Argentina and Chile; steaks, nightlife and the Andes

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When I was skiing in Sun Peaks (Canada) I discussed travelplans with a guy I had met. He mentioned his ex-girlfriend had snowboarded in Argentina. I had no idea at the time there was even snow in South America. Almost six months later I landed in the country known for big delicious steaks, football and tango.

In August 2006 I visited Argentina and Chile for the first time. It turned out to be a roundtrip visiting most of the skiresorts I could in six weeks. I loved the countries so much, by now I have visited Argentina and Chile four times. Besides skiresorts I have visited other areas as well. In this report I will try to share my thoughts and the highlights of these trips.

I started my first trip in Buenos Aires, a city I would visit many times because of its vibrant feel. Whether you’re walking down the streets during the day, visiting a football match, eating out, having a drink or practising your dance moves, the city is alive. The city might be mostly known through the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. For over three decades, the Mothers have fought for the right to re-unite with their abducted children. Another wellknown ‘sight’ is Evita Peron’s grave in la Recoleta, one of the many districts of Argentina’s capital.

I really enjoyed all of my visits to Buenos Aires. Highlights for me were eating out at la Cabrera, one of the best restaurants in town, tangoshows in Cafe Tortoni and Bocatango, football match of River Plate in Estadio Monumental and the many nights out.

A great asset of this capital is the fact it has many districts with its own character. San Telmo, Palermo, la Boca, la Recoleta and Puerto Madero are the main districts in the center of the city and they are all completely different. San Telmo is the old and artistic part of town while Palermo is young and trendy. La Boca is old and poor but full of character and la Recoleta is more touristy. Finally Puerto Madero is the harbour where businesspeople regularly have a drink or two. It’s great to hop in the subway and go from one district to another and experience a different atmosphere.

Once I got acquainted with the country it was time to explore the skiresorts, which meant touring along the Andes. There are not that many skiresorts in Argentina and Chile but distances between them are quite large. As a result some of them differ a lot in terms of size, altitude and scenery. I started my journey in Bariloche.

San Carlos de Bariloche, the full name of the town, is often referred to as the Switzerland of Argentina. The architecture and even some of the restaurants reminded me of skiing in Europe. The skiing itself however was slightly different. First of all the scenery was something I hadn’t seen before. From the mountain, Cerro Catedral, you have spectacular views of Lago Nahuel Huapi. Another thing I had to get used to was the weather. Everyday it rained at the base of the resort and it snowed on top of the mountain. As a result I got soaked all the time. This seemed to be normal for this regio as it happened again and again when I returned the following years. The skiing is pretty good although not the most difficult. There is quite an extensive area for backcountry skiing, something I’d like to go back for. It’s crowded because of the many teenagers visiting the area in groups when they finished highschool. The town is nice, good food and nightlife is abundant. A would say it’s a pretty allround skiresort. I stayed in the Bariloche Hostel (indeed an appropriate name) where I met some great people. The boys from Santa Fé and the girls from Buenos Aires, they were all great company.

Next was Cerro Chapelco, the skiresort of neighbouring town San Martin de los Andes. Both the town and skiresort are a quieter version of Bariloche. Far less Western tourists result in a more authentic feel. I was lucky with the snow here as it snowed every single day I was there. In 2005 I didn’t have much experience skiing fresh snow so this was a great opportunity for me to start learning! Every day I jumped straight into the woods for some fine treeskiing. The old trees are draped in Liquenes (Devil’s Beard) which makes the skiing pretty interesting. Because the upper lift was closed most days because of avalanche danger I left San Martin after a couple of days in search for more.

Nearby you can find Villa la Angostura. This is a very charming little town. The skiresort is Cerro Bayo, a small but beautiful area. I hitched to the resort which can be reached only by a dodgy road. On the way up it was easy. Getting back was a bit more adventurous because I got a ride in the back of a … This little town is known for its beauty but for me it’s also known because of the Royal family. They have their holidays in this area many times because the Dutch prince is married to a lady from Argentina. Her brother runs a bistro here and I had to visit it to chat with the man. No idea what he looked like, I took a seat at the bar together with my mate from Australia. We started talking with the bartender about traveling and he appeared to have seen quite a lot of countries which is rare for Argentines. His favourite country was the Netherlands and in praticular the region around Wassenaar. That’s really uncommon as most tourists like Amsterdam and because Wassenaar is the area where the Royals reside. Yes, he turned out to be Martin Zorreguieta, Maxima’s brother.

