El Bolsón: an artistic retreat in the Argentinian Andes
El Bolsón: an artistic retreat in the Argentinian Andes
Patagonia, straddling Argentina and Chile in the far south of the Americas, is a land of spectacular natural landscapes at the end of civilization. While the number of tourists visiting the region is growing, the Andean mountain town of El Bolsón on the Argentina side remains a tranquil place to absorb the outstanding scenery of Patagonia in peace. Home to a vibrant artistic community, it’s also developed a reputation as a home for craft and creativity.
We arrived in El Bolsón by bus after spending a few days in the nearby San Carlos de Bariloche (or just Bariloche for short) in Argentina’s Lake District. Bariloche is a beautiful lakeside city and we loved our stay, but there was a palpable sense that it was mainly geared towards tourism. Stepping off the bus in El Bolsón we immediately felt different.
El Bolsón has a calming, relaxed atmosphere that we found infectious. While it is a popular holiday town for Argentine tourists, it’s not a standard fixture in the typical backpacker’s route across Patagonia, and so the vibe is more local than international.
The setting is everything you might imagine of a remote getaway mountain town. Flanked by snow-capped Andes peaks to the east and west, El Bolsón sits in a valley with Río Quemquemtreu trickling serenely through its spine. The town’s wide, tree-lined main road, Avenida Sarmiento, almost resembles a Parisienne boulevard. In springtime, the treetops sprout into colour with pink cherry blossoms. We timed our visit perfectly for this picturesque sight.
El Bolsón has become a homeland for Argentina’s artistic community. Almost half a century ago, a group of hippies moved to the town for the production of a musical. They began building a community, which is still thriving today. Weekly craft markets and regular music events are characteristic of the town’s creative spirit.
We witnessed this spirit in unusual and unfortunate circumstances. Our visit to El Bolsón came at a time when one of its residents was making national headlines for very sad reasons. At the time – September 2017 – Santiago Maldonado, a tattoo artist from El Bolsón, became a household name in Argentina after he went missing. He had been involved in a protest for indigenous people’s rights near the town, and many people claimed he had been abducted by the Gendarmerie (the security police). Tragically, he was later found drowned in a nearby river.
While the saga was a devastating one for the town and a highly politicised one nationally, the local community responded with creativity. Everywhere we went, we saw murals and paintings of Santiago Maldonado’s face, and posters advertising musical events to advance the campaign to find him.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
The best way to reach El Bolsón is by bus from Bariloche. The journey takes approximately two hours (or a bit less if you have a car) and follows a section of Argentina’s legendary Ruta 40. In its entirety, the road stretches over 5,000 kilometres from La Quiaca in the north to Río Gallegos in the south.
Bariloche has an international airport, with domestic flights available at good prices if booked in advance. Otherwise, the city is accessible by bus from Mendoza to the north, Buenos Aires to the east and El Calafate to the south. These are long bus journeys though, so be prepared.
Buses in Patagonia are spacious and comfortable. The route between Bariloche and El Bolsón is operated several times a day by Via Bariloche, with one-way tickets costing 195 Argentine pesos (although check the latest local information before you visit, as the currency has been subject to recent fluctuations).
Have your camera ready on the bus ride, as it’s an incredibly beautiful one! The route traces the edges of lakes Gutiérrez, Mascardi and Guillelmo, before winding through breathtaking mountain vistas. It’s one of the bus journeys that stands out most among our travel memories.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Hike to Cerro Piltriquitrón
Towering above El Bolsón to the east is the summit of Cerro Piltriquitrón, some 2,260 metres above sea level. In the Mapuche language, the mountain translates to “hanging from the sky”.
Despite this grandiose description, the peak of Cerro Piltriquitrón is actually a manageable day trail for hikers with a reasonable level of fitness. From the town centre, you can take a taxi up to the trailhead, the starting point for the 11-kilometre return hike. The total elevation gain is around 1,000 metres. You can read a comprehensive guide to the trail here.
The hike provides stunning views of the town below and surrounding valleys and mountains. Around 3.5 kilometres from the top, the trail passes Refugio Piltriquitrón, a log cabin where you can stop for some homemade pizza and a mug of coffee or hot chocolate. If you don’t fancy tackling the final steep section, the views from the refugio are almost on a par with those at the top.
El Bosque Tallado
The Cerro Piltriquitrón trail passes through El Bosque Tallado, or ‘the Carved Forest’. It’s easy to reach without much exertion, just a kilometre’s walk from the beginning of the trailhead, signposted with regular distance markers along the way.
The section of the forest where El Bosque Tallado now stands was devastated by a fire in 1978. Rather than leave the charred stumps to decay, the local artistic community launched a project to revive the scene through sculpture.
The project drew artists from across Argentina to sculpt beautiful carvings representing the spirit of the forest, the mountain wildlife and the local people. Visitors today can walk among the carvings, with a fabulous view down into the valley from the mountainside setting.
