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Long a vital river port and crucial military garrison, both for Spain as a colonial power and for Chile as a young nation, Valdivia is today one of Chile’s most favored, albeit under-sung, cities. It lies a little over 30 kilometers to the west of the Panamericana Highway and less than 20 kilometers from the Pacific coast.

The narrow RĂ­o Cau Cau flows into the broad RĂ­o Calle Calle just above the northern edge of the city to create the RĂ­o Valdivia, which continues for barely more than ten kilometers to its wide mouth at the Pacific, joined along the way by the robust RĂ­o Cruces and any number of smaller tributaries.

Isla Teja (TAY’-hah), site of the Universidad de Austral de Chile, is an integral part of the city, linked to the downtown area by the Puente Pedro de Valdivia.

As elsewhere throughout southern Chile, Valdivia’s German heritage is readily apparent, in the architecture of its older buildings as well as in its cuisine, such as that offered at Café Hausmann, and above all, in its uncommonly fine beer, brewed and served with artery-blocking wursts at the nationally-renowned Cervecería Kunstmann. Accommodations—hostales, hosterías, and full-service hotels—abound.

Valdivia’s easy access to the Pacific ensures fresh seafood daily, distributed to the public and to restaurateurs alike directly from fishing boats moored against the city’s outdoor riverside marketplace. Obese sea lions wait nearby, hopeful for a free mouthful of freshly caught fish.

Where the mouth of Río Valdivia empties into the Pacific Ocean, Spain constructed one of its most formidable maritime defense complexes. The hamlet of Niebla (NEEYAY’-blah), 19 kilometers southwest of Valdivia, is perched on the eastern promontory, facing across the water to Corral. Isla Mancera rises strategically just inside the extensive mouth of the Río Valdivia. Each has its own remarkably well-preserved and/or partially renovated complex of fortifications. The Castillo de la Pura y Limpia Concepción de Monforte de Lemus, with its Batería del Piojo Niebla, is the pride of Niebla, overlooking Isla Mancera toward Corral. The Castillo San Pedro de Alcántara dominates Isla Mancera. Adjacent to Corral, the Castillo San Sebastián de la Cruz offers tours by guides in period costume.

Together, these three sites comprised the formidable defense of colonial Valdivia. The drive along the northern riverbank to Niebla from Valdivia is short and easy. The drive to Corral from Valdivia is long, circuitous and much of it is unpaved. A collection of small launches ply back and forth between Niebla and Corral, some via Isla Mancera.

Birding is as big in Chile’s central regions as it is in the far north and south. The Santuario de la Naturaleza Carlos Andwandter on the Río Las Cruces to the north of Valdivia is one of Chile’s most sublime. It is readily accessible by road and by water, the latter route a much shorter one.

Located north of Valdivia on the Río Las Cruces, within the boundaries of the Santuario de la Naturaleza Carlos Andwandter, the Hualamo (“Between Great Grebes” or “Between Waterbirds”) Bird Sanctuary, is one of the most expertly operated enterprises of its kind in Chile. The sanctuary shares an early 20th century German colonial homestead with a small commercial nursery which serves to attract wildlife to the area.

Birders—experienced and beginner alike—may visit from Valdivia for the day, or they may stay for a night or more. The Hualamo complex, surrounded by impressively landscaped gardens, includes the Santa María Lodge, comprised of the immaculately maintained main house and tastefully appointed guest cottages. Room décor is enhanced by paintings of indigenous birds by Hualamo’s director and principal guide, Jorge Ruiz, also a licensed veterinarian and published writer. Food and hospitality are quintessentially Chilean.

Surprisingly undervalued, Valdivia and its environs offer visitors an intriguing insight into southern Chile’s European heritage, pre- and post-colonial history, and unique ecosystem.

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