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.
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 http://anprale.com/registro/ 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This seductive village sits between mountain and lake, Tahoe style, an hour north of Bariloche but a world apart. It lies on the famed Seven Lakes route, which is actually more like seventeen, And this arm of mammoth lake #1, Nahuel huapi is among the prettiest rendezvous of land and water on the continent. Cerro Bajo is the peak which looms two miles away, featuring a compact but legitimate 16 lift ski mountain with an excellent reputation. The gigantic expanse of crystal blue water on three sides of the hamlet seems infinite, and for kayakers, bikers, hikers, skiers and such, the Villa is exceptional.
One of the places that draws people is the isolated Parque Nacional Arrayanes, situated on the far end of Victoria peninsula, a long stretch of verdant woods twelve kilometers long. This isthmus is so narrow that realistically Victoria peninsula is much more so than actual islands Phuket, and Skye, to name a famous couple. Thus, absolutely undeveloped besides the 12 km trail, open to hike or bike, period.
It’s a superb walk in the woods out to the massive stand of orange Arrayanes trees, by far the largest and oldest left anywhere. Most people visit the park via boats from the town docks, or across the big lake from Bariloche. The 45 minute long slow ride from the Villa is dazzling, with postcard views in every direction, and it can be done round trip, or one way, with a sporty hike there or back, take your pick. We took the catamaran Futaleufu which departs from the mansa(calm) side of the isthmus. The tariff was ARS$2600, a bargain at about US$40 for two, plus another seven dollars for the actual park admission.
That’s for non Argentians, who get in for less than half of that. Regardless, it’s worth twice the money, and we were fortunate to have Carlos as a guide and fountain of vital information. He led us around the super sturdy wooden boardwalk through the Arrayanes grove, which boasts loads of massive, gnarled trees, some over 450 years old. There are likely more of the distinctive orange trunks here than the rest of the planet combined, and since they’ve been spared any frivolous development or culling there are plenty that have collapsed from centuries of living. It’s a guided walk that could take a lot longer than the scheduled half hour, before arriving at the century old tea house back near the dock. There’s no camping on the peninsula, so it’s made for a first rate day hike, but the boat ride alone is something I highly recommend. A couple of eye popping viewpoints can be reached in a half hour from the port as well, and these are likewise worth every step and minute. Two round trips every day, take your time and your camera.
We didn’t make it four kilometers up to the ski area, but did take the hourly bus to the drop dead gorgeous Bahia Manzano. This has to be heaven for anybody fortunate enough to own an aquatic vessel. Million dollar pads line the forested shore and harbor here and if this ain’t good enough, it ain’t. A huge bay front hotel takes up most of the middle, but wanderers can enjoy plenty of eye candy from the fringes. Worth a stop, at least, and maybe a tour of the shore from a sailboat with food and drinks. Stand up paddle boards, kayaks and assorted other craft are available for hire, and I can envision a superlative day, or many, spent here, gliding on the blue ribbon water, no question.
The Villa has a handful of neighborhoods all reachable via the public bus, and the main departure point is the same parking lot the long distance busses arrive at. Rental bikes are abundant and cheap, so some human energy here can eliminate any ‘need’ for a motorized vehicle. The main street is packed with shops and cafes, and the town, like many, fills up in January when the summer break starts. Still, the Villa is worth a few days any other time of the year, and a wide range of ecosystems are within minutes of each other. It’s a stunning location that I will return to repeatedly for further study and recreation.
There are literally hundreds of accommodation options in town, bunk beds to four star fat city, but I made a wise choice by staying at Tierra de los Mestizos. We were toting full backpacks, so distance from the bus station was a big factor, having a limited time here. Tito is the owner, a very affable and helpful hombre, and his funky rustic pad has perhaps 3 rooms. But the breakfast is fine, the ambiance plenty good, and the 2 minute walk to the station and main street is ace. The double room with shared bathroom was a bargain at US$15 a night, breakfast included. Tell Tito I sent you, and stay longer than our two nights if you’ve got it to spare.
Tito recommended two restaurants on Main street, named Avenida Arrayanes, and he was spot on. La Nevada and El Esquiador are on the same block, owned by the same dude, and this is where the locals and lucky tourists dine. Good hearty local fare, as in cordero and trout, reasonably priced, busy as hell but tremendous service and value. Worth the wait, but the avenue has perhaps 20 possible plan B’s. Maybe even one better than Nevada.
Few creatures have been as celebrated, mythologized and ultimately enslaved as the misnamed Killer Whale, actually the largest, and most intriguing of the entire dolphin family. I was raised, like many, on a TV diet of Flipper and Sea Hunt, and later entertained by the aquatic circus at Sea World. The reality of what I was watching never hit me until much later, after the documentary Blackfish revealed the ghastly truth behind the scenes. Orcas and other wild animals are best served and appreciated wild, and just seeing them where they belong is astounding.
