El Bolsón

El Bolsón has a reputation as a hippie town nestled among mountains and lakes. The town center hosts a market every weekend, where locals and expats sell produce (berries galore) and handicrafts.

I am so not a hippie. I mean, really, big banks were the main clients at the law firm I worked at. (I swear this isn’t a lame attempt at a flex–just trying to demonstrate that I’ve sold out.) Mountains and lakes are my thing, though, so I thought El Bolsón would be a good stop. As I waited for my bus to El Bolsón, I eavesdropped on a couple of American hipsters who couldn’t wait to “get away from the grid and be in the middle of nowhere.”

I have a lot of feelings about El Bolsón, and many of them are…less than positive. I wasn’t looking forward to writing this post because I was afraid of sounding ungrateful. After the highs of the Chilean Lake District and Patagonia, El Bolsón wasn’t quite the majestic mountain retreat I was expecting; it was more low key. If I’m honest (i.e., petty), it felt like a lesser version of Pucón or Puerto Varas. In other words, my stay in El Bolsón can be summed up in one sentence: Alice was grumpy.

I stayed at Hostel Luz Clara in El Hoyo, a small town about a 20-minute drive from El Bolsón. The hostel was homey, with cozy rooms and hammocks (yesss) in the lawn. Juan and Juli were wonderful owners who provided all the info I needed.

Juan suggested walking to Corbata Blanca to round out my afternoon, so I started walking there at 3:30 PM. It should have taken less than an hour to reach the entrance to the waterfall, but I got confused about the route and didn’t get there until 5:15 PM. The uphill climb of 850 m was estimated to take 45 minutes, but I zoomed up in 25 minutes to make sure I could go up and back before sunset. (OK, this was a casual flex. I rarely get to brag about my athletic feats, so please allow me to have this moment.)

corbata blanca

My back was drenched in sweat after the climb, so I stuck around the falls for 20 minutes to try to cool off before returning to the hostel.

The next morning, Juli, one of the hostel owners, gave some suggestions for activities, including a three-hour hike to Lago Espejo, a small lake tucked in the mountains. When I asked Juli for directions, she pulled up Google satellite view on her computer and proceeded to draw a map on a sheet of paper. Juli noted that the trail could be tricky to find in some spots and pointed out potential problem areas. To give you an idea of what this hike was like, these were a couple of the directions she gave:

  • “Turn left when you reach a big tree in front of a fence. The trail should flatten as you walk along the fence. There’s another, more clearly marked path to the right of the tree, but don’t follow that since it leads the wrong way.”
  • “Turn right when you reach a farm. The trail will disappear into a small field, which you should walk through. Once you reach the end of the field, you should be able to find the trail again.”

Piece of cake, right? I had nothing to worry about.

I downloaded a map of the area around Lago Espejo onto my phone and left the hostel at around 11:00 AM. After an hour, I reached the start of the trail. I didn’t see anyone until 20 minutes into the hike, when I caught up to another hostel guest from Buenos Aires. He had tried to hike to Lago Espejo the previous day but gave up since he kept getting lost.

Since I had a map on my phone, I led the way. Although the climb was steep and sweaty, I didn’t have to take breaks since I was walking at a sloth’s pace. When we reached a flatter portion of the trail, I let the Argentine refer to the map on my phone a few times since he seemed to have a better grasp of the directions Juli had given at the hostel.

We eventually reached the farm that Juli had mentioned and couldn’t figure out where to go. Using the map on my phone, the Argentine thought we needed to walk into a forest next to the farm. Even though there was no path in the forest, the Argentine was convinced this was the right way.

I pointed to a clearer spot that seemed to lead to a trail, but the Argentine said it wasn’t going in the right direction. Doubt and frustration started to creep in. Juli said the trail could be hard to find at points, but she never said that I would have to cut through woods. I wasn’t in the mood to navigate a dense forest without any markers. Say what you want, Robert Frost, but I take the road more traveled.

Even though I was pretty sure the Argentine was wrong, I wasn’t 100% certain. The Argentine, on the other hand, seemed confident with the map on my phone. After some hesitation, I followed him into the woods. (If this were a Netflix thriller, this would be where I yell at the protagonist for being so, so, so stupid.)

Without any trail to follow, we tripped through tangles of trees and plants at what felt like a 50-degree incline. Twigs and leaves got caught in my braid. I walked into a branch that scratched the skin between the bridge of my nose and my eye, and I was done. I became so pissed that I didn’t care if I snapped twigs as I walked–screw conservation and the environment (what an un-hippie, un-El Bolsón-y thing to say)! “I hate this hike. I hate this hike,” was the refrain that looped in my head. Although cursing isn’t in my nature, I wanted to yell strings of expletives every time we had to clamber over boulders (and would have if I were alone). Plus, the Argentine still had my phone, and I was worried he was going to drop it; I was happy to have another reason to be annoyed.

