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El Bolsón and the Andes refugio system

More reasons to add Argentine Patagonia to your travel bucket list.

Supreme view from the Pass of the Winds (Paso de los Ventos). It's about 8.5 miles up the canyon from the Wharton trailhead, the departure point for most of El Bolsón's hikes.
  • Supreme view from the Pass of the Winds (Paso de los Ventos). It's about 8.5 miles up the canyon from the Wharton trailhead, the departure point for most of El Bolsón's hikes.

My third trip to Patagonia was tremendous, great weather for all but one day and my best survey of the acclaimed mountain hostels that now number 15 in all.

Once sleepy El Bolson, fabled hippie haven flanked by mountains, is growing at a stunning rate, and I counted a dozen new craft beer cervezerias that were not there two seasons ago. This is not all bad, as more options is usually a benefit to locals and visitors alike. The town is still clean and filled with flowers and trees, and it's well equipped to handle the big increase in travelers that seems inevitable. It's one of Argentina's many gems and seems destined for mass tourism soon, but it's a unique venue and worthy of all the attention.

Crossing a sketchy-looking bridge on the Rio Azul.

Crossing a sketchy-looking bridge on the Rio Azul.

Patagonia hiking

The cheapest way to access the main trailhead at Wharton is still the Golondrina bus, which has three round trips most days. As the number of visitors has increased, all are now required to register online prior to arrival at anprale.com/registro. Each member of the party is issued a number that must be available for the rangers' trailer at Wharton on the road to the main trailhead up the Blue River. They are obviously monitoring the number of hikers more closely than ever, which is a good thing for everybody, as they can advise on which refugios will have room and which could be fully booked.

The day we walked up, there were two separate groups of school kids on supervised overnight outings — resulting in full houses and absolutely no room at La Playita and La Tronconada. If your timing is wrong on the return leg and the wait for the bus back to town is excessive, cabs can be hailed for a reasonable price from El Polaco across the street from the forest station. They also sell useful items and food and drink and are very friendly and helpful.

Alpine hostel-hopping

The trail up this canyon is the same as before, superb, with plenty of signs at every trail junction. There are now 15 different mountain hostels, up from a dozen as of two years ago. The Cajon Azul hut is in full operation, and La Horqueta was closed (which was likely temporary). We made the first day a long one, marching 14 km to my personal fave, El Retamal, almost empty —very unusual — and it filled up the next night. Mariano and Bardala are now running the lodge, and it is in immaculate condition, comf inside and out. The 45-minute hike up the draw to Paso de los Ventos is worth every minute and step, and a supreme vista of the adjacent canyon brings into binocular view all three of the refugios in that zone, El Conde, La Horqueta, and the very cush Casa de Campo.

Casa de Campo on barbecue party day.

Casa de Campo on barbecue party day.

Our timing luck was such that our visit coincided with a giant bash celebrating their 2nd anniversary that weekend. The Casa is a sizable working ranch, with cattle, sheep, dogs and chickens, and it's by far the most deluxe of the refugios I've stayed at. About a hundred folks attended, with maybe 30 full-blown gauchos who came in on their horses from neighboring spreads. A cow was cooked, for hours, and a feast was relished that was absolutely unprecedented in volume, intensity, and flair.

The party crowd filled every bunk and floorspace that night, or more accurately early morning, and the next morning a cordero was propped up and cooking. Casa de Campo has a privileged location beneath a viewpoint hill, although the river is a few minutes' walk away. It's a significant addition to the lodging options available, as the capacity is plenty and the amenities the equal. Plush indoor showers, and 700 pesos a night per person — same as El Retamal and 300 more than neighboring El Conde, which is about as down-home and simple as it gets up here. Some folks will still like it when money is a consideration and the setting is still primo. But from now on, for me it's Retamal and Casa del Campo, and I also received nothing but the best reviews for distant Los Laguitos refugio, another 10 km and 450 vertical meters up from these next ones down the Blue Rio.

That leaves half a dozen refugios that I still haven't visited: Perito Moreno, Encanto Blanco, and Dedo Gordo, all north of the Rio Azul, and Cerro Lindo, Natacion, and Hielo Azul to the south. I plan to get to them all down the line, which will no doubt see more big growth and changes in El Bolson. In the meantime, which is prime time, this stretch of the southern Andes will continue to be backpackers' paradise and compulsory for any traveler looking for the best of South America. Go, Do, and Be.

El Bolson vitals

Lodging options are very numerous now, and I had the good fortune to discover Casas Chaura, five different plush apartments a few blocks from the center and loaded with every possible convenience. For couples or groups this is a no brainer, as the location is perfect, the cabanas loaded with extras, and the price is quite economical for the quality of the place. Nils is the perfect host, very generous with his time and advice, and he was the guy who let us know about the Casa de Campo anniversary blow out. It's an excellent base for visitors who want to stay comfortable. (54 9 24) 464 9624 (0294) 4483 832 O' Higgins 517

Nils also directed us to the new, spacious, and very nice A Gusto restaurant, with a giant patio, right in the middle of town at Dorrego 539. First rate food and service and priced right. There are dozens of other choices now, although the once venerated La Gorda is long gone.

And up in the corderilla:

Retamal Mountain Shelter

(Casa de Campo has a FB page, so I won't list it, but it's easy to find.)

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