling in close proximity for fishermen’s discarded catch. Wreathed in wetlands, the principality is home to flurries of coastal birds: herons, pelicans, cormorants. An hour and a half’s flight from Santiago, Valdivia’s diverse ecology provides an enticing backdrop to the ancient Spanish stronghold. Now the academic hub also has a nascent surf and skate scene. For me, the charm of its wild spaces, contemporary art, lifestyle and cuisine made it hard to leave. Valdivia is truly La Perla del Sur. Here’s five reasons why.
1.The oldest trees in the world
Valvidia’s Alerce Costero National Park is a biodiversity mecca which is home to the ancient Fitzroya cupressoides (Patagonian cypress), better known as alerce tree. Declared a national treasure of Chile in 1976, these species are well worth going searching for. Hike, bike or drive through the National Park and hug lahuán: the beloved ‘grandfather’ alerce, believed to be at least 2,200 years old. Getting in touch with these gracious jurassic beings brings a sense of injustice when considering why the forest was plundered in the past. Alerce timber is durable, resistant to rot and insects, long prized for its lustrous wood of high commercial value. Growing within the Patagonian cordillera, the alerce forest was almost decimated by fires and felling during the colonial era. Luckily, it is now protected. Thus, a visit to Valdivia’s forest is a must.
Twenty minutes drive along the Bahia de Corral coast will bring you to the peace and peeling perfection of the waves at Loncoyen. It’s a great spot for surfing or simply exploring the rocky shore. Hugged by verdant cliffs, the beach was pretty much deserted when I visited aside from a husband and wife out fishing. Poke about in rock pools, admire the gannets sunning themselves and the swirls of kelp like art installations on the sand.
Further along the peninsula, Calfuco’s large swells and consistent southerly winds make it a surfer’s dream. Unfortunately, developers are also carving up this part of the coast, rendering it increasingly difficult for the public to access the waves. Additionally, the site is of significance to the indigenous Mapuche people, the original inhabitants of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. When I visited, a reminder of this fact was displayed in a banner reading ‘This Is Mapuche Land’ protesters had placed along the developer’s newly built fence at the entrance to the bay. As I stood with new friends around our asado (barbecue) watching the ocean roll in, I hoped this magic spot would remain unspoiled and legislators can find a way for the beach to be enjoyed by all in the future.
Over the arching Pedro de Valdivia bridge (named after the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1552) is Isla Teja – the place to head for those wanting an art fix. The island features a cluster of colonial buildings and gardens which serve as reminders of the influx of German settlers during the 19th century. Housing the cultural centre, Universidad Austral de Chile, archeological museum and Replica art gallery, Isla Teja is best explored on foot, with a picnic and a camera. It’s a great site from which to view the skyline of central Valdivia, soak up some history and just wander. Which is what I opted to do on a mild weekday afternoon.
Stumbling across a smattering of abandoned plaster of Paris busts in the grass, I realised I was in the grounds of the Arts school. Here I found some exceptional street art on the faculty walls, my favourite being the red and white striped Selk’nam figure – an emblem of the aboriginal Patagonian tribe sadly driven to extinction. They had numbered in the thousands before Western exploitation and colonisation saw the last full blooded Selk’nam die in 1974. These days, descendants of the Selk’nam are rediscovering their heritage as initiatives such as the Inti Raymi fund focus on cultural revival.
If you’re hanging out in Valdivia, make sure you have a good camera. Because at every turn you’ll probably see wildlife of some sort. Look carefully and you’ll catch a glimpse of resident kingfishers chilling on telephone wires, pelicans fishing, owls mooching about on fenceposts, a heron on the wing. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise.
A couple of blocks north of the Ecole des Artes Visuales, Saelzer is Valdivia’s ‘Eat Street’. At the top end is Murtao, where you can match locally brewed Kunstmann beer, Chilean wine and pisco with traditional fare. In the middle is El Growler – the hipster hangout and microbrewery owned by an Oregonite named Joel who I met at Calfuco. At the end of the road is Lio Bar – where I sampled my first South American ceviche washed down with an obligatory pisco sour: lemon juice, egg white, pisco and sugar syrup shaken then served in a tall chilled glass. The signature Chilean cocktail complemented the fresh raw fish beautifully. With its distinct sweetness and zing, the pisco sour has a flavour that announces itself and once you’ve tried it, you get a hankering for. A bit like Valdivia, my latest favourite place in the world.
- ANNABEL WILSON
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