Relaxing and Adventuring in El Bolsón

Trip Start Sep 10, 2009
Trip End Dec 10, 2009

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Where I stayed
La Casa del Viajero

Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Friday, November 27, 2009

Haven't updated for awhile because internet in El Bolsón was far away from my hostel, and I was usually thoroughly involved in doing something or blissfully doing nothing in a hammock. 

Anyway, the day after Thanksgiving, I rolled into El Bolsón, a sunny and cheerful town from the start, in the afternoon. Right when I stepped off the bus, a taxi driver offered to take me to a hostel for free (as in the owner of the hostel would pay the fare). Usually I ignore such offers, but I'd actually been recommended the hostel by someone in Esquel, so I decided to take him up on it. Glad I did.

The hostel I arrived at, La Casa del Viajero (The House of the Traveler), was a little complex on the outskirts of town, close enough to walk to the center of town, but far enough to feel thoroughly ensconced in nature. The gate to the hostel led one on a path through huge, flowering bushes, past a large trout pond and fire pit, into the sand-covered center of the property, which was surrounded by two large cabins housing guests, a greenhouse and garden, and the owners' home. Running around the property were two friendly dogs (the gregarious German shephard, Rocco, and the absurdly obese lab, Nina), two presumptuous cats who would not hesitate to swipe food off your plate (literally, one hostelmate had a steak pulled off her plate when she wasn't looking), and several roosters and hens herding hordes of peeping chicks. The place was great - definitely had personality. 

The people there were great as well; quite the eclectic collection, but we all got along well. Different groups would head off for some trip or another every day, while others spent rest days basking in the sun, wandering town, or snoozing in hammocks, but we tended to cook or at least eat dinner all together every night. Not surprisingly considering our surroundings (El Bolsón does have a decidedly hippy vibe), a bit of a socialist atmosphere pervaded. Quite nice.

On Saturday, I went into town for the thrice-weekly open-air market of local artisan products. Some very cool stuff and some very good food. On Sunday, six of us headed out for a dayhike to the Cabeza del Indio, a big rock that looks like a face. The rock itself was pretty cool, but the hike up to it was the best part. Along the way, we got to enjoy great views of the Rio Azul winding through the valley below us.

On Monday, I took my first trip up to a mountainside right next to town, Piltriquitrón, with three hostelmates, Ge, Dawn, and Hannah. All four of us went first to the Bosque Tallado. Years ago, a section of forest on the side of the mountains burned down. Ever making the best of any bad situation, local artisans (and some from nearby towns in Argentina) went up and carved huge sculptures out of burned and fallen trees. The sculptures were very cool; pictures up in a couple days of my favorite ones. After enjoying the sculptures for awhile, the four of us climbed up to the nearby Refugio Piltriquitron. There, we had a nice view of El Bolsón and the valley in which it lies, though it was a particularly cloudy (and cold) day, so we couldn't see too much of the surrounding mountains. Dawn and I saw a path that looked like it led uphill to a nice mirador not far away, so we decided to climb a little higher while Ge and Hannah chilled at the refugio. The trail turned out to climb for hours up to the top of Cerro Piltriquitron, but we didn't go that far, in no small part due to the weather. As we ascended, the winds coming up from the valley became vicious gales, bringing with them torrents of hail. Note: hail flying very fast can be very painful. But pretty cool. After struggling through wind and hail for an hour or so, we headed back to the refugio, then began to walk back to town with Ge and Hannah, hitching a ride in the back of an ancient truck for the last few kilometers. 

Tuesday and Wednesday I took things pretty easy; Tuesday was host to another big market in the center plaza, but Wednesday I pretty much spent the day lying in the sun or in a hammock. On Thursday, though, I got moving again with two other guys from the hostel, Dominik and Patrick. The three of us had a long daytrip planned; a short cab ride, then 17 km to Refugio Hielo Azul, a few hours on a trail leading out from the refugio to a nearby glacier and up to a nice viewpoint, then from the refugio back to town. The weather was perfect - sunny, warm, and breezy. As we climbed through lush forests and muddy wetlands, we enjoyed views of snowy peaks all around us. When we reached the refugio, our plans changed a little bit. Apparently, because it had been such a cold, snowy season (this kind of problem seems to have followed me all throughout Patagonia..), the trail up past the glacier and to the viewpoint was closed, as it was still at high risk of frequent avalanches. We weren't too upset, as our feet were already singing a bit, and we still had a long way to go back. Instead, we had a leisurely lunch, then lay down in the grass and took a nice (though unexpectedly long) nap in the sun. After our snooze, we climbed a bit further past the refugio to a snow bank at the knees of a couple peaks, took some nice pictures, ate some snow, then started back to El Bolsón, arriving just as the sun was starting to set (which down there was close to 10 pm). 