There is an isolated beach on the Atlantic coast of Argentina where the southern Orcas gather, and it’s the only place in the world where they actually beach themselves to hunt sea lions. This has been made famous in videos, but just like a virtuoso concert, nothing beats live.
The venue is a peninsula called the Valdez, one of Argentina’s outstanding national parks, situated about a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. The portal entry is Puerto Madryn, an attractive city that is the wintertime retreat of avid watchers of the Southern Right Whale, which converge here by the score from June until December. Excursion boats full of enthusiasts leave here to get a close look at the mighty earthlings, and when that season fades, the Orcas begin to show.
Their happy place is out on the far northeast point of this remarkable cape, at an isolated beach called Punta Norte. Halfway there lies the only real town on the peninsula, Puerto Piramides, where a couple of hundred folks live here year round, swelling to several times that in peak season from January through March. The setting is a marvelous bay surrounded by sandy bluffs where the wildlife far outnumbers the humans, my kind of place. The dive and kayak shops fill up with customers in the make hay days, and there are dozens of lodging options available, including camping, right behind the town beach.
Punta Norte is 75 wide open, uninhabited kilometers away, a virtually treeless stretch with head high bushes and dozens of long necked Guanacos munching on them. The ranger station at Punta Norte is a well equipped outpost with facilities to handle a large amount of people, including bathrooms and a cafe. A long boardwalk overlooking the beach provides the viewing platform, and this is as close to the action as visitors are allowed. An 8 iron down the beach is a large group of sea lions that occupy a stretch of beach, and this is where your attention is drawn. A number of them are always in the water adjacent to the group, and this is where the action is.
The killers tend to show up in a six hour window surrounding high tide, when the water level provides closest proximity to the beach. Spectators arrive early in this cycle and begin setting up their vantage points for the expected arrival of the big black and whites. A majority of the visitors sport serious cameras, many with two foot lens, and the waiting begins. I was wandering around the station for less than an hour when the word came out that a pod had been spotted approaching from the south. The rangers here, and there are many, keep a constant watch out for the Orcas with binoculars, and they communicate that to the station. So everybody takes their place along the wooden rail, and soon enough clouds of vapor appear are visible a quarter mile down the coast.
In a couple of minutes the big black dorsal fins are visible, including one jumbo triangle, straight as an isosceles, two meters in height. This is a male known as Ajuela, and I had the sensation of viewing a cruising u boat. All the Orcas are positively identified by their dorsal fins and individual white markings, and all have been named. The Punta Norte Orca Research organization has catalogued 15 of the most frequent visitors, including Lea, Jasmine, and Mel, another big male who was thought to be 49 years old a few years ago. He hasn’t been seen in a few years now, and likely is deceased as the average life expectancy for males is 50 years, 30 less than the females, a giant gap between the sexes.
Most of the Orcas are consistent visitors, so many have been observed for years, although they are never touched or contacted with in any manner. So, 14 year old Pao is known the son of Ishtar, and another teenager, Mela, is the offspring of Jasmine. As of now, no more than ten of these animals are known to practice the rare technique of hunting by intentional beaching, and this is the only place in the world where it’s been witnessed by humans. And the orcas do practice the move, in preparation for the real thing, and sometimes the lions elude the end.
I didn’t get to see an attack, but had a close look at the pod of 11 as it swam by northbound, and returning about half an hour later. The principal impression was how relaxed and unhurried the killers are, casually passing by the mass of lobos, like they were just out for a relaxed family swim. Some of the veterans demonstrate the move for the greenhorns, and they always help the youngsters get back into the water if needed with a bump or a shove. Dry runs like these are common and seem to help the hunters get some reps even if they don’t result in a full seal meal.
Straight up it’s an invigorating display of nature at its’ wildest, and induces lots of visitors to come back over and over to see it again. I got lucky, going one for one, but guarantee my return next season for, so far, the best show ever.
I first became aware of this enormous peninsula years ago when I heard about the burgeoning whale watching attraction there. 1000 miles south of Buenos Aires on the south Atlantic coast, this region lies at about the same latitude as the north of Patagonia, 400 miles due west across the Argentine pampas. The terrain at either end of this stretch couldn’t be more different, with the west an emerald alpine wonderland and the coast a flat, dry, scrub desert.
It took me 8 years to finally make it, arriving in Trelew by plane and taking a 45 minute bus to Puerto Madryn. This appealing town is where a boat from Wales landed in 1865 after a two month voyage that resulted in five deaths, two births, and one marriage. The settlers fanned out across the area, establishing themselves in villages named Trevelin, Gaiman, and Trelew.