Barely contained rage fueled me for the 20-minute climb, and then we finally reached a path. The Argentine checked my phone and confirmed it was going in the right direction. Uh, yeah, it was going the right direction because this was the exact [insert expletive here because I was SO. FORKING. MAD.] trail I suggested we follow when we were at the farm.

Aight, this is where I should be mature and acknowledge that I’ve been wrong plenty of times. I’ve made many–many!–mistakes. It was sheer luck that my instinct happened to be right this time. But forget about maturity; I was furious. When I was leading the hike, I didn’t lead us astray. (Let’s conveniently ignore the fact that I played guide during the less confusing part of the trail.) The Argentine was muerto to me.

We finally reached the lake at around 3:00 PM. I wish I could say the view was magnificent and made me forget about my anger. Well…

lago espejo

I was disappointed. The lake was quiet and peaceful but not as stunning as I’d hoped. If I had seen Lago Espejo before visiting Torres del Paine and El Chaltén, I might have been amazed. But, after having seen such eye-poppingly gorgeous scenery, I couldn’t appreciate Lago Espejo for what it was. To compound my annoyance, the Argentine kept hanging onto my phone, even though we had reached our destination and no longer needed directions.

I sat on the shore and devoured the snacks I had packed. The Argentine finally returned my phone, and we engaged in some small talk–typical “getting to know you, trying to confirm you’re not a serial killer” conversation. Soon, the Argentine asked where I was from. When I said I had lived in NYC, he asked if I lived with a boyfriend. I suspected this wasn’t a totally innocent question but answered truthfully. (Why didn’t I lie and say I was in a 15-year monogamous relationship with my high school sweetheart? I dunno, man…I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.)

You can guess how the rest of this conversation went. [Spoiler alert: there’s no violence or emotional trauma involved, so you don’t have to worry about a grisly ending.] The Argentine asked how to say, “I like you,” in English. I was feeling more uncomfortable, but I–being socially incompetent–still wasn’t sure if he was directing this statement to me. He asked if we could take a photo, and I gave him my phone (again). When he returned my phone, he used his newly learned English phrase and declared, “I like you,” while swopping in for a kiss. Oh, NOPE. I dodged, pushed him back, and yelped a universally understood, “No!”

I was absolutely, completely, positively not attracted to the Argentine. He seemed like a harmless guy, but I had reached my limit. I was still irrationally angry about the hike, upset by the (lack of a) view, and starving. I didn’t want to entertain or humor anyone, and there was no way I could pretend to be nice to this guy any longer. This was mean; I get that. But, like I said, I was grumpy.

Thankfully, the Argentine didn’t push it. (If we were playing the “what if” game, this could have gone much worse considering it was just the two of us in an isolated location.) He asked if we should leave the lake to get back to the hostel before sunset, and I gladly agreed.

We followed the trail during the walk back without any major incidents. The descent was dusty, and I slipped a few times. I made no attempt to engage in conversation with the Argentine during the two-hour descent, and he remained silent as well. When we returned to the hostel, my big toes hurt, and I was dirty (a cloud of dust was following me, like Pig Pen from Peanuts), sweaty, and scratched. I made a beeline for the shower and saw that I had dirt on my upper lip that made me look like Charlie Chaplin. If the Argentine had felt sad when I turned him down, I hope he saw my dirt mustache–that would have easily dispelled any remaining fondness.

I thought about hiking to Cajón del Azul on the last day of my stay, but I was worried about completing the hike on time to catch the last bus to my hostel. Instead, I visited Lago Puelo, which was a 25-minute drive from my hostel.

A helpful ranger at the park entrance gave me a map of the trails that were around Lago Puelo. I followed an easy, short trail (950 meters over an elevation of 100 meters, in case you’re a hiker or metric enthusiast who can visualize this kind of data) to a mirador.

lago puelo

I was happier with this view than Lago Espejo. When I returned to the shore, I watched a couple of people fishing. Small fish periodically jumped from the water, but the anglers didn’t catch anything while I was watching them.

On the bus back to the hostel, I saw the Argentine boarding at one of the stops. I busied myself with my phone and hustled off the bus when we reached the stop for our hostel. Instead of maintaining his distance like I thought he would, the Argentine caught up to me after a couple of minutes. I was still grumpy, so I didn’t say anything for the 10-minute walk back to our hostel. I’m a real charmer.

I don’t know if I can recommend El Bolsón, but I know my grouchiness throughout my stay colored my feelings about the town. Maybe it was karma–what else should I have expected as a sold-out lawyer staying in a hippie town? Still, if you do want to visit El Bolsón, I wholeheartedly recommend staying at Hostel Luz Clara; Juli and Juan will give you a warm welcome. And, if you hike to Lago Espejo, don’t cut through any unmarked forests. Ugh.

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