Traveling to El Bolson? Rivers slow-flowing with crystalline waters. Lakes like mirrors. Mountain trails. Craft beers. Hippie vibes. Clowns in drag (yes, you read that correctly – there is a freakish circus tent, Carpa Teatro, in the centre of town that sadly, I did not venture to check out – but if you do, please let us know what the deal is). And the best ice creams you will ever taste. All of this you will find in the little township of El Bolson, situated at the foot of the Piltriquitron mountain in the southern province of Rio Negro, Argentina.
Come for a day or two, stay for a week or more. In all honesty, El Bolson did not impress on first driving through town – it didn’t have the immediate wow factor of Bariloche (with its spectacular vistas of the Lake Nahuel Huapi) or the European mountain resort splendour of Villa La Angostura. The plain streets and low-built houses don’t tell the story of the riches in the town and surrounding area. The charming part about El Bolson, is the fact that is so unassuming.
Feria Regional de El Bolson “a.k.a. La Feria” – is the quintessential tourist attraction of the town, a pleasant winding row of stores selling handicrafts and local cuisine – you’ll find farmers selling fresh picked berries alongside artisans selling handcrafted knives and leather belts. Dreadlocked New Wave Latin-American hippies selling mystical rocks, weaved bracelets, and allegedly, if you ask in the right way and don’t look to ’square’, the sweet-smelling seven-leafed herb… (side note: in the 1970s, El Bolson became a haven for the hippie movement – young idealistic Argentines descended from the cities in order to find a nature and counter-culture, and El Bolson has had a reputation as hippie haven ever since).
What to Eat in El Bolson
As well as gift-shopping, the Feria is a great place to eat and drink – you’ll find empanadas, pizzas and waffles (run by an ex-pat German family – try both the sweet and savoury varieties), and a good selection of locally made craft beers – my top three are El Bolson, Pilker and Araucana.
TIP – keep a lookout for the stand selling the El Bolsonero alfajores (Argentine cookies, usually filled with caramel). These locally made treats are excellent gifts and very very tasty. Get all the flavours!
Speaking of sweets, the local and legendary ice-creamery Jauja is a can’t miss – it is hands down the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Whatever you do in El Bolson, make sure you try Jauja ice cream. There’s nothing like coming back from a long hike and getting into a litre sized serve of Jauja. Favourite flavours – doble dulce de leche (double caramel), chocolate profundo (profound chocolate) and calafate con leche obeja (blueberry with goat’s milk). It is conveniently located a short walk from the Feria.
La Gorda – This charming family run restaurant is actually built in the rear of the old family home – it is a cosy and charming space with an open air courtyard with a bar where you can drink under the stars while you wait for a table. The menu is simple but tasteful; generous servings of bife de chorizo, lamb and trout, homemade pizzas and pastas. A nice way to treat yourself after a day or two of roughing it on a camping trip.
TIP – We only found out about this restaurant because my partner grew up in El Bolson and are family friends of the owner. A lot of the things mentioned on the list came by way of recommendations or local knowledge. I suggest you make friends with locals (hit up Bar El Sol, the locals are pretty friendly and used to meeting travelers) and soon you’ll get all the best tips for hikes, camp sites and favourite swimming spots.
Paripollo Ruta 40 – this is another local spot that you won’t find on any tourist guide (except this one…). “Paripollo” translates as barbequed chicken and this paripollo is the best I’ve tried anywhere in the country. And like all my favourite parillas, it is very local and very budget traveller friendly. The chicken is perfectly seasoned and zested with lemon juice, and so, so tender. It is essentially a takeaway joint, so it’s perfect if you’re packing for a lake/riverside picnic.
What to Drink in EL Bolson
Before the trend exploded in Buenos Aires and every else in the world, craft beer has been a staple here in Patagonia for decades, thanks to the history of Swiss and German immigration. Most bars and restaurants in town will serve locally made beer (no need to drink the totally uninteresting Quilmes!)
Patio Cervecero is right in the centre of town and this beer garden is often the first point of call for many first arriving to El Bolson (it is only a couple of blocks from the main bus stop). Daily happy hours and cover bands makes for a lively atmosphere.
La Maroma is a recently refurbished family restaurant and is the town’s latest gastropub – come for the house craft beers and well-portioned and delicious burgers. Sit outside on the picnic tables if the weather allows, and watch the day fade away over the mountain ranges (sunset is about 9pm during the summer months).
