The El Bolson Refugio System

Still holding up after heaps of crossings

El Bolson is a serene but legendary river town framed by mountain ranges 2 hours south of San Carlos de Bariloche in northern Patagonia. It’s famous for artesenal beer, hippie art and handicrafts, but its’ tremendous network of mountain refuges draws travelers from all over the world.

13 of these refuge/hostels are scattered in the Andes immediately beneath the dividing border with Chile, although one, the Cajon de Azul, named after the nearby rock chasm, has been closed recently due to an alleged tax dispute. That’s unfortunate, as it’s a real beauty that seems more like a well maintained private farm.

    Catarata Escondida, the hidden waterfall, is a spectacular hike

So with an even dozen refugios in service, finding shelter and comfort in the high country is rarely an issue, and most have an area to pitch a tent. If you’d rather sleep inside, a sleeping bag is still key, although extra blankets are usually available, and earplugs just might be handy. Some folks do make strange noises while sleeping, especially when dog tired from hiking all day. or you can just try to drown them out with your own unconscious chorus, which can be risky.

Upstairs in the Retamal Refugio, one of the El Bolson mountain hostels

It’s recommended that anybody bound for the refugios check in first with the office of mountain information in downtown El Bolson. They have excellent maps and advice concerning the bus that provides transport to Wharton, a small settlement where the walking begins. The ultra helpful staff can also make recommendations concerning the refugios themselves, including how many people each can accommodate, and what services they offer. Many, including the two I stayed at, sell excellent pizza, wine, and beer, so sustenance need not be a critical issue. Some have a kitchen for wanderers to prepare their own grub, hostel style, and others will prepare and sell, like a cozy B&B. But having a decent supply of your own snacks is never a bad idea.

       The Retamal is a cozy, warm and ultra friendly place

The ride to the trailhead is on the aforementioned bus which leaves the town plaza according to schedule, which is twice a day during the peak summer season. Taxis are also available for a higher fee of course. A check in trailer at the bus stop is where hikers register before hitting the trail, helping keep track of how many people are heading up the trail at any one time.

             Take the old one if you want       Rio Azul, El Bolson

The actual walking commences with a rough 4wd road that steadily drops 250 meters in a kilometer to the bed of the lovely Rio Azul. Two bridges are crossed before the trail climbs relentlessly for 5 k, recovering that initial 250 plus some. Once leveling out, the trail is serene and soft walking on soil, pine needles and leaves, and the first refugio is reached at La Playita. Situated on the bank of the river, it’s a busy stop on the hiking circuit, and offers beer, food, and lodging for a couple of dozen on mattresses up stairs. The staff is friendly and accommodating, and in the process of expanding the cabin to increase capacity and comfort.

One of a bunch of critters at La Tronconada Refugio on the Rio Azul

Just up the river 20 minutes is a classic Patagonian sketchy looking wooden bridge, which leads to the second refugio, La Tronconada. This shelter couldn’t be much different from La Playita, as it’s situated well above the river on a huge boulder, which serves as the floor for the main part of the cabin. Run by an enterprising couple who seem to be busy doing chores most of the day, this refuge offers just half a dozen or so spaces to sleep upstairs, but a large, well laid out campground with showers down by the river. La Tronconada is an actual farm, with two horses, five sheep, one goat, five hens, one rooster, three cats, and one dog, along with a garden and greenhouse. The homemade pizzas are tasty, the hosts very friendly, and the setting seems years away from civilization. Heading out from here upward, I watched a huge Ringed Kingfisher, with a trademark oversized head and beautiful coloration, perched on a dead branch overlooking the water. Fifteen minutes watching the king of his domain went by like the blink of an eye.

          The bridge across the Rio Azul to get to La Tronconada

Here the trail gradually meanders up and away from the glorious blue river, winding through some pristine green woods and crossing the river again before reaching the currently closed, albeit visually impressive Refugio el Cajon. This choice property is well manicured, with fenced in sheep, lots of green grass and fruit trees. It’s reputation as a refuge is good, and hopefully comes back out of retirement soon. A signed trail leads a few hundred meters to one of the most stunning sights on the region: the dark, narrow, and amazing gorge named the Cajon Azul, the blue drawer, with a sturdy but dizzying log bridge spanning the gap 40 meters above the water. Needless to say, it’s worth the side trip, and as much time as can be spared.

Leaving here and continuing upwards, the trail leaves the river and climbs another hundred meters before reaching the large gate at the entrance to El Retamal. This is now the biggest and most full service refuge on this route, with immaculate grounds surrounding a shady camping area and a cluster of log buildings. The staff here is very efficient and friendly, and the indoor accommodations quite comfy, with a menu offering fine wine and beers, along with pizza and plenty of other dishes. A large kitchen is also available for DIY cooking, and the comfort is reflected in the popularity of the place, as it’s a favorite of many. A small crystal creek runs behind the main house, and a gallery of painted rocks lines a path alongside it, something I’ve never seen elsewhere.

             Some of the remarkable rock art at Retamal

From this high clearing, the majestic high peaks on both sides are front and center, and severe other high refuges are within hiking distance: La Horqueta, Los Laguitos, and Encanto Blanco. More adventurous ramblers can also make their way on a somewhat sketchier trail to refugios Natacion and Hielo Azul, both highly regarded and a few kilometers to the north. The remaining refuges in the range, Dedo Gordo, Cerro Lindo, Perito Moreno, and Motoco, are more isolated from the blue river group and more suited for one stop journeys. An ultra ambitious hiker could start at the Dona Rosa trailhead, ascend the Arroyo del Teno to Hielo Azul and Natacion, then cross the divide to the Rio Azul group, before tackling the challenging trail to Dedo Gordo and Encanto Blanco. This presents a multi day adventure through eye popping landscape, but is undoubtedly sportier than most will seek.

The mountains above Retamal en the El Bolson Refugio System

The ancient axioms still rule here: don’t take shortcuts, leave any trash, or start any fires. For those who are prepared and fortified, this web of trails will prove to be a rejuvenating experience. Go, Do, and Be.