After having spent a semester studying in the bustling Chilean capital of Santiago, I was eager to experience a different part of the country for my second semester abroad. I ended up choosing to study at the Universidad Austral de Chile (UACH), located in the small southern city of Valdivia. I spent my time taking humanities courses at the university's Isla Teja campus, one of two campuses in the city. I was challenged academically by my professors and felt welcomed by peers. We were mutually curious to get to know each other and learn about our respective backgrounds.
If you're not a fan of the rain, Valdivia might not be the place for you. This is important to address in the beginning, because it rains a ton here. Rainy months are from about April to September, with the hardest and most constant rainfall typically taking place from May-July. Definitely show up to Valdivia with a quality rain jacket!
However, the rain may only prevent you from having a worthwhile experience if you let it. Because of the consistent rain, the city is surrounded by lush forests and nature reserves. Rivers run right through the middle of the city and out to the Pacific Ocean, which can be inexpensively accessed by bus in less than 40 minutes. Fans of the outdoors would love the abundance of greenery, coastline and hiking trails in surrounding parts of the area. The UACH, which has a strong emphasis in programs in the natural sciences, has its own arboretum and botanical garden located right on the Isla Teja campus. When the weather permitted, I spent meaningful time taking walks in between classes and enjoying the trees and scenery. It really is a beautiful place to study.
In my experience, the people of Valdivia tended to be welcoming, friendly, and loved to spend time conversing and sharing stories. Because of the rainfall, people have grown accustomed to spending long stretches of time talking. There is a downtown area with restaurants, shops, a few clubs, and a beautiful fish open market with sea lions that jump right up onto the sidewalk. There is a stretch of bars on the Isla Teja, within minutes walking from the university, that are frequented by students and locals alike with excellent brews of local craft beer.
Valdivia is a wonderful place to live and study if one is interested in a more relaxed pace of living. The culture, because of the size of and weather in Valdivia, is more open and easygoing than that of Santiago. The university is one of the best in Chile, though the students tend to be quite politically and socially active and are notorious for striking and therefore halting university courses. My department's students occupied our building for four weeks. In situations like these, however, Middlebury's Chilean program directors organize private classes for students enrolled in the program.
I highly recommend Valdivia for students who are interested in getting to know the south of Chile! It's a truly unique part of South America!