How to hike to Cajon del Azul in El Bolson

El Bolson is known as a hiker’s paradise.

It is home to the largest system of interconnected mountain huts (refugios) in South America.

Of its many trails, there is none more popular than trekking to El Cajon del Azul.

This full day hike weaves through the forest along the Rio Azul until it reaches a section of the river that forms pools from the boulders that form a sort of natural dam.

These “piletones” or natural pools are the destination but I wouldn’t call them the highlight, as the entire hike is gorgeous!

I’ve been to El Bolson twice this past year but since I was also there with my two toddlers, a lot of hiking was out of the question.

But I did treat myself to one solo day hike, mama’s day out if you will.

It was hard to pick which trail so I ended my decision paralysis by choosing the obvious, the iconic El Cajon del Azul.

This post is all about my hike and the logistical information you need to conquer El Cajon.

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Trekking El Cajon del Azul

El Bolson is one of the best hiking destinations in Argentina.

But its trails don’t have the professional mountaineering vibe of German-settled Bariloche two hours to the north.

No, because along with hiking, El Bolson is also known for its hippies and relaxed onda.

The vibe here is chill, in every sense. You won’t see trekkers wearing the top of the line gear with all the accoutrement.

Along with the relaxed hikers, you’ll come across businesses on this trail.

Think breweries, kiosks selling snacks, and if going in the busy season, it’ll be an overall hostel party vibe (more on that later).

Anyway, let’s get down to the logistics…

⚠️El Cajon del Azul Logistics:

  • Distance: 8 km each way from Chacra Wharton
  • Difficulty: Medium to strenuous
  • Time: Calculate 3 hours each way and budget to spend 1-2 hours there.
  • There is no cell service at Wharton or along the trail.
  • You must fill out the registration form before your hike…

First: Register your hike

For any hike in ANPRALE, the Área Natural Protegida Rio Azul-Lago Escondido, you are required to register in advance.

This is true whether it’s a day hike or you want to stay overnight. And for the refugio, they don’t accept reservations. It is first come, first serve.

Click here to register your hike, the form and small print is in both Spanish and English.

At the trailhead you’ll be required to show your registration, keep it open in your email or have a screenshot (there is no cell service at Wharton or on the trail).

Chacra Wharton: How to get there

The trail to El Cajon del Azul’s hike starts at Chacra Wharton, 15 minutes outside of El Bolson in Mallin Ahogado.

The easiest way to get there is with your own car (or by hiring a remis/taxi), check rental rates here because I love having the freedom of a car in this area. Chacra Wharton offers paid parking.

For those on a budget there is a bus by Transporte Golondrina that leaves Plaza Pagano at 8 am and gets you to Wharton by 8:30.

You can confirm the hours and departure point by asking in tourist information downtown.

To return, the bus leaves Wharton at around 5:15 pm and 7:45 pm.

Alternatively, you can try your hand at hitchhiking.

My husband and kids drove me to the trail in the morning but I was planning on taking the bus back down.

I threw my thumb out while I waited for the bus and to the chagrin of all my fellow hikers waiting for the bus, I immediately caught a ride to town.

My hike to El Cajon del Azul

My husband and kids loaded into the car at the crack of dawn to drive mama for her day out (such troopers, all of them).

I got there at around 8 am (definitely the crack of dawn on Argentina adjusted terms) and there was a park ranger checking registration forms.

The start of the hike felt like freedom, I had been solo parenting a lot that month and this day hike was a treat to myself.

That first kilometer is straight downhill, not something you want to see on a there-and-back trail.

Every step down would be a steep step back up at the end of the day when you’re already tired… but that was a problem for future Erin.

This first kilometer is also a road, so it doesn’t feel quite like a hike in the wilderness, yet.

But once you’ve made your way down you’re at the confluence of two rivers and it all feels right.

The Mystic Fog Beer & Co.

From here the trail passes through a brewery, The Mystic Fog Beer & Co. (have I mentioned I love El Bolson).

If it had been open I’d have stopped, it was too beautiful and too inviting not to, but I was too early in the season for Mystic Fog.

This is when the hike got beautiful and didn’t stop until the end of the day.

I crossed the first of many hanging footbridges over the river and walked the trail that weaved through the forest along the Rio Azul.

The trail itself involves a lot of ups and downs, when you think you can’t go UP anymore, you’ll be bracing yourself as you go down the hill.

When your knees can’t take anymore DOWN, it’s time to go uphill again.

There were some welcome stretches that are flat and they were glorious.

This is where I’d walk fast and make up time.

Refugio La Playita

A couple of hours into the hike I made it to Refugio La Playita, and I have to say… I loved it a lot more than El Cajon del Azul.

Of course, seeing the Cajon del Azul is a must.

The swimming holes and the rushing river at that stretch of canyon was awe-inspiring.

Yet there was something so peaceful about La Playita.

Unlike Cajon, the refugio and its grassy yard is right on the river’s shore.

Don’t rush through this stop, you’ll regret it.

I picked up some torta frita in the prooveduria (shop) inside and laid back on the warm rocks in the sun by the water.

It was the highlight of my day.

La Playita is a great destination in its own if you’re going with kids and in fact, a large family was there playing.

After my deserved snack, I pulled myself off the rocks and kept hiking.

Relaxing by the water at Refugio La Playita
The river at Cajon del Azul, pictures truly don’t do it justice.

Refugio El Cajon del Azul

From La Playita it was only about 30-45 minutes to reach the final destination, El Cajon.

