Valdivia: From Catastrophes to Cerveza

Founded in 1552, Valdivia was one of the first cities in Chile. Positioned at the confluence of the Cau-Cau, Calle-Calle and Cruces Rivers, the early settlement was considered to have strategic access to the Pacific and a set of fortifications were built. However, the challenges were not only coming from foreign invasion.

Between an early devastating earthquake that levelled the young city, an uprising of the indigenous Mapuche that later destroyed the rebuilt city, attempted takeover by the Dutch, coups, counter-revolutions and all the assorted and sundry political turmoil one might expect of Chile, Valdivia has struggled to survive and become one of Chile’s most important cities.

Government efforts in 1845 to attract immigration of families from Germany began to transform the city’s landscape.

But, as the old saying goes, if Valdivia didn’t have bad luck, she’d have no luck at all.

A devastating fire in 1909 destroyed the city’s centre. Then, on May 22, 1960, Valdivia was hit with the most powerful earthquake ever recorded – 9.5 on the Richter scale. A series of aftershocks followed and the tsunami after that transformed the face of the city. Estimates of fatalities range from 2500 to over 6000.

Rebuilding took years. This mural tells the story of that catastrophic event.

Valdivia is the northernmost part of Chile’s Lake District – an area that stretches over to the Andes and south to Puerto Montt – the gateway to Patagonia. This area is the polar opposite of the Atacama Desert – it is lush, filled with dairy farms, temperate forests and of course, lakes and rivers.

Rain features largely here and we are travelling in their fall season, one of the wettest times of year. In fact when we told our Atacama host where we were going, he smiled and rather ruefully said, “lluvia” (rain), as though nothing else needed to be said. Valdivia is Chile’s rainiest city, but we lucked out – nothing but bright blue sky and warm sunny days during our time here.

The nearby town Niebla means fog in Spanish. Now we on the west coast of Canada fondly refer to our area as “the wet coast”, but that doesn’t mean we love the endless grey days and drizzle. Niebla residents seem to have acknowledged their dominating weather feature by matter-of-factly calling their town “fog“, and they have embellished their town sign with an umbrella.

Niebla is a quick drive from the centre of Valdivia – we zipped over the bridge and into the countryside to make it to the Pacific coast in 25 minutes. As we stood there looking out to sea, trying to imagine our friends and family thousands of miles north of us, we realized that the coastline of the two continents doesn’t neatly line up – we were probably more in line with our friends and family in Ontario and the Maritimes.

Niebla is the site of one of four fortifications that were built in 1645 to protect the entrance to Valdivia; in total 17 fortifications were built around the city. They have all been declared National Monuments, both for their architectural characteristics and their location as the most southern complex in the Americas.

This site has been well preserved and helpfully for us, has signs in both Spanish and English. This was the home of the chaplain and other army notables and is now a small museum.

And we thought llamas were only found at higher elevations! Mito is the resident llama; there to keep the grass shorn, the kids entertained and pose for countless photo ops.

There is a sign that asks us not to feed him and keep a safe distance. Having the opportunity to see Mito up close was a bit of a thrill. If you look closely, you can see his beautiful long eyelashes.

Another up-close encounter with wildlife was with a Chilean Hawk. We were on the upper level of the fort’s walkway, when we noticed a large bird perched on the end. We crept closer and closer and he remained unperturbed, so we were able to take a number of photos.

Also, the sign reminds us we are in earthquake territory and that this particular spot is not the safest. There are muster areas throughout the grounds that we are meant to run to if the ground begins to shake.

We asked a gentleman what the fishermen were catching below and he replied “mariscos” (seafood) and then elaborated, but I couldn’t understand anything further. Needless to say, the ocean and three rivers provide a bounty.

We were excited about finding a little hole-in-the-wall, a food truck, or even a fish and chips stand that would serve up the freshest of seafood, so we followed the coastal highway to the nearby town of Los Molinos, and drove along the waterfront road.

The road was deserted; not one place was open. We stared sadly at a locked-up food truck that promised fish tacos and shrimp sandwiches. Was it because it was Monday? Or was it because tourist season in this area is pretty much over? Don’t the locals still want to eat?

This Hombre de la Mar stood guard, with the following plaque, (Google translated): In recognition of the artisanal fisherman who, with their efforts, gave their lives carrying out this hard work in the sea to fulfill their dreams and ours.

Never mind, we did find plenty of fresh fish during our stay and for inspiration, no better spot than the Fish Market on the waterfront in Valdivia.

One of the big attractions at the market, aside from fish, veggies and fresh local cheese, are these terrifying creatures.

These are sea lions of truly epic proportions. I’ve seen sea lions on the west coast, but never of this stature, nor did I know they possessed a lion’s mane – hence the name. These brutes bear no resemblance to the cuddly Disney sea lions of the Galapagos – these are fearsome beasts. The only reason we could stand as close as we did was they were being fed a steady diet of fish scraps.

