South America 2011-2012: El Bolsón, Argentina


The road to El Bolsón starts out rather hectically... and it's completely my fault. I get my packing done, choosing some things to leave behind for my return to Bariloche, only to find about a half-hour remains to get to the terminal. Shit! - Just what I always try to avoid. Worse still, this German girl at the hostel is waiting for me to accompany her to the same bus. She's now visibly stressed.

Then it gets worse, the city bus taking its time in coming. No taxis roll by to be hailed, either. By now I've offered to pay for our ride to no avail, only saved when in the end a bus does come along. We arrive at the terminal just as the others' bags are being loaded on, departing a minute later. Whew.

Now with El Bolsón securely ahead of us in our bus-confined way, I note that its ostensible attractions are threefold. Perhaps the main one, though, is not typically of import: Puyehue's ash storm supposedly should not be in evidence down El Bolson way. THAT turns out to be a chimera, completely false the entire journey as we can barely make out any of the hills and mountains so close by. A white haze lazes in front of everything. Still, the thinking is that the other two attractions should work out just fine: Great hikes WILL abound, and El Bolson IS ground zero for all things artisanal (and even supposedly hippie) in Argentina. This is what I'm game for.

Arriving in town makes that seem all the more reasonable, if only speaking to the last point. Indeed, it appears that "artesanal" is used on half of the signs in town. The good news should be that it's the truth. As convincing testimony, too, I see plenty of stabs at homemade architecture. Each speaks individually to a bit of free will. Then again, maybe it's merely a lack of a building code... which I'll find is pretty much the case shortly enough. That's also where a good chunk of the "hippie" draw and imagery comes from in the first place as well.

My first stop outside of the bus, then, and still with the German girl in tow, is to a little takeout joint. This seems promising, especially as I indulge in having one of each of their empanadas. They're not bad, I must say, plus it seems like the general offerings on hand are of a decent grade. The stomach is always an appropriate starting place. This also gives me a chance to watch who passes through town. El Bolsón is far more down-at-the-heels in some senses, that's for sure. The sudden ubiquity of old Renaults all with one foot in the grave is telling. These are only sometimes replaced by Fiats and Citroens of similarly deathly quality. Then there are the random older men sporting berets and the gauchos wearing kerchiefs waiting on the edge of town for anyone to take them on further. The houses bespeak considerably more money, however, which supports the reality that this is a town in transition. I would guess ten or fifteen years hence will see a far different, less "hippie" El Bolsón.

But it's the next stop - which comes after I take a taxi 5km out of town to my lodgings - that is even more promising. Cerveza y pan caseros (home brew and bread), handmade pizzas? Damn straight. And all that while located on a large property, with hammocks everywhere, brightly-marked plovers and garcas walking through at all hours, plus a stream running through and a river beside it? Hell, yes! To all this (and soon to be more) I immediately down a liter of wheat beer. This undoubtedly comes to the immense and immediate pleasure of owner M, originally hailing from Germany. He's probably less impressed as I next pass out in a hammock while trying to make more headway in Moll Flanders. My mind has wandered off on the tangent of seeing the trunks of trees come out of the earth, much as hairs on a head that are rooted so deep that they can't possibly ever be removed, then... zzz.

MEANWHILE, a pizza will only wait a few hours more to re-ignite his impression of a backpacker now happy to spend a few $$$. I'll happily spend on that which is worth spending on, naturally. I'll pass on the effort I waste in moderating a debate between two Germans from Berlin and Stuttgart on the merits or lack thereof to be found in Berlin. Seriously, folks... let it go!

Meanwhile a sideshow - or the main event, rather - to this artisan stuff is a massive market. This occurs four times a week in town. Saturday is the big day of those, so arriving on a Friday turns out to be a very happy coincidence indeed. I hear that, come high season, there are to be something like 300 stalls in total. This appears to be true, too, when I arrive with a full wallet and visions of a spending frenzy in my head. It's true that it's as hard here as anywhere to use 100 peso bills - which almost always incurs a running off of the vendor to figure out how to cash it - but this just means picking and choosing the right places to do it. As for the kid who takes over his father's stand - which consists entirely of headshop material - I can only wonder.

