Guide to El Bolsón | Mountain Refuges

Argentina

July 9, 2023

If you are looking for a stunning destination for trekking and enjoying the natural beauty of Argentina, the area of El Bolsón and the shelters of the Comarca Andina are a perfect choice. Located in the province of Río Negro, this region offers a great variety of trails, spectacular landscapes and the possibility to connect with nature at its best. Below you will find a complete guide to help you plan your trip.

Best dates to visit

The area of El Bolsón and the Comarca Andina can be visited all year round, but the best dates are usually in spring (September to November), summer (December to February) and autumn (March to May). During these seasons, the weather is milder and more pleasant for outdoor activities. However, weather conditions are variable, so we recommend wearing appropriate clothing and footwear for rain, wind and low temperatures.

It should also be noted that several of the shelters listed below are usually closed during the winter months.

Refugios in the Andean Region

El Bolsón is home to one of the largest networks of mountain refuges in South America, strategically located to allow connection between different traverses and to explore the region in its entirety.

Now, what is a shelter?

A refugio is a cabin located in the middle of the forest that provides lodging and services to hikers during the tourist season. Inside the cabin, usually in the loft, there are shared spaces where you can sleep. These spaces are usually heated and equipped with mattresses on the floor, on which the sleeping bag is placed. Another option is to camp in the vicinity of the refuge. In both cases, you have to pay the refuge for the space, being the cost of camping generally cheaper.

In addition to lodging, the shelters offer other services. They sell food such as homemade bread, fried cakes, drinks and dinner plates. Some shelters even brew craft beer. In addition to food, you can also buy groceries. Other services available include recharging of electronic devices, or showers, which also have an additional cost.

It is important to note that the availability and variety of services may vary from refuge to refuge. When planning a visit to a refuge, we recommend getting up-to-date information on what they offer and prices. Almost all of them have Instagram where they post information.

The refuges can be accessed from two main points:

  • Wharton: 14 km from El Bolsón. Note that the trails do not start directly at Wharton, but at the confluences, which are approximately 2 km away. Since only 4x4 vehicles can reach the confluences, most people start walking from Wharton.
  • Doña Rosa: 6 km from El Bolsón.

Depending on the refuge you want to visit, it will depend on where you want to start.  

These two points can be reached by bus (not very frequent), by cab or, if you are in a car, there is a parking lot where you can leave it.

Circuits to visit the shelters

There are several circuits that you can do depending on the number of days available, the level of demand you are looking for and your personal preferences.

Since most lodges do not require prior reservations, you will be free to adjust your plans on the fly, such as deciding to stay an extra night in a lodge you like or simply to rest. However, it is important to keep in mind that you need to bring enough food for the days you plan to be there, as well as cash to pay for the lodges and/or meals. Also, be sure to let someone know how many days you will be in the mountains, as there is no cell phone signal.

In this photo of the map of the refuges of El Bolsón you can see several examples of circuits that you can do. 

Map of El Bolsón shelters

We had only 3 nights so we did: Refugio Hielo Azul - Refugio Lago Natación - Refugio Cajón del Azul.

Important to note

Before embarking on any trail, it is mandatory to register online at the following link: https://anprale.com/.

Also, don't forget to inform someone you trust about your location and the days you plan to spend in the mountains, as there will be no cell phone signal.

⚠️ It is forbidden to light fires in the Río Azul - Lago Escondido protected area. For your safety do not stray from the circuits and visit authorized places. Out of respect for nature and others who are going to visit the place, do not use loudspeakers and remember to carry a bag for your waste (everything that goes up the mountain with you, comes down with you). Pets are not allowed.

Shelters in El Bolsón

Here is a list of the refuges, distances and services they offer. Remember that it is important to check availability and any changes in the information before visiting them.

1. Refugio La Playita

It is the first of the 8 refuges located along the coast of the Azul River and the trunk circuit in El Bolsón. It is known for being one of the most accessible refuges in terms of difficulty and distance.

