Situated near the mouth of the Calle Caller River, the southern city of Valdivia has a striking natural beauty. Its hilly landscape provides expansive water views and its cold, wet climate fosters lush, native vegetation.

But the forces of nature have not always been kind to Valdivia. In 1960, the city was hit by the strongest earthquake ever recorded. Measuring more than 9.5 on the Richter Scale, the quake ripped the city apart, taking tens of thousands of lives and destroying hundreds of livelihoods. To put that in perspective, the brutal earthquake that rocked the Japanese city of Sendai earlier this month came in at 9.1 on the Richter Scale and was the seventh largest earthquake ever measured.

Black and white photos from 1960 show massive piles of rubble where there had once been roads, houses and all the other symbols of a thriving city. Fifty-one years on, there are still constant reminders of life’s fragility throughout Valdivia. Signs at the beaches on the city’s outskirts warn of the risk of flooding in the event of a tsunami and up the hill, there are more signs advising that you have reached the ‘Tsunami Safety Zone’. Apparently the sings were erected after a tsunami in February 2010 caught locals by surprise, claiming more lives.

While we were in Valdivia, we stayed in Niebla on the city’s western edge. The town’s name means fog and it is fitting. All the time we were there, the stars and sun were hidden from view and the rolling hills above Niebla were covered in cloud. When the clouds descended further, a fine rain sprinkled the town and even though it was still summer, a persistent chill hung in the air.

The main attraction in Niebla is an old fort, built by the Spaniards in the 1650s to protect the region from the Dutch, the French, the English and pirates of all nationalities and persuasions. At the time, Valdivia was a major supply centre for the conquistadores as they made their way from Europe, through the Magellan Strait and up the Chilean coast to plunder the riches of Peru. One of 16 Spanish strongholds in the region, the Niebla Fort was particularly important because it had 12 powerful cannons, each capable of firing over a kilometre.

Today most of the fort is in ruins, apart from the imposing stone wall and the main storehouse which was restored in 1992 and now serves as a museum. Six of the original cannons remain, along with six replicas, still pointing menacingly out over the the river.

Dressed in a convincing pirate costume, Juan, our helpful guide explained the fort’s history in simple Spanish. When the Chileans gained independence from Spain in 1810, the colonial masters refused to relinquish control of their forts in the south. For ten years Spanish troops maintained a presence in Valdivia but in 1820 the Government of the Republic Chile decided it was time to expel them once and for all. To get the job done, they hired a Scottish mercenary named Lord Cochrane who decieved the Spaniards by entering the Calle Calle with a fleet of three ships, each flying the Spanish flag. The surprise worked and Cochrane was able to take the 16 forts one by one, finishing with Niebla. At least, that’s what I think Juan said.

A smaller fort is located on Mancera, a small island in the middle of the Calle Calle, opposite Niebla. Accessed by a small launch for an even smaller fee, the Mancera Fort sits next to a quaint Catholic chapel overflowing with statues of Jesus, the Virgin and a handful of important saints. The buildings in this fort have fared better than their counterparts in Niebla with the walls of the chapel and a storehouse still standing. Most interesting of all though, is Mancera’s dungeon which is found by descending a dark staircase and following an even darker passageway. A hole in the old gaol’s roof, designed to let in light and air, casts an eerie glow into the centre of the cave. The dungeon is completely unfurnished and the stone floor feels especially cold and hard in the darkness. It would not have been a fun place to stay.

On the western edge of the Mancera fort is a narrow path that zig-zags its way down the side of the of a cliff to a small beach below. Facing out towards the mouth of the Calle Calle River, the beach is a great vantage point for taking in the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. The only thing separating Chile from home.