It's doubly handy that this same market draws a Swiss/Venezuelan/Swiss couple from my hostel as well. THEY have a car, one in which I manage to glom onto a seat therein to save me a 5km walk or "sometimes" bus. In moments we are walking the stalls, admiring the wares and homemade foodstuffs. I'm also sampling the beers, further impressed with what's on tap at this latitude (from Valdivia to Puerto Varas to Bariloche to here by now). There's nothing like walking through an appealing marketplace with beer in hand! Maybe that helps in convincing us to buy plentiful amounts of breads, cheeses, and fruit.

Along the way, meanwhile, we pick up a couple of women from the hostel we know. This comes practically about by the means of almost colliding with them. Oops. Of them, one - an American by way of Moldavia - is both friendly and annoying. Her counterpart from Guernsey - the only person I've ever met from the Channel Islands between England and France - is considerably more reserved. In an area with poor public transport, they are more than content to not being stuck with the typical taxi to get out of otherwise lengthy walks between here and anywhere. (Although the taxis are unquestionably cheap by European and American standards by a good measure, they seem less so once on a backpacker mentality.)

Soon my Swiss friends decide to be done with the market and all five of us continue to the windy lakeside we find at nearby Lago Puelo. We walk along the shore with a rather substantial number of Argentines frolicking about in what really is too cold weather for such mayhem. Thus our original trio leaves the pair of girls temporarily behind to sunbathe in a modest refrigerator as we make our way along a trail that hugs the lake via a rocky scramble. When the trail gets thinner and thinner, we eventually abandon the views toward Chile for the beach again before retrieving the girls and calling it a day. More homemade beer awaits at the hostel as the Swiss crew and I put together a meal.

The next day we're a trio again for another outing, this time to El Cajon. This is one of the premier hikes in an area with about a zillion such things. Still, we're pleased to check out what should be awfully blue water that we will get to see up close. It's the Río Azul (Blue River), after all... and that'd be the truth, too, soon as we very slowly creep out of town to get there! A Swiss driver is an interestingly cautious person indeed, especially when on roads not absolutely smooth. Such things are generally nonexistent in Switzerland... and we've got about 20 kilometers to cover this way. Zzz. Topping this, the road signage is bad. Still and all we make it without a missed turn thanks to some helpful topography. NOW, finally, we can hike!

A few hours of steep hiking up and down the shaded hills along the river fills the day's main agenda. My other agenda, naturally, is to take advantage of even more homemade beer. Apparently each refugio - and we should bump into four of these refuges - brews their own stuff. Cool! I'm certainly interested enough to try them all. For that we have to get to them, of course, but traversing this hill-and-dale trail is well worth the trouble. The views become increasingly grand.

For the effort we cross a couple of rickety bridges early on, one person at a time. To be fair, these are effectively accidents waiting to happen. But they lie at the confluence of the blue and white rivers, so... what a way to go! We successfully cross them in any event, then make our way past the first refuge some time later. Called La Playita, it IS something of a beach. We nevertheless press on instead, continuing along the doublewide trail obviously regularly traversed by horses. Sigh.

The shit is minimal, fortunately: Soon enough we are at the next refuge, Tronconada. This one entails crossing an even rickitier bridge, one that I would assume one would hard-pressed to cross while drunk. As for US, WE're ready for our first beer... even if everyone in the refuge is already absolutely blitzed. Huh. So much for service, not to mention the expected welcome mat. It turns out that we've stumbled onto the host's birthday; All of the cabalgata horsemen apparently in the area are playing truco (the card game I learned so long ago with the Cordobans at Iguazu) with him, each one identically in a stupor mixed with laughter. Certainly there's a beer in there for us regardless... right?

Eventually one of the boys comes up to me in a stagger, swinging his knife before him. It looks awfully sharp, too, and insistingly slicing rather near my guts as he speaks to me in garbled Spanish. Fortunately, however, his insistent manner is all about quizzing if I want some asado from the grill. I suck in my gut at times from various sloppy forward stabs of the knife as I hold off in favor of the beer first. Over some confused minutes the drunken host finally pulls one out from somewhere; I accede to the meat offering after all.

