Glacier hiking: Argentina

Jasper Winn takes a hike through Argentina's impressive tumults of sapphire-blue lagoons, brittle-peaked mountains, glaciers as white and confident as toothpaste, and sunny, stream-scattered valleys

5 mins

Por favor, por favor, don’t call them ’ippies, because they are not ’ippies!” Josefina’s voice was anguished. “They are artesanos – craftsmen – but not ’ippies.” Josefina worked in El Bolsón’s tourist office and she was stressing that the folk outside the window, industriously setting up stalls for the Saturday hipp... sorry... craftspersons’ market, were not a bunch of tie-dyed dropouts but, rather, hardworking artisans.

And I’m sure that’s just what they were. Certainly plenty of them were skilled in their chosen crafts, and few enough of them actually looked like Catweazle or that bloke who use to warble ‘Mellow Yellow’. But, then again, amongst the silversmiths, jam-brewers, rawhide braiders, woodturners, glass painters and the chap who apparently made a living constructing and selling hurdy-gurdies, there was more than one trestle table given over to sculpted figurines of duendes, a kind of Patagonian leprechaun. Numerous little models of these wizened-featured, bucolically costumed gnomes squatted on miniature logs or rocks, wearing blissed-out expressions and sporting price stickers on their bums. According to some people – people who, perhaps, tend to buy more Rizla rolling papers than the average consumer – it’s quite common to see real, live duendes frolicking in El Bolsón’s woods, just like you might spot condor, wild boar, puma and other, more expected, local fauna.

Argentina! A nation of impassioned guitar pluckers, vigorous accordion throttlers and lithe-haunched tango twirlers? For sure. Country of silver-spurred, horse-straddling, narrow-eyed gauchos riding the pampa with lasso in hand? Absolutely. And Argentina, the South American state that’s gone through five presidents in the past year-and-a-half alone, and is trying to run its economy on a currency that’s lost 70% of its worth in the same period? Well, that too, and very good value it offers if you’re planning on visiting in the near future.

But Argentina as a haven for hippies? Well, in truth, only around this one corner of the country’s Lake District. Only here, amidst the Río Negro and Chubut provinces’ impressive tumults of sapphire-blue lagoons, brittle-peaked mountains, glaciers as white and confident as toothpaste, and sunny, stream-scattered valleys. And Josefina was, sadly, right; in El Bolsón, genuine loon-panted Utopians with ZZ Top beards were far outnumbered by business-minded artisans who’d fled Argentina’s big cities to live the ‘good life’ on small, self-sufficient farms.

And those few certified, 100%-organic hippies actually left were now as old and outdated as a Jefferson Airplane lyric. Mainly because El Bolsón got its dose of the Woodstock generation way back in 1969 when the entire cast of the Buenos Aires production of the rock opera Hair, and most of the technical crew, decamped from the capital to set up communes in give-away-priced farmland. Word soon got around that El Bolsón – until then no more than a 100-horse town serving the cattle ranches out in the surrounding hinterland – was paradise. More folk rapidly followed in the sandal-prints of the Hair mob.

By the time I arrived, the eco-friendly idealists, along with the locals – still a mix of cattle raisers, cowboys and descendants of the region’s indigenous Mapuche Indians – had already had some 34 years to get orchards a-growing, micro-breweries fermenting, guesthouses running, and restaurants fired up and ready to dish out good organic food and even better wines. And, give ’em their due, the El Bolsónites have kept the rivers – with some of the best trout fishing in the country – sparklingly clear, and put in hundreds of kilometres of walking trails through the woods that lead to numerous, comfortably rustic refugios sited high up under the mountains’ snowy peaks.

And they set up businesses, too, offering paragliding, horse trekking, canyoning, mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting and farmstays. Back in town the not-a-hippy market runs thrice-weekly, and medieval miracle plays are performed in a theatre in somebody’s house on Tuesday nights. The UFO-spotters’ club is thriving. El Bolsón could make a good claim for being perhaps the most rewarding, certainly the most pleasant and definitely the most varied one-stop destination in the whole of Argentina.

