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Posted by Tim on Aug 19, 2010
The Golden Hedgehog Awards for Lodging, Part 4

I know, I know – it's not technically Tuesday, so I really have no business posting a Travel Tip Tuesday post today. But it was (thankfully) brought to my attention earlier this week that more than a year ago I more or less left you all in the lurch, signing off back in May 2009 with a promise that part four of this series would follow two weeks later. Whoops!

At the time, I'd planned to build the suspense a bit by putting off revealing our first-place winner, and instead including a post about places that almost made the cut, "if only something hadn't gone catastrophically wrong." Well, I'd guess that in the intervening year the suspense has probably been built up as much as it can be, so I'm going to skip past those disappointments and jump straight to our much-vaunted #1 pick. Enjoy!

Hello everybody! Welcome back for the final installment of the Golden Hedgehog Awards for Lodging, wherein we recognize the finest and most spectacularly wonderful places we stayed on our round-the-world trip! Let's start with a quick recap of what we've seen so far:

In this installment, we will finally unveil the lucky winner of the illustrious and much-coveted grand-prize award – the Golden Hedgehog itself. It's a place that has proven to be impossible to dislodge from the #1 spot since we first stayed there a mere month into our trip. We've talked about it so much since then that I'm sure at least some of you have long ago guessed who our winner would be...

As always, if you didn't read our ground rules in Part 1 of this series, you might want to take a quick moment to acquaint yourself with them now.

Ok, let's find out who our winner is!


#1 – A perfect little cottage in El Bolson, Argentina

'The vistas of El BolsónAh, El Bolsón. Just rolling the name around in my head gives me a little shiver of nostalgia. We fell hard for this tranquil and picturesque little Argentinean mountain village on the northern edge of Patagonia. When first we stepped off the bus just before dawn on April 3, 2005, it was love at first sight.

Nestled in a small valley between Mount Piltriquitron and the greater Andes Mountains, it's blessed with a surprisingly mild climate for a place so far south. The 25,000 or so people who live there – mostly hippies who moved there from Buenos Aires in the 1970s – are so widely dispersed that I'd never in a million years have guessed there were that many of them.

'The road out of townQuiet, peaceful, and surrounded by mountains on all sides, it's also home to a spectacular selection of local cheeses and beers, as well as a thriving artisan's market. (It seems that all of those hippies from the '70s learned pottery, woodworking, and leathercraft after moving there.) Avendia San Martin (the town's main drag) is lined with restaurants, cafes, ice cream parlors, and parillas (Argentinean barbecues) from one end to the other.

But as marvelous as this lovely little village is, let's take a walk out of town, shall we? Because it's in the mountains around El Bolsón where the real wonders of this region are found. There are dozens of hikes and treks you can set out on, whether you're interested in a quiet little walk to a hidden waterfall or a week-long trek through the mountains without seeing another soul along the way.

'The mountains around El BolsónThe mountains are dotted with welcoming little refugios. Some are just little unlocked cabins out in the middle of nowhere, run on the honor system. You can stop in at one for the night, light a fire in the fireplace, cook yourself a nice dinner and then set up your sleeping bag on one of the bunks – just be a good trekker and drop a few pesos in the can on your way out in the morning. Other refugios are staffed, and before setting up that sleeping bag you can order yourself a beer and a pizza. Either way sounds like heaven to me.

But let's talk about the cottage we stayed in, the grand-prize winner of the Golden Hedgehog Award for Lodging: Los Cabañas Arroyito.

(If you're headed to El Bolsón yourself, print out this little tourist map – it's lodging option #1. Keep in mind that map makes it appear like Los Cabañas Arroyito is in town. It's not. And it's uphill to get there.)

'Los Cabañas ArroyitoNestled on a quiet gravel road about a 20-minute walk out of town, at the foot of Mount Piltriquitron, this quartet of cozy little cottages is the best place we've ever stayed in any of our travels. For months afterward, at hotel after hostel after cabaña, we'd find ourselves having some variation on this conversation:

"Wow, this is perfect! Heck, this might just be the best place we've ever stayed!"
"Except for El Bolsón."
"Oh, right, except El Bolsón."

We took to calling it the El Bolsón Rule, which stated that henceforth the "except El Bolsón" part would always be implied, so that neither of us needed to say it anymore. It was just taken for granted that as nice as any place was, it would never be as nice as El Bolsón.

'Our fully-stocked kitchenDuring the day it was bright and airy, with windows on all sides (all of which had spectacular views of the mountains). In the chilly Patagonian evenings it was warm and cozy – we'd leave our socks on the radiator so they'd be nice and hot when we slipped them onto our cold feet. The kitchen was stocked with pots and pans, glasses and dishes, and – once we'd been to the grocery store – full to the bursting with food. Some of my favorite memories are of waking up a bit early to putter around in that kitchen, cooking up a nice breakfast for us as Jessica slept.

'Our comfy bedroom in our cozy cottageThe second floor was the bedroom, which looked out over the living room. Here we'd cuddle in at night, cozy and warm as the chilly mountain winds whistled by outside. Here we'd snooze in the middle of the day, listening to the stream gurgling outside as birds sang to us through the open windows. If we sat up in bed to look out the window behind our heads, we were rewarded with a stunning view of Mount Piltriquitron, its stately cap occasionally dusted in snow.