In turns out in both cases that this is a good thing, each one tasting pretty damn good as my Swiss friends agree as well. Then it's all we can do from laughing the stuff back up from our innards as we take to a riverside table. There we happily consume our booty as the drunken party moves to the river only after all the boys pee in the woods in what is partially some kind of show for us. Their ensuing display of sloppy dives and dance moves while down to their underwear is apparently just for our benefit as well. So what to do? Simple: We cheer them on with beers in hand, taking our leave when the only other tourist - a dreadlocked hippie who ambles the cross the river with shoes in hand while eshewing the nearby bridge - gets to take over as the official audience.

Well, so much for another exposure to Argentina's refuge system. This one is at least in keeping with the others in offering food, booze, place to sleep inside or pitch a tent. They're generally rustic affairs, privately held concerns in national parklands or reserves with a mild profit motive. Assuming a low environmental impact, I'd have to admit I find them better than the lack of such an alternative in the U.S. while being similar to what Chile offers. As for the actual terrain, well, what the people are here looking for is about what I have come to be spoiled with in the Cascades Mountains of the Northwest U.S. It is what it is.

Off we go to El Cajon, then, that place that's the entire point of our venture. Regarding that, there's not to much to say that pictures can't aptly describe better. A thin slice of canyon, it's more importantly one with a rushing of deep blue waters deep below the best vantage point. The water's provenance is from glaciers in the above peaks Perito Moreno and Dedo Gordo. At El Cajon we stop at the refuge and only imbibe in a soft drink, much to my disappointment. My thinking is to try one at each refuge (hitting Playita on the way back), but it's already down to just me what with the increased heat and difficulty of the trail for my friends. I'm not quite ready to drink four liters of beer on a day hike, however.

Maybe it's on this account that I temporarily leave my friends behind to rest. We'll meet up later at Playita. I now ramble on to the next refuge, at Rematal, where once again I find that the beer will be served only a liter at a time. Drats - I'm not man enough, apparently, for such hijinx. In any event I pass, instead taking in the large view of Dedo Gordo while eliciting hiking suggestions from the host a bit. THAT's worthwhile, certainly: I'm already planning a proper hike of this area with camping gear in the near future. But this won't be the time, especially since the hours of hiking out means a few more of getting back. I'd better get to it, and do. I hike at a clip back to La Playita. I both meet up again with my friends AND convince them to share a liter of beer with me. NOW it's a beautiful day, no? Yes indeed.

Meanwhile the idea that's been brewing all along has been to have an asado (BBQ/cookout) in the evening back at our hostel. We return to town a-car to stop at the supermarket, entrusting ourselves to the butcher. He wisely suggests some cuts of steak; we unwisely also select some chorizo to take back with us. Back at the hostel, the fire is already well and going by our 10 p.m. return - perfect. This is a typical mealtime, if not early, for an Argentine, anyway - so we throw the meat on.

The hostel chef takes over from there, stoking the coals like the devil himself as the cuts slowly cook. The result, complete with his added seasonings and making "butterflies" of the chorizos - is some sausage prepared and cooked a good grade above its purchase price quality. The steak, meanwhile, is probably about the best beef I've had in my life. Or so it is that I can remember, me being a half-assed pescetarian for so many years. In any event, Argentina acquits itself this night on its prideful beef acclaim. Later I happily accompany this with some trumpet deep into the night, happily answering the request of the Argentines who had heard me earlier in the day.

The next day my Swiss friends are off... and I do nothing in response to our hectic activities, it seems. In fact, I come to like the idea of growing moss so well that I begin to harbor thoughts of a return to El Bolsón in the near future. This is one of those few places that fits my bill in sufficient measure. Yes, in a place like this can eat well, hike well, and play the trumpet to one's (my!) heart's content. Maybe, too, I'll analyze my bizarre dreams - which have suddenly begun to only come in Spanish now. I like this possible consequence of the deep sleeps that've become the order of the day in El Bolsón. Suddenly I invariably seem to awaken at 9 a.m., this after weeks of naturally getting up at the ungodly hour of 7. Welcome to the countryside! yes, it's that sound of the stream, the Patagonian wind, leaves rustling ...and maybe the snarls of all the semi-wild dogs I have to avoid about every day. I dunno.

