As my travels around southern Chile over Christmas and the New Year came to a close, I decided I wanted to squeeze in one last stop: Valdivia.
Although Valdivia is only a few hours from the nearby Araucanía and Los Lagos regions, the city is sometimes skipped by travelers, as it requires detouring away from the Panamerican Highway towards the ocean. In my opinion, it is well worth a visit in order to expand your understanding of this important city and its role in Chile’s history.
Today, Valdivia is home to one of Chile’s most important universities, the Universidad Austral de Chile, so it maintains a college town vibe. With strong German influence, artisanal breweries abound in the surrounding region and are some of the area’s biggest draws for tourism. Many of the hillsides of nearby towns house ruins of old Spanish forts.
On top of that, Valdivia’s ecology is unique; it is surrounded by rivers and the temperate Valdivian rainforest, which I’d first seen at the Ojos de Caburga near Pucón as well as in the Parque Nacional Chiloé. Finally, it is the site of the infamous 1960 earthquake that leveled the city and caused tsunamis that wreaked destruction throughout Chile.
Views of the River, Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile
Today, Valdivia is a modern Chilean city, and most of the downtown areas echo the development of other cities in Chile. To experience Valdivia’s riverside character, you have to be sure to take a boat ride, either from the docks next to the market area or by visiting nearby towns Niebla and Corral (subject of my next post!). Before these bridges were built, boats were the primary form of transportation around the different towns along the river!
When I visited Valdivia, I made sure to check out the main plaza and commercial district, as well as Esmerelda, home to many popular restaurants and bars, but I actually spent most of my time exploring the islands outside the city.
I was excited to head out early in the morning to check out the open market located right next to the river. Southern Chile has amazing fruit and vegetables, especially the berries in season during my visit in early January! I ended up buying delicious little plums, perfect for an afternoon’s wandering.
There are many stands selling just about any type of produce you can work, and you can also buy herbs like the ever-popular merken, smoked chile pepper produced by the Mapuche around nearby Temuco.
Next to the outdoor market, you can find a building housing several floors of artisan wares, most of them built from local wood from the booming forestry industry. I also managed to find a store selling several different types of artisanal beer, a good stop for anyone who doesn’t have time to travel to the breweries on the outskirts of Valdivia.
Universidad Austral de Chile & Isla Teja
After the markets, I walked across the bridge to Isla Teja. In the olden days, Isla Teja used to be separated from central Valdivia by the river, so its German-descendant inhabitants tended to speak more German than Spanish. Today, Isla Teja is connected to downtown Valdivia and you can walk, drive, or take a local bus.
My first top on Isla Teja was the Universidad Austral de Chile, one of the largest universities in the country. As you can see above, the entrance is lined by majestic trees leading you towards the campus.
This university reminded me a lot of the college campuses in the US, with expanses of green lawn for students to sprawl on during the school year. I enjoyed wandering through the campus looking for the entrance to the Universidad Austral de Chile’s botanical gardens.
Botanical Gardens on Isla Teja
As it turns out, I wandered into the botanical gardens through one of the side entrances used by students and professors who duck into the botanical gardens for a quick stroll or as a shortcut around the campus.
Wandering through the shaded forest lined with all kinds of species of trees, I was reminded of the forest paths in New England, where I’m from. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering around, enjoying being in nature.
For those interested in learning more about the species that make up the botanical gardens, there are several trees and sections of trees labeled with signs, but I was more interested in enjoying the shade on such a hot summer day.
I spent a little while reading underneath the trees, avoiding the heat of midday, and then I continued on foot to my next destination on Isla Teja, the nearby museums. As it turns out, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo was closed during my visit, so I headed to the anthropology museum, Museo Maurice van de Maele.
Museo Maurice van de Maele
Since I had read about Valdivia’s unique heritage, I was curious to check out the Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele, a small but comprehensive museum located in a historic building across the river from downtown Valdivia.
As you can see, it has great views, and the property has several remnants of an earlier time, including old carriage cars.
The first floor of the museum has several exhibits explaining the history of the region and the German settlers in this area, including period pieces like those you see in the photo above. The second floor houses an exhibit dedicated to the Mapuche, including their famous silver jewelry, as well as a gallery of old maps. I felt this was the perfect size for a museum – enough to give you background on Valdivia but not overwhelming.