One of them did look over at me, and I honestly felt a chill – doesn’t he look diabolical, with the fish guts still sticking to his whiskers?

Turns out, the river is simply swarming with sea lions, although most of them are of more normal dimensions. We watched this young sea lion play a little game. He seemed to delight in trying to annoy his elders and the flock of cormorants who were sharing a raft.

He would swim up, launch himself on the raft, scatter the cormorants for an instant, then slide into the water again. The sea lions maintained their semi-comatose positions and the birds returned within seconds and then the game would start all over again.

And this is my final animal-related photo. We were just tickled to see a couple of these “Casitas Comunitarias” set out for Valdivia’s stray dogs. In this case, there was a house and two pup tents – in another location, we saw one doghouse with a pillow inside! Water bowls and dog food dishes were there as well. I have never seen anything like this – I would love to find out more about how this initiative started and who has taken it on.

As you might imagine, with Valdivia being so close to the ocean and surrounded by rivers, the waterfront plays an important role in the life of the city.

We could walk from our Airbnb to the waterfront in minutes. It is lined with tourist boats that ply the rivers – anywhere from a one-hour city cruise, to a five-hour expedition of the area. There was little going on while we were there, due to it being off-season, but it was lovely to walk for a number of kilometres by the water.

View from the bridge that connects Valdivia to Isla Teja.

Isla Teja is a contrast to the grittier nature of Valdivia. It is where most of Valdivia’s nicer restaurants are located and is home to the Austral University, the Jardin Botanico and Saval Park, as well as a genteel collection of rowing clubs and equestrian centres.

After the earthquake of 1960, Valdivia developed many wetlands and parks were created around them. We walked over to Saval Park, which boasts an equestrian centre, beautiful trails, a sculpture garden and a lagoon. It’s hard to tell that this is a lagoon from this photo, but this would be a couple of acres of pink lily-pads when in season.

Back over the bridge, Valdivia proper is a curious mix. It cannot be called a beautiful city, other than its setting, but it grows on you. It is described as being “a vibrant university town“, which it is, but some buildings are quite run-down and the neighbourhoods seem to lack focus.

Much of the city was destroyed with the 1960 earthquake, so what has emerged from the ashes are areas where original buildings survived, next door to a derelict building, next door to a more modern building.

We were in an Airbnb in a gated townhouse complex – nothing fancy, but a secure family spot. This was right across the street from us. At first I thought it was an abandoned building, until I saw someone emerge with their bicycle – they had obviously been delivering food. There are many places like this in Valdivia.

The street we stayed on has the largest collection of German-built homes in the city that survived the earthquake. The ones that remain still show signs of their former glory.

This building is part of the University of San Sebastian, just down the road from where we were staying. A large modern building formed the main part of the campus and then at least a dozen older buildings housed faculties such as law or economics.

Several buildings like this one appear to be inhabited, but the condition of many of the buildings is poor. Even our townhouse, which is always inhabited and heated, had mold in the corners and discoloured baseboards.

It would seem that in an effort to ward off the decaying effects of so much rain, many buildings have been sided with corrugated metal, while the original wooden windows and door frames remain.

And back to the undeniable impact the Germans have made on the Lake District as a whole and Valdivia in particular. Around the mid-19th-century, the Chilean government had a campaign to attract “middle-class” new families to help establish businesses and expand small communities. It worked – over 6000 German families immigrated to the area, and their influence with architecture and food remains strong to this day.

The German-Chilean relationship is a long and strong one, including the somewhat murky connection during and after WWII, when many Nazis sought refuge in South America. More recently in a reverse migration, during Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 70s, several thousand Chileans fled to Germany.

As for food, I’m not really sure what Chilean specialities are on offer in Valdivia, but if you want a sausage platter, the restaurant Entre Lagos would be a good bet.

The clientele is of a certain age, Germanic features on Chilean faces are evident and just out of sight is a lighted revolving dessert cabinet, not unlike something your aunt used to display her Royal Doulton figurines. Chocolate layer cake, Black Forest cake, praline frosted cake – all of this following platters of pork cutlet, sausage, potato salad and bread rolls.

It was a bit disorienting, not unlike going to a small town in Mexico populated largely by Swedes.

We were the only foreign tourists. The lady in the foreground, after some consultation with her husband, turned to us and asked where we were from. “Canada,” she nodded, at a loss for words.

Speaking of German, let’s get to the subject of beer. In most of Chile, the obvious beverage of choice is wine, but in Valdivia at least, the beer culture is alive and well.

