While Shelley was sipping “dirty bananas” on the beach at her brother’s wedding, Sarah and I spent the last two weeks sipping homebrews throughout the hut (“refugio”) system surrounding El Bolson. Along with their many perks (homebrews, homemade bread, tarts, pizza, actual trails) came some unanticipated hurdles such as having to register at each refugio so they can keep tabs on you and abiding by specific hiking schedules. As a result of our recent bouts with flexibility, we’ve developed a new mantra- as we’re taking off on the trail at an unplanned hour, stopping for lunch at 4pm, or waking up at 10am, we’ll exclaim, “right on time!”.
The following summaries describe our experiences at each refugio along with our objectives and (mostly unrealized) outcomes for each day. In addition, we have included some posted vs. actual time and distance comparisons. Trail distances were not posted for most of the refugios – the established hiking areas we have visited in South America (Torres del Paine, El Chalten) quote times instead of distance.Jan 4 – Puesto (300m total elevation gain)Posted distance / GPS distance: 12km / 8km (okay, so we are hiking animals at this point but if the trail was actually 12km uphill, we’d be trail running!)Posted timing / our time: 4.5hrs / 2.5hrsexcludes distance and timing from Lago Puelo to trailheadObjective: Hike to refugio Motoco from the town Lago PueloOutcome: Hiked to the outpost at the midway point. Started hiking later than anticipated (6:30pm) after troubleshooting Shelley’s flight situation.
- Wicked hot and also hazy from being sandwiched between Volcano Puyehue to the north and the Epuyen fire to the south.
- Sarah puked from eating her rice too fast
- Felt cleansed after dropping a bunch of retired gear with Shelley (down pants, fleece vests among some other small items – stay tuned for a gear post)
- Sipping tea garnished with fresh mint while chatting with hippie refugiero Luis
- Learning that the dead bamboo in the area is due to the completion of its 50-year life cycle
- This also explains the surplus of pregnant cats and kittens at the refugios- they are mouse defense for the anticipated population increase resulting from the dropping of bamboo seeds (I hope we do not witness this!)
- Seeing our first snake (eek! although not poisonous) and loads of small irridescent lizards “lagartijas”
- Since it was so hot, we didn’t start going down until 4pm – right on time!
- We set up camp on the only organic matter in the middle of a rocky river island between towns Lago Puelo and El Bolson around 10:30pm
- At 11pm we were dripping sweat in our sleeping bags, suffocating from our headnets, and being eaten alive by mosquitos. Then our tent blew down (doesn’t stake well in rocks) AND the crazy birds were yelling overhead. We were so miserable we began to laugh hysterically.
- Lesson learned: Don’t camp at low elevations on the only organic matter near water.
Posted distance / our distance: not posted / __km
Posted timing / our time: 5-7hrs / 3.5hrsexcludes distance and timing between trailheads Objective: Continue on “trail” to reach the Cerro Lindo trailhead and follow the trail to the refugio.
Outcome: Mission accomplished but not without roadblocks. The “trail” to the trailhead was washed out which forced us to hike a portion of the distance upstream in the river.
- Hiking trails here often originate as horse trails. Hence, they do not employ switchbacks, they go straight up.
- Along with the steep incline of the Cerro Lindo trail, it was wicked hot (we completely soaked through our clothing in sweat) and we were sucking wind due to the haze. Three and a half months into the trip, we find this all manageable… until the horseflies descend on us. Halfway up, they came down in swarms. With each horsefly experience we feel like we’re hiking one step closer to the insane asyllum.
- When we arrived at the refugio, the refugiera knew our names! Shelley had been their the night before (toting a bottle of wine and our favorite candy “bon o bons”) expecting to surprise us! )c:
- Another rough night of sleep – albeit cooler and mosquito-less at elevation, a rogue dust storm blew under our tent and left us with a fine film of dirt over everything- in our hair, on our faces and down our sleeping bags. At 3am we left the tent and moved to a grassy spot where the dust couldn’t reach us.
- After two weeks of dry weather, it finally rained the day we left refugio Cerro Lindo. As we were leaving the refugio, they asked “You’re leaving? In the rain??” to which we replied with a sigh of relief, “YES! So much better!”
- The haze thankfully dissipated with the rain. As we lowered into the El Bolson valley, we saw for the first time the surprisingly close town of El Bolson and beautiful surrounding mountain range.
Jan 8-10 – El Bolson
- We were excited to see Shelley again if only for one day before she embarked on her travel adventure to her brother’s wedding in the Dominican Republic
- Crossed paths with the superb brother-sister traveling duo Phil and Laura Armstrong. Phil and I attended CC together, reuniting at a CC Alpine Journal mixer this summer- after hearing our trip plan, Phil facilitated my introduction to Gregg Treinish, our mentor and the founder of Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation. Small world!
- We checked out the El Bolson market, cooked a vegetarian dinner, and sampled a few of El Bolson’s “cervecerias” (breweries) – however, we think Argentina should stick to wine
- After hearing us long for the touch and feel of cotton, Phil offered us one of his extra cotton t-shirts to wear to bed. Since we had two nights in front of us, we decided I would wear it the first night and Sarah would wear it the second night. I put it on and purred at its softness. Sarah looked at me with so much envy and excitement, I let her try it on for a few minutes before putting it back on to go to bed.