Distance from Wharton: 8 km. Approximately 2.5 hours of walking. 

Difficulty: Low - Medium

The refuge is open all year round and offers accommodation options for overnight stays inside (bring a sleeping bag), as well as camping areas. It is also an excellent option to enjoy during the day. At the refuge, you can find beer on tap and homemade food. It also has a kitchen equipped with dishes and bathrooms with showers.

Walks to do from the refuge: Go to the Cajón del Azul, approximately 1 hour. There are also short hikes to viewpoints and natural pools.

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

Photo: @refugiolaplayita

La Tronconada Refuge

The next refuge on the route is La Tronconada, located on the banks of the river on the Dedo Gordo hill. It is only 30 minutes away from La Playita, following the same road upstream until you reach the detour that crosses the Azul River through a footbridge.

Distance from Wharton: 9 km. Approximately 3-4 hours.

Difficulty: Medium

The lodging inside the refuge has limited capacity, it is necessary to bring a sleeping bag. It has a camping area, bathroom, hot water for showers, kitchen and crockery.

Walks from the refuge: Go to Cajón del Azul (30 minutes).

Photo: @Elbolsontrekking

3. Cajón del Azul Refuge

This refuge is one of the best known in El Bolsón and is a place many travelers aspire to visit. It is located in an impressive setting, where the Azul River is squeezed between high stone walls, creating a beautiful landscape. To get there, it is necessary to walk approximately 30 minutes from La Tronconada.

Distance from Wharton: 10 km. Approximately 3-4 hours.

Difficulty: Medium

The refuge is generally closed from April to October. Reservations are not accepted, as visitors are received on a first-come, first-served basis. The refuge has shared rooms that include mattresses (bring a sleeping bag), camping areas, bathrooms, showers with hot water, shared kitchen with utensils, food service and a small grocery store where you can buy some products. Charging for electronic devices is available at an additional cost.

Walks from the refuge: You can walk to the source of the Blue River. 

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

The Blue Drawer
The blue drawer

4. El Retamal Shelter

One hour from Cajón del Azul, following the same road, is El Retamal.

Distance from Wharton: 12 km. Approximately 5-6 hours.

Difficulty: Medium.

It usually opens in October and closes after Easter. The refuge has a camping area and a place to sleep inside (bring a sleeping bag). They provide food, supplies, and a kitchen with dishes for those who sleep inside the refuge. It does not work with reservations. 

Walks from the refuge: You can visit some viewpoints such as the Paso de los Vientos, the Paredón de las Águilas, or the waterfall El llanto del Angel.

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

Photo: @elbolsontrekking

5. El Conde Shelter

It is located 3 km from the Cajon del Azul Refuge, approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes of walking. The trail passes through La Playita refuge, La Tronconada, El Cajon del Azul and before reaching La Horqueta Refuge, where the Azul River meets the Rayado River, the trail goes to El Conde.

Distance from Wharton: 15 km. Approximately 4-5 hours.

Difficulty: Medium

The refuge has a capacity for 25 people (bring a sleeping bag). It also has a camping area and kitchen with dishes, hot showers and latrines. 

Walks from the refuge: You can go to several viewpoints. 

We leave you the facebook of the shelter so you can see more details.

Photo: Diario de Rio Negro

6. Casa de Campo Refuge

It is located 20 minutes (1 km) from El Conde refuge and is the newest of all the refuges.

Distance from Wharton: 15 km. Approximately 4-5 hours.

Difficulty: Medium

The refuge is open all year round. No reservation is needed, it has mattresses to sleep on inside the shelter (bring a sleeping bag), camping space, electricity, showers, and food service.

Walks from the refuge: You can walk to the Laguna de los Cueros viewpoint, to the confluence of the Rayado River, to the Mirador del Valle and Cerro Cigarro viewpoints, and to the headwaters of the Azul River and the Esmeralda Lake.

