Sealions in the market

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

It is really strange to be on a smooth tarmacked dual carriageway, cruising along at over 100km/h in a large comfortable bus. Its another confirmation that we've left the harsh gravel strips and empty roads of southern Chile behind.

We are on our way by bus from Puerto Varas to Valdivia. We pass through the town of Osorno, and cut off the main Ruta 5 to arrive in Valdivia after a comfortable 3 hours.

Unfortunately when we arrive in Chile's nicest town its raining! In the bus terminal Rachel and I look at each other and wonder if we can face a long walk in the rain to find a suitable hostel. Fortunately, there's a hostel looking for us, and we get solicited by friendly Seņor Antonio to stay at his place. Despite the lack of Spanish on my part I gather that its 5000 Pesos each (about GBP5.00) per night for a double room, use of the kitchen facilities, living room, and unlimited internet time. Oh and most important - he has a minibus to drive us through the rain to the hostel to take a look. Just as we're convinced to go with Antonio, a policewoman tries to arrest him for soliciting, but we all walk out of the bus station and it comes to nothing.

Hostal Anwandter turns out to be fine, and we leave our bags in the room and head downstairs to eat some lunch. Mind you, it feels a little like we're intruding in the family home as we spread our stuff over the dining room table. The furniture is all straight out of the 1930's with scratched brown leather sofas, faded wallpaper and dark varnished wooden cabinets. I can see that the house consists of two semi-detached places knocked together. Despite this there are still two staircases running up the middle of the house and one side is still a perfect mirror image of the other.

In the afternoon the rain stops and it starts to brighten up, so we head down town to visit the historical museum. The streets are clean and tidy, and the houses look well maintained, giving the appearance of some affluence. The town is built on the confluence of three rivers, and its very close to the sea, so everywhere we look there is water.

There are also a lot of students around, and many of them are covered in paint, food, and dirt so it must be the start for new freshers at university. When I look at the state of some of them I am glad that I only had to undergo that form of humiliation once in my life - on my stag do.

The museum is housed in a luxurious mansion of a German immigrant, and many of the rooms are decorated with 19th century furniture and paraphenalia. The house is large, airy, well proportioned, with fine views over the river, and certainly makes me think that some of these wealthy early immigrants had good taste. Upstairs there is a collection of Mapuche Indian artifacts and household items.

We wander over to the Feria Fluvial (river market) where huge fat sealions waddle up the concrete steps by the riverside to grunt at the fish vendors for a snack. Some lie basking in the sun just a few feet from the stalls, and others wait patiently with their necks craned towards sellers filleting salmon. Every once in a while they bark and snort angrily at each other as they squabble over territory. The vendors all have long metal poles hanging from the roof which they grab and brandish at the enormous sealions if they get too close.

The spectacle of the sealions surpasses any feeding show you are likely to see at a zoo, since all of the animals are completely wild and as close as you dare go. The symbiotic relationship between the seals and stall holders works like this: seals get lots of tasty food, stall holder doesn't have to clean up fish guts, and gets plenty of tourists coming by to gawk. There are also cormorants and falcons who pick up the small pieces overlooked by the sealions. I am also amazed to see several sealions (which must easily weigh 1000kg) climb over a 1 metre tall metal fence by the river that was presumably constructed to keep the stallholders and lions apart.

Rachel takes a few photos and decides that its definetly worth staying in Valdivia another day just to come back and see what its like in the morning when there are more stallholders.

In the afternoon we wander through the town enjoying the European feel and the buzz from the excited new students. We find the most luxurious cafe in town - Entrelagos - where we order a hot chocolate (900 pesos or GBP0.90), a capuccino (800 Pesos or GBP0.80) and a thick slice of Sache Torte (1500 pesos or GBP1.50). Inside, the waiters are dressed in tightly creased black trousers and waitcoats, with purple ties. Everything is perfectly clean and polished including the huge golden eagle on top of the espresso machine. The cafe has its own chocolateria in the shop next door, so I am not surprised that it is the most tasty hot chocolate I've ever tasted. The waiter brings me a bar of chocolate in gold foil which I unwrap and place in a large cup. He then ceremoniously pours over hot milk from a large silver jug. After stirring for a while I sip the delicious velvety perfection, and think lots of nice thoughts about Chile and Valdivia. Rachel's capuccino is also delicous and differs from the usual European formula because it has cream instead of milk. We agree we might have to come back tomorrow to try the ice cream.

Rachel spots in the guidebook that there is a Chinese restaurant in town, the first such establishment that we've come across since beginning our trip in South America. The prospect of rice gets Rachel all excited and we order beef with vegetables and black bean sauce plus boiled and fried rice. The meal tastes homemade and is tasty, surprisingly authentic, and costs just 6000 Pesos (GBP6.00). The couple running the restaurant came from Shanghai 6 years previously.

Next morning we are back down at the Feria Fluvial, and we take another look at the sealion show. There are more fish vendors gutting and filleting delicious looking salmon. These fish all seem to be between 3 and 6kg in weight and look like perfect. Amazingly it only costs 1,500 Pesos (about GBP1.50) per kilo to buy. There are also hand-sized mussels for sale at 800 Pesos per kilo (about GBP0.80), and I see a man eating some raw with a lemon. The sealions are a bit more frisky this morning and the metal pole is used quite a lot to keep them in check. A line of tourists click away with their cameras as a particuarly fat sealion catches salmon heads thrown into his open jaws.

We take the bus the short hop down to Niebla for 300 Pesos (about GBP0.30) each, and jump on a small ferry (600 Pesos or GBP0.60) going across the estuary to Corral. In Corral we walk around a very well preserved fort (Fuerta San Sebastian) which was built by the Spanish in 1645 to protect their colony. Many of the cannon are still present, pointing out to sea on corroded wooden platforms. We enjoy lunch sitting on the fort wall, watching the cormorrants diving, and a lot black necked swans, and wondering what it would be like to be a Spanish soldier posted her 300 years ago. The scenery is somewhat different now with metal ships and a gaint dock facilty for transporting wood chips (that least value-added form of wood) to global markets.

On the boat back to Niebla its fairly vibrant: a nurse travels with a patient on a trolley connected to a drip, and students travel loaded down with computer gear as they head into the University in town.

Back in town, Rachel spots pretty little church with colourful stained-glass windows and we take a peek inside. There is a coffin with someone keeping vigil over it. The lid is open and I really want to take a look inside.

Putting aside thoughts of dead people, we soon find ourselves gravitating back to Entrelagos. We buy a coupon for 700 Pesos each (about GBP0.70) for a Helado Simple, supposedly a single scoop of ice cream. The very beautiful smiling dark-harired girl with the thick eyeliner serving the ice cream takes our ticket and tells us to choose two flavours each. She then takes her time to ensure she puts the largest scoops physically possible on to the cone, and tops it off with a chocolate wafer. Struggling to cope with the enormous serving of 'John - swiss chocolate with nuts plus white chocolate with cherries' and 'Rachel - swiss chocolate with nuts and natural yoghurt', we find the nearest park bench and sit down for a good twenty minutes to get through the two mountains, feeling like glutons but enjoying every moment.

And is Valdivia really Chilli's nicest town? Well Rachel counts more than 20 that we've been in so far, and the answer has to be - yes of course!
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