El Bolsón’s alternative lifestyle, which began in the 1960s, grew as an island of tolerance and tranquility even during the Dirty War dictatorship. More affordable than Bariloche, it embraces visitors, turns its agricultural bounty—apples, cherries, pears, raspberries, strawberries—into delectable edibles, and makes local hops into a distinctive brew. Motorists appreciate that it’s the northernmost place to buy gasoline at Patagonian discount prices.
Río Negro’s southernmost city, El Bolsón (pop. 13,845, elevation 300 meters) is 123 kilometers south of Bariloche via RN 258 and 167 kilometers north of Esquel via RN 258 and RN 40. West of the south-flowing Río Quemquemtreu, the Cordón Nevado’s snowy ridge marks the Chilean border, while Cerro Piltriquitrón’s knife-edge crest rises steeply to the east. Surrounding an artificial lake, the elliptical Plaza Pagano is the town’s civic center and the site of its popular street fair.
Nearly encircling Plaza Pagano, buskers, bakers, candle-makers, flower arrangers, and other crafts workers have transformed Bolsón’s street fair from a once-a-week gathering to a Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday event (and in summer there is a smaller version on Sunday). Forgo a restaurant lunch and snack to the max on the Belgian waffles, empanadas, sandwiches, sausages, and sweets, and wash them all down with fresh-brewed draft beer. It starts around 10 a.m. and winds down around 3 p.m. or so.
The Mapuche-oriented Centro Artesanal Cumey Antú (Avenida San Martín 2020) sells indigenous textiles. Cabaña Micó (Islas Malvinas 2753, tel. 02944/49-2691) sells fresh fruit from its own vines in season, and homemade preserves the rest of the year.
Entertainment and Events
Founded in 1926, the city celebrates its Aniversario on January 28. Local brewers take center stage in mid-February’s four-day Festival Nacional del Lúpulo (National Hops Festival).
Sports and Recreation
Several travel agencies arrange excursions such as boating on Lago Puelo, hiking and climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, rafting on the Río Azul and the more distant Río Manso, and parasailing. Where logistics are complex, as in reaching some trailheads, these can be a good option.
El Bolsón has quality accommodations for every budget except the luxury category (though what lacks in luxury often compensates with character). Some of the best values are not in town but scattered around the outskirts.
At the north end, directly on the Bariloche highway, Camping El Bolsón (RN 258 s/n, tel. 02944/49-2595, email@example.com, US$4–5 pp) operates its own brewery and beer garden and has a pool as well; it’s open November–April.
Hospedaje Piltri (Saavedra 2729, tel. 02944/45-5305, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$26 d) is a quiet family-run place whose spacious but sparsely furnished rooms have firm beds. Its main drawback is the insufficient number of shared baths (which are, however, immaculate) when it’s crowded.
About four kilometers north of town, HI affiliate El Pueblito Hostel (Barrio Luján s/n, tel. 02944/49-3560, US$10–13 pp in dorms, US$26–32 d) is a comfortable, sociable place on a large property, with 40 beds but also separate cabañas, some with shared baths and others with private baths. From downtown Bolsón there are hourly buses between 7:45 a.m. and 8:45 p.m. except at 7:45 p.m.
On secluded grounds in Barrio Turismo just off the road to Cerro Piltriquitrón, HI affiliate Hostal Altos del Sur (tel. 02944/49- 8730, US$13 pp dorm, US$46 d, with breakfast) has fourand six-beds dorms, plus a couple of doubles, all with private baths. The first transfer is free because it’s a little isolated and hard to find, but its pristine facilities and amenities, which include a library, satellite TV, and Wi-Fi, make it Bolsón’s best hostel.
Other moderate choices include Hospedaje Unelén (Azcuénaga 134, tel. 02944/48-3728, hospedaje‑hostel‑email@example.com, US$40 s, US$50 d), which stays open all year, and Residencial Valle Nuevo (25 de Mayo 2329, tel. 02944/49-2087, firstname.lastname@example.org, US$55 d).
West of the highway on Bolsón’s northern outskirts, Hostería del Campo (RN 258 s/n, tel. 02944/49-2297, US$53 s or d) has quiet motel-style rooms with covered parking, set among spacious gardens, but breakfast is extra and there’s a credit-card surcharge.
The four-room La Posada de Hamelin (Granollers 2179, tel. 02944/49-2030, US$41 s, US$61 d) is one of El Bolsón’s best B&Bs.
Six kilometers north of town, by a signed dirt road that diverges from the Bariloche highway, the riverside La Casona de Odile (Barrio Luján s/n, tel. 02944/49-2753, email@example.com, US$32 pp with breakfast, US$53 pp with half board) offers home-cooked French dinners (nonguests may partake of dinner with reservations), but Odile is a heavy smoker. It’s open October or November to late April and can accommodate disabled individuals.
New in late 2008, in a quiet eastside location, Hostería La Escampada (Azcuénaga and 25 de Mayo, tel. 02944/48-3905, US$37 s, US$66 d) is a cozy B&B with friendly management and regional style—possibly the best new place in town. The Amancay Hotel (Avenida San Martín 3217, tel. 02944/49-2222, US$39 s, US$66 d) is an aging but still serviceable hotel showing wear but not tear.
Given the fresh fruit and vegetables, El Bolsón’s food exceeds expectations, though it lacks sophistication. Be sure to give up one lunch in favor of snacking at Plaza Pagano’s Feria Artesanal.
