The city of Valdivia and Chiloé Island were once the two southernmost enclaves of the Spanish Empire. From 1645 to 1740, the city depended directly on the Viceroyalty of Peru that financed the building of the Valdivian fort system, which turned Valdivia into one of the most fortified cities of the New World. In the second half of 19th century, Valdivia was the port of entry for German immigrants who were given land and settled in the surrounding areas.
The city was severely damaged by the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960 — the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Debris and destroyed buildings from the earthquake can still be found in the suburban areas — land subsidence and sediments make navigation of the local rivers complex, with some ruined buildings still adjoining the water.
By the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, Valdivia was inhabited by Huilliches (Mapudungun for People of the South). Huilliches and Mapuches were both referred by the Spaniards as Araucanos. Their main language was a variant of Mapudungun, the Mapuche language.
There was a large village called Ainil in present day downtown Valdivia, and the Valdivia River was called Ainilebu. Ainil seemed to have been an important trade center due to its ease of access to the sea and the interior using the river network of the Cruces and Calle-Calle Rivers, both tributaries of the Valdivia. Ainil may be described as "a kind of little Venice" as it had large areas of wetlands and canals, most of them drained or filled nowadays. The market in Ainil received shellfish and fish from the coast, legumes from Punucapa, and other foods from San José de la Mariquina; an agricultural zone north east of Valdivia. Remains of this ancient trade is the modern Feria Fluvial (English: Riverside Market) on the banks of Valdivia River. The surroundings of Valdivia were described as large plains having a large population that cultivated potatoes, maize, quinoa and legumes among other crops. The population have been estimated by some historians as 30-40 thousand inhabitants as of 1548 based on descriptions made by the conquistadors. Pedro Mariño de Lobera, an early conquistador and historian wrote that there were half a million Indians living within ten leagues (one league is roughly 4.2 km) from the city. Other historians consider these numbers too high and argue that early Spaniards usually exaggerated in their descriptions. Later Charles Darwin would state that "there is not much cleared land near Valdivia" which suggests that pre-Hispanic agriculture in Valdivia was far more extensive than the agriculture practiced in the early 19th century.
The first European to visit Valdivia River's estuary was the Genoese captain Juan Bautista Pastene, who took possession of it in 1544 in the name of the Spanish king, Carlos I. He named the river after the Governor of Chile Pedro de Valdivia.
Pedro de Valdivia later traveled by land to the river described by Pastene, and founded the city of Valdivia in 1552 as Santa María la Blanca de Valdivia. It was the southernmost Spanish settlement in the Americas at the time of the founding. Following the establishment of the church of Santa María la Blanca in Valdivia, more buildings were constructed, so many that it was considered "the second city in the Kingdom of Chile".
After Pedro de Valdivia's death, the war with the Mapuches, called the War of Arauco, continued as the Spanish made many attempts to defeat the Mapuche and defend the cities and forts built on their territory. On March 17 of 1575 the city was damaged by an earthquake similar to the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960. Until 1575 the Huilliches of Valdivia had not made any notable resistance against their new rulers. They had even fought as Indios amigos with the Spanish against the northern Mapucuhes in the Arauco War. But that year 4,000 Indians that had been fighting in Martín Ruiz de Gamboa's army rebelled when they returned to the surroundings of Valdivia.
After the demoralising Battle of Curalaba in 1598, in which an entire Spanish army was defeated and the Mapuches killed the governor, the Mapuches and Huilliches made a mass rebellion. The Indians proceeded to destroy all the Spanish settlements and forts in their lands, in what came to be known as the Destruction of the Seven Cities. On 24 November, 1599 Huilliches destroyed and plundered Valdivia. The border of the Spanish Empire shifted north of the Bío-Bío River, while the later refounded city of Valdivia remained a Spanish enclave surrounded by native Huilliche territory, and along with the island of Chiloé, continued to be the southernmost colonies of the Empire.