Getting high

Walking around El Bolsón my eyes, and my thoughts, were constantly drawn to higher things. The town is small anyway, but it’s further dwarfed by lying in a corridor between two chains of mountains. So, to the main street’s east, there’s Cerro Piltriquitrón soaring up to an impressive 2,260m, while along the town’s western side, a row of high shark-teeth peaks culminates in the Cerro Hielo Azul which is ten metres higher. Not only is it higher but, as its name suggests, Hielo Azul, also has a slab of ‘blue ice’ oozing over its flanks, a handy deciding factor when I was deliberating whether to go right or left for a few days’ walk. Glaciers, along with camel fairs, are the two attractions that, bizarrely, prove the least resistible. Thus it was to the blue ice I planned to head.

I met John from Cornwall late one night in El Bolsón’s roughest bar – the one that’s filled with polite bikers, cowboys and drunks. Over tumblers of much rougher Malbec, John and I agreed to join forces for the assault on Cerro Hielo Azul’s glacier. Predictably it was well into the next afternoon before we actually set off for refugio Hielo Azul, passing a notice that suggested it would take us some seven hours to reach our destination. We had four hours of light left. But we went anyway. Perhaps we’d stopped taking signs too seriously after we noticed the numerous fire prevention warnings erected by the Servicio de Prevención y Lucha contra Incendios Forestales or, as they signed themselves, SPLIF.

Once we’d started into the forest, striding amongst the soaring trees and skipping over tangles of roots and boulders, the existence of duendes suddenly seemed more plausible. Maybe they were the ones who’d actually pioneered the path we were walking. Or perhaps they, like us, just followed the gravity-scorning tracks of the rare but agile huemel deer. Whatever, the trail eschewed gently inclining planes, contour-following or any other sops to trekking sissyhood – when the land went up, the path went straight up with it. And from the moment we left the river, the land was busy going up some 1,500m in as short a distance as it could. We sweated and strained on, our efforts mocked by the lunatic head-banging of the Magellanic woodpeckers.

Arriving at the refugio, minutes before dark, was a relief. Lucas, the warden, was just downing tools after a day’s work, which seemed to consist of occupationally therapeutic chainsawing. The original refugio was an old log cabin, but Lucas, in a few brief years of tenure, had already added a log-annexe, and a log-sleeping-loft – reached by a log-staircase from the log-outhouse. It was a tribute to the sheer scale of the forest around us that all this loggery, dwarfed as it was by the many trees that had withstood Lucas’ trusty tool, still seemed no more than the most understated of duende hamlets, barely a dormitory town for hobbits. Lucas was a bright guy who’d worked out that if everything had to be brought up a 170° path, from 15km away, then the more he didn’t have to bring up, the better. So, in a nod towards self-sufficiency, he brewed beer and baked bread in the log-annexe. Which was lucky, because we’d forgotten to bring supper with us.

It was beer and bread for breakfast, too, before we scrambled towards the glacier. It was impressive in a white, ‘gee, it’s a glacier’ kind of way. But, even better, a rock the size of a Volkswagen Beetle chose the exact moment we started crossing the ice to begin sliding down from high above, gathering speed as it tobogganed on, then jumping as it hit the lips of crevasses, flying ever faster in great zigzagging leaps and bounds, before passing us in a rush of wind and explosion of ice shards and finally plummeting over the ice cliff to send up a mushroom cloud of icy green water from far below. That was the kind of entertainment value that all glaciers should provide.

The Sundance Tour

We were back in El Bolsón by dark. My knee joints had seized solid by then, but I shunned the crystal healers, chakra aligners and psychic healers dotted around the town (all of whom would have been eager to put me right) and went for the more obvious, Butch Cassidy-style cure; a hot shower, a steak as big as a telephone directory and a couple of glasses of Mendoza’s best wine.