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

Photo: @barilochense

7. La Horqueta Refuge 

Continue for another 1 hour (3km) on the road that passes the Refugio El Retamal. It is located in Valle Azul, at the confluence of Río Azul and Río Rayado.

Distance from Wharton: 15 km. Approximately 4-5 hours.

Difficulty: Medium - High

The refuge is open from November to May. It has capacity for 12 people inside (bring sleeping bag), camping area, kitchen, basic supplies but no electricity.

Walks from the refuge: A few minutes from the refuge there is a wide beach with pools.

8- Los Laguitos Refuge

Refugio Los Laguitos is the last refuge in the trunk circuit, located approximately 10 km from Refugio La Horqueta. To reach this refuge, we estimate an additional 4 to 6 hours of walking from La Horqueta. Due to its more remote location and the beauty that surrounds it, we recommend a stay of 2 to 3 nights in this refuge. Another option is to split the hike into two sections, since Wharton is approximately 27 km away.

Distance from Wharton: 27 km. Approximately 10-14 hours.

Difficulty: High

The lodge has sleeping and camping space, restrooms, hot showers, groceries, home-cooked meals, beer and more. It is usually open from November to April.

Walks from the refuge: The two major walks that can be done from the refuge are not recommended to be done on the same day. The first is to visit the Año Nuevo hill and the panoramic view 4 hours from the refuge and the other is the Soberania Lake 3 hours from the refuge.

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

Photo: Ariel Rosico

9. Camping Los Mañios

This campsite is located between La Horqueta refuge (approx. 2 hours) and Los Laguitos refuge (approx. 4 hours).

Distance from Wharton: 19 km. Approximately 5 to 6 hours.

Difficulty: Medium /High

The campsite is one of the least crowded of the trunk, and has space for camping, bathrooms and dorms with mattresses to put the sleeping bag. They also prepare meals. 

We leave you the instagram of the campsite so you can see more details.

10. Blue Ice Refuge

Refugio Hielo Azul is one of the best known refuges in the area and offers two access routes: from Wharton and from Doña Rosa. From both Wharton and Doña Rosa, the estimated hiking time is approximately 5 to 7 hours, covering a distance of 16 km. After reading several blogs and consulting different opinions, we decided to ascend from Doña Rosa, as it seems to be a less demanding option in terms of difficulty of the climb.

Distance from Wharton or Doña Rosa: 16 km. Approximately 5-7 hours.

Difficulty: Medium

The refuge is usually open in the spring until May and works without reservation. It has mattresses to sleep inside (bring a sleeping bag), camping space, bathrooms, showers, electricity to charge cell phones, basic supplies, meals, and a barbecue area for campers.

Walks from the refuge: You can visit the Hielo Azul Glacier, the Hielo summit (with technical equipment) and the Barda Negra summit (for people with experience). 

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

Blue Ice Refuge
A few steps from the refuge
Blue Ice Refuge
Blue Ice Glacier

11. Swimming Lake Shelter

It is located at 1400 meters above sea level on the Hielo Azul hill. It can be reached from Refugio Hielo Azul (2 km | 45 minutes - 1 hour), from Doña Rosa, Wharton (12 km), or from Cajón del Azul, being the most difficult because of the ascent (7 km). 

Distance from: Doña Rosa 15 km, Wharton 12 km.

Difficulty: Medium

The refuge usually opens in spring and remains open until April. It does not work with reservations. It has mattresses to sleep inside (bring a sleeping bag), camping space, bathrooms, kitchen with dishes, showers. It also offers prepared meals and drinks.

Walks from the refuge: From this refuge you can do some long walks and some shorter ones. The short tours are the tour around the lake, the amphitheater and the ice caves that are formed in January (we do not recommend entering! Just see them from the outside). Among the longer tours are the Condor viewpoint (3 hours), Hielo Azul summit (high difficulty), and the Barda Negra summit. 

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

12. Encanto Blanco Refuge

The trail to this refuge leaves from the Tilleria family farm 2km from the corner of Wharton. 