Madryn sits on the massive Golfo Nuevo, a circular bay 60 kilometers across, with a somewhat smaller gulf, San Jose, just north of the isthmus where begins the fabled peninsula. This cape is among the largest on the continent, with the farthest points being over 170 km from the big port. These dimensions add to the isolation and splendid outback of the country, and villages and commercial developments are few and scattered. It’s Baja California with a Galapagos slant.
Puerto Madryn was larger and prettier than I had expected, with a seaside promenade stretching for miles that was the hub of outdoor activities. The locals are out in decent weather, running, biking, kayaking and simply hanging on the seawall with family and friends.
This is the diving capitol of Argentina as the water visibility is as good as it gets here, ranging from 20 to 50 feet, and heaps of different sites to visit. The whale watching season starts in June and runs through the end of the year and this is when PM hits peak season. Excursions and other boat viewings draw the droves, and there is a location half an hour north of town, El Doradillo, where the Southern right whales swim within scant meters from the shore. Similar to San Ignacio lagoon on the Pacific Baja side, this spot is best viewed at high tide, and the tides here are titanic, reaching 20 feet in a six hour cycle. The extremes can display a striking difference at any geographical feature here, and they should have much to do with your recreational schedule.
Madryn is clean and well organized with a bunch of one way streets making the vehicle traffic somewhat easier to deal with. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes, hotels and hostels, and I spent two cheap nights at one of the best run hostels I’ve yet found, El Gualicho. Four blocks from the water, super friendly, clean and efficient, a recent inductee into my Hostel Hall of Fame. A fine 5K stroll along the beach towards the south passes the site of the Welsh landing and historic monument above a worthy snorkeling venue. A bit farther lies the Eco Centro, a prominent building which was closed both times that I passed by but likely worth a visit.
The municipal wharf extends half a mile out into the blue bay, and this is where the big ships, tourist, fishing, or other commercial types tie up. Shore fishermen drag nets around in waist deep water catching boatloads of small silver anchovies, and sizable light colored crabs are easily visible scurrying along the sandy bottom. There are plenty of sea lions here too, dozing and resting on the landings, and at least one energetic penguin chasing fish.
It’s an easy place to spend a couple of days, but I was here to get to the peninsula, an hour bus ride away. The park entrance is situated in the neck of the isthmus, and the $650 tariff(US 15) is beyond a bargain. The desert vegetation around Madryn resembles Arizona, with sage and creosote bush, but once out on the peninsula the creosote disappears, replaced by other varieties and grass but no cactus, no big boulders, and absolutely no trees.
Guanacos, the odd cousins of llamas and Alpacas, are the primary land residents here, hanging in groups of a handful to a dozen, and they are a larger version of Pronghorn Antelopes, but with a longer neck lending a giraffe sensation. A local guide told me that they learn to jump before they learn to run, and the meter high fences don’t inhibit their movement at all. The Guanaco is wise enough to not trust humans much, they stay attentive, and keep the buffer zone big.
There is some isolated grazing from operations that were apparently grandfathered in decades ago, both cattle and sheep. These domestics are much harder on the land that their wild brethren, flattening the soil and consuming everything green at ground level. The Guanacos feed off the tops of the bushes and are much more low impact in terms of earth wear and tear, and far as I could tell, outnumber the introduced aliens 100 to 1. The beasts resemble their cousins of the high Andes, the elegant and streamlined Vicunas, just without the requisite wooly coat.
The road drops into Puerto Piramides about 10 minutes past the gate, and this little village is about the only commercial neighborhood 50 kilometers in any direction. Dive shops, kayak and bike rentals, cafes and hotels make up most of it, along with a few ma and pa markets and a gas station. The lodging options number close to 40 in high season but less than half that the rest of the year. There is also a municipal campground that charges $250 (US$6) per person which includes a shower. The adjacent beach is lined by steep dunes and Tamarisk type trees and makes for a very chill setting. There is limited camping allowed elsewhere in the park on a free roaming basis, as the rangers want to keep the terrain as clean and pristine as possible. This village is the ideal base for exploring the many spectacles of this area, and three to five days is enough time to do it.
For myself and lots of others, the prime attraction is the arrival of pods of Orcas, Killer Whales, who use certain stretches of beach here as hunting grounds for their meat and potatoes, the innumerable sea lions. 75k north east of Piramides lies Punta Norte, one of two locations in the world where the Orcas will beach themselves in order to snag their prey. The rangers keenly observe, identify, and keep a close watch on these proceedings, and all observers are compelled to maintain their distance from a railed boardwalk fifty meters above the beach. The Orcas don’t show up on schedule, or even daily, and witnessed attacks are infrequent. But witnesses show up every day hoping for a close look at the king of dolphins in the wild, and not captive in a pool like Seaworld.