And why Butch Cassidy style? Well, because the hippies weren’t actually the first outsiders to discover the joys of El Bolsón and its surrounding lands. In 1902 Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, on the run from North America where a string of bank raids and train robberies had put a few too many Pinkerton men on their trail, arrived in Argentina. As ‘James Ryan’, and ‘Mr and Mrs Harry Place’, (the Kid was travelling with his girlfriend, Etta Place), the Yankee outlaws bought 5,000 hectares of grazing land near Cholila, south of El Bolsón. This happy menage à trois stayed down on the farm, on and off, until 1907, making better and easier money raising cattle and horses than robbing banks. But Pinkerton detectives became interested in the foreigners living in Cholila and the outlaws were forced to move on.

Bruce Chatwin’s account of the Butch Cassidy story, recounted in his book, In Patagonia, is one of his better syntheses of research, supposition and imagination. Some 25 years after Chatwin, I rode a chestnut horse, bareback, from Welsh Patagonian Rene Griffith’s land down to the Cassidy log cabin. It had been abandoned for several years, but there were empty champagne bottles piled up against one wall. A local landowner had married his eighth wife there the week before; he was in his 70s, she in her 20s. I walked through the empty rooms of the cabin. It was eerily quiet; peaceful. The ghosts of the outlaws were somewhere else.

Back at Rene’s cabin we waited for two gauchos – Ernesto and Ruben – to come and help us round up a hundred head of cattle. Rene and I passed a small, polished gourd containing mate (tea) back and forth between us, sucking the thick green liquid through the silver straw in turn. Rene was filling me in on local history. He had good English, but we spoke in Spanish. His dog – “Pinkie, bach” – and his horses, though, he addressed in Welsh.

“They call Ernesto ‘el gringo’, or some people call him ‘the sheriff’,” Rene explained, “because his grandfather was one of the detectives sent down to arrest Cassidy and the Kid.” He trickled hot water into the mate gourd and passed it over to me. “The grandfather didn’t arrest Cassidy or even try to – but he saw what a wonderful land it is down here, so he never went back to America. They say he became a friend of the outlaws. Maybe. Why not?”

At dusk the two gauchos rode up on their strong horses, a pack of dogs at heel, driving a packhorse with half a sheep slung over the saddle. Ruben had a stove-pipe hat and a thick beard, and said nothing. Ernesto, his uncle, was talkative, telling stories and laughing even while they were busy unsaddling their mounts.

Entering the cabin, both Ernesto and Ruben reached behind their backs. Each pulled a revolver out from his belt and put it on top of the cupboard. Relaxed now, they put a large slab of the sheep on a spike in front of the fire. Its fat spat and flared. A box of wine was pierced open and we passed it back and forth. Butch Cassidy very possibly died in an old people’s home back in America in the 1930s, and the Sundance Kid was more than likely shot in a botched bank raid shortly after leaving Patagonia. We sat in the firelight exchanging stories and jokes, and the ghosts of the yanqui banditos seemed to have returned to Argentina.

Back in El Bolsón, I intended to ask in the tourist office about the infamous American outlaws. I didn’t, but maybe I could have guessed the response I’d have got from Josefina. The same pained look; the same anguished tones; “Por favor, por favor. No fueron outlaws – no, no, not outlaws! Fueron estancieros, los dos... they were both ranchers... but no, not outlaws.” Sure, why not. El Bolsón likes to think the best of everybody. Of course, Cassidy and the Sundance Kid certainly weren’t hippies. But, then again, they weren’t Robert Redford and Paul Newman either.

When to go: Though El Bolsón’s microclimate and low altitude are pleasant year-round, spring and autumn (the latter, for the amazing fall colours, has the edge) are the best for walking in the mountains.

Health and safety: Argentina is generally healthy, especially the further south you go, but as most people will be travelling in other parts of the country, and perhaps around South America, too, you should seek medical advice before departure. For El Bolsón and the Lake District, your tetanus jab should be up-to-date. Hantavirus is present in Argentina and is spread by infected wild mice. It’s a serious disease, but also rare, and odd outbreaks will be well publicised locally. Good hygiene and hanging food out of the reach of mice are basic precautions.

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