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Argentina - Skiing
In my month of snowboarding in Argentina I was fortunate to try four different resorts, and glean information on a couple others. Information on each individual resort is below, but first I want to talk about the general conditions you'll find.
First, the cheap prices. Whereas at Tahoe you're going to pay $55 - $65 for a day lift ticket, the most expensive resort in Argentina at peak season is going to top out at around $35. The peak season generally runs July 7 to August 1, with the preceding and following months being the shoulder seasons and about $10 cheaper per lift ticket. Lodging and food in Argentina are cheap thanks to our strong dollar. So if you want to take a ski trip and want/need to do it on the cheap, and are willing to sacrifice on high tech infrastructure, keep reading on. Also when considering the cheap overhead of a trip to Argentina is that it makes an ideal location for new skiers and snowboarders to learn the ropes but not break the bank doing it.
Second, I would absolutely recommend planning your Argentina ski trip for August and not July. Other than the cheaper lift tickets you will avoid the crowds that swamp these resorts in July (and to be exact, the first week of August too). These areas are big tourist hits for Argentines and Brazilians, so keep that in mind. Plus if you wait till August you'll get a bigger snow pack (the resorts in the Lake District are pretty low so snowpack can be an issue until mid season), meaning more of the mountain will be opened up and less rocks in the bottom of your skis.
Third, and humorously, the average skiing level of the vacationing Argentine or Brazilian is pretty low. This is great for both beginners and advanced tourists alike. If you're new to the sport, you won't be alone in falling on your butt and you'll find lots of lessons with patient teachers. If you're advanced, you'll find the challenging runs largely left alone for your pleasure.
Lastly, what is the general infrastructure like? Well, to be honest it isn't the latest and greatest technology in terms of lifts and grooming. You won't find resorts full of high-speed quads. There are quads and gondolas in use, but the old school double chair is what you'll find more often than not. I can't really compare the Argentine resorts to the ones in Europe, but compared to those in Tahoe, they remind me of how the resorts were 10 years ago. The rental gear is generally pretty good, especially for skiers. Snowboarding is getting very popular and you can kinda tell the locals are getting better boarding gear (some of it appears quite old and decrepit, but some is minty new and of good quality).
The beauty of skiing in Argentina is that you are doing it in July and August rather than December and January. It's something different, something you don't generally think of when imagining your summer trip. It's also an obvious advantage to parents since their kids have those two months off, and a plus to ski-aholics who don't feel like waiting for the upcoming winter season to get some powder. Another cool perk is getting to say you skied the Andes. People go to the Alps or the Rockies to say they took on the Big Mountains and won, and the Andes are no different.
As with most ski vacations you generally go for the destination as much as the mountain. I'm guessing you can find Chamonix-style skiing in the US, but Americans go there as much for French culture as they do for the steep chutes. Argentina has a very enjoyable culture in its own right, making a ski trip here really enjoyable off the slopes. Check out my general notes on Argentina here and my notes on Argentine food.
So, if your interest is still piqued, here are my takes on these ski resorts in Argentina (name of resort with town name in brackets): Chapelco (San Martin de los Andes), Catedral (Bariloche), Cerro Bayo (Villa La Angostura), La Hoya (Esquel), and Las Lenas (Las Lenas, Mendoza province).
Chapelco (San Martin de los Andes)
Lift ticket prices: high season (7/9 to 7/29) 96 pesos, shoulder (7/2 to 7/8 and 7/30 to 9/2) 78 pesos (approx. $33 and $27)
Peak elevation: Approx. 6500 feet / 1950 metres
Amenities: 6 person gondola, two quads. Rest are doubles. Several nice lodges.
My take: My favorite resort of the four I tried. Not as big as Catedral (see below) but Chapelco has some great tree skiing available which won over my heart. You can do entire runs without breaking out of the trees - what's not to love? Has some great steeps from the top of the two peaks and some killer backcountry for the advanced. The lower parts of the mountain are not steep at all, great for the beginner. I really enjoyed the setup of the mountain as well. You can ski from the top of the peak all the way down to the base, passing up two different lifts on the way down, and getting all sorts of varied terrain to have fun with.
One great part about Chapelco is San Martin, a much more relaxed and quiet town than the buzzing Bariloche. Chapelco is approximately three hours from Cerro Bayo and approximately four hours from Catedral. With these three resorts so close to one another, combining them on one trip is no problem.