Note that most places in Bolsón stay open all day, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. La Salteñita (Avenida Belgrano 515, tel. 02944/49-3749) serves spicy northern empanadas for takeaway. Mitski Cocoa (San Martín 2526, tel. 02944/49-1878) is an ideal breakfast spot for succulent croissants and hot chocolate.
Boulevard (San Martín and Pablo Hube) has morphed into a hybrid Irish-style pub and pizzeria. Otto Tipp (Isla Malvinas and Roca, tel. 02944/49-3700) is more stylishly Teutonic, with free beer samples in addition to pastas and pizzas.
Martín Sheffield (Avenida San Martín 2740, tel. 02944/49-1920) is a welcome presence, with cooked-to-order chicken, Patagonian trout, and lamb, plus local beer on tap. Unusual for Argentina, especially for this part of Argentina, it even prepares credible Mexican tacos.
Packed for dinner, Il Rizzo (Avenida San Martín 2599, tel. 02944/49-1380) is for pizza and pasta. Carlitos (Avenida San Martín 3410, tel. 02944/45-5654) is a parrilla.
Several places have failed in its location, but Pasiones Argentinas (Avenida Belgrano and Beruti, tel. 02944/48-3616) seems off to a good start with a diversity of pizzas (including game toppings such as venison and wild boar), and more elaborate versions of standards such as bife de chorizo. Most entrées fall in the US$6–10 range. It has occasional live jazz or rock bands on weekends.
Jauja (San Martín 2867, tel. 02944/49-2448, US$10–20) may have slipped a notch, but it’s still the best in town. Vivid flower arrangements set the stage for succulent pastas such as gnocchi with a garlic cream sauce, vegetarian dishes such as milanesa de soja (breaded soybean steak), trout with a creamy almond sauce, outstanding homemade bread, and local brews. It’s tobacco-free noon–4 p.m. and 8 p.m.–midnight only.
Ignore Jauja’s in-house desserts, and step just outside to Helados Jauja, one of the country’s top ice creameries, with an almost paralyzing choice of nearly 60 inventive flavors. The author’s longstanding favorite is mate cocido con tres de azúcar (boiled and slightly sweetened mate), though even some Argentines blanch at consuming their favorite bitter infusion in frozen form. Chocolate profundo, a bittersweet chocolate mousse, is also interesting.
At Plaza Pagano’s north end, the Dirección Municipal de Turismo (Avenida San Martín and Roca, tel./fax 02944/49-2604) provides decent maps of accommodations and other services; it even employs an accommodations specialist who makes suggestions and books hotels. Summer hours are 9 a.m.–11 p.m. Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.– 11 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Sunday; the rest of the year, hours are 9 a.m.–9 p.m., sometimes a little later, daily.
For hiking and climbing suggestions, visit the Club Andino Piltriquitrón(Sarmiento between Roca and Feliciano, tel. 02944/49-2600), which also rents bikes.
For motorists, ACA (tel. 02944/49-2260) is at Avenida Belgrano and San Martín.
Banco de la Nación (Avenida San Martín 2598) has an ATM.
Correo Argentino is at Avenida San Martín 2806; the postal code is 8430. Rancho Internet (Avenida San Martín and Pablo Hube) has the best Internet connections.
Laverap ( José Hernández 223, tel. 02944/49-3243) does the washing.
The Hospital de Area (Perito Moreno s/n, tel. 02944/49-2240) is behind Plaza Pagano.
In new quarters, LADE (Avenida Sarmiento 3238, tel. 02944/49-2206) flies throughout Patagonia on erratic schedules. Flights leave from the Aeroclub El Bolsón (tel. 02944/49- 1125) at the north end of Avenida San Martín.
El Bolsón lacks a central bus terminal, but most companies are within a few blocks of each other.
Andesmar (Belgrano and Perito Moreno, tel. 02944/49-2178) goes to Bariloche and Buenos Aires, usually with a change in Neuquén, and south to Esquel. Vía Bariloche (Sarmiento and Roca, tel. 02972/45-5554) goes to Esquel, Bariloche, and Buenos Aires; Transportes Esquel (Belgrano 406, tel. 02944/49-3124) also goes to Esquel via Parque Nacional Los Alerces.
Grado 42 (Belgrano 406, tel. 02944/49-3124) represents TAC, which goes to El Maitén and Esquel, and to Bariloche, and makes connections in Neuquén for Mendoza and other northern destinations. Don Otto (Belgrano and Berutti, Local 3, tel. 02944/49-3910) goes to Bariloche and Comodoro Rivadavia, with connections in Esquel for Trelew and Puerto Madryn. Maputur/Mar y Valle (Perito Moreno 2331, tel. 02944/49-1440) goes directly to Puerto Madryn.
The usual destinations are Bariloche (2 hours, US$6–8) and Esquel (2.5 hours, US$7– 9), Trelew (11 hours, US$36–57), and Puerto Madryn (12 hours, US$39–60). Fares to other northbound destinations are slightly more expensive than those from Bariloche; fares to southbound destinations are slightly cheaper.
For a small town, El Bolsón has fine public transportation for excursions to places like Cerro Piltriquitrón and Lago Puelo. There are also abundant radio taxis and remises.
For rental bikes, try La Rueda (Avenida Sarmiento 2972, tel. 02944/49-2465) or Ñuke Mapu (Azcona 3236, tel. 02944/49-8934).
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.