On Monday we took off from Futaleufu, but the 9AM bus was sold out and the next wasn't until 7PM, so we tried to get out of town using our thumbs. The first 10KM ride to the border took close to three hours to obtain, but once we were in Argentina a quick succession of rides led us the 230 kilometers further North to the town of El Bolson, our next stop.
Crossing over from Chilean Patagonia's rich biodiversity and thick forests, the other side of the Andes yielded semi-desert steppe, with huge Estancias stretching over land the size of cities with no wildlife, water, or human exploration. The vast empty spaces and rich open skies were weirdly the perfect companion to our final driver's inspiring choice of music: Italian opera ballads.
Exhausted from a long day of hitchhiking, the following morning we stumbled into town and immediately were sucked into the town's epic thrice-weekly market. For Argentina jewelers, homemade bread makers, and hippies this is like the Superbowl: peak of the peak season in El Bolson. The Summer months of January and February turn this quiet, eco-conscious town into a destination overrun with Argentine backpackers. They turn the streets into something resembling a full-fledged amusement park, with live music, circus acts, and street performances. In the market the majority of the stalls are devoted to intricate handmade crafts of every conceivable type, but the most frequented are the food carts, where friendly servers dish up cheesy empanadas, pizzas, and the classic lomitos (breaded steak sandwiches). Yet you can consistently find the biggest lines at this waffle stand, where they whip up delicious concoctions fueled by the proliferation of fresh berries in the area.
The sights, sounds, and smells of El Bolson's market will definitely go down as one of the unique experiences I've had in all of South America. To accompany all of the meat cooked in the country, handmade wooden cutting boards are one of the more popular options for shopping.
Pace of Play: Argentina Style
The vacationing Argentinian takes relaxation to new heights, with a unique daily cycle of life. Here's a breakdown of how to pass time like a true local in Argentina:
For most people, the morning starts late. If you're up before 10AM, you're doing it wrong - even if you've already missed the hostel's checkout time. For breakfast, fire up a kettle and put on a round of mate, as almost everyone here starts their day with a breakfast of the bitter herb tea infusion, complimented by something sweet: cookies, crackers spread with dulce de leche (sweetened milk), tortas fritas (fried bread), churros, or cornflakes topped with an absurd amount of sugar.
From there, it's time to head out to the market for the first round of sitting in the grass to drink mate, chill, and shoot the shit. A late breakfast means lunch can wait until 1 or 2pm, but once the hunger strikes it's essential to grab a lomito. The classic steak sandwich is delectable and dirt cheap at the market's food stalls, topped with lettuce and tomato and invariably spread with heaps of mayonnaise. A necessary companion to the lomito is a cone of french fries, whereas a nice to have is a craft beer from one of the multitude of breweries nearby. El Bolson produces 75% of the country's hops, so everyone with a basement and some barrels seems to be brewing up a personal concoction. Quantity breeds quality, so if you fish around eventually you'll find some gems.
The beer at the end of lunch is the right recipe to knock everyone out for the most crucial aspect of Argentine life: afternoon siesta. From 2 to 5pm almost every store and shop is closed while the whole town grabs some shut eye. Another round of mate is a crucial follow-up to get moving again, as in the early afternoon it's time to return to the plaza for some more lounging, this time accompanied by live music. More than any other South American citizens, Argentinians love to talk and can always be found in large groups, with everyone animatedly shouting over each other. When you meet up with some friends, don't forget to give and receive besos, kisses on the cheek, which is the traditional way of greeting someone even if you've never met them before.
In the late afternoon it's important to grab another snack, as dinner is still a long way off. The favorites here are ice cream - El Bolson has more than a dozen options - or pan relleno (stuffed bread) hawked by young hippies wandering around the market's lawn.
As people slowly begin to dissipate around sunset, it's time to head back and prepare for the night. At out campsite this was prime time for intense soccer matches on the wide-open front lawn, as everyone followed the unwritten rule to not pitch a tent anywhere near the two goal posts.
Our view while taking in the match was accompanied by a fantastic backdrop of mountains popping up straight out of the verdant countryside.
Argentina might hold the world record for the latest average dinner consumption. When the read wine is freely flowing and the meat is finally smoldering over an open flame, it's around 11PM. An asado (BBQ) is something Argentinians take immense pride and joy out of. The centerpiece of the meal is meat - as much as half a kilo or more per person - but welcome additions include heaps of bread, roasted potatoes, and some form of vegetable.
If it's the weekend and hitting the town is on your mind, pretty much the only choice for hard alcohol is the horrible concoction named Fernet, 40% alcohol and 100% disgusting in taste. A little bit of Fernet needs a whole lot of Coca-Cola to make a mixed drink, and that's even for people who've been drinking it their whole adult lives.
To be caught in a club in Argentina before 2AM is an act of pure folly, as even on New Years the party doesn't peak until 4:30AM. If you've get the legs, endurance, and Red Bull to make it worth your while, get ready to dance with the locals until sunrise, but be sure the mate is ready the following morning!
Having thoroughly explored the center of El Bolson, Saturday Stefje and I satiated our morning hunger with some of those scrumptious fresh-baked empanadas, then took advantage of the weekly farmer's market to fill up on fresh vegetables. Laden down with two additional bags of groceries, we took a cab five kilometers outside of town to La Casona de Odile, one of the highest rated hostels in Argentina.
Compared to our chaotic campground in town filled with hundreds of Argentinians and less than a dozen foreigners, La Casona de Odile was a welcome change of pace. Based in an idyllic setting with resort-like amenities like a free breakfast spread, on-site yoga classes, and a river just a few hundred yards away, we immediately knew it was the kind of place that would be tough to leave.
It seems that the owners here have thought of every tiny detail: the indoor area is a constant serenade of calming music, the wooded backyard has trees perfectly spaced to hang half a dozen hammocks, a tiny brook runs through the outdoor garden to ensure the only sound is falling water, and most importantly there's an on-site restaurant serving up delicious food and homemade beer.
As I sunk into a hammock just minutes after arriving, a deep feeling of inner calm washed over me, a stark contrast to the hubbub of the city and the pulsating beats of music that seemed to constantly permeate our campsite. The trees blanketed me in shade throughout a scorching afternoon, ensuring that depending which way the wind blew I was subject to the smells of either pine trees, lavender flowers, or eucalyptus leaves.
The chilled-out atmosphere and plethora of outdoor activities nearby make this the kind of place where people reserve a three night booking and end up leaving three weeks later, tackling a thick book and re-discovering a more relaxed vibe after months of chaos on the traveling trail. Indeed as we went for a long stroll in the afternoon, Stefje and I reached the same conclusion: this felt like a vacation from our vacation.
We spent the next five days doing what we do best: whipping up some delicious dishes with fresh local ingredients, swimming in the nearby river, working out the aches at morning yoga classes, ripping through novels from the on-site book exchange, and enjoying the rotating crowd of international travelers at the awesome hostel.
PATAGONIA ON A BUDGET
Looking for more information on how to make your own dream vacation in Patagonia a reality for just $30/day? Check out my e-book, Patagonia On A Budget. Inside, you'll find:
The best value on the craziest adventures
Prices and details for accommodation, transportation, and activities in every destination
Detailed maps and itineraries of the most popular backpacking routes
Recommended campgrounds with the best rates and facilities
Instructions and safety advice for hitchhiking
The only packing list you'll ever need for camping
The electronics, websites, and applications to depend on during your expedition
A special bonus guide on packing and cooking during long hikes through national parks