The El Bolson Mountain Refugio System – 2020 Update

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 monumental mountain ranges, 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 Argentinas many gems and seems destined for mass tourism soon, but it’s a unique venue and worthy of all the attention. 

Sunset towards Chile from the cush Casa de Campo

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    Each member of the party is issued a number which 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 LaPlayita and La Tronconada.

The Rio Azul is truly fifty shades of blue

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.

View from the ‘Pass of the Winds’ above El Retamal

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.

Barbeque, gaucho style

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.

Horses are the bikes up here

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 prefer that cheaper choice when money is a consideration, and the setting is still select, but from now on, for me it’s Retamal and Casa del Campo. I also received nothing but rave reviews for distant Los Laguitos refugio, another 10 km and 450 vertical meters up from these next ones down the Blue Rio.

The bizarre, edible, and tasty mushroom Llao Llao

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, 5 different plush apartments a few blocks from the center and loaded with every possible convenience.

As nice inside as out, Casas Chaura

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, El Bolson

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. But the craft beer bars have proliferated, they are everywhere, and most serve quality grub as well.

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.                  

Hall of Fame Hostels

I seek to stay in hostels everywhere I go, not just to save money and maintain on the cheap, but to meet other travelers in a more social setting than a hotel. The communal habitat promotes more interaction and communication, and the exchange of vital information, pointers and tips can be priceless. I’ve met some terrific folks on the road, and many of us prefer places such as these. Keep in mind, however, people move, places change and sell, get worse or improve, so nothing lasts forever. So this compilation will be dynamic, and always changing, and definitely not static. An example is a hostel I would include on this list, if only it hadn’t gone out of business. RIP 41 Below in Bariloche, may you rise again like a Phoenix. So dig, if you will, and may the hall expand and extend……

The Buddha, Laureles, Medellin, Colombia

I was lucky enough to find and book this place before landing there, and even after I later moved to Medellin and got an apartment nearby, continued to frequent the place for a beer and meeting other wanderers. Spacious interior and stellar garden with a lot of places to relax, and a location that provides easy access to the dining and entertainment stretch of Carrera 70 towards the stadium. Super cool staff with lots of ideas and a collective feel to the big casa.

La Terraza del Centro, Cordoba, Argentina

There are very few cities that have as vibrant a zone of restaurants and assorted entertainment as bodacious as Cordoba, and so proximity to that Guemes neighborhood is always a factor for me. The Terraza is located in a favorable part of the center, with everything close, and the vibe is friendly as all hell. Once again, it’s the people who make the difference, and the staff here are about as good as it gets, in all categories. The digs are snug and clean. and the rooftop patio and parilla is a congenial spot to watch the sunset and toast your new friends. Everything worth seeing is within walking distance, and one of South America’s best bar scenes is an easy15 minute stroll away. The only real negative is tied to its’ ‘close to everything good’ location, so traffic noise outside makes earplugs almost compulsory. Never the less, I won’t stay anywhere else in Cordoba, one of my favorite cities in Argentina.

La Humahuacasa, Humahuasca, Argentina

I stayed two nights here exploring the vast quebrada and it is cozy, convenient, everything works, and the hosts, Paola and Juan, are ultra helpful and generous with their time and suggestions. Breakfast is tasty, the wifi solid, and the fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill are ready to go. The casa feels like it grew out of the ground here, rustico, autentico, and truly relaxing. Two blocks from the plaza, and three from the bus station, it’s a fine base for exploring the supernatural far north of the country.

La Casa del Viajero      El Bolson, Argentina

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The main commmunal cabin at El Viajero

Agustin Aporro built the first hostel in El Bolson, a couple of kilometers from the town center but much closer to great hiking trails, such as the stellar Catarata Escondida. His funky compound of private and communal cabins is on a big lot with a trout pond, organic garden, and greenhouse, a little slice of heaven on the other side of the river. He is likewise a wealth of vital info regarding the entire region not to mention El Bolson itself. It’s a cheap taxi or a leisurely walk to town, and it’s my base whenever I get to Patagonia, which isn’t often enough.

Hostel del Gualicho    Puerto Madryn, Argentina

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Big lockers, comf beds, individual reading lights and all the intangibles

Four blocks from the beach, and five from the bus terminal, a prime location isn’t the only thing Gualicho has going for it. Sparkling clean, organized and spacious common areas inside and out, along with an excellent breakfast buffet. But again it’s the people that make the difference, and the staff here is a great example. Always friendly and ready to share the ‘inside’ information, the Gualicho gang puts guest service into the A+ category. Individual reading lights in each bunk bed is indicative of doing the little things that add up big.

Secret Garden, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

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The Secret Garden is one of those places that I found out about through the grapevine and it lived up to the hype 100%. A couple of hours outside of Quito, it’s actually closest to the small town of Machachi, but the imposing legendary volcano is front and center, offering a sensational view. The Garden offers a bunch of different lodging options, from trippy Hobbit Homes, to birdhouses in the trees, to small cabins with wood stoves. The prices include 3 meals a day, free coffee and tea, a wood heated hot tub, free maps and picnic lunches, and a complimentary two hour hike to a beautiful waterfall right out the backdoor. There are lots of tours offered at very reasonable prices, including a hike to the snow line on Cotopaxi at 5000+ meters altitude, which is $ very well spent. The food on offer is healthful, nutritious, and delicious, and the international staff is super cool, always accommodating, and fun loving. The Secret Garden makes for a tremendous stop for travelers looking for the absolute best of Ecuador.

Punto Verde Eco Hostel, Montanitas, Ecuador

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One of the locals that hang around the Ponto Verde

This was another surprise that exceeded expectations after arriving on the Ecuador coast during the mayhem of New Years. This hilltop hacienda is the creation of Joos, a dynamo from Holland who traded her houseboat for this property sight unseen, an amazing leap of faith. She built several new additions to the original cabin, and completely created an astonishing oasis just a 15 minute walk into the heart of party central. She really learned by doing, using local materials and indeed constructed an outstanding lodge at the end of a dirt road just a short walk up off the highway. The beach is closer, and the distance from the nocturnal commotion is a blessing in terms of peace and quiet. Solid bunk beds, lockers and hammocks, a couple of sensational sunset patios and a setting that just puts you at ease. With a place this unique, the visitors likewise are uncommonly cool.

Good local breakfast, solid wifi, and Joos and the staff do everything to make you feel at home. I stayed almost a week here, more than I had planned, just because it was so chill. Tell Joos I sent you-

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That’s Joos’ place up on the hill to the right

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.