Eleven days after the first destruction of Valdivia, a group of 270 Spanish soldiers arrived from Perú. The commander of the troops, colonel Francisco del Campo was convinced that the city of Valdivia needed to be repopulated. After Francisco del Campo's expedition left, the Dutch corsair Sebastian de Cordes occupied the site of Valdivia for some months, giving the Dutch government information about this abandoned part of the Spanish Empire. The Spaniards returned on 13 March of 1602, when captain Francisco Hernández Ortiz established a fort on the ruins of the city. On September 24th natives attacked the fort unsuccessfully, but laid siege. The Spaniards could not acquire food or supplies, and on 3 February, 1604 abandoned the fort, with the last starving survivors rescued by ship.
The Dutch governor of the East Indies Hendrik Brouwer, learned about the situation in Valdivia, and decided to establish a base there for further attacks against the Viceroy of Peru. This plan was well accepted as the Netherlands was at war with Spain. The Dutch had previously taken the North of Brazil from the Spanish-Portuguese crown, and the idea of creating a South American empire was attractive. In spite of his advanced age, Hendrik Brouwer left his post as governor in the East Indies to personally lead the expedition. The Dutch fleet destroyed the Fort of Carelmapu and the city of Castro before arriving at Corral Bay at the mouth of the Valdivia River. Hendrik Brouwer died the 7th of August in Puerto Inglés while waiting for spring to sail north to Valdivia. John Maurice of Nassau while in charge of the Dutch part of Brazil had equipped the expedition and had secretly appointed Elias Herckman as commander if Brouwer died. Herckman finally occupied the ruins of Valdivia in 1643. The Dutch did not find the gold mines they expected and the hostility of the natives forced them to leave on 28 October, 1643.
Pedro Álvarez de Toledo y Leiva Viceroy of Peru (1639-1648) knew of the strategic importance of Valdivia and decided to repopulate and fortify it once for all. He financed partly the expedition to repopulate Valdivia with his own capital. The contingent in charge of the mission was organized in Peru and consisted of seventeen ships filled with building materials and supplies that astounded contemporaries by its magnitude. The local government of Chile could not secure Valdivia as it was engaged in continuous war with the Mapuches and was deeply dependent on the Real Situado, an annual payment of silver from Potosí to finance the army of Chile. The Valdivia enclave was placed directly under the control of the Viceroyalty of Peru that administered Valdivia from its repopulation in 1645 until 1740. Corral, located on the river entrance to Valdivia, became one of the most fortified bay at the time, with 17 forts. During this time it was several times proposed to move the city of Valdivia to Mancera Island. Valdivia's original site, downtown of modern Valdivia was repopulated in 1684.
From the 18th century onwards Valdivia was used as a base for colonization of southern Chile. This was partly fueled by rumours about a fabulous city called Trapananda, Lin Lin or City of the Caesars (Spanish: Ciudad de los Césares) that was situated in the unexplored lands of Patagonia. An expedition from Valdivia searching this city founded Río Bueno in 1777. In 1784 the Governors of Chile and Chiloé were ordered to establish a Camino Real from Valdivia to Chacao Channel in order to connect Ancud with Valdivia by a land road. This led to the celebration of the treaty of Río Bueno with local Huilliches in 1789. But by 1792 the Huilleches rebelled and planned to assault Valdivia. In 1793 the Parliament of Las Canoas was arranged. This treaty allowed the Spanish to build the road and repopulate Osorno in 1796. Osorno had previously been destroyed in 1602. With the Parliament of Las Canoas the local Huilliches became subjects of the Spanish Crown but were allowed to retain their lands and social structure. They were also meant to defend the land against Spain's enemies and the Spanish to defend them from hostile tribes. By the same time Huilliche lands around Valdivia were slowly overtaken by mestizos and nearby Indians became "reduced" (Spanish: reducidos) it means "pacified" by a combination of military force and conversion into Christianity. The territories north of Valdivia were not totally incorporated into the Chilean state until the 1880s when the Chilean army overwhelmed the indigenous resistance during the occupation of the Araucanía.
Self governing juntas appeared in Spanish America and Spain after Napoleon occupied Spain and held the Spanish king Fernando VII captive. Many juntas, as was the case of Chile, declared plans to rule their territory in the absence of the legitimate king. At the time of the first governing junta of Chile in 1810 the Valdivian governor, an Irishman, Albert Alexander Eagar, led the celebration of what was seen as an affirmation of the legitimacy of the Spanish king. However, Valdivian independentists, such as Camilo Henríquez, saw an opportunity to gain absolute independence from Spain, organized a coup on 1 November of 1811, and joined other Chilean cities that were already revolting against the old order. Four months after the coup, on 16 March of 1812 a counterrevolutionary coup took control of the city and created a War Council. The War Council broke trade relations with the rest of Chile and confirmed Valdivia's loyalty to the Spanish government.
