Mountains floating in the Clouds

We continued our upward climb along the gravel road with what felt like no end in sight. Our destination: Piltriquitron, a mountain refugió seated atop the closest mountain to El Bolsón, Argentina. The name comes from Mapuche Indians who inhabited the area originally and it means the mountains that float in the clouds. The description is accurate as the mountains wear a fluffy tutu of clouds that give them the appearance of floating above Bolsón. 

We arrived in El Bolsón, this small hippie town, south of its more commercial sister city Bariloche, only the day before. Airbnb brought us to stay in a unique earthship eco-home on the outskirts of town. The Earthship was built by Trenton, a Californian expat, and his two friends from Australia and Brazil. It rests on the theories of sustainability and permaculture. The home is built into a mound of grass and mud similar to a hobbits home. The walls are constructed of old tires filled to 90% capacity with gravel. Then you fill in the walls with mud and plaster to make them solid. Glass bottles create the appearance of stained glass in the outer walls to let in color shards of light. Rain water is collected on the roof then heated by solar panels and fed through to the sink, toilet, and showers. After the water flushes or drains it goes through another filtration pump that uses the water in the greenhouse gardens and the beds outside the structure. It’s a unique way of making the most of all that the earth can offer you. 

Trenton, one of the owners, lives here most of the time and he advised us on trekking to Piltri for an overnight adventure. There are many of these refugios around Bolsón in the mountains that sandwich the town. Refugios are mountain refuges that have refugeros, or people that own and run them. They have small kitchens and a loft for sleeping. So we packed our sleeping bags and left the town behind. 

The climb to the top of the mountain requires walking along Route 40, the main highway that runs North to South through Patagonia. Then you must turn up the road to Piltriquitron and head up the gravel road for four hours until you hit the wooded trail through the forest and past the Forest Carvings “museum”, until you reach an outpost at the clearing of the mountain. Sometimes you can hitch a ride with someone to the parking lot beneath the trail and save time climbing up gravel for four hours. We did not have such luck. 

We creeped slowly up the steep and steady gravel road until we reached the base of the trail. Our muscles screamed and fought us as we continued to climb at the same 45 degree angle for hour after hour. Once we could see over the tree line to the town below, we knew how many miles we had climbed. The town now looked like a colony of ticks moving about on the back of a dog below. The mountains on the opposing side waved at us through the harsh winds. 

As soon as we reached the trail, we realized we would still have another vertical climb for the next hour and this time in snow. The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow. After 30 minutes, we reached the first attraction: El Bosque Tallado or The Carved Forest, a trail through the woods that displayed the work of various artists who carved figures into the golden brown wood of the area. 

We waded deep into the snow to view the eerily quiet tree museum. Wooden women stood naked and poised on the hilltop draped in shawls of snow. A wooden gnome covered in snow rested his head on a stump covered in mushrooms as seen on the logo for the outdoor museum. A wooden pig stood proud atop a stump. Depictions of native farmers looked on with snow on their caps. A torso emerged from the earth attached to a screaming man with outstretched arms. It was titled “The Shouts of the Earth.” We visited as much statues as we could before the snow swallowed my right side whole and we decided it would be too difficult to see it all. 

The artists spent days up here working on their creations. The oldest carving dated back to the 80s. Since Bolsón attracted radical white Argentinians disgusted with the government in the 60s, who formed their own counter culture movement, this town has been a mecca for hippies, artists, and expats. They host markets Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday in the center of town to sell their handmade goods. We fit right in here!

The next ten minute climb that brought us to the top, felt more challenging than all the other steps up the hill. Three giggling grown men passed by us, slipping and sliding down the snowy hill and laughing at each other for falling. We slowly padded each step down to get a firm grip on the slick surface. Our legs tired quickly by the time we reached the clearing and the snow reached our waists. A gray and white dog came bounding down the narrow trail to greet us in front of his owner. We celebrated silently as our eyes lit up at the sight of the wood cabin ahead with smoke twisting out of its black chimney. 

We’ve arrived! I find facing your fears always comes with the best rewards! On this trip I’ve faced some very challenging treks thus far, but each time the rewards have far outweighed my sacrifices to be there. From our new viewpoint, a mere 100 feet from the top of the mountain, we could see the whole town below. The mountains encircled us with their gnarled ridges and peaks, wearing the dusting of snow that fell recently. We marveled at the beautiful world around us. 

Then we changed into dry clothes and warmed up by the tin barrel fireplace. A whole slew of people arrived at the refugió throughout the day- taking pictures, warming up with hot chocolate, and then returning to their cars in the lot below. The only other person that came up to spend the night was a 22 year old Argentinian girl with dreadlocks and an undercut. It costs 250 pesos ($14) to spend the night and they provide mattresses in the loft. 

Once all the day visitors left, we got to know the Refugeros, Frederico and Rodolpho, and Paola, the young girl. We practiced our Spanish and learned more about this area. Frederico and his brother constructed the refugió and run the business together. His brother lives in town with his wife and kids and Freddy lives in the adjacent house to the refugió, when he’s not up in Bariloche. People visit year round, because you can ski and sled from atop the overlooking peak in the winter and you can camp on the grounds in the summer. They allow you to use the kitchen or will cook their famous pizza for you. 

We ordered ham pizza and one of the locally brewed beers that had a citrus finish. I sipped a hot chocolate for dessert and stared out the window, mesmerized by the sun setting behind the mountains. While Ethan stood on the snowy porch, joined by the cat in cow pajamas, I stayed cozy inside watching out the frosted windows. 

The sun’s rays warmed the underbellies of the wispy clouds illuminating them in soft hues of tangerine and red. A strip of sunflower gold shot across the backs of the mountains’ peaks. The decreasing light turned the faces of the mountains blue and a string of white clouds settled across the neck of the mountains like a warm wool scarf. We couldn’t peel our eyes away from the sun’s final performance before bed. Pictures hardly did it justice, but that didn’t prevent me from snapping at least 20 of the same scene. 

I watched the sky transform shapes and colors for hours before a dark blue blanket put the whole scene to rest, leaving the lights of the city to twinkling like a million stars in the galaxy. Then we climbed the steep ladder to the loft, slipped into our sleeping bags, and drifted off to sleep. 

We awoke at 9:30am struggling to pull our sore bodies out of our cozy cocoons just like the lazy clouds that slept at the base of the mountains and didn’t lift themselves until noon. We eventually ate the rest of our cold pizza for breakfast and said our farewells to Rodolpho. Paola followed us down the hill. As hard as it felt ascending the mountain on the slick snow, the descent proved ten times harder. On the way down the slick icy snow stole our footing and left us skating and slipping on to our bottoms. 

The friendly cat led us down the first stretch like a perky morning guide. On our way, the sight of a male woodpecker with his fire-engine red head and black body stopped us in our tracks. He contently tapped away at a branch ignorant of our presence and cameras. Four fully black females flew and perched around him with wild hair, wearing an Elvis 1950s do with feathers dangling over their faces like greasy bangs. We entertained ourselves for ten minutes watching them. 

Then we hit the slick trail again, skating, shimmying, skiing down the hill until we reached the gravel parking lot. From there it was 4 hours of monotonous descent on a steep gravel road. We filled the time by discussing as many topics as we knew the words for in Spanish. Dogs barked and startled Paola. Cars crunched over the gravel descending past us. It felt never ending, especially for our tight muscles. 

Route 40 finally appeared in the distance and we yipped and yayed at its sight. We parted ways with our new friend and made our way back to the Earthship. By late afternoon, we arrived with just enough time to drop our bags off and head into town to catch the final hour of the Saturday market and eat empanadas. 

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