We actually had our first taste of Valdivian beer in Temuco – the town we flew to from Santiago on our way south. We spent one memorable night there; actually in Freire – a small town close to the airport. Our host directed us to the only restaurant in town – Juan y Juan. They were closing up when we arrived (before 6:00 pm), but allowed us to have a quick chicken dinner and a pint of Valdivian lager.

Nothing fancy – we got a roasted chicken leg sitting atop three boiled potatoes, but it was delicious and the beer was exceptional.

Decor – well…you get the idea.

Beer is king in Valdivia. The brewing business began back in the mid-19th century, fell apart when everything else did with the earthquake, and in 1997 was revived with Kunstmann Brewery. The owner is the descendent of German immigrants, and his original tiny shop mushroomed into what feels like a Bavarian theme park.

Just outside the city, it sits on several acres and houses a massive restaurant and gift shop and offers brewery tours. There are numerous beers on tap, as well as seasonal offerings and the food portions are obscenely huge. Stephen’s burger filled a side plate and required a knife and fork to eat. The beer was delicious and cold and the atmosphere was a hoot.

Among the many murals in Valdivia, this one is emblematic.

There are now a number of brew pubs and craft beers in Valdivia, but El Growler was the first. Its owner, Joel Driver, is an Oregonian and beer devotee, who came to Valdivia years ago and returned to open his business.

El Growler keeps it simple with a small and delicious menu and a clean tap line-up of about a dozen or more selections. Stephen had his usual dark beer, and I had my usual IPA ( aka “ee-pa” in Spanish).

A memorable last night in Valdivia.We’re happy we spent a bit of time in Valdivia – it gave us a glimpse of a whole other side of Chile. This long and skinny country keeps unfolding fresh impressions.

We are now in Puerto Varas, about three hours south. We’ll be here for a week, with lots of side trips around the lakes, mountains and volcanoes.

11 thoughts on “Valdivia: From Catastrophes to Cerveza

  1. You fit right in Ginny. Watch, you don’t get hired slinging beer !!! Seriously, another joyful read. You are amazing with your research. I feel like I’m right there with you. Love Lyn


    1. Lyn, those old waitering days are never far behind! I still wipe crumbs off my chair and push it in when we leave a restaurant. This was a fun one and the “research” for the beer part of the story was easier than I thought.


  2. Loved this post! Hung on every word! So interesting! Such cute pics of you with the beer!! Gary would love it too. Keep it coming! What a wonderful trip you are having!

    As ever
    Linda & Gary


    1. Thanks you guys! This is such a great trip, although we are a little disoriented now as this is our first full day in what is officially “fall” weather – overcast and cold ( we need gloves). A sudden shift in mood, to be sure, but all so interesting.


  3. Thank you for your compelling chronicles, Ginny! Your reflections and photos are beautiful and vivid, offering an inexplicable connection between reader, place, and narrator. How fun to be able to connect with you & Stephen via global adventure – hoping you are both well! Thank you for the sparkle in the inbox 🤗

    Ali, Victoria BC (harkening back to FSJ days)


    1. Well dear Ali – how wonderful to hear from you! I am so glad you’re reading our blog – what a lovely connection. I would LOVE to see you again – at some point this summer we will be in Victoria – please let’s get together.
      I hope all is well with you – sending you big hugs. xoxo


  4. Boy, did the two of you luck out with the weather! Blue skies and bright sunshine changes one’s perspective on things, not to mention they make for beautiful pictures! I’m not a beer drinker; but, Your “advertisement” tempts me to reconsider! As always, thanks for taking your readers into another corner of the world!


    1. You’re so right about the blue skies – we are now into overcast skies and much cooler temps – it feels like we were dropped from late August into mid-October. What a difference a three-hour drive makes! Lots to explore and so far our biggest challenge will be portion control in restaurants – we will be the seniors sharing one plate.


      1. We are so glad you got to see a bright, sunny Valdivia so you know what The Lakes District has to offer. That was one city we didn’t explore too much other than the waterfront you have in your photo from the bridge. We did, however, always stop there on trips north as Valdivia was the only place you could buy peanut butter at that time. A little German Mom and Pop store made it fresh right in their store. It was sooo good. Can’t wait to read your next blog from our former stomping grounds. Love, Jeanne


  5. Jeanne, we have the distinct feeling that we are here in the Lakes District about a month too late, as far as the weather goes. We’re getting a real mix here in Puerto Varas – saw the volcano for the first time yesterday and today is cloudy again.
    Still, this town is beautiful, with such warm and hospitable people. But there is a real chill in the air and the leaves are turning – it’s fall! Not even Stephen would attempt to swim in the lakes now.
    We’ll just have to come back – we’re so close to Patagonia – seeing the last of the backpackers making their way home before that area turns too cold.
    Another trip…


  6. I’ve been catching up just now and not sure where you right now, but the posts are still a thrill to read. We just got home and still catching up. I’ll send an email soon.


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