Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Friday, December 15, 2006

El Bolson and Rio Azul

El Bolson was one of the top hippy destinations in the 1970s and, even today, it is easy to see why. The town lies in a wide valley, surrounded by steep mountains on two sides and blessed with a micro-climate that is perfect for the cultivation of soft fruit. The town itself boasts the usual Argentinian staples - three ice cream parlours, various steak houses, two supermarkets stocked with cheap red wine from the north of the country and a bus terminal. Average enough, but in the surrounding countryside, hidden in the trees, are hundreds of self-sufficient small holdings with orchards, log cabins and corrals for the animals. And it was through these pastoral scenes that we set off for a three day trek up the Rio Azul (the Blue river).

We walked upstream for an hour with the stunning blue water dazzling us in the sun. Like a blend of Swiss, Canadian and English landscapes, it was stunningly perfect and, of all the places that we have seen so far on this trip, this was the first where I thought that I could live. A hermit-like existence in the woods? We crossed the river by a precarious suspension bridge laid with cracked planks, the sign advising one person at a time and a weight limit of 150 kilos.

From the river, we climbed up through beech woodland for the next 5 hours. It was tough going and the surroundings were welcome relief. Tall, straight trunks hung with wispy beards of green lichen; fallen, fractured timber felled by the wind; bulbous growths on the beech trees sprouting orange fungi. We had filled the water bottles from the river and drank the pure water - Patagonia prides itself on having water that, in most places, can be drunk without purification.

In late afternoon, we reached the Refugio Hielo Azul nestled in the shadow of the high cliffs and hanging ice. Built from logs and of a rustic design, the warden had a fire going and we sat drinking tea before putting up the tent and cooking soup and pasta in the chill wind. It was a cold night just below the snowline and Albane wore her Bolivian hat to bed.

The next morning, we crossed a glacial stream and climbed another steep path - the Argentinan trail markers simply send you straight up the hill rather than the more user-friendly zig zags that Europeans favour. It took a couple of hours before we reached a broad saddle and started our descent into the head waters of the Rio Azul. The woodland was peaceful and we stopped for lunch by a bubbling waterfall before continuing down. On the lower slopes of the mountain, the vegetation changed and the trees gave way to open scrub and we came under attack from squadrons of huge horse flies. Although we were a little more relaxed than our encounter with them on the first trek, they were still irritating and we were pleased to reach the bottom of the valley and the fly-free waters of the wider river.

We spent the night camping at Refugio Cajon del Azul, an idyllic wooden building with neat rows of vegetables in the garden, two contented porkers in the pigsty and fruit trees in the orchard. We drank the refugio´s home-brewed beer, fruity and cold, before a short evening walk along a nearby gorge. Only a few metres wide and inaccessible because of high cliffs, the river spews its way through rapids and between boulder fields before calming into large pools of swirling currents.

After a good night´s sleep, I was woken by the sun and walked the gorge again in the early morning light. Plants and trees were defined by long shadows and there was scarcely a sound in the forest. On the way back, I followed a young plover chick down the path, its mother calling loudly above me to distract me from its offspring. I let it slip away and returned to wake Albane. We ate the last of our food and filled the bottles one last time.

The descent down river seemed harder than it was - aching, hot feet and a wide track detracting from the landscape. It took four hours to reach the gravel road and we found a small shop from where we called a taxi to take us back to El Bolson for steak and red wine. Maybe an ice cream too.......


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