Gentle river hikes
There are many more hiking options close to the town that suit a range of abilities and experiences. One of the most popular is a day trek along the waters of Río Azul to Cajon Azul, a secluded green lagoon. The trail loop begins 13 kilometres north of El Bolsón at Wharton, which can be reached easily by bus or taxi.
An alternative trail that is accessible by foot from the town is Cascada Escondida, a waterfall system on Río Quemquemtreu. It’s a light hike that is achievable in half a day, passing through scenic countryside and some smaller waterfalls along the way.
Feria Artesanal (craft market)
Plaza Pagano, the chilled-out greenery at the centre of El Bolsón, springs to life every weekend, Tuesday and Thursday with the Feria Artesanal. Over 300 local artists come together to sell their handmade craft, such as wooden carvings or natural scents.
The market also features food and drink stalls where you can sample local vegan food and craft beer. Entertainment is provided throughout by live bands from the town.
Ice cream at Helados Jauja
One final tip: you can’t leave El Bolsón without trying the famous homemade ice cream from the legendary Helados Jauja. Just a few footsteps away from Plaza Pagano, this place is amazing and often offers two-for-one deals on tubs.
Stay – Accommodation
If you are feeling adventurous, El Bolsón is a great place to get back to nature by camping. There are several campsites around the town with excellent facilities, one of the most popular of which is Camping Refugio Patagónico, centrally located at the foot of Cerro Amigo, a hill close to Plaza Pagano. The night skies above El Bolsón can be spectacular, and it’s great fun to huddle around an asado with a craft beer in the evening.
For hiking Cerro Piltriquitrón, El Mirador Hostel is a great little hostel situated in a forest midway between the town and the trailhead. It’s run by a friendly local couple and has excellent facilities, as well as a lookout point in its gardens with a view of the town.
Where to eat in El Bolsón
La Gorda is perhaps the pick of El Bolsón’s restaurants and has a little something for everyone. For authentic Argentinian cuisine, you can sample a range of meat cuts, but there are also plentiful vegetarian options available, as well as international dishes.
Another option on Plaza Pagano is Los Lúpulos, a pizza and burger house with a local twist. Along with typical international fare, you can sample Argentinian empanadas or try alternative pizza toppings such as smoked lamb.
Eat – Restaurants
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
The Patagonia hiking season runs from October to April, and this is generally the best time to visit El Bolsón. The town
does have a milder climate than other parts of the region and so it’s also an option to visit during the quieter ‘shoulder’ seasons in September and May.
The high summer season is between December and February when you can expect the best weather but also the biggest crowds of visitors.
Safety – Possible risks
El Bolsón is generally a very safe town, and crime against tourists is very rare. Still, exercise caution with your belongings as you would in any town or city.
If you are planning to hike, it’s a good idea to speak to the local tourist office about the routes and weather forecast. The local climate can change quickly, and you don’t want to get caught out.
Make sure you’ve got appropriate protective clothing such as sturdy walking shoes and a waterproof/windproof jacket. Always hike with a partner or group, never alone – this is vital in case you get lost or injured on the sparsely populated trails.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Patagonia is the most expensive region of Argentina, but prices in El Bolsón are a little more moderate than other destinations with higher volumes of tourist traffic. We spent more in the likes of Ushuaia, El Chaltén and Bariloche.
There are no entrance fees to the hiking trails around El Bolsón, and so outdoor activities are plentiful and free.
The town has ATMs, but note that, like all ATMs in Argentina, they charge a fee when withdrawing with international cards.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
The scenery around El Bolsón is spectacular, and luckily for explorers, the local hiking trails are very well marked and maintained. To make sure it stays this way, however, every visitor should be respectful of the environment. The standard advice applies here: don’t feed any wild animals, leave the vegetation untouched, and avoid leaving any litter.
The town itself has a relaxed vibe, and while there’s some lively nightlife (particularly at weekends), it’s by no means a big party place. Respect the local residents. If you do go for a few drinks, be mindful of the noise you’re making at the end of the night.
Reality Check – Be Aware
If you’re a first-time El Bolsón traveller you’re in for a treat, but there are a few things you should bear in mind. First of all, the real beauty of El Bolsón is in its scenery and surroundings. If you’re not the kind of person who relishes getting outdoors and exploring nature, it may not be for you.
Even in the summer seasons, the weather in Patagonia can be unpredictable, volatile, and at times, fierce. Although El Bolsón has a milder climate than destinations further south, it’s still not uncommon to experience intense rain and harsh winds. If visiting outside of the core summer months, it can also get very cold.
This means you need to be prepared. If you have your heart set on hiking, then you may need to be flexible with timings; if the weather doesn’t cooperate, you may have to wait a day or two, or even more, for the skies to clear up.
It’s also important to know that Patagonia is a huge place, and it takes time to get around. While the journey from Bariloche to El Bolsón is one of the shorter ones, if you’re planning more travel around the region, you should be aware that it will involve long distances and extensive journeys.
Finally, while many of the local residents and service providers in El Bolsón speak English, it’s not a guarantee, nor should you expect it. You’ll find it much easier to communicate in the town if you spend a little time learning some basic Spanish before you go.
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!