Our Patagonia highlight: El Bolson
El Bolson is a small town, 120 km south of Bariloche, and shall not be missed on any Patagonian route. The town is known for its political and ecological activism, high quality handcrafts (and markets), beautiful hiking spots and (especially important for backpackers) affordable travel expenses for Patagonian standards.
However, three key factors made El Bolson to our personal favorite spot in Patagonia:
- the lovely people that we met, and now call friends
- the awesome hostel, Earthship, we stayed at and
- an incredible 5 day hike in the surrounding area.
Earthship – my personal happy place
Usually I do not specifically write too much about the hostels along our journey, as there are countless reviews out there on different platforms from Trip Advisor via Booking to Hostelworld. You can read lots about the Earthship hostel there too. However, I wanted to give a special shout out to this place, as it was so outstanding to all the other hostels and made me truly feel at home, which is a rare feeling while traveling anyways.
The hostel has an eco-friendly focus and consists of
- a huge garden (providing ingredients for the self cooked, delicious and vegan meals),
- a main building (with the most amazing hot showers and very beautiful private rooms),
- yurts (big “tents”) functioning as spacious and cosy dorms (including a sky view from the inside) and
- an inviting outdoor sitting area for relaxing, community meals and making new friends.
Especially the last point was another highlight for us, as it has not been that easy before to meet like-minded people on the journey with whom we connected instantly.
5 day hike in El Bolson
Just as nice as the stay in the hostel and the town itself, was a multi-day hike to the surrounding Refugios (huts) of El Bolson. You only have to register at the mountain office if you want to do the trek. Reservations at the Refugios cannot be made – you just show up and hope for space (which they’ll apparently make in any case) or bring your tent and camp outside of the Refugios.
All Refugios (apart from El Conde) offer self-brew beer, dinner and breakfast as well as the opportunity to buy some snacks. A night in the Refugio costs between 10-20 EUR (=affordable for Patagonian standards), including the usage of the kitchen. Camping is either for free or costs up to 10 EUR if the kitchen or the Refugio is used as well. Easiest is to check the latest price list of each Refugio at the mountain office.
Luckely, we could attract some of the Earthship volunteering staff as well as fellow guests to join us (at least partly) on this hike. It was mainly because of the companionship why I enjoyed this hike so much =)
Day 1: Starting point of our tour was the camp site Dona Rosa (best to be reached via taxi). From there it was a 7 hour uphill hike to the first Refugio, the Hielo Azul, leading mainly through forests (the path is easy to find and follow) with great views along the way.
The second day was the toughest one. We started right in the morning to get up to the nearby glacier, which was a 1,5 hours mainly steep uphill struggle over rocks and snow fields. As we were the first ones of the season to hike the glacier (yaaaay!) we had our difficulties to find and make our own paths, but Georg’s scouting skills can be trusted 😉. The glacier itself was nothing too spectacular and the lagoon up there was still frozen, but the view was just amazing and especially the sliding down on the snow fields was great fun.
Back at the Refugio Hielo Azul we continued our hike up (1h) to Refugio Natacion, which is another nice hut located directly at a beautiful little lake – just perfect for our lunch break. From there it took us another 5 hours (including the most steep downhill hike with 1.000 altitude metres within 2 km) to arrive at our final destination for the day, which was the Refugio El Conde.
The owner of this place is just hilarious. He has been living in the woods for years and became almost one with it. He seemed so relaxed and still very proud of his beautiful place, for which you can see he puts in a lot of effort. A shame our broken Spanish did not allow us to have a longer conversation with him, but after a long day of hiking we crawled in our sleeping bags really soon anyways.
Day three was comparably relaxed and took us 5 hours to the Refugio Los Laguitos, which has the best location of all Refugios – next to a large, beautiful, mirroring lagoon with the sunset right behind it. The large Refugio itself seemed almost like a hotel and offered real bunk beds (compared to the simple mattresses of the other Refugios). That evening we also treated ourselves with prepared dinner at the Refugio instead of cooking our instant rice like on every other evening during the trip ;-). On our way we also passed Refugio Horquieta (only 1 hour away from El Conde), which also looked very inviting.
Day four brought us within 5 hours more or less back the same way as the day before, just for the last hour we took another turn to reach the Refugio with the best home-brew beer, the Refugio Retamal. For me it was overall my most favourite Refugio as it was taken care of with so much love to details. Isn’t it the small things that make the difference =) The cosy Refugio and shared kitchen area made it easy to get in contact with fellow hikers and travelers and it was that evening we made another very good friends, who’d we ended up celebrating Christmas with. Besides we met an only 17-year old guy named Boris, who did this multi-day hike all by himself as he loves hiking so much – how impressive is that?!
Day five, our last day, brought us from Refugio Retamal to Wharton, which is the exit / entry point to the hiking area. It took us 4 hours – only because Boris was making the fast pace. I was not able to make sense out of the bus timetable from Wharton back to El Bolson (apparently there are buses, but not every day and if so only a couple of times per day). Luckily Boris’ father, who was patiently waiting at the end of the path, gave us a lift to El Bolson, where we first treated ourselves with a well-deserved lunch from the local market.
All in all El Bolson was our personal highlight of Patagonia for all the mentioned reasons. But pssssht, don’t tell everyone. It is especially the limited amount of tourists that make this place so enjoyable too 😉
PS@non-dog-persons: there is one shortfall to El Bolson though, if you do not like dogs or are afraid of them. There are maaany of street dogs in El Bolson (to be fair, we had street dogs at all our destinations), but the ones in El Bolson are especially big and bark a lot (at each other and passing by persons). After all nothing happened and I didn’t see or hear of any dogs biting, just be prepared for it and keep calm.