What I do know is that my hostel offers all of that mentioned above... and then there's also the daily wheat bread. It's regular fabrication permeates the entire place in a righteous scent; I've come to eat way too much of it every day. Homemade jams of various berries only push this battle against the bulge that much further in the wrong direction. My belly grows, but - alas - there's no baby inside to use as an excuse. There's only sloth, that foul friend further encouraged with well-placed hammocks. I nevertheless take on some bread-making lessons from one of the crew at the casona, Lorena, while also trying to get an idea of how one lives in El Bolsón year-round. Most of the staff - save the one who stays behind to keep vigilance - leave the shuttered place to head for warmer climes.

But I'm happy that it's the full complement that's in attendance for the high season now technically begun. Matthi(as) and Manu(el),for example, take on the chef duties when not manning the desk. This means that things such as unattended frying pans get attended to whenever a back is turned, a conventient thing indeed. We talk jazz and music as well, soon making promises of contacts in Buenos Aires should I ever show my head there again. Maybe, however, I'd do better to further connect with the accordian player at the open air market in the meantime...

But I don't see him the next time 'round those parts. Instead I more happily bump into my Italian friends from Bariloche, waterpolo-man Silvio and the lovely Mila. There the stand as I buy some cherries and turn my head, Mila's hands on her hips and a broad smile across her face as Silvio does his best what-the-hell-can-we-do-to-escape-this-guy smile. AMICOS!!! We immediately set out for some empanadas followed by some beers at the nearby El Bolsón brewery to celebrate. This is followed by a stroll to a suggested gelato place for an Italian stamp of approval (Saurio's, and the stamp is duly applied). Only then do we dare head out of town for the hike I was intending to do solo all along, seven (?) more kilometers to add to the five I've just done. But with my amicos!

Yes, with such company this goes so much better, even if the odd cold we've been experiencing switches in a flash to beating heat. Then it's on to some light sun showers and whatever should come next. I still would insist we're not in Patagonia, but this IS awful... Patagonia-like. We nevertheless trod onward on the dirt road to Cabeza del Indio, only stopping to talk to an Argentine family at a mirador (lookout) on the way before we finally finish sweating our way to the rock formation of mild acclaim.

Well, yeah, it DOES kinda look like a face. Whether it's indigenous or not I can't say, though... and I do wonder what the local Mapuche folks think. And, uh, that's that: We eventually feel we've seen it all, allowing our return to town and an escape from this heat we've taken on for no really good reason other than the rocks being there. All too soon Silvio and Mila take leave of me, us all bidding arrivederci as we again approach the bridge into town. They'll momentarily be off to take the long bus to El Chalten, deeper into (the real) Patagonia. I can only hope that I'll see them when they round the bottom out and possibly head up to Chiloé on the Chilean side.

For my part, meanwhile, this is the end of the first - I'm already sure there will be more - El Bolsón leg. I wander about town some to get a further lay of things, but then the switching-up weather gets all too annoying. Soon I've got a reservation to head back to Bariloche. Besides, the snow now dumping on the upper reaches of the nearby mountains has become an unwelcome surprise as well. Hey! Where did the heat go so speedily?

This inclement weather requires more hunkering down at the hostel in advance of my parting, I decide. I have some final interesting discussions of politics with Matthi and Piero, that same tattoo-laden man from Italy I've come to call The Godfather (Il padrino). For the most part we're in agreement, fortunately, at least to the gist of letting people decide for themselves how they want to be ruled. The Islas Malvinas/Falklands are still an interesting sticking point, however. In trying to make light of the folly of such military ventures I unfortunately touch a surprising raw nerve in Matthi - who was only a couple years old about then - but we end up smoothing the matter adequately. That's probably helped by my offering Texas all the encouragement they might want to separate from the Union, oil and all. Somehow this seems inconceivable to my host, but it turns the trick of defusing the argument.

That's it for my El Bolsón stay for now. It's goodbye to M and company, then, even as I'm sure I'll be back quite soon enough. I make my way to the Via Bariloche station to grab my bus; Off I go. Two hours of cutting through mountains and lakes - much prettier this time around with the vacating of ash from the air - finds me again at the bus terminal in Bariloche. This time, however, the temperature seems about freezing... and now the ash begins visibly falling in sheets. Hmm. Well... I'm back! Just in time for whatever Christmas should mean in my odd hostel-in-the-sky.

Back to