Even after several defeats of the Spanish troops during the Chilean Independence War, Valdivia and Chiloé remained loyal to the Spanish King. By 1820 the newly created Chilean Navy, commanded by Lord Thomas Cochrane, captured Valdivia, but failed to liberate Chiloé. Cochrane's land-based attack took the Spanish by surprise, avoiding a direct confrontation with the highly-defended forts at the entrance to the Valdivia River. When loyal troops in Valdivia heard the news about the fall of Corral they sacked the city and fled south to reinforce Chiloé, passing by Osorno.
Chilean Supreme Director, and Libertador, Bernardo O'Higgins founded the city of La Unión south of Valdivia in 1821, to secure the way to Osorno, city that had been repopulated in 1796 by his father Ambrosio O'Higgins. Valdivia had been a province of the General Captaincy of Chile and was in 1826 incorporated as one of the eight provinces of Chile.
On February 20 1835, Valdivia was affected by the worst earthquake in the area in several decades, event witnessed by Charles Darwin. He also stated that "there is not much cleared land near Valdivia" which contrasted with the description made by early Spaniards of large fields and extensive croplands.
The expansion and economic development of the city were limited in the early 19th century. To jump-start economic development, the Chilean government initiated a highly focused immigration program under Bernhard Eunom Philippi and later Vicente Pérez Rosales as government agents. Through this program, thousands of Germans settled in the area, incorporating then-modern technology and know-how to develop agriculture and industry. While immigrants that arrived to the Llanquihue area where often poor farmers, Valdivia received more educated immigrants, including political exiles and merchants. Some of the immigrants that arrived in Valdivia established workshops and built new industries. One of the most famous immigrants was Carlos Anwandter, an exile from Luckenwalde who arrived to Valdivia in 1850 and in 1858 founded Chile's first German school. Other Germans left the city and became settlers, drawn by the promise of free land. They were often given forested land, which they cleared to turn into farms. Native Mapuche and Huilliche either sold their land or were pushed into reservations. The Osorno department of Valdivia Province was moved to Llanquihue Province (created in 1853) as consequence of German immigration to the Llaquihue area.
Valdivia prospered with industries, including shipyards, the Hoffmann gristmill, the Rudloff shoe factory, the Anwandter beer company and many more. The steel mills of Corral were the largest recorded private investment in Chile at the time, and were the first steel mills in South America. In 1891 Valdivia became a commune according to a law that created such subdivisions. After the Malleco Viaduct was built in 1890 the railroads advanced further south, reaching Valdivia in 1895. The first passenger train arrived in 1899. In 1909 a fire destroyed 18 city blocks in downtown Valdivia, which were rebuilt with modern concrete buildings. By 1911 lumber production, from clearing native forests, became the most important industry. Cattle-raising was a growing industry, and wheat was grown on the cleared lands. Lumber, cattle, leather, flour and beer were exported. In 1895 the city's population was of 8,062 inhabitants and was estimated in 9,704 as of 1902.
The prosperity of Valdivia continued throughout the first half of the 20th Century. In 1917 the first "Valdivian Week" (Spanish: Semana Valdiviana) was celebrated. Chile's oldest beauty content, "Queen of The Rivers" (Spanish: Reina de Los Ríos) began the same year. The city evolved as an early tourist center in Chile, while popular songs that named Valdivia and the Calle-Calle River made it better known in Chilean popular culture. The Pedro de Valdivia Bridge crossing the Valdivia River was built in 1954. Valdivia came to be one of the most important industrial centre in Chile together with the capital Santiago and the main port city, Valparaíso.
Large sections of the city flooded after the earthquake, and a landslide near the Tralcan Mount dammed the Riñihue Lake. Water levels in Lake Riñihue rose more than 20 meters, raising the danger of a catastrophic break and of destroying everything downriver. Government authorities drew plans for evacuating the city, but many people left on their own. Danger to the city was reduced after a large team of workers was able to open a drainage channel in the landslide, allowing water levels of the lake to slowly reduce to normal levels. There is evidence that a similar landslide and earthquake happened in 1575.
