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The best tour is through Elisabeth Lajtonyi at Outdoors Chile (tel. 63/253377; www.outdoors-chile.com). She can arrange your entire trip in Valdivia, from reserving hotels to airport transfers and personalized sightseeing tours.

Boat Trips

A delightful way to explore the Valdivia region is with one of the many boat tours that depart from the pier Muelle Schuster at the waterfront, including yachts, catamarans, and an antique steamer. Tours are in full swing during the summer, and although there's limited service during the off-season, it's possible for a group to hire a launch for a private trip. The most interesting journeys sail through the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary to the San Luis de Alba de Cruces Fort and to Isla Mancera and Corral to visit other 17th-century historic forts; both tours run about 5 to 6 hours round-trip and usually include meals. The Nature Sanctuary was created after the 1960 earthquake sank the banks of the Río Cruces, thereby spawning aquatic flora that, with the surrounding evergreen forest, is now home to more than 80 species of birds, including black-neck swans, red-gartered coots, and buff-necked ibis. Boating here is an excellent attraction for kids.

Embarcaciones Bahía (tel. 63/348727; sergiosalgado60@yahoo.es) operates throughout the year with quick trips around Isla Teja ($8/£5.30 per person), and tours to Isla Mancera and Corral can be arranged during the off-season with a negotiated price or when there are enough passengers; children 9 and under ride free. Other trips to Isla Mancera and Corral are offered by Orión III (tel./fax 63/247896; hetours@telsur.cl), which also includes a stop at the Isla Huapi Natural Park (also a convention center; www.islahuapi.cl); the price is $24 (£16) for adults, $18 (£12) for children ages 3 to 12. Prices include the trip, lunch on Isla Huapi, and afternoon tea on board. By far the most luxurious is the Catamarán Marqués de Mancera (tel. 63/249191; www.marquesdemancera.cl), which offers Isla Mancera and Corral tours with lunch and snacks included, and evening dinner cruises (only specially organized for large groups); both cost from $24 (£16) per person.

The Vapor Collico, a completely restored 1907 German steamer, with tours to the Nature Sanctuary and historical sightseeing journeys along the Río Calle Calle and the Collico area, unfortunately, is currently out of service. Contact Sernatur for further information.

Other Attractions

The bustling Mercado Fluvial, at Muelle Schuster (Av. Prat at Maipú), is the principal attraction in Valdivia and is worth a visit for the dozens of fishermen who hawk fresh conger eel, hake, and spindly king crabs in front of colorful fruit and vegetable stands. Take a peek behind the fish stands to view the lanky pelicans and enormous sea lions barking for handouts. Across the street, the Mercado Municipal holds few attractions apart from a couple of souvenir shops and decent, inexpensive restaurants. Hours for the various shops here are erratic, but they are generally open Monday through Sunday from 9am to 7:30pm, closing at 9pm in summer, with some restaurants open later.

A block up from the waterfront, turn right on Yungay and head south until the street changes into General Lagos at San Carlos. A pleasant stroll for several blocks along General Lagos offers picturesque evidence of German immigration to the area through the stately, historic homes that dot the street. The houses, built between 1840 and 1930, belonged to affluent families, and many have been restored and maintained, despite the various earthquakes and other natural disasters that have beset them since construction.

Take a step back in time at the Centro Cultural El Austral, Yungay 733 (tel. 63/213658), commonly known as the Casa Hoffman for the Thater-Hoffman family, who occupied the home from 1870 until 1980. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 1pm and 4 to 6pm; admission is free. The first floor of this handsome building has been furnished to re-create the interior as it would have looked during the 19th century, complete with period antiques, paintings, and a few very garish chandeliers. Upstairs, the center holds temporary art exhibitions and painting, literature, and history classes. At the junction of General Lagos and Yerbas Buenas is the Torreón de Los Canelos, a 1781 defensive tower built to protect the southern end of the city -- but if you're strapped for time, forget it.

Isla Teja

Isla Teja is a tranquil residential area across the bridge from downtown that is also home to the Universidad Austral de Chile and a splendid history museum, the Museo Histórico y Antropológico, Maurice van de Maele (tel. 63/212872; www.museosaustral.cl). It's open December 15 to March 15 Monday through Sunday from 10am to 8pm, and the rest of the year Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 1pm and 2 to 6pm; admission is $3 (£2) adults, 75¢ (50p) children 12 and under. To get there, cross the Pedro de Valdivia Bridge, walk up a block, turn left, and continue for half a block. The museum is housed in the grand family home of Carl Anwandter, brewery owner and vociferous supporter and leader of German immigrants. Outside, two 19th-century carriages flank the entrance. Inside is a varied collection of antiques culled from local well-to-do families and notable figures such as Lord Cochrane (the noted admiral who helped secure independence for Chile, Peru, and Bolivia), including furniture (even a double piano), photos, letters, medals, and everyday objects. There are also a few conquest-era artifacts, such as a Spanish helmet, as well as an excellent display of Mapuche Indian silverwork, textiles, and tools. An interesting collection of sepia-toned photos depicts settlers' images of Mapuches.

