El Bolsón, Argentine Patagonia’s counterculture capital, may be the place to replace your faded tie-dyes. It’s also a beauty spot in a fertile valley between stunning longitudinal mountain ranges ideal for hiking. So far, despite completion of the paved highway from Bariloche, this self-styled “ecological municipality” has managed to stymie five-star hotels and ski areas in favor of simpler, earthier services and activities.

El Bolsón’s alternative lifestyle, dating from 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 of apples, cherries, pears, raspberries, strawberries into delectable edibles, and makes local hops into a distinctive brew. It’s also the northernmost place to buy gasoline at Patagonian discount prices.

Map of El Bolsón, Argentina

El Bolsón

El Bolsón (pop. 17,000, elev. 300 meters) is 123 kilometers south of Bariloche via RN 40 and 167 kilometers north of Esquel via RN 259 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 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.

What to See and Do in El Bolsón

The Mapuche-oriented Centro Artesanal Cumei Antu (Av. San Martín 1920, tel. 0294/4491705) sells indigenous textiles. Cabaña Micó (Islas Malvinas 2753, tel. 0294/4492691) sells fresh fruit from its own vines in season, and homemade preserves the rest of the year.

Buskers, bakers, candle-makers, flower arrangers, and other crafts workers have transformed El Bolsón’s street fair, known as Feria Artesanal, from a once-a-week gathering to a Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday event that nearly encircles Plaza Pagano. (In summer, there’s also 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 freshly brewed draft beer. It starts about 10am and winds down around 4pm or so.

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 excursions can be a good option. Local operators include Grado 42 (Av. Belgrano 406, tel. 0294/4493124), Maputur (Perito Moreno 2331, tel. 0294/4491440), and Pulmari (Perito Moreno 2871, tel. 0294/4492161).

Getting There and Around

El Bolsón lacks a central bus terminal, but most companies are within a few blocks of each other, and several travel agencies are not only sales offices but bus stops too.

Andesmar group (Belgrano and Perito Moreno, tel. 0294/4492178) goes to Bariloche, Buenos Aires (with a change in Bariloche), and south to Esquel. Vía Bariloche group (Av. Belgrano 556, tel. 0294/4493910; Roca and Onelli, tel. 0294/4455554) goes to Esquel, Bariloche, Comodoro Rivadavia, Puerto Madryn, Buenos Aires, and northbound destinations as far as San Salvador de Jujuy. Mar y Valle (Perito Moreno 2331, tel. 0294/4491440) goes to Esquel and Puerto Madryn.

Grado 42 (Belgrano 406, tel. 0294/4493124) represents Taqsa/Marga, which goes to El Calafate and El Chaltén, and Transportes Esquel, which goes to Esquel via Parque Nacional Los Alerces, running transfer services to its northernmost stop at Lago Puelo. Grado 42 also operates its own regular service to El Maitén.

The usual destinations are Bariloche (US$71, 2-2.5 hours) and Esquel (US$8-12, 2-3 hours). For most coastal destinations, like Puerto Madryn, it’s better to backtrack to Bariloche. There are regular services to Comodoro Rivadavia (US$48-56). 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 like Cerro Piltriquitrón and Lago Puelo. There are also abundant radio taxis.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Patagonia.