You’ll cross one final footbridge, pause here. The river is at its deepest here and the turquoise green water is beautiful.

This is a great swimming spot, turn to the right before or after crossing to enjoy that section of the beach for a mate, picnic, or dip in the water.

I’d have loved to have a picnic here.

In hindsight, it was much more comfortable and as beautiful as the swimming hole at Cajon del Azul by the refugio.

But a high school’s field trip ruined the peace of this bridge for me. If you’re there without 80 students chattering about it would make a great picnic spot!

As you approach the refugio things start to feel a little more developed with a farm’s grazing sheep on each side of the path.

When you reach the complex of the refugio you’ll see a campground to your left, the sign in front of you, and the refugio to your right.

If you turn to your left you’ll see the path that leads through the forest to the actual Cajon del Azul piletones.

There’s a small blue sign pointing the way that is easy to miss (well… it was easy for ME to miss).

I hung out here for a long and leisurely picnic. Being early spring there was only a couple and one group of friends there.

It may have been too early in the season to swim but the peace of having it nearly to myself trumps that, in my opinion.

With a full belly, I hiked just a bit further to explore the area past the refugio’s campgrounds.

Follow the red markings on the trees and rocks to weave through the forest to viewpoints of the canyon below.

It all feels very informal but don’t worry, that is the trail.

Be careful and respect the edge of the cliff.

Don’t get too close in case of rocks giving away under your feet.

I followed the advice I got in the refugio to walk another 15 minutes to the waterfall at the nacimiento of the river.

It was worth the extra effort and would have made yet another beautiful picnic spot.

After this final stop it was time to head back if I was going to end this hike with daylight and be back in time to put the kids to bed.

It took me another three hours to hike bike, with a couple short rest stops at La Playita (too beautiful to pass up) and the viewpoint of the valley.

And that final kilometer of pure ascent to end the trail?

Just as brutal as I expected.

“Esta complicado, che,” “no termina nunca” and a defeated “me quiero morir.”

Those are a few of the colorful phrases from fellow hikers I heard between my own loud huffs up the hill.

That did make the end even sweeter, though.

And hey, pro tip from me to you. Save an extra snack for afterwards. You’ll need the treat after that final kilometer and you may have a bit of a wait for your bus home.

Stay Overnight in the Refugio

You can hike to El Cajon del Azul as a day hike or stay overnight in the refugio.

Refugio El Cajon del Azul does not take reservations, it is first come, first serve.

Other refugios like La Playita do take reservations, however, so I recommend asking in the Oficina de Informes de Montaña.

You can choose to rent a bed inside the refugio or a spot in the campground.

With a bed, you’d only need to bring a sleeping bag. You’d also have the right use the kitchen and cooking utensils if you bring food to cook for meals.

If you choose to camp, you’d only be allowed to use the refugio itself to shower and eat in the restaurant during an assigned time.

Outside there are dry toilets and a washing up area.

You’d need to bring all your camping gear and camp stove if you want to cook.

The campground at the Refugio Cajon del Azul

Summer Crowds & When to hike to El Cajon del Azul

I did my trekking to El Cajon del Azul during the first week of October, in the very early days of spring.

Being so early in the season, it was peaceful and I could be by myself for much of the hike.

Do not hike to El Cajon del Azul in the summer.

I KNOW, that’s the best time, isn’t it? You can swim in the river then! That’s the whole point.

But… everyone agrees with you on this. Literally everyone.

A local friend from El Bolson actually insisted that I include this in the blog, making the insanity of the summer Cajon crowds evident to all who read this.

She described the trail in summer as a “party hostel vibe.”

You’ll never be alone on the trail and the crowds around you will probably have cumbia music blaring out of a speaker as they hike.

If you’re here to party and enjoy yourself mingling with locals and fellow travelers, summer is definitely for you.

If all of this sounds like the opposite of what you want out of a hike into nature, then consider the following alternatives…

El Cajon del Azul Alternatives

The below are just a sampling, check with the office of mountain information downtown for more assistance picking the perfect trail for you!

  • Refugio Encanto Blanco – This trailhead is further into Mallin Ahogado from Chacra Wharton, but you can take the same bus.
  • Refugio Motoco
  • Refugio Cerro Lindo
  • Refugio Dedo Gordo
  • Refugio Natacion – Choose the trailhead from Camping Dona Rosa to avoid the Cajon crowds.

What to Bring to Trek Cajon del Azul

As I mentioned above, the El Bolson hiking culture is fairly laid back.

Anyone you see with top of the line hiking poles, boots, and proper attire is probably a foreigner.

That said, THIS FOREIGNER wishes she had brought her hiking poles.

I assumed wrongly that since there’s no major ascent into the mountains I wouldn’t need them, but they would have really helped my knees with all the ups and downs and that final kilometer.

I wore my hiking boots because I had them with me after spending a whole winter in Patagonia, but by spring I wish I’d had a lighter hiking shoe.

Definitely pack water for the day, 2 liters is ideal, but in a pinch you can purchase drinks in the refugios and kioskos along the way.

Bring all the snacks, I brought a ton of nuts, raisins and chocolates to much on along the way.

For lunch I had packed empanadas and an alfajor. And for a final snack at the end I had a picada of salami and cheese.

I ate everything and even purchased torta frita at a refugio on top of all that.

But eating is the best part of a hike, isn’t it?

Read More about El Bolson

Argentina Travel Resources

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