Lift ticket prices: high season (7/9 to 7/29) 95 pesos, shoulder (6/25 to 7/8 and 7/30 to 9/2) 78 pesos (approx. $33 and $27)
Peak elevation: Approx. 6700 feet / 2000 metres
Amenities: 6 person lift, 4 person gondola, a couple quads and a few triples. The base has a big shopping area, restaurants, and a bar/club. Very nordic chic, sort of the Aspen of Argentina.
My take: Had a frustrating experience here. The resort was very crowded the first week of my stay in Bariloche. The lift lines were out of control long and really dampened my enthusiasm for the resort. That being said, around the middle of the month the resort emptied of people and you had this gigantic area to explore at will. The resort is easily the biggest in the area (probably in all of South America), so you won't get bored looking for new runs to try. The tree skiing is much better at Chapelco however, and the grooming operation at Catedral was not satisfactory. So with the big size there are definite disadvantages.
One thing Catedral has that the others don't is the view. Behind the resort is probably the most breathtaking mountain scenery I've ever seen. And the view down onto Bariloche and the high plains and lakes is no eyesore either. Catedral is set up in a funny fashion in that there are beginner runs at the top as well as the bottom of the mountain. Meaning if you are a neophyte skier, you can still go up top, see the view, and then make it back down the mountain with your head and memories in one piece. If I were to return for another ski holiday I would definitely spend a few days at Catedral again, if just for the view and the nice town.
Catedral (Bariloche), Argentina
Cerro Bayo (Villa La Angostura)
Lift ticket prices: high season (7/10 to 7/30) 77 pesos, shoulder (7/3 to 7/9 and 7/31 to 8/27) 58 pesos (approx. $27 and $20)
Peak elevation: Approx. 5700 feet / 1700 metres
Amenities: All double lifts. As opposed to Catedral this is a very laid-back, relaxed resort.
My take: Cerro Bayo, like La Hoya below, is basically your "family" ski resort. It's small, cheap, and has mostly beginner to intermediate runs. That said, from the top of the peak there is access to some major cornices and a very large and fun bowl with some near 90 degree faces, so you can make the resort as challenging as you want it to be. The issue with Bayo is its low elevation; it rains here sometimes. On a good snow day you'll have a blast here, but I would check ahead to ensure the conditions are ripe. Bayo and the town it sits next to are both small, so I would only plan on a weekend here, maximum. That said I had one of my best days in Argentina at Bayo, so I do recommend it!
La Hoya (Esquel)
Lift ticket prices: high season (7/9 to 7/30) 45 pesos, shoulder (8/1 to 8/31) 36 pesos (approx. $15 and $12)
Peak elevation: Approx. 7000 feet/ 2000 metres
Amenities: Like Bayo, a very small and unhurried resort. Not glitzy, but family. All doubles.
My take: Well La Hoya is certainly the cheapest resort you'll find in South America. The mountain is small and very mellow. An ideal place for a beginner to go because it's cheap, not crowded and not steep. But honestly Esquel isn't the most fascinating town and La Hoya isn't the most interesting of resorts. I would only come here if you are on a very tight budget. La Hoya is approximately 4.5 hours from Catedral.
La Hoya (Esquel), Argentina
Las Lenas (Las Lenas, Mendoza province)
Just a quick rundown. I did not get a chance to visit Las Lenas, but I heard plenty about it from others. This resort is essentially the mecca of skiing in South America. The Chamonix or Vail or Whistler of Argentina. It's also huuuuge and the highest resort in Argentina (topping out at around 11,500 feet); you will get a lot of snow, and drier snow. On the flip side, I have also heard and read bad things about the resort being quite wind prone, so the mountain isn't often fully open. But it is gigantic, and skiing from the peak is only for very advanced skiers anyway. If you like steeps, this is the place. Only about 20% of the terrain here is for beginners, but then again that's 20% of a lot of terrain.
Las Lenas is very expensive by local standards. The lift ticket prices really aren't any higher than anywhere else but lodging in the town itself can be expensive, relatively. But if you compare it to Colorado or Switzerland the prices will surely seem more palatable. It's very well known for its haughty, apres ski, see-and-be-seen atmosphere.
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3436: Rar's photos from his 2005 Argentina trip.
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3468: Photo essays on South America, from Slow Travelers.
Argentina - Slow Travel: Planning your trip, things to do and see.
Argentina - Food and Restaurants: The food of Argentina and recommended restaurants.
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