Bar El Sol is classic dive bar – cheap drinks, local bands and late night parties. During the summer, this place seems to be packed with all types – backpackers international and domestic, and locals of every stripe. This is one of those rare bars that survive decades without having to change a thing, and will be buzzing into the late hours every night of the week during the summer months.
And finally, onto the reason why many come to El Bolson – the spectacular nature that surrounds the town.
Lago Puelo National Park– is easily accessible by car from El Bolson, as is known for its wide pebbled beach and being part of the Seven Lakes Route that ends in Chile. There, spacious beach allows plenty of room for everyone to lounge comfortably – if you’re hungry or thirsty, you can always count on one or two vendors wandering around selling churros or homemade beer.
Puerto Patriada – is a large lake with incredibly clear turquoise waters – access to the lakeside is free except for a small part near the jetty that is a campsite. Arrive early in the morning and watch the colours of the water change as the day passes. Most people will pack their own food, but food and drink are available for purchase from the campsite’s store.
El Laberinto (the Labyrinth)- is a just a short drive away from El Bolson, in nearby Chubut. If you are travelling with children, this is a great stop on your way to or from Lago Puelo. El Laberinto is a quaint cafe on a beautiful country estate on which there is an old-fashioned garden maze. The entrance fee is AR$120 pesos per person (March 2017) and free for children under the age of seven.
Where to Hike
El Bolson is well-known for its trekking, suitable from beginner city-dwelling types like myself to the more seasoned Bear Grylls types. For a good overview of the hiking in the area (including a downloadable hiking map).
HINT: Take a cab or the bus to Camping Hue Nain (one of the many campsites near the Rio Azul). Register with the ranger near the suspension bridge, before beginning your trek.
El Paraiso – El Paraiso is a popular swimming hole located on the Rio Azul (the Blue River). It is just a little way past the suspension bridge – it is a wide part of the river with a beach and a large rock jutting from the water like a little island. It can get busy and noisy with tourists during the summer, so if you’re after a more tranquil spot, just keep walking past El Paraiso and go further upriver.
The Refugio Hielo Azul hike is a popular one for beginners, as it can be done in a day and is easily accessible from town.
My favourite has to be Encanto Blanco, an easy five hours or so hike which takes you through a farmstead, then a shady path through the forest following a mountain stream until you arrive at last to a mountain lodge at the bottom of a valley. We arrived at the Encanto Blanco refuge and were greeted by the friendly caretaker – a young man in his mid-twenties, who had the good luck of being selected to look after that lodge for the entire season. His job is to take care of the chickens, tend to the garden, maintain the lodge and receive guests. He also makes homemade pizzas to sell to hungry trekkers, and also beer – which is bottled and kept ice-cold in a burlap bag weighed down by rocks at the river bank. The homemade beer, pulled fresh out of the icy glacial waters was probably the best beer I’ve ever tasted (under the circumstances, sitting on the pebbled shores of the slow-running stream, looking out onto the mountainous landscape around us, resting our weary feet after a long hike). You can either camp on the grounds ($AR70 per person) or sleep inside the lodge ($AR140 per person).
The more adventurous types can camp there and trek onto the other refuges, completing a circuit of the various treks which can take you to the glacier, Hielo Azul. For suggestions of more challenging routes, check out this article. There are several campsites along the Rio Azul (the Blue River) which are popular with trekkers to set up base to explore the area. For myself, I was ready to head back to a soft bed under a solid roof after a couple of nights of camping under the stars (and what stars you’ll see when the long summer day ends and night falls).
BONUS, Fiesta Nacionel del Asado nearby Cholila, famed also for being the temporary hideout of the infamous fugitives Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Taking place over four days in February, this ‘Festival of Argentine Barbeque’ stretches out over 4 days, attracting about 100,000 visitors who will consume about 25,000 kilos of meat (80 steers, 800 lambs). Come for the folk music, artisan stalls, wines and of course, the barbeque prepared in the traditional method – slow and over coal-fire. The sight of seeing over 300 crucified lambs cooking over a field of hot coals is simply awe inspiring – not recommended for vegetarians.
Next up – we hit the Ruta 40 Highway, headed south, our destination 160km away – the Perito Moreno glacier…