We "nested" at our cottage, unpacking our backpacks completely and putting everything away as if we were living there. Photos of family members (and our cat China) were tacked up around the bedroom. We put our medicine away in the bathroom's medicine cabinet, and tidily arranged our books on a shelf by the living room window. We made a little home for ourselves, and began to revel in the domestic life of it all.

'The yard next to our cabañaOur private yard came complete with a sturdy wooden picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a firepit. The mountain stream that ran through the middle of it all contained water so clean you could drink it. From out here, you could really start to appreciate the views offered by our picture-perfect little location.

Evenings would usually be inaugurated by sharing a bottle of Argentinean wine together, as I worked to get a fire going so we could cook up some nice tender Argentinean steaks. As the sun disappeared behind the Andes, the singing of birds would be replaced by the croaking of frogs and the chirping of insects, and day would give over into night. Inside, we'd light candles and turn on lamps, pop some fresh bread into the oven to warm it, and set about baking some potatoes and putting together a salad to go with our steaks.

"Cheesesteaks and ketchup," we'd say to each other. This is a moment I'll always remember happily.

'Paul and Caroline sit down with us to enjoy the magnificent dinner they've concoctedWe had a lot of friends there too, of both the two-legged and four-legged variety. We've mentioned before how we managed to meet up with our friends Paul and Caroline in El Bolsón. They were staying at a nearby campsite, but after one look at our cabaña they packed up and moved in to the one next door. Paul, as you will no doubt recall, is a professional chef, and we'd all walk into town each day to find him something new to cook up for us.

Some of my happiest memories are of helping Paul tend to the barbecue outside (truth be told, my job was more to stand next to him with a wineglass in my hand and nod approvingly to the magical things he was doing) while listening to the conversation and laughter trickling out from the kitchen where Caroline and Jessica were getting everything else ready. The four of us would sit for hours around the small kitchen table: drinking and dining, sharing stories and waxing poetic, making grand plans and plumbing the depths of the meaning of life.

Saying goodbye to them when they headed north to Mendoza would have been harder if we hadn't already made plans to meet up with them again there. But we weren't ready to leave El Bolsón yet. Not by a long shot.

'Miss Grey Fluffy Kitty relaxes by a windowFriends of a fuzzier sort were in abundance at the cottage as well. When we moved in, a trio of inquisitive cats promptly adopted us. The spent the better part of our ten-day sojourn following and nuzzling us when we were outside, and pawing at the windows curiously when we were inside. We gave them names – Mascot, Twisted Whiskers, and Miss Grey Fluffy Kitty – and we got to know their personalities (Mascot was more of a silly young kitten, whereas Miss Grey Fluffy Kitty was more of an elegant old lady).

And then there were the doggies.

'Mr. Fluffy hopes I'll ask Paul to give him a bit of steakThe first night we started barbecuing, the delicious aroma of it summoned a couple of big cuddly dogs. One of them was a sleek black and white girl the size of a black lab, whom we named Lady (in honor of every female dog Jessica's has ever had), while the other was a huge shaggy bear of a dog who we quite imaginatively named Mr. Fluffy. Lady and Mr. Fluffy appeared the first few nights just after we started barbecuing. After that, they didn't bother to wait until we were actually cooking, and would just show up when we were still getting ready. They were sweet as could be, and may or may not have been rewarded for their attentiveness and cuddliness with a bit of leftover steak.

'The misty mountains of El Bolsón – our favorite place in the worldThere was also a baby basset hound who would stop by to trip over his long ears for our amusement. Doggies, kitties, good friends, good food, and a quiet little mountain cabin surrounded by magnificent landscape in every direction – it's no wonder that El Bolsón came in at #1 for us, without ever once having faced any particularly serious competition.

And the cost of this perfect place, this Golden Hedgehogs Award-winning accommodation? Only 60 pesos a night. Back then, that was about US$20 (it looks like it's about twice that now). It's a good thing we told Paul and Caroline we'd hook up with them in Mendoza, or we may never have left.

Looking back, it reminds us both so much of two other cottages. One is the cottage my great-aunt and great-uncle have up in rural Quebec, which we were just visiting a week or two ago. I've been visiting that cottage once a year or so since I was born – well, technically since a couple of months before that. It was where Jessica first met my family, and is a place that she loves as dearly and deeply as I do. So it's probably no coincidence that looking back now we're so reminded of it by our cabaña in El Bolsón: it was probably the archetype of what made us love El Bolsón so much.

The other cottage that our cabaña reminds us of is the one we live in now, our little cottage by the sea in Cape Cod. And again, this is probably no accident. Just as our love for my great-aunt and great-uncle's cottage led us to fall in love with our cabaña in El Bolsón, so did that cabaña lead us to fall in love with our cottage by the sea. And if we live now in a place that so strongly echoes to us the place that we loved most in all our travels, well then it seems to me we must be doing something right.

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sheila
August 24, 2010 at 11:45am
Lovely!
August 25, 2010 at 12:25pm
Sheila, you guys would absolutely love it there!
September 13, 2010 at 1:58pm
Tim – That little tourist map you linked to is most definitely misleading in terms of distance…and scale! I can still very clearly remember the (long but definitely worth it) uphill hike back from town, loaded down with steaks and bottles of red wine. Oi!
September 14, 2010 at 9:06am
LOL! Too true. :D

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