There’s nothing quite like the vastness and beauty of the Patagonian wilderness. I found myself in El Bolson, a charming village in the north of Argentine Patagonia with excellent hiking. I didn’t expect much from the town at first. Initially, I was just looking to break up the 25-hour bus ride from Bariloche to El Chalten in as many chunks as possible. Unfortunately, It seemed like the best hikes in the area, such as Cajon del Azul or Cerro Piltriquitron, needed either a car or an expensive taxi. I was bummed since El Bolson was surrounded by gorgeous mountains and vast expanses of untamed wilderness.
I found a peaceful hostel out in the woods that felt more like a fairy tale hideaway than an actual hostel. With an abundance of hammocks and wide-open garden space, I was content just chilling for a while. Thankfully, fate stepped in to stop me from being lazy. As I hopped off the local bus at my hostel, an old friend happened to be waiting at the same bus stop a few miles outside of town. I had a bus booked for the late afternoon the next day, but that left me just enough time to get one epic hike in.
Getting to Cajon Del Azul
We chose to do the Cajon del Azul hike and split the roundtrip taxi. It cost about $10 in total for the 80-ish minute roundtrip. A local bus does leave every few hours from El Bolson’s main plaza to go to Wharton, but it is often unreliable and would end up squeezing more time out of our already limited day. The 13-mile roundtrip hike was expected to take around six hours, and that was exactly all the time I had.
If you take the bus to Wharton, you’ll get dropped off a bit of a walk away from the trailhead. If you’ve got time, it should be fine. The taxi dropped us off right at the trailhead and we began our descent into the wild Patagonian wilderness.
What’s the hike to Cajon del Azul like?
This hike had its ups and downs, literally. The rolling hills of the wilderness were often exhausting, and you’d usually either be going uphill or downhill. There were some stretches of flat ground, but for the most part, you’ll be trudging uphill or coasting downhill. The trail is very well marked and maintained, so you shouldn’t have any problems with the terrain. Some of the ground is pretty loose, so you might slip on the softer patches of dirt, especially downhill. That’s the worst it’ll get, though.
The views are stunning, but you’ll still be a fair distance away from the heart of Patagonia’s mountains. You’ll see a few snowy peaks in the distance, but nothing up close that’ll make your jaws drop in awe. The hike to Cajon del Azul is more renowned for its beautiful forests and of course, the breathtaking blues of the Rio Azul. The best parts of the hike involved sitting down and dipping my aching feet into its icy waters.
This hike is definitely more about the journey than the destination itself. There are plenty of stunning views along the way that outshine the end goal. Refugio Cajon del Azul is basically just a cabin where people could camp overnight if needed. It’s a good end goal, but you don’t need to reach it to have an amazing hike. The most beautiful parts of the hike will be found along the way, especially along the Rio Azul.
The hike took us exactly six hours there and back, but we spent about two hours chilling and relaxing. The loop is about 13-miles, although it felt a lot shorter. Since we were on a time limit, we basically booked it through the less-amazing parts and ended up shaving off more time than we expected.
What to bring on the hike
Bring what you would normally bring for a day hike in the woods. Two liters of water should be enough, although you might not even want to worry about it if you’ve got a filter. Just fill up with some icy water from the river and it’ll be better than water you’ll find anywhere else.
You don’t need a map, although there is a trail map at the trailhead that you might want to snap a picture of just in case. You won’t get any cell signal out here, so make sure to download Maps.Me. The trail is on there and should be all you need to get there and back. The trail is clear and well-marked, and a fair number of people do this hike on any given day. Just follow the crowds. Basically, it’s hard to get lost.
The terrain isn’t particularly difficult, so while they would help, you don’t really need hiking boots either. We befriended some older people along the way who did just fine without any proper equipment. Since this was small-town Argentina and I was a Filipino dude hiking with a tall lion-haired Brazilian girl, everyone wanted to talk to us. Hiking sticks can be useful for the sometimes tricky downhill stretches, but again, not too necessary.
Bring snacks, though. Snacks are always important. Honey in Argentina is amazing. My go-to snack while hiking in Patagonia were those little toastie bread crisps and a dab of honey.
And hey, a trash bag wouldn’t hurt. One thing I noticed about Patagonia is the people there truly, truly appreciate their wilderness. It was refreshing to see, and a good reminder to actively seek out ways to travel more sustainably. I only wish other countries shared that same love of their outdoor spaces. Leave only footprints, take only memories, ya feel? This was one of the most pristine hikes I’d ever been on. You wouldn’t want to play any part in ruining it.
Overall Thoughts on Cajon de Azul
I absolutely loved this hike and resent that I had to catch a bus that evening. I would have loved to spend the whole day relaxing here. There are plenty of refugios along the way, including one that had a family of cats that were super adorable. There’s even a brewery close to the beginning of the trail and I was so close to just missing my bus so we could have a few celebratory pints. Patagonia’s brewery game is insane, and it seems like even the smallest villages are home to no less than a dozen craft breweries.
El Bolson is no exception, and should not be an exception from your Patagonia itinerary. It’s a hidden gem in every sense of the word, filled with breathtaking views, hikes, and a charming mountain village vibe that will make you fall in love with the place.