Friday was another rest day. In the evening, we went to the first night of the 3-night annual jazz festival, which was a lot of fun. On Saturday, a group of us, after spending some time wandering in the market and eating some fresh-cooked goodies, went on a dayhike to a nearby waterfall, Cascada Escondida. Because it was a warm day, when we got to the bottom of the waterfall, Peter, Anushka, Noami, and I got in for a swim. A very cold swim. The water was freezing. Lots of fun, though. That evening, we went to the jazz festival again, listening to a great group from Brazil play for a couple hours.
On Sunday, which I considered my last real travel day (traveling in buses on the 7th into the 8th, just planned to hang out in parks and whatnot in Santiago until flight on the 10th), I had one of the better days of my trip. Three hostelmates, Dominik, Anushka, Peter, and I set out in the morning to get to the Bosque Tallado and Refugio Piltriquitrón, and planned to try to reach the summit of Cerro Piltriquitrón before heading back. Our taxi, though costing 1/5 as much as the taxi I'd taken to the parking area the first time I went to the Bosque Tallado and Refugio, dropped us off 7 km further down the road. Our day's trip started then, with a lengthy uphill climb to the Bosque Tallado. Thankfully, skies were clear, the sun was bright, views were amazing, and spirits were high. Upon reaching the Bosque Tallado, I opted to let the others explore at their leisure while I climbed the additional few hundred meters up to the Refugio. There, I was met with a nice surprise. Since the first time I'd been there, the fields in front of the refugio had apparently burst into a blanket of dandelions. After having a quick snack and taking in the views on an outcropping rock, I settled down on the dandelions and took a quick snooze until the others arrived. After a nice lunch and rest, we headed up the trail to the peak of Cerro Piltriquitrón. 

Unlike on my first half-assed endeavor with Dawn, the weather remained perfect as we climbed, if chilling down a bit (though climbing in the cold is more enjoyable I think, because body heat from the climb leaves you pleasantly warm rather than sweaty and overheating on a hot day). The first sections of the trail took us through a typically barren Patagonian landscape of rocky hills, occasional patches of snow, small, thorny shrubs, and snow-capped mountains lining the horizon. The trail (which at times we had difficulty sticking to, losing it in the deep snow), which started on the north side of Piltriquitrón, first wound its way around the mountain, then began to ascend from the east side. Winding around the mountain, we found ourselves at the opening of vast stretches of canyons and valleys. The echoes here - unbelievable. I would shout and hear it reverberating through the mountains. My voice would come booming back, sounding like the mountains themselves were bellowing. Indescribably cool. 

As we began the real climb, the terrain started to get a bit more interesting. We'd already had to plow through several surprisingly deep snow drifts, but now we were faced with deep snow drifts on a very steep incline. At times we'd be kicking in footholds and following in the leader's footsteps, at times we'd be on all fours to keep from sliding down. Even when we were off snow banks, then climb was far from easy. The slopes we were on were covered with inches of tiny, loose rocks, meaning that, particularly on the really steep sections, each step would set off a mini-landslide. At times, it seemed like each step up would be followed by two steps' worth of sliding down. Again, climbing on all fours was helpful. Finally, after much slipping and sliding, we dragged ourselves up to the summit of Cerro Piltriquitrón. 

The view from the summit was incredible, in no small part due to the spectacular weather we enjoyed. In all directions, we were surrounded in the distance by hulking, snow-capped peaks. Directly to the west, we saw El Bolsón far below, and beyond, the Andes stretching along the Argentina-Chile border. To the northwest, we saw the massive Monte Tronador poking up above the surrounding peaks. Into the valley in which El Bolsón lies, the summit dropped off into an almost vertical fall, but behind us, to the east, it rolled a little more gradually into glacier-carved valleys and peaks.

While breathing in the scenery, Anushka suddenly cried, "Look at that bird!" Following her gaze, we gaped in awe as a huge condor flew directly - I mean DIRECTLY - over us, no more than 15 or 20 feet above our heads. Absolutely incredible. I could make out his facial features and hear his feathers rustling. Again, words can only begin to describe the experience. For a brief moment I started to fumble with a camera, but then realized he'd be gone too quickly, and I just had to take it in. Within seconds, he was soaring away out of sight. Later, another condor (probably the same one) flew overhead, this time circling us for awhile, but much higher up. We were at least able to get some pictures that time.

After a long while at the summit, we finally forced ourselves to begin the climb down. We were at first a bit concerned; walking down steep hills of small, loose rocks is fun and easy (with each step you ride a mini landslide for a few more steps' worth), but going down steep slopes of snow seemed a little more dangerous. Going up, it's relatively easy to kick one's toes in to form a little step, but it's hard to kick heels in going down; climbing down in the reverse of climbing up (i.e. facing the mountain) is slow and also not easy. Thankfully, Peter came up with the solution. When at risk for slipping and falling, just embrace the slipping and falling and have fun with it. We'd just sit down on the slopes and slide on our arses down the mountainside. Incredibly fun. I'll try to get a couple videos up when I'm home. At one point, the four of us piled onto Peter's foil emergency blanket (it was an emergency of fun) and slid down a huge slope as a group sled. 

After about half an hour of sliding, we reluctantly had to leave the snow slopes behind to finish the walk back to the refugio. Somewhere along the way, we apparently left the trail, and found ourselves at a steep rocky face with the refugio just below. We could have turned around and picked up the trail again, but that seemed less fun than climbing down the rocks, so we chose the latter. Another bit of unexpected fun.

Finally back at the refugio, we ran into a couple who kindly offered us a ride from the parking area back to town (saving us about 10 km of walking), if we would wait for the sunset, which they wanted to see from the refugio. Happily obliging, we all watched the sunset, then walked down to the couple's truck, hopped in the bed, and rode back into town as the stars started to poke out. A great day.

On Monday, I unfortunately had to say my farewells and begin my series of buses taking me up to Santiago (El Bolsón-Bariloche-Osorno-Santiago) on Tuesday morning.
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