Distance from the Tilleria family farm: 8 km, 3 hours.

Difficulty: Medium

The refuge is located at the foot of the Dedo Gordo and Perito Moreno hills, in the valley of the Encanto Blanco river. It has space to sleep inside (bring a sleeping bag), camping area, latrines, hot water shower, basic supplies and meals are prepared.

Walks from the refuge: Near the refuge there are several viewpoints, also some waterfalls and you can walk along the river beach. Experienced hikers can go to the headwaters of the Blanco River.

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

13. Refugio Dedo Gordo

The trail starts from Wharton.

Distance from Wharton: 8 km, approx 4 hours.

Difficulty: Medium High

The refuge has mattresses to sleep inside (bring a sleeping bag), camping area on the stream, food is prepared and there is a pantry. Kitchen and crockery are included in the overnight stay. 

Walks from the refuge: You can visit several viewpoints.

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

‍14. Piltriquitron Shelter

The trail starts at "La Plataforma" where you can get there by car. It is the only refuge in El Bolsón with a view of the valley. Before reaching the refuge you pass through the carved forest.

Distance from La Plataforma: 2 km, 1 hour (steep slope)

Difficulty: Medium 

The shelter has space for sleeping inside and for camping. There is also a kitchen and dishes to use and prepare meals.

Walks from the refuge: There are several trekking options of varying difficulty. At 45 minutes there is a viewpoint where you can see El Hoyo, Lago Puelo, Epuyén and Cerro de Tres Picos. It is also possible to do 3 summits, these will take more time. You can do the Piltriquitron, Huemul and Oriental summits. 

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

15. Cerro Lindo Refuge

The trail starts at the Río Azul Campground. It is advisable to go up early in the morning (maximum until 2:00 pm) and not to go up on windy days.

Distance from Río Azul Campground: 10 km, 7 hours.

Difficulty: High

The refuge does not work with reservations. It is the oldest shelter in El Bolsón, it has heating and a wood stove. It has bathrooms, a kitchen equipped with dishes and mattresses (bring a sleeping bag). They sell food and have a camping area. 

Walks from the refuge: 2 treks can be done only with a guide to the summit of the Lindo and to the Valley of the Lost.

We leave you the instagram of the shelter so you can see more details.

Day walk

El Paraíso is a truly beautiful corner located approximately 10 km from El Bolsón. This magical place can be accessed from the Hue Nain camping site or from Doña Rosa, from where you have to walk about 30 minutes to get there. The best of all is that the entrance is free, allowing you to enjoy nature at its best.

Once you cross the suspension bridge, follow the path to the right to reach the beautiful pools that adorn the Blue River. 

What to wear / how to dress

Although we are not mountaineering experts, we can share with you a list of things we carried for our trip through the huts and how we dressed.

In terms of clothing, it is important to take the approach of dressing in layers, like an onion. The first layer should be thermal and breathable, followed by a second layer to retain body heat, such as a polar fleece, and a down jacket. Finally, the third layer should be waterproof and windproof, as it will act as an insulator from the outside elements.

As for footwear, it is advisable to use good quality socks for walking and a pair of sneakers or trekking boots with good grip. Underneath, you can wear thermal tights together with trekking pants or even another layer of tights. Don't forget to bring a hat, a wool cap, sunglasses and a polar collar to protect you from the cold.

As for equipment, we carried a 60-liter backpack each, in which we included a 3-season ultralight tent, a sleeping bag for temperatures of 0 degrees, a headlamp, a first aid kit, a toiletry bag with personal hygiene products, sunscreen, a reusable water bottle, a bag for waste, an extra change of clothes, a waterproof cover for the backpack in case of rain, snacks and cash for the shelters. We opted not to carry things to cook with us, as we decided to eat at the shelters. As for food for the trek, we carry nuts, fruits, cereal bars and light lunches for the first few days, such as empanadas and sandwiches. We also carry trekking poles to make the trail more bearable.