After the Great Chilean Earthquake Valdivia's economy and political status declined. Much of the city was destroyed and many inhabitants left. By 1974, the military junta reorganized the political divisions of Chile and declared Valdivia a province of the Los Lagos Region with Puerto Montt as the regional capital. Many Valdivians resented the decision, and felt theirs should have been the legitimate regional capital--while Valdivia was founded in 1552, and had resisted pirate attacks, hostile natives and several earthquakes, Puerto Montt was a relatively new city founded only in 1853 (three hundred and one years later).
Since the liberalization of the economy in Chile in the 80s the forestry sector in Valdivia boomed, first by exporting wood chips to Japan from Corral and then by producing woodpulp in Mariquina (25 km northeast of Valdivia). This led to deforestation and substitution of native Valdivian temperate rainforests to plant pines and eucalyptus, but also created new jobs for people with limited education. Valdivia also benefitted from the development of salmon aquaculture in the 90s, but to a much lesser extent than places such as Puerto Montt and Chiloé.
Valdivia is often promoted for its unique characteristics, that make it different from other cities in Chile: Valdivia has an early Spanish colonial past, plus a later history of German colonization. Both eras left visible landmarks such as the forts of Corral Bay and the German-style wood houses. The governments of Spain and Germany currently maintain honorary consulates in Valdivia. The city is commonly seen as a tourist magnet in Chile, and sometimes described as La Perla del Sur (The Pearl of the South) and as La ciudad mas linda de Chile (Chile's most beautiful city). Every year during the summer months of January and February the municipality organizes many free cultural events along the river site like : concerts, sport events and other entertainment. To mark and celebrate the end of the touristic summer months, half way February all entertainment reaches its climax with the celebration of noche de valdivia (valdivian night). During this night many local groups and communitys present there self on boats during a night parade over the river. Every boat has its own theme related with 1 theme of that year. At the end a jury pics the winners in different catregories. The parade is bry tradition started by a boat which presents 'la reina de los rios'' In recent years Valdivians have showed an increasing interest in nature and ecotourism. An example of this was the formation of Accion por los Cisnes an ecologist group formed to protect black-necked swans and the natural environment that surrounds the city, particularly wetlands created or expanded by the Great Chilean Earthquake. With the founding of Universidad Austral in 1954 and the arrival of the CECS research center, Valdivia is now considered a major research center in Chile, particularly in areas related to nature such a Glaciology and Ecology. The Great Chilean Earthquake and the national government's creation of the Los Lagos Region were difficult for Valdivian society. Valdivians resented to be punished first by a major earthquake and then by being placed under the administration of what they perceived to be a less-deserving city, Puerto Montt. The recent creation of a new, smaller, but more independent region (los rios), with Valdivia as its capital, reduced the previous stigma.
German immigrants and their descendants formed their social club Club Alemán, which after World War II changed names to Club la Union. German workers had once their own club simply called El Alemán (The German).
Valdivia also hosts Bierfest Valdivia, a celebration that could be described as a small, regional Oktoberfest, despite being celebrated in late January or February of every year (during the local summer, when there is the largest influx of tourists). The main sponsor and organizer is Kunstmann, Valdivia's local beer company, founded by German nationals, but since bought out by the largest beer and beverages company in Chile (CCU).
The city is surrounded by many nature reserves and large areas of forest plantations, wetlands and Valdivian temperate rainforest that, together with the numerous rivers that circle the city, have heightened the residents' awareness of living close to nature.
During the summer months (December, January and February) the average temperature is about 17 °C, while in winter the temperature descends to 9 °C. The annual average temperature for Los Ríos Region is 11 °C, while the mensual temperature amplitude is of 8.8 °C and the daily is of 11 °C. Average annual precipitation is 2,593 mm, distributed through the year, but primarily between March and December. Hail occurs with some frequency during winter, but snow falls rarely. The lasts times it snowed in Valdivia were in July 2007 and in August of 1995 during the so-called Terremoto Blanco (Spanish: White Earthquake). The Seven Lakes in the interior help to keep an average relative humidity of 80% for the region as whole and there are no months with less than 75% average humidity. The precipitation is generated by frontal systems that cross the zone, which produce cloudiness and few clear days. The leeward effect of the Valdivian Coast Range is minimal due to its low height (715 m at Cerro Oncol) and the gap in the range at Valdivia River's outflow to the Pacific Ocean.
