Osorno: a chance to experience local life in small town Chile
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Osorno is a town relatively untouched by tourism, so it gives you a real sense of normal Chilean life. It was a dull-yet-also-somehow-interesting stopover for us on our way down to Puerto Varas in Chile’s lake district – note, it’s in Puerto Varas that you can see Volcán Osorno, not Osorno itself. Though not brimming with things to do, Osorno was great place to chill and watch the Chilean world go by in one of its many peaceful spots. During the weekends, you’ll see the town come alive with live performances and street stalls.
Osorno was founded on the lands of the indigenous Huilliche people, and its history tells of bloody fights with the Spanish conquistadores who founded the town in 1558. The Huilliche & Mapuche people actually managed to destroy the town in 1604, but it was rebuilt and managed to thrive into the 21st century. In the 19th century, it became one of Chile’s many hotspots for German colonists to move to.
Osorno is the nearest town to the Antillanca ski resort, which means it becomes more popular with Chilean tourists in the winter. It’s also a gateway to Bariloche, Argentina, which can be enjoyed both for skiing in the cold months and hiking in the summer. Buses leave to Bariloche from Osorno bus terminal. Andesmar offers the route at least once a day for $14 USD (leaving in the morning, but not the same time every day).
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Definitely one of the best things to do in Osorno is to find somewhere to plonk yourself down and watch life do its thang. Osorno offers many places to do this, such as the such as Parque IV Centenario over the river, or at the central square, Plaza de Armas, which has an excellent water feature and is where much of the town’s community feel can be found.
Parque Pleistocénico Chuyaca is another interesting one, with lots of community events, a skate park, and life-sized models of ancient animals (think mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers).
2. Check out Fuerte Reina Luisa
This is a small fort from the late 18th century, built as an homage to the King Charles V of Spain’s wife. It’s not wildly impressive in terms of size, but it’s an interesting part of Osorno’s history as a part of the Spanish empire. There is a museum attached where you can learn about the fort, German colonial culture and the indigenous people who fought to remain on this land. Fuerte Reina Luisa is closed on Mondays, as well as for an hour and a half from 1pm every day for siesta.
3. Take a deeper dive at the Museo Municipal
In the town centre, you’ll find the Museo y Archivo Histórico Municipal de Osorno. Quite the mouthful. If you enjoyed the museum at Fuerte Reina Luisa, you’ll also love exploring the town’s ancient, indigenous and colonial history in this museum. Entry is free, but it’s only open during the week (with a siesta at 12:30 to 2:30pm, of course).
4. Admire the San Mateo Church
One of the oddities of Osorno is its bizarre church designs, which almost seem to be competing with each other. Iglesia San Mateo really takes the biscuit. Its neo-gothic designs stand out over the town for miles, and kinda look like something out of an acid trip. You can find it on the Plaza de Armas.
5. Try your luck in the casino
Casino Marina del Sol is probably more of a highlight of domestic tourists in Osorno, but who’s to say that being a backpacker needs to hold you back from gambling away your travel fund? There are shops and restaurants inside, and they also put on live acts on weekends, so there’s always a bit of a buzz around the casino. Remember to bring a form of ID to gain entry, and dress up a little neater than usual.
6. Grab food near the market
One of the best things about being in a non-touristy place is the cheapness and authenticity of the food. Some of the best food we found in Osorno was around the Mercado Municipal. It’s a dirty area, and the small food shops and cafés you’ll find are entirely no frills, but the food is wholesome, tasty and super-cheap. Expect some stares as the only foreigners.
7. Buy trinkets at the artisanal village
The Centro de Artesanal (or Pueblito Artesanal) is a very small but still worthy stop on your tour of Osorno. You’ll find lots of handmade souvenirs that make perfect gifts for people back home, or a little treat for yourself – from crafted leather belts to traditionally-woven purses, handmade jewellery to beautifully-designed pottery.
Where to stay in Osorno, Chile
We set up camp at Hostel Chaman, which is an easy 90 second walk (left and then left again) from the bus terminal. It’s really homely, with the type of plush, cotton duvets and pillows you’d expect to find at your parents’ guest room. A little bit of home comfort bliss! From there it’s around a 10 minute walk to the centre.
Stray dogs in Osorno
The only real downside is that it has a problem with stray dogs; in Santiago the dogs are all very well looked after, and they keep to themselves, but in Osorno (and Valparaíso) they are much more aggressive towards humans and they hang around in large packs. We saw two teenaged boys being chased by a pack around the park for 20 minutes and an old man having the bat away a dog trying to bite him on his walk home from the supermarket.