- They also donated several Larabars to us which were a much appreciated trail food upgrade
Jan 11 – Natacion TrailheadObjective: Hike to NatacionOutcome: Hiked for 30 minutes and then returned to the trailhead.
- When we arrived at the trailhead at 6pm, we were stopped by the caretaker of the established trailhead campsites. He told us if we wanted to hike to refugio Natacion, we would have had to have left by 2pm. He let us pass after we explained to him the following:
- We prefer to hike in the evening when it is cooler
- We have substantial hiking experience in South America
- We hiked our previous two refugio destinations in less than half the posted time
- We are prepared with head lamps
- The kicker that usually gets us passage: we claim we are guides (which is a white lie… we were backpacking counselors at Cheley at one point in our lives)
- About 20 minutes up the trail, we were abruptly stopped by a woman with her husband and two kids. Wow did we get a talking to! She started lecturing us without letting us get a word in edgewise. She repeated everything the campsite caretaker had explained to us and more- she said we wouldn’t be respecting the refugio system or Argentina’s culture by leaving at such an hour and we were not allowed to camp en route – to which her husband chimed in, “which you would need a tent for,” as he gestured to our lightweight packs. After trying to explain our experience and the fact that we were indeed carrying a tent, she disgruntedly continued down the trail.
- After Sarah and I hiked a little longer debating what to do, we looked at each other and felt we had to descend. We felt so guilty and uncomfortable the way she chastized us and wanted to keep our trail kharma healthy.
Jan 12 – Refugio Natacion (1200m total elevation gain)
Posted distance / our distance: not posted / __km
Posted timing / our time: 4-6hrs / 4hrsObjective: Hike to refugio Retamal.Outcome: Hiked to refugio Natacion. As we were enjoying a long lunch in the shade by refugio Natacion, the refugiero approached us asking our plan. We explained that we were going to continue onto refugio El Retamal. Not possible he said- we would have had to leave by 4pm and it was 5pm. Exhausted from schedules, we didn’t put up a fight this time.
- Realizing we’re dumb. Sometimes we need to forget our objective and go for the experience. We passed by a bunch of swimmers cliff-jumping into the deep cool pools of Rio Azul. Sarah and I stopped, drenched with sweat and for some reason we have yet to determine other than pure determination, DID NOT JUMP IN. This realization led us to stay at beautiful refugio Retamal.
Enjoying fresh cherries ($1 per pound) and craft beer in the shade.On a short excursion to a lookout from refugio Retamal.
Jan 14 – Refugio Los Laguitos (400m total elevation gain)Posted distance / our distance: not posted / 14km
Posted timing / our time: 5-7hrs / 4hrsObjective: Reach a lake past the retired refugio Los Laguitos. After reconsulting a map, we decided we could make an attempt at an alternate route to Bariloche.Outcome: Refugio Los Laguitos turned out NOT to be retired per our map. In addition, the refugiero indicated we would need to require special permission to hike on our intended path.
- Meeting up with and subsequently hiking with Nick and Cat from Boulder, CO – our first hiking partners! We realized on our way back from Los Laguitos that we weren’t even paying attention to the trail we were so engrossed in our conversations with them.
- Getting dressed in the morning, I was stung by a fuzzy caterpillar which bunked in my shorts overnight – left three welts on my thigh!
What you see: quiet reflection while cooking.
What you don’t see: swarms of horseflies… we ended up eating our meal inside for protection.
Jan 15 – Refugio Cajon Azul (500m total elevation loss)Posted distance / our distance: not posted / 16km
Posted timing / our time with limping Sarah: 6-8hrs / 5hrsObjective: Hike back down to the town Wharton to begin hiking north to Bariloche.Outcome: Hiked to Refugio Cajon Azul. Within 50m of leaving the refugio, Sarah sprained her ankle. We taped it up, put her shoe back on, and roller-bandaged over her shoe for additional support. She used both her poles for support on the way down and transferred all her water into my dromedary (water = substantial weight).
- We realized how important packing light is to accomplishing our mission:
- Sarah was only carrying around 25lbs (even including Shelley’s portion of group gear) on her hike out with an injured ankle which significantly reduced pressure on her injury
- As her ankle became more sore and her left leg significantly more tired from compensating, I was able to carry her pack on my front (think pregnant lady) the last couple kilometers into refugio Cajon Azul
According to our timing calculations, one limping Sarah = one average Argentine hiker. Carrying Sarah’s pack for the last few kilometers into refugio Cajon Azul.
We walked out of the refugio system’s hiking trails “right on time” on January 17, the day Shelley was scheduled to get into Bariloche- bussing the rest of the distance. Although we didn’t make it all the way to Bariloche by foot, we loved experiencing the refugio system, the luxury of drinking homebrew nearly every day, and having good conversation with lots of new friends along the way. In hindsight, we think it’s better Shelley missed this leg because she would have ended up working at one of the refugios for the season.
We have happily reunited with Shelley and are plotting our route north around volcanoes while enjoying the beautiful lake town of Bariloche chock-full of chocolaterias.