The oldest rocks in Valdivia are pelithic schists, micaceosus slates, metagreywackes and oceanic type mafic metavolcanics. The schist, slates and greywackes originated from sedimentation, probably above the oceanic crust of a passive continental margin for more than 400 mya. As part of the subduction zone in western Gondwana and later South America the sediments become folded and faulted in a forearc wedge. While being subducted in a ancient Peru-Chile Trench they underwent medium-grade metamorphism after a combination of low temperature and high pressure. Along with sedimentary rocks parts of the basaltic ocean crust were also deformed. These rocks emerged to the wedge surface later by bouyancy and erosion of overlying material. They constitutes now the Bahía Mansa Metamorphic Complex wich collided or accrecented to South America in Early Paleozoic.
After the amalgamation of Gondwana and Laurentia into Pangea, the subduction at the western edge of the continent ceased slowly. With the opening of the South Atlantic Ocean in the Mesozoic as background, the a subduction zone apeared once more at the western margin together with its associated orogeny and volcanic activity forming the Andes.
In the Tertiary a sudden rise of the Andes built up a topographic load that flexed the lithosphere. This flexion created a foredeep, the Intermidiate Depression and a forebulge uplifting the Bahía Mansa Metamorphic Complex of the forearc wedge and thus giving origin to the Valdivian Coast Range (part of the larger Chilean Coast Range).
A tectonically and eustatic stable period during the Oligocene and Early Miocene allowed erosion to create deep valleys in the Coast Range and peat swamps at the estuary of the Valdivia basin. About 23,5 mya ago this stable period was interrupted by a mayor volcanic eruption and 23 mya ago a increase in convergence rate at the Peru-Chile Trench caused an uplift of the lanscape and renewed erosion. However basin subsidence and a marine transgression formed deep embayments, tidal flats, bayhead deltas and beaches. Sediments from Valdivia River built up a mudflat shoal at the entrance of Corral Bay. On its remains, a formation of crossbeded piedra cancagua (a clayly sandstone), was the Niebla Fort built.
The creation of Los Ríos Region and environmental issues have dominated the politic scene of Valdivia in recent years. The communist lawyer Wladimir Riesco headed the legal actions against pulp mill enterprise CELCO after the deaths of Black-necked Swans in Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary in 2004.
The main economic activities of Valdivia include; university activity, metallurgy, naval construction (Asenav, Alwoplast), aquaculture, food processing, and forestry-related activities (harvesting and processing of wood from nearby plantations of eucalyptus and Douglas-firs). Large enterprises such as CELCO, Bomasil, and Louisiana-Pacific have established wood processing factories near Valdivia. Specialty beer (Kunstmann) and chocolate (Entrelagos) production are also part of the Valdivian economy.
Tourism is during the summer months (December, January, February) and is a major income source for Valdivias economy. Valdivia is an old tourist destination in Chile and is most valued for its natural beauty and culture. In 1917 "Valdivian Week" (Spanish: Semana Valdiviana) was celebrated for the first time, and the city began to distinguish itself as a tourism centre in Chile.
Club Deportivo Valdivia is Valdivia's main basketball team and plays in Chiles first division, DIMAYOR where it won the 2001 season. In 1977 and 2001 Valdivia hosted South Americas Men's Basketball Championship.
Calle-Calle Bridge, the first bridge built, connects the city with Las Animas and forms the northern highway access to the city. Pedro de Valdivia Bridge was built in 1954 and connects Isla Teja island, where many German immigrants lived. During the Great Chilean Earthquake only the minor Caucau Bridge (Las Animas-Isla Teja) was destroyed, while all other bridges were repaired and are still in use. In 1987 Augusto Pinochet opened Río Cruces Bridge making the coastal town of Niebla accessible by road, and also Torobayo and Punucapa. Calle-Calle Bridge, the main access to the city was enlarged in the 1990s.