Published: December 27th 2011December 10th 2011
From Bariloche it's a short but beautiful hop (a mere three hours in the bus), along a road boxed in on both sides by soaring snow-capped mountains, to the small but intriguing town of El Bolsón.
Wedged between two mountain ranges, El Bolsón couldn't have a more impressive setting. The mild microclimate its position produces has made El Bolsón one of the country's prime fruit-growing areas - strawberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, apricots...all abound here. We've been feeling somewhat vegetable-starved for the past few weeks (or months...) and the bounty available on the shelves of El Bolsón is, on its own, a big reason to come here. The first night in our cosy little hostel sees us gorge on mountains of greenery the likes of which we haven't seen since we left home.
El Bolsón has something of a reputation in Argentina for a being a community of, how best to put it, "free spirits". Significant numbers of hippie types migrated to this corner of Río Negro province in the sixties and seventies - to this day El Bolsón has a very liberal, peace-loving, laid-back feel to it. One of the town's main drawcards is its large crafts market, where
there are more dreadlocks, nose-rings and baggy tie-dyed clothes than you can shake a dreamcatcher at. The town is also well-known - supposedly, for being the innocent creatures we are we saw no sign of it - for being one of Argentina's prime cannabis-growing spots. Favourable microclimate, eh!
It's a nice place to stop for a few days, if only to ward off the imminent scurvy which has been stalking us since October by scoffing vast quantities of fruit and vegetables. El Bolsón also provides some superb hiking opportunities in the neighbouring mountain ranges, opportunities we take full advantage of during our week's stay in the area.
As in the area surrounding Bariloche, many refugios
dot the mountains and valleys around El Bolsón, providing the opportunity for extended walks in gorgeous surroundings. Feeling brave and ready for our first hike with full packs, we went for a wonderful four-day hike to explore some of the valleys west of the town. What with pots, pans, food, tent, sleeping bags and the like, the weight quickly adds up and the first part of the walk, a relentless climb of about four hours, is a bit of a nasty shock. Things
are not helped by the presence of Biblical numbers of dreaded tábanos
- horseflies - attacking us from all sides. The path gradually levels out, though, and before long we are ambling through beautiful native Patagonian woodland, with its familiar species of
ñire and lenga
, along bubbling streams and raging torrents of ice-cold, blue-tinged glacial meltwater. Tired, dusty, with aching shoulders from our full packs and covered in the guts of the countless tábanos
we've swatted, we arrive in a magnificent cirque of snow-capped mountains where, nestled among trees, lies the Refugio Hielo Azul. Exhaustion rapidly and miraculously gives way to excitement as we set up camp, gather wood, get a fire going - my ability to get a roaring campfire started with a single match earning me substantial kudos with her in the tent - and rustle up some dinner (the inevitable polenta with salami, now a staple of our camping trips). Quite delightful. Even better, a few pesos can also buy you a hot shower - perfect for getting dried insect guts off your legs, arms, neck, hair... The place even has a resident cat to distract you while you really should be thinking of getting ready before
the light goes.
The following morning, leaving the tent pitched below, we set off on an energetic scramble up the side of the cirque to a glacier and its accompanying lake, clambering over rocks and crawling on all fours across steep, snow-covered slopes to get there. The view is predictably spectacular and a great spot for some lunch. The route back down to the campsite is much easier - you just slide down the snow on your backside, a well-recognised technique here, called culopatín
or "arse-skating". How poetic!
After a second cosy night at Hielo Azul we head off for another beautiful day's walk past more mountains, streams, tarns, mallines
(flooded meadows), to Refugio Cajón del Azul, an utterly idyllic little place perched high on a valley wall overlooking the beautiful river canyon of the Río Azul, a river which as you can see in the photos certainly deserves its name - blue. The beautiful refugio is surrounded by its own orchards and allotments, sheep, horses (and more cats), and seems almost entirely self-sufficient. We even treat ourselves to a hot dinner of locally reared beef and potatoes - just what's needed after a day of hauling around
a huge backpack! The feeling of isolation from hustle and bustle (if one can use those words when referring to El Bolsón!), even though the town is only half a day's walk away, is something very welcome indeed. Neither of use can wait to do more.
There are more photos below