During a trip through Chile, odds are that unless you are Chilean or have unlimited time to travel, you probably won’t visit Valdivia.
Why would you?
Although it is the largest city in the south of Chile, it roughly four hours south of tourist-friendly Pucón and the same distance north of Puerto Varas, a popular stop with the South American cruises, and has no major tourist attractions to speak of.
We love these kinds of cities, the ones that are entirely unconcerned with tourists.
Their beauty is a natural one, no make-up, nothing over the top, out in plain sight for us to discover.
That’s why we fell for places like Valladolid in Mexico (we ask you not to even go there), Kamphaeng Phet (the town that tourism forgot) in Thailand and now Valdivia in Chile. While there is no earth-shattering attraction, it turns out that an event here actually altered the Earth forever.
Let’s back up a bit first. To understand Valdivia, the easiest place to start is by heading straight down to the river at the center of town. Not one river, actually this is where the confluence of three major rivers, the Calle-Calle, the Valdivia and the Cau-Cau.
It was here at the famous outdoor fish market, that, despite the bloody fish guts splattered on the floor, for us Valdivia began to sparkle.
It is bursting with gorgeous produce on one side – fresh fruits and vegetables, a variety of colorful tubers, eggs, cheese, big cubes of dark green seaweed and another thick, rubbery type that looks more like animal intestine but is indeed seaweed straight from the area’s river system. Varieties of freshly caught river fish with strangely large teeth, or whiskers and tails stare across the aisle at the vegetarian-friendly section as fishmongers clean them, tossing their guts right onto the floor and then hosing them into the river behind them.
Hundreds of birds hover and swoop in for this free fishy lunch, competing with six massive sea lions who roar, play fight and flap about lazily on a floating wooden pier just off river bank, both sure that they are the true main attraction.
The sea lions win, flippers down.
At one point Dani thought a space ship had landed in the market when seeing my eyes so wide with disbelief. The largest of the sea lions had made its way past the metal security gates and flopped right into the market itself. Hundreds of tourists with their cameras suddenly circled (at a safe distance) taking pictures with their phones, cameras, iPods and (annoyingly) iPads.
Dani jumped down right near him, of course, to get her shot, and though the market vendors were obviously used to this beast’s visit, they were amused with Dani’s eagerness to get the shot and kept urging her to touch him. She didn’t, instead letting some of the mongers lure him back into the water by dumping ever more fish guts into the water.
A stroll along the river brought us to the spot where river tours leave from – right in front of Fucoult’s Pendulum. You’d have to be much smarter than us to understand more than a basic gist, but we gleaned that the swinging of the pendulum proves the earth’s rotation.
In Valdivia, it turns out, this is more relevant than we would have thought.
We hopped on a one-hour river tour here (Spanish only) that gives a great outline of the history and industry of the city, but it was here we learned that Valdivia was the most affected city of the 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in history.
Registering a 9.5 on the Richter scale, the quake was so powerful it actually altered the Earth’s axis and shortened the length of every day on Earth by a few milliseconds.
Tsunami waves of over 80ft (25m) battered the Chilean coast and actually devastated a town in Hawaii. Learning this, and that waves as high as 35 ft (10.7m) were recorded over 6,000 miles (10,000km) from the epicenter – as far as Japan – while sitting on a small tour boat was not exactly where we would have chosen to hear of this earth-shattering event.
Our visit was calm and focused on experiencing the everyday life of the city’s residents. The weather was sunny and warm, so hundreds of people were out on the river in kayaks and paddle boats, with more serious rowers speeding up and down it, parallel to the length of the city. While we were there, we ate well in several restaurants with fair, local prices.
In particular we would recommend a stop in at La Ultima Frontera, just a few blocks up and away from the river, for their great priced and delicious lunch specials. For a boozy afternoon break, stop by the very local Cafe Palace, where we had a giant bowl of Patatas Bravas and 2-for-1 pisco sours for a total of $8. There is primary forest to be visited outside of the city and incredible wildlife just across the river, but we were focused on a city getaway in the middle of a month of Patagonian adventure. We spent the afternoons visiting museums, like the contemporary art museum, and stopping in cozy, if nondescript, cafes, noticing each time that if a place offered free Wi-Fi, the internet connection always worked.
This is how we feel in general with most of Chile. While lacking in the crumbling grandeur (and constant threat of economic disaster) of neighboring Argentina, in Chile everything just works. The economy here is strong and the infrastructure solid. Even in remote areas, roads are paved and internet connections are speedy. There is a sense of order here, throughout the country that we found even in bohemian Valparaiso and seven-million strong Santiago.
In Valdivia, the waves are calm enough again to witness the subtle aspects of charming Chilean life.