One of the highlights of my stay in Valdivia was the Airesbuenos Hostel, a hostel that really embraces the spirit of hostels, that of community, sustainable living and travel, and sharing resources. In the commercial district of Valdivia, the hostel is like an oasis, with a green backyard filled with edible plants, an herb garden located on the patio, and open kitchen on the patio, and welcoming rooms inside.
I particularly liked the breakfast nook, and the fact that they offered loose leaf tea along with their homemade granola served every morning.
On top of that, on my first night in the hostel, I randomly fell into what became a deep, personal, and transformative conversation with the two lovely ladies pictured above. Even though I enjoyed my trip to Valdivia, the spirit of sharing I felt among the guests reenergized me to pay attention to my intuition as I puzzled out my next steps for life after working in Chile, and made the detour totally worth it.
La Última Frontera
On the recommendation of one of my former students from Valdivia, I headed to the well-known café, restaurant, and bar, La Última Frontera. La Última Frontera is one of those quintessential places catering to the college student crowd, while welcoming people of all ages, including foreign tourists who want to check out its unique menu and quirky decor. I went for one of the giant vegetarian sandwiches – the term can be used loosely for filling barely contained by bread!
Although they have ample seating space outside on the patio, I decided to escape the sun for a little while and enjoy a table inside in this quiet nook in the back. The walls were decorated with interesting photos showing the vibe of the place, and even the bathroom was covered in quirky memorabilia. The front room of the restaurant is different, with walls made of dark German wood, giving more of a brewhouse ambiance.
Because La Última Frontera is so welcoming, I saw people having meals, doing work over a couple of beers, and hanging out with their families in the fresh air. I decided to order a local beer even though I’m not a beer drinker and enjoy it slowly, reading my latest book. It was a perfect way to spend my last afternoon in Valdivia and I’m thankful for the recommendation.
Street Art in Valdivia
Although Valdivia is a college town, I didn’t actually see much mural art around the streets of Valdivia. I spotted this crazy mushroom on plywood in an abandoned lot on Isla Teja and couldn’t resist taking a picture.
To the right is a mural honoring the Mapuche culture of southern Chile. This was surprising to me as Valdivia has stronger ties to its German and Spanish heritage; nearby Temuco and Villarica are where the Mapuche tend to live. That said, I thought this was a beautiful mural and a nice tribute.
Recommendations for Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile:
- Valdivia is easily accessible from other destination in southern Chile. From Santiago, you can take TurBus; if you’re coming from Chiloé, Cruz del Sur buses also head to Valdivia. You may also make connections from Temuco, Pucón, and Villarica, or transfer to a bus heading to Valdivia in Osorno.
- Make sure to check out the outdoor market located right on the river near downtown Valdivia. There is also an artisan market nearby, and boat tours are constantly being sold right there from the dock.
- Be sure to give yourself time to visit Isla Teja, where you can find the Universidad Austral de Chile, its botanical gardens, and the Museo Histórico y Antropológico Maurice van de Maele. The botanical gardens are free, although you may have to pay for parking, and the museum entry cost $1500 CLP in January 2016.
- As mentioned above, I highly recommend staying at Airesbuenos Hostel at García Reyes 550, walkable from the bus station, and eating at La Última Frontera at Vicente Pérez Rosales 787. Because Valdivia has such a cool café culture, there are plenty of other neat cafés lining the streets around the main plaza.
- Buses to Isla Teja leave frequently from the center of town – ask at the hostel and they’ll mark the stop on the map. You want the buses heading to Niebla. Buses continue on past the Kunstmann beer brewery in Torobayo, another popular destination, as well as Corral and Niebla, islands famous for their Spanish forts and beautiful beaches and views.
- If you’re just going to Isla Teja, you can easily walk across the bridge – I walked to and from the botanical gardens and museum on foot.
- Even if you’re not a beer drinker like me, make sure to at least try one of the brews from the region. It’s a big part of the culture and a neat experience, different from the way people drink in the rest of Chile.
- Besides visiting Valdivia, Isla Teja, and nearby Niebla and Corral, there are other ways to experience the gorgeous landscape of the rivers region: you can head to Parque Oncol, just 30 kilometers from Valdivia as well as the beautiful beaches and reserve in Curiñanco. I had to head to Santiago for work so didn’t get a chance to visit, but they came highly recommended by a local Chilean friend as well as fellow travelers, so I’d make time to go if you can. They are also accessible by bus.
[Valdivia, Los Ríos, Chile: January 5-7, 2016]