The similarly themed Museo Philippi next door, inaugurated in January 2007 and housed in the transferred Schüler mansion, traces the history of German-born 19th-century explorer Rudolph Philippi and his descendents in unlocking Chile's natural secrets. You can view old watercolors, photographs, and letters, along with period furniture and scientific instruments; the museum is open during the same hours as the historical museum. Admission is $3 (£2).

Also along the waterfront, and occupying the old Kunstmann brewery across the street that was nearly demolished after the 1960 earthquake, is one of Chile's best art museums, the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (tel. 63/221968; www.macvaldivia.uach.cl), with excellent rotating displays of work by Chilean artists. It's open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 1pm and 3 to 6pm; admission $1 (70p).

Leaving the museum, turn right and continue north on Los Laureles until you reach the Universidad Austral de Chile. Once inside the campus, the road veers right; follow it and the signs to the Jardín Botánico, a lovely botanical garden created in 1957 that features a labeled collection of native trees and vegetation from every region in Chile and around the world. It's open from October 15 to March 15 daily from 9am to 7:30pm, from March 16 to October 14 daily from 9am to 5pm. Cut west through the campus to Calle Los Lingues and turn right until you reach the gated entrance to Parque Saval, a sizable park with rodeo stands, a children's playground, a picnic area, and a small lagoon. Admission is 50¢ (25p) for adults, 20¢ (10p) for children, and it's open daily. From October to March, expositions, an arts-and-crafts fair, and agricultural demonstrations take place here.

Niebla, Corral & Isla Mancera

These three villages at the mouth of the bay were largely destroyed after the 1960 earthquake (on record as the strongest earthquake ever recorded). There's little left from that era, but what did survive were the relics of the 17th-century forts that once protected Valdivia from intruders, and a visit to these ancient relics, and the coastal views, makes for a very pleasant half-day trip -- especially on a sunny day. If you are not planning to visit the coast near Santiago, do so here; there's enough to do and see to keep you occupied for at least a half-day, and Chile's only microbrewery is on the way back to town. Niebla lies 18km (11 miles) from Valdivia and is home to the Castillo de la Pura y Limpia Concepción de Monfort de Lemus (tel. 63/282084), a defensive fort founded in 1671 and renovated in 1767. It's open November through March daily from 10am to 7pm, and April through October from 10am to 5:30pm; it's closed Monday. Admission is $1 (70p), and 50¢ (35p) for kids and seniors. The fort is carved partially out of rock and features details such as cannons and a powder room, as well as a small museum. The town itself is mostly a hodgepodge of seafood restaurants and tiny houses with the most privileged views anywhere in Chile. There's one great boutique hotel set right inside the curve in the center of town, El Castillo (tel. 63/282061; www.hoteldelcastillo.com), with views of the water. Doubles run $82 (£55), including continental breakfast. To get there, take a private taxi for about $7 (£4.70), or grab a colectivo taxi (or micro bus) for $1 (70p) at the waterfront. In the summer, it is possible to take a tour boat to Niebla; in the off-season, you'll need to take the road. The trip takes about 15 minutes.

Across the bay sits Corral and the area's first and most powerful fort, the Castillo San Sebastián de la Cruz (tel. 63/471828), built in 1645 and reinforced in 1764. It's open from November through March daily 9am to 6pm and April through October from Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5:30pm; admission is $1.25 (85p). The city itself is a picturesque jumble of brightly painted wooden homes and fishing boats, an old German colony that never really recovered from the tidal wave that wiped out most of the town. To get to Corral, take a tour boat from Valdivia during high season, or take a ferry from the fishing dock just before entering Niebla (let your bus or taxi driver know you're getting off there). The mock soldier battle that once was the highlight of this attraction has been put on hold due to overenthusiastic actors mishandling gunpowder and shooting themselves in the foot; it remains to be seen if the ritual will continue anytime soon.

Either on the way to Corral or on the way back, ask to be dropped off at idyllic Isla Mancera (and ask to be picked up again!) for an easy stroll and a visit to the fort Castillo de San Pedro de Alcántara (tel. 63/212872). Admission is $1 (70p), and it's open from November 15 to March 15 daily from 10am to 6pm, and Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm the rest of the year. It was built in 1645 and restored in 1680 and again in 1762 to house the Military Government of Valdivia. Inside the grounds are the crumbling ruins of the San Francisco Convent and an underground supply room. It is possible to walk the circumference of the island in 20 to 30 minutes, and there is a site for picnics with great views.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.