El Bolsón is a small town situated in the south-west corner of the province of Río Negro, nestled in a long valley between the Cordillera de los Andes range and the Piltriquitrón massif. The 42nd parallel forms the dividing line between the Río Negro and Chubut provinces.
In recent years, the tourist interest in trekking the mountains in the area has increased which has led to the refurbishment of the few older mountain refuge huts and the construction of new ones. There are over a dozen mountain refuges and several are accessible on a circuit around the area of the Río Azul, the river which flows eastwards out of the Andes mountains between the Hielo Azul and Dedo Gordo mountains. Apart from the refuge hut on the Piltriquitrón massif, all the others are situated in the Cordillera de los Andes.
Most of the refuge huts are open with their facilities from late spring (November) to the end of autumn (April-May). The rest of the year the huts are open for intrepid trekkers but not attended by the refuge keepers.
Going up the Río Azul
The beautiful Río Azul (Blue River) has its headwaters in middle of the Andes chain which separates Argentina and Chile. At the confluence of the Río Blanco and the Río Negro, the Río Azul turns a sharp right and then flows at the foot of the mountains in a deep ravine until it reaches the lake, Lago Puelo. Along the upper reaches of the river, starting from the walk down from Warton farm in Mallín Ahogado, the rural area north of El Bolsón, and crossing over a couple of wooden suspension bridges, the track to a series of refuge huts begins.
The first hostel with its bunkhouse for trekkers can be found a La Confluencia Lodge before crossing the second trip trap bridge.
Sited on a spur overlooking the Río Azul, this hostel gives you a first taste of what is to come up river…beauty…peace and quiet…fresh air…stunning views. The following link has a map showing all the refuge huts along the Río Azul.
Suspension bridge over the Río Azul at the Confluencia
After a couple of hour’s walk, obviously depending on walking speed, there is the La Playita refuge where you can also camp. This is situated right by the riverside and offers food and drink and overnight stay.
Between La Playita and El Cajón del Azul, crossing over the river by a wooden suspension bridge is La Troncanada refuge hut offering the usual services.
30 minutes on from La Playita there is the well-known refuge El Cajon del Azul (at 660 metres above sea level). Originally a family farm, the present holder of the land, Atilio, has pioneered a very successful refuge nestled on a sunny slope beneath the Dedo Gordo (Big Thumb) mountain and the stunning canyon where the turquoise water of the Río Azul rushes on its way down from its mountain source.
Food and homemade beer are available as is a dormitory with mattresses, shower and cooking facilities. There is space for camping.
You can walk there and back in a day if you are fit or stay overnight and enjoy the peace and quiet and the magnificent starry nights and congenial company.
For those who want more adventure and time in the wilderness, the next refuge hut La Retamal (at 755 metres above sea level) is situated about 40 minutes from El Cajón westwards. The access is along a trail through the native forest of tall coihue (nothofagus dombeyi), lenga (nothofagus pumilo) trees and caña de colihue (a type of bamboo) crossing and re-crossing the river and other streams.Your host is Mariano and he offers the usual refuge facilities.
The last refuge hut along the Río Azul is Los Laguitos (at 1150 metres above sea level) which is some 7-8 hours walking from El Cajón del Azul. This refuge hut is not far from the Chilean border and near the Horqueta mountain. The surrounding forest is luxuriant and is part of the Selva Valdiviana, which is a cold rain forest extending into Chile. There you can see ancient alerces (Fitzroya cupressoides) and the mañú tree.
The simple refuge hut by a lake offers overnight stay, shower, evening meal, breakfast, homemade beer and space for camping.
It is important when visiting this chain of refuge huts to wear appropriate footwear and clothing and to pay special attention to the trails and signs as inattentive people have got lost in this dense virgin forest. The refuge men have an intercommunicating system to assure that trekkers arrive and leave. It is not advisable to trek alone.
Mountain climbs in the Río Azul valley area:
The Hielo Azul mountain is named after its blue ice glacier and boasts a large, well equipped refuge hut run by Lucas and Lucia. There are two routes to this refuge (at 1500 metres). The most popular is from the track that leads down and along the Río Azul river near the La Dulceria del Río Azul (jam factory) before crossing the river by a wooden suspension bridge and the ascent begins. It takes 5-6 hours depending on physical fitness. There are spectacular panoramic views on the way over the Bolsón valley.
The refuge offers overnight stay, meals, homemade bread and beer, shower and cooking facilities and a camping ground with a shelter for cooking and eating.
For those who want to experience a walk on the glacier, Lucia offers guided treks.
The refuge hut can also be approached from the Confluencia del Río Azul and stopping off at the refuge at Lago Natación. The installations are basic as the new hut is under construction so it is best to make sure you have your own food. From Lago Natación there is also a marked trail down to the Río Azul valley and El Cajón del Azul as well as to the Hielo Azul refuge.
From the Confluencia del Río Azul there is a track that leads to the refuge hut (at 1300 metres above sea level) on Dedo Gordo mountain for those who want to ascend this mountain summit.
In this same range further north there is access to the Río Blanco and its refuge hut, El Valle del Río Blanco. This trek is not mountainous and takes you through native woodlands and along the pristine White River. This refuge can also be reached from the Dedo Gordo mountain for those with sure mountain feet.
The Río Blanco
Just up the road there is the Perito Moreno mountain refuge hut at the small ski centre.
Further south along the Cordillera, there are three more refuge huts. First Cerro Lindo, then El Motocco river and finally the base camp of Roca del Tiempo. For these treks, you will either need to ford the Rio Azul or cross over on one of the suspension bridges. Each offers basic facilities.
The only refuge hut in the mountains east of El Bolsón is on the Piltriquitrón mountain which forms the backdrop to the town. This refuge hut can be approached by car if you don’t mind driving up a rocky road to a natural platform where you can leave the vehicle and then take a 20 minute walk through a wood of carved trunks to the hut. From here you have a marvellous view over the town and the Cordillera de los Andes.
Cerro Piltriquitrón from Mallín Ahogado
You are required to pass by Club Andino Piltriquitrón in Sarmiento Street to inform the office where you are going in the mountains. A reasonable level of physical fitness is required. Make sure you have good footwear and warm, waterproof clothing, some food, and a torch. The climate can change suddenly even in summer with snow on the mountains after rain, and temperatures drop sharply at night. Make sure you have plenty of time to reach the refuges before nightfall. It is advisable to always trek with a companion(s). With these few precautions you should enjoy some spectacular scenery and the great outdoors of North West Patagonia.
For more information about each refuge in Spanish check the link below:
Map of the area, also available at the Tourist Office in town: Click Here