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Hats off to El Bolson

ARGENTINA | Wednesday, 7 January 2009 | Views [2046] | Comments [1]

The first time I had heard of El Bolson was when a friend recounted a tale about a friend of hers when in Buenos Aires. It had been settled (if that's the right word) by a bunch of hippies in the late seventies who came looking for a peaceful place to live, make their crafts and generally be at peace with the universe. Orion, the protagonist in the story had been enticed to El Bolson by the plentiful fruit and nuts growing naturally and the general feel of the place. He had set his heart on making jam and had even gone so far as to purchase a machine to sterilise the jam jars. Unfortunately, for a plethora of reasons, Orion remains in Buenos Aires but the jam jar steriliser is still somewhere in El Bolson. Another friend, a big Tolkien fan had described it as like Hobbiton or somewhere in The Shire. Sure we'd have to give the place a visit, if even only for a day or two.

People in Esquel had referred to El Bolson as being a bit more liberated, so trying to keep ourselves consistent with the rumours we didn't book anywhere ahead and got off the bus with no idea where to start. It was the first day of 2009 and the sun beat down strongly – the search for shade became the top priority. It was too hot to wander around with the rucksacks and be accommodation opportunists.

Leaving Claire in a shady park I started to have a look around, first for somewhere with the internet or wireless and then for anywhere with a cold drink. Being the day it was, everywhere was closed and the town felt like the alarm had gone off but it had rolled over and gone back to sleep, groggy after the previous nights festivities. Mercifully, the tourist information office was open and I returned with a handful of leaflets. One, for La Casa del Viajero stood out, partly because it said “call us we pick you up” and partly because the hostel promised peace and harmony as well as a laundry service and wi-fi.

I called and the voice at the end apologised that he was in the middle of lunch and would be a while before he got down to us, but they had room. Augustin Porro, the casa del viajero's owner pulled up 30 minutes later in a well kept but aged white Peugeot 504 and warmly hugged his departing passengers goodbye as we put our rucksacks in the boot. On the way to the hostel he picked up some ice cream “for his house” and pointed out the local amenities, the short-cut to the centre and the best panaderia in town. He also picked up 2 of his children who squeezed in.

The hostel itself consists of 2 houses plus Augustin's own house all surrounded by leafy trees and an organic veggie garden. Augustin built all the houses himself from scratch and the one we were staying was the first built. He took a lot of pride in telling us that the room we were to stay in was the room where he had delivered 2 of his children (one, Paz, or Peace had joined us in the car). Almost as soon as we arrived we could feel ourselves chilling out – bizarre seeing as we had not had anything to stress us out for months. It was just the feeling of the place, hammocks slung all over, friendly dogs lazing and the dappled sunlight playing on the plants.

We met our housemates, Omar, a considered, slow speaking older gent from Turkey and lively couple from Buenos Aires. The hours past quickly as we chatted – eventually we picked up some groceries in the only kiosko open and retired early, exhausted from doing nothing.

12 hours fitful slumber later we awoke to the sound of birds chirping and a few hen clucks.

Our housemates had all moved on. We borrowed the hostel bikes and went to explore the town which had woken up a little but not too much. The incidence of very cool old cars, trucks and integrated truck/coach/campervans of the type that may have frequented Woodstock or an early Glastonbury increased. Some for sale.

Polish Krys who we had stayed with in Esquel had made it up to a different hostel a day before us so we decided to cycle up to pay him a visit. The bikes we had borrowed were also from a bygone era so by the time we got the 5km out of town we were in need of new buttocks. Krys was in bed and the hostel were fresh out of spare posteriors so we settled for a big bottle of delicious home made beer instead. This turned into a few more bottles and the plans to bike a few miles to a waterfall dissipated.

We did however make plans to meet Krys at a different waterfall the following day. It seemed a lovely place .. we thought perhaps we should stay for another night. Johnny from Coventry who was staying in the other house joined us for soup and our host took a bowl for himself over to his house. He had been on the walk we planned the next day and talked us through Augustin's hand drawn map.

It was the type of walk you do when you're 10 years old. Scrambling over rocks, under tree roots and hopping over stones in the river. Even a fabulously rickety old bridge which felt like it was about to collapse as we stepped over the many missing slats. I half expected to encounter Bilbo Baggins tending to his garden around the next curve. Baggins translated into Spanish is Bolson, aptly enough. We followed the river via simple yet effective directions (not up, middle path, smell of sulpher) to the cascada escondida or hidden waterfall.

We climbed up the stairs past the falls into a botanical gardens “for the contemplation and study of native and exotic plant species”. It could have been Wicklow with its varieties of pines, but I suppose that's exotic in South America. Onwards up the dusty trail, ideal for horses but we seriously regretted sandals as we got more and more covered in grey-black dust from our knees down, It really was like being 10 again! The path took us to La Cabeza del Indio, a rocky outcrop famous for resembling an Indian's head.

The trek ended in town - it was market day so we were expecting a few stalls with the ubiquitous thread bracelets and their dread-locked vagabond makers - not much more.

