As the Spanish conquistadores pushed their way south from present-day Santiago, they were motivated by stories of precious metals and the possibility of a large, docile indigenous workforce. The land of La Araucanía and the Lakes District would be the ideal territory to continue the imperial dream. Or maybe not. The Mapuche waged one of the fiercest and most successful defenses against the European invaders anywhere in the Americas, and the Spanish were not able to settle south of the Río Biobío until the mid- to late 19th century.

Germans were recruited to settle the Lakes District, leaving their mark on architecture, food, manufacturing and dairy farming. Today millions of national and international tourists, plus wealthy Santiaguinos looking for country homes, are doing more than anybody to continue to tame and colonize the once-wild lands. Real-estate prices are skyrocketing and the several hundred thousand remaining Mapuche are being pushed further and further into the countryside. Tourism, logging and salmon farming – despite a near collapse in the late 2000s – are driving the future of the region.

In 2007, the Lakes District was subdivided and Chile's 14th region, Los Ríos, was created with Valdivia as its capital, returning to the city the power it had held up until 1974, when the military junta deemed it second class during a regional restructuring and stripped it of its designation as an administrative capital.

The Indomitable Mapuche

Chile's largest indigenous group, the Mapuche (che meaning 'people' and mapu meaning 'of the land'), is the first and only indigenous nation on the continent whose sovereignty and independence was legally recognized, but they have exhausted generations in fighting to keep it that way.

The Mapuche first successfully fought off the marauding Inka empire, only to take on a sustained 300-year attack by the Spanish. They used the Río Biobío as a natural frontier and resisted colonization until the 19th century. It was the longest and hardest-fought indigenous defense in the Americas. By its end, the nation's once vast territory of 100,000 sq km was reduced to a mere 5000 sq km of reducciones (settlements).

The Mapuche signed the Treaty of Killin with the colonizing Spaniards in 1641 (the document solidified the territorial autonomy of the Mapuche and 28 others over two centuries of diplomatic relations). Yet, in the late 1800s, the Chilean and Argentine military massacred an estimated 100,000 Mapuche. From 1965 to 1973, land reform improved the situation for the Mapuche, but the military coup of 1973 reversed many of these gains. Between the restoration of democracy in 1989 and 2015, the Mapuche people made limited progress in their continuing fight for reparations and the return of their lands. However, most of the court rulings granting them land were effectively overturned by powerful business interests.

Various human rights organizations, as well as the Special Rapporteur of the UN, have widely reported the imposition of assimilation policies, and protests in Temuco are nearly a daily affair. In 2010 a series of hunger strikes were organized by Mapuche leaders in response to the Chilean government's efforts to prosecute some of the Mapuche community's more violent wings, such as the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM). The government has accused it of using occupation, death threats and arson as tactics in the ongoing dispute.

The battle wages on: Mapuches have been accused by the Chilean government of setting several deadly wildfires in Araucanía in recent years, as well as numerous arson attacks. In 2017, 11 Mapuches were acquitted under Chile's Anti-Terrorism Law for the 2013 arson attack and murder of landowner Bernard (Werner) Luchsinger and his wife, Vivian McKay, for insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, at time of writing, four Mapuche activists were on a 100-plus-day hunger strike while imprisoned in Temuco under suspicion of burning an evangelical temple in Padre Las Casas in 2016. There is no end in sight to the conflict.