Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Argentina - The Business Class of Hiking


Living in Alaska marks the time in my life in which I first learned to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. That being said, I'll be frank in acknowledging that there are components of hiking that I've come to dread; hauling gear and lots of extra clothing, and lots of water. For overnights, add to that tents, camping stoves, and sleeping bags. Number one dread: camping "food". Just the thought of it makes my stomach depressed. In my world, a best-case-scenario meal in the outdoors is usually comprised of a couple hard-boiled eggs, beef jerky or summer sausage, some pieces of cheese, and a couple of bottles of water. Consider the fact that this is fine dining compared to the nasty, dry, hardened putty-like Cliff bars and the five yogurt-covered pretzels typically consumed by my climbing partner Julie.

And then I went hiking in Argentina. It is a style hiking that previously lived only in my imagination. When Alaskans plan trips to Argentina, words like "Acongagua," "crevasses," "acclimation," and "Patagonia" usually enter the conversation, and involve the fitness level of a horse. I, on the other hand, true to my handle, plan the small-time attack. On this trip I am slated to meet up with my friends, Larah and Rocco, a married couple living in the NYC area, whom I had met when they lived in Alaska a few years earlier. Our objective is fairly undaunting: a pleasant hike with pretty views in the Andes. Upon repeated inquiry, we are reassured by numerous Argentinians that at the end of a four hour hike out of a town called El Bolson, there is a hostel with food and sleeping bags. I had heard rumors of these mythical log houses tucked in the Argentinian mountains, that fed you and kept you warm. Not knowing what to expect, all I could do is look forward to not hauling gear knowing that my iron stomach could take any quasi-edible gruel flung at me after a long day's hike, as has been the case so many times before in Alaska.

The three of us arrive in El Bolson, and from there, we take a taxi and are pretty much left for dead in the nearby town of Wharton, consisting of little more than a kiosk, a sign with the name of the town on it, and a taxi stand. It appears to be the central hub for neighboring farms. It also serves as something of an unmarked trailhead to our destination, El Cajon de Azul, the hostel tucked above and next to Rio Azul. We begin our trek, packs on our back light as feathers, some snacks and water to hold us over.

We walk through brush for at least an hour before we begin our descent into the river valley. After about an hour and a half, we reach Rio Azul, aquamarine and crystal clear like the Caribbean. And next to the river, I see what I never could have dreamed of: perched next to a log house was a chalkboard with the words "tiramisu" and other other tasty treats written on it.

Convinced it is a mirage, we venture on, only to be rudely awakened from dreamlike thoughts of delicate pastries at the sight of what looks like remnants of a bridge. A brief survey of the area tells me that there is no way around having to cross two sketchy bridges resembling something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Aged wooden planks, unevenly spaced, tenuously straddling rusty wire cables. We cross the bridges as they creek under our feet.
We make it across and then hike upwards.

And then hike downwards.

And then hike upwards.

We cross some beautiful shady forests, and along the banks of Rio Azul. I feel like a smurf on one of their journeys to some nether region filled with butterflies and streams. Then, low and behold, we reach the beach: "Las Playitas."

Las Playitas is comprised of a 10x10 ft basic log and stone cabin, equipped with a primitive brick bread oven and seventeen-year old microbrewer. Sitting on the bank of the river, he sells homemade bread, beer brewed with the river water, and also rents out tent space. Rocco and I decide to do what we do best, and enjoy an afternoon lager. Sitting on that warm bank along
the water, I conclude that this Argentino kid has already figured out the answer to life.

We trek on, passing by another hostel about an hour later. But determined to reach our destination at a reasonable hour, we trek on.

And on.

And on.

Soaking in the light sparkling from the crystaline water, I am relishing the phenomenon of hiking in a t-shirt in February, sans risk of hypothermia. In certain spots, I notice schools of fish, and not a single angler around.


After five hours of hiking, beer guzzling, and picture-taking, we reach El Cajon de Azul, sprawling through a sizeable chunk of land, surrounded and partitioned by a corral gate. There are sheep, and cats, and men on horses wearing spurs and berets, and old wool vests. There is a vegetable garden, and a massive meadow area reserved for tents. The log house is rustic and charming, tiled with slices of a wood log.

The proprietor is named Atilio. He is an elderly man in his sixties and hails from Buenos Aires, of Hungarian ancestry. The staff is comprised of his family and friends. There are babies, and women preparing food. We enter the log house and are greeted with a smile and an immediate offer of mate, a traditional Argentine tea. They assure us that there is room for us to sleep and sleeping bags for us to rent. They offer us slices of homemade pizza made in an antique wood-burning stove that also serves as as the furnace. They tell us that dinner will not be served until 9 and inform us that there are vegetarian options. They show us the running water and showers that Atilio has rigged up from Rio Azul water. I am amazed.

I remember the article I read about this place, and how Atilio has never refused a boarder, at one time housing over 200 campers on his property. At those times, he decreases his already modest prices, under the premise that the experience of the mountains is decreased with so many people. He has in the past refused to sell the El Cajon de Azul t-shirt to his tourists explaining that he does not like to "engage in that kind of commerce." (Source: http://www.theargentimes.com/travel/travelfeature/one-night-of-solitude-the-refugios-of-the-andean-comarca-/)

We sip mate and find a room for the three of us. I take a nap on one of the foam mattresses laying on the floor; Larah and Rocco wander. I get up an hour later, meet the various ranch critters with Larah, and the three of us read our books, sipping house wine and nibbling on cheese. We saunter into the log house as the sun sinks deeper into the horizon. Five other campers trickle in and out, mostly Argentinian. After playing a board game, dinner is served.

On our plates are generous helpings of lentils with Argentinian-style chorizo sausage slow-cooked with sauteed tomatoes and onions. The salad is huge, comprised of two types of organic lettuce grown on-site. The glasses of wine are bottomless.

Ending our night with wooden cups of mate, we stroll outside only to be stunned by the sparkling night sky. Shooting stars, the dippers, perfectly visible on a black slate without a single trace of light pollution.

We head out the next morning. After food, accommodations, sleeping bag, and Argentine wine, we each shell out about thirty-five dollars.

We want to continue on to the next hut and the next one. All told, there are about 11 huts in the area providing a similar level of provisions. But our itineraries compel us to head back. On our return, we reach the tiramisu bar by the river and knowing now that such dreams are real in this mystical place, we stop for a grilled Argentine sausage with chimichurri sauce, followed by a slice of tiramisu.
Beautiful mountains, rivers, fine dining and accommodations, I realize then that hiking in Alaska will never be the same again. As much as I love the Chugach mountains in the great state of Alaska, there is something to be said about business class hiking. Beer, wine, grilled sausages and tiramisu, washed down with piping hot cups of mate...why hike any other way?

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