The feria in El Bolson is the most like being at a festival that I have ever felt without actually being at one. Hundreds of tastefully decorated stalls with excellent quality crafted goods – wood, stone, leather. glass, fabric. Amazing food, great home made beers. A live band jamming, as much for their own enjoyment as anyone elses. Bohemian characters panning out, joking, sipping mate. It's an almost magical place. We met Oswald, a neigbour of Augustin's who works with stones and a bloke from Kent who had moved over to run his Dad's waffle business. Barbara, Augustin's niece invited us to an asado at the hostel that evening. We also met Krys (who we hadn't seen at the hidden waterfall) and joined a group of people from the other hostel (Sofia from Buenos Aires, Phil from Edinburgh and Rosario from Rosario) to chill out in the shade and drink in the atmosphere. Claire bought a lovely handmade dress which would definitely go well with a pair of wellies and some Glastonbury mud. Rosario hooked up with the band's xylophonist, with a slightly bizarre indentation in his chest a bit like my mate Karl's but more pronounced (he jammed barechested). The bikes rode us home.

We had been joined by 2 couples in the house after having had it to ourselves for a night – Aisling and Keith, Gaelscoil teachers from Kerry and Cork and an American couple who weren't very good at introducing themselves. We enjoyed a fabulous Asado, probably the best thus far as they settled into the house. A really great atmosphere, everyone bringing something to the table be it wine or meat or bread. Maybe one more night...

It was a very lazy Sunday ... we managed to make it back down to the fair to meet back up with the crowd and sup mate. We just about made it back to flop on the hammock and chat to Aisling and Keith while the American dude taught what seemed to be his recently acquired and admittedly very pleasant trophy girlfriend chess in a very dictatorial manner.

Augustin wandered over and invited me over to his workshack to see his craftwork. He had an orchestral concert on his portable TV and a few fabulous unfinished pig leather hats on his worktop. As he finished off the hats, carefully shaping the leather with a sharp knife, we chatted about how it had all happened in El Bolson.

Augustin arrived in the early 80s along with the rest of the crew. In order to stimulate sales growth of their local produce he marketed “El Sabado Bolson Feria Regional de 10 a 14” by placing stickers in bathrooms and lamposts all over Bariloche. They came in droves and thus began the hippy fair. In an oddly capitalistic fashion, but the rule was that only items made in the area by people living in the area could be sold. I tried on a hat – only one fit (I have a big head) and went back to our cabin. Maybe we'd stay another night...

The alarm went off the next morning and it was a real struggle to get up. We had to take the 8 o'clock bus to Warton Camp from where we would trek to El Cajon del Azul, a river ravine up the Blue River valley. Aisling came with – Keith's foot was at him and he had a date with the hammock. It was fresher than other days and there were clouds in the air for the first time in quite a while. Perfect hiking weather.

We didn't have a map but a well equipped porteňo (food for 10 days!) set us off in the right direction, down a long ripio track before we came to a ford with a wire and timber, one-at-a-time bridge followed by a longer more rickety one to cross the other bend in the river. Not quite as big a drop as Indiana Jones might have been used to but definitely as dodgy. It was an up and down track through cypress, pine and bamboo forests roughly tracing the river. We kept a good pace, chatting all along as we passed camping refugios selling homemade bread and beer (all you really need to survive in Middle Earth).

After we reached yet another wobbly bridge over the 40m deep, 1m wide chasm that gave the path its name, we sat down to a picnic in a pretty refuge complete with a collection of cute week old kittens gambolling around and sheep munching away on the rich pasture. Aisling went into the woods for a natural break and literally had the shit scared out of her by a Patagonian hare.

It stared to spit rain so we made a move after visiting the nacimiento, the birth of the ravine where the river enters it. Chilly on the way back, it seemed to and did take longer, about 4 hours. We had asked for the times of the bus back but even the bus driver wasn't so sure, but a few games of 20 questions passed the time before the bus turned up and took us out of the cold. Strange to have such extremes of temperature in the same place in the same season, although we all did smirk a little at the news of the cold snap in Europe. Minus craziness! Come to El Bolson!! We had some pizza as a reward for our hard work and looked forward to sleeping in. I guess that would mean another day in la casa del viajero!

Looking at the date for what actually was the first time all year, we saw that we had a flight for NZ in a week. We were supposed to work our way up to Santiago through Chile and see the lakes, volcanoes and islands. It would have to be a flying visit or none at all. We chose the latter, determining that it was better to not see Chile at all really than not do it justice. We'll have to see Chile some other time.

The fair was on again (T, TH, S, S) so we did some chores then headed on down and got some souvenirs and said our goodbyes to the people we had come to know in our short time there. We really needed to move on or else we'd stay for ever and start growing hairs on our toes and disappearing whenever the Japanese tour buses would arrive. Clowns ran about making children nearly suffocate with laughter and band played on. Delicious strong raspberry beers all around.

We had arranged to do an asado with Keith and Ais that night so we picked up a mountain of meat on the way back and began to prepare. Augustin showed me his 2 fire method of cooking (highly effective) and gathered wood with us, leaving his machete for us when he went off for his own dinner. Nicolas from La Plata joined us and mid way through Augustin appeared back at the fire, bottle of bubbly and flutes in hand to toast (or celebrate as he said) our departure. This was a hostel like no other surely.

As we reluctantly packed up our mess and prepared to leave I decided to get that hat from Augustin – mine had gone missing in Esquel and they were so .... appropriate it felt wrong not to buy it – i had seen it being born and was the only person to have ever tried it on. He even made an extra tie to make sure it didn't blow off somewhere on the trip. We packed back into the 504 and hugged happy-sad goodbyes. It felt great knowing that El Bolson, and La Casa del Viajero would always be the same.

Tags: fair, hat, hippy, hostel, trekking

 

Comments

1

gracias por tus comentarios un abrazo..Agustin

  agustin Aug 15, 2009 10:35 AM

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