It’s difficult to put into words the exhilaration of seeing these creatures up close, and I won’t try, but in my case it made the hair stand up on my arms, like an electrical charge. The season runs from late in the year through April, and I plan to return next March.
The peninsula is an unspoiled location to get on or in the water, or stay dry and walk or wheel, and the outdoor enthusiast will have plenty of choices. The locals say that only when the north wind blows is it inadvisable to be on the water, and outside of the winter months the odds of good weather are favorable. I took a couple of dandy hikes, one on a big wind day, and both were well worth the time and energy. The first was a 5 k scamper up a trail to a dirt road that leads to a massive loberia, a sea lion enclave below the actual pyramid shaped bluff that gave the village its name. There were two groups of Guanacos en route, and a pair of Ospreys riding the wind, and the road ends at a ranger station with bathroom overlooking the shelf where the lobos del mar congregate. I watched through my binoculars as they tried and eventually succeeded in launching out of the water and gaining the slippery bank, after getting tossed around plenty.
I was stuck by the multitude of pups, a few months old, and was sure that none of them could make it out of the water if they inadvertently fell in. None did while I watched, but I can’t help but think that infant mortality rates are high in this wild place, and not just because of the orcas’ appetite for youngsters. Much of this coastline is beneath high sandstone cliffs and ledges, and access for humans can be tricky. At this particular place, access is barred below the viewpoint, similar to Punta Norte.
My second ramble was in the opposite direction south towards the next major point, Pardelas, some 15 k distant. This is regarded as one of the finest diving and snorkeling venues in the park, with a sheltered location, crystal water and loads of fish. It can be reached entirely by beach if the low tide is timed right, but this entails good planning and a strident pace. Otherwise, a high route across the bluffs is in order for some of the trip, and this is ultra scenic and enjoyable. A rough trail up the hill at the south end of the town beach reaches the top of the sandy plateau after a steep, short incline. Here an old ATV track leads across the scrubby desert, before coming to a flat, volcanic clearing with no vegetation but millions of small rocks of various colors. Beyond this stretch lies a patch of pure sand dunes, some very sheer and a complete change from the rest of the route. Farther on, the path returns to bush country, disappears completely, and a wide amphitheater provides a gentler descent to the shore. A series of alcoves at sea level give an idea of the tidal phase, and when the entire openings are visible, the bank can be crossed dryly. When only the top of the caves are visible, forget about it until the tide drops. I didn’t make it all the way to Pardelas, but the long beach on the way is empty and pristine. This cherry point can also be reached by car or bike via a dirt road, but this makes for a stout 25k leg each way. Either way, it’s worth the effort.
When the water is flat, the Valdez is premium kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, it’s the diving capitol of Argentina, and the snorkeling, fishing, and wildlife watching are all at least 8 on a scale to 10. Southern Right Whale season lasts almost the entire Orca off season, and the sheer sea lion population is jaw dropping. This is among the seemingly healthiest eco systems is South America, and that’s saying a lot. Distances are vast, traffic is scant, and a decent mountain bike and adequate energy offers a special wilderness opportunity unobtainable anywhere else. As long as that fierce north wind isn’t blowing, peak outdoor experiences abound, and the Valdez merits a slot way up on The List.
Bondi Air is a low cost airline operating out of Palomar airport in Buenos Aires, and they fly all over Argentina. My Tuesday- Tuesday flight was dirt cheap, on time, and well worth the bread. From the Trelew airport, skip that town and go directly to Puerto Madryn. The most economic route is to walk out to the highway 10 minutes away, and simply flag down one of the frequent busses running that stretch and save yourself 300 + pesos, minimum. The shuttle price at the airport in Trelew is $500 per person to Puerto Madryn, not cheap. https://flybondi.com/
El Gualicho hostel is a winner whether springing for a private room or bunking in one of the dorms. Buy your own fruit and enjoy a solid breakfast while comparing notes with other nomads. Helpful people, clean, efficient facilities and a good location at a fair price is always a strong business formula. Four blocks from the beach, and six from the bus station. Marcos A. Zar 480, U8120 Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/
I stayed at the very basic but entirely adequate Bahia Ballena Hostel, the very first one on the left coming into town, and it is a good base to meet other Orca enthusiasts and find transportation up to Punta Norte if required. We were fortunate to get Carlos, a long time local, who knew everything about the area, especially the animals, and he was a great connection.
My only two meals out both took place at the ultra friendly and accommodating Covancha, in the center a block from the beach, and both meals were delicious and bountiful. There are a number of choices in the village, even in low season, so finding a quality meal is no problem. Local seafood, meat and pasta, empanadas, and the ever present pizza are offered everywhere.
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.