There are two bordercrossings from Argentina to Chile and one is from Bariloche to Pucon. The bus departed early morning in heavy snow. At the border the bus experienced some problems parking on the slippery road. We survived the heavily armed officers as well as the busride and arrived in Pucon. After a night of good sleep I continued my journey to the capital, Santiago de Chile. The city itself is not spectacular compared to Buenos Aires but it’s a gateway to the goods. Four skiresorts of which three are connected, are within two to three hours drive and the coast is one hour away. When you’re there in early September you can even ski during the day and watch the sunset on the coast in your t-shirt. Popular coastal towns are Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. The first one is a regular beachtown but the last one is a historic harbourtown. Built on a hill it has many funiculars to transport people around. Old and colourful houses give the town a great character.

The coast is one hour West of Santiago, three skiresorts are one hour East of the city. La Parva, El Colorado and Valle Nevado are named “the three valleys”, similar to their cousin in the French Alps, Val Thorens. The resorts are linked and in the middle of them a small village, Farellones, offers nice budget accommodation. I stayed in the Club Andino Aguila Azul from where I hitched to the resorts. It was early September, the slopes were empty and snow was plentiful. Good times!

My favourite resort in Chile has to be Portillo. It is located about three hours from Santiago on the way to the border with Argentina. This resort is unique in the world. There is no village only one all-inclusive hotel. The hotel accommodates around 400 guests. Some of them don’t ski at all, others take lessons and most do one run and go for a coffee afterwards. To summarize, you charge powder with just a handful of skiers. Arrive after a big dump and you set signatures for days. This is exactly what I experienced in July 2007. It snowed on arrivaland again on the fourth night. Together with James, Patrick, Marie-Pierre and Philippe, I skied all the chutes from Roca Jack and ofcourse the Lake Run. All in amazing conditions. We finished the days in the hottub, the social meeting spot in Portillo.

Close to Portillo another gem is hidden. From Los Andes you drive into the middle of nowhere before arriving in Valle el Arpa where a catskiing operation is situated. Anton Sponar, an Austrian at age (he must be in his late 70’s right now) had the vision to buy the land and start the catskiing. There is a small basic lodge and from there the adventure really begins. A cat takes you to over 3500 meters from where you have a clear view of Mount Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak. The skiing is remote, the terrain is superb and the views are amazing. What else can you ask for? Great people, also present!

From Santiago you can take a bus to Mendoza in Argentina. This must be one of the most beautiful busrides in the world. Once I had a seat on the upper level all the way in the front and I was mesmerized for eight hours. The bordercrossing in the middle may take a while and can be really annoying. On arrival in Argentina the pleasant city of Mendoza awaits. Lots of activities can be undertaken from this city like horseback riding, skydiving, hiking, rafting etc. I went for a hike on Vallecitos. The next day I met James and Patrick from Portillo and we went to a winery. The region around Mendoza is famous for its Malbec so, as a non wine-drinker, I had to taste some…

From Mendoza it’s ‘only’ a six hour drive to freeriders paradise Las Lenas. The first time I visited this resort I was unlucky. The good stuff is accessed by one chairlift, Marte. It can be closed for a while as was the case in 2005. The lift was completely covered by snow! The next year I went back and Marte was open for about 50 percent of the time but snow was terrible. I needed more experience to handle these conditions in steep terrain. In 2009 I went back for a third visit and I had one of the best times ever. In the end of July it wasn’t to busy with gringos (nickname for Westerners) and because they are almost the only ones going offpiste, I had this paradise to myself and a handful of others. I skied runs like Eduardo, Cerro Martin and Torrecillas. Eduardo is easily accessible. You duck the ropes, traverse for a bit et voila; a steep couloir appears. For Cerro Martin you have to hike a little. Once you have entered the bowl you pass impressive spires at least 50 times as big as yourself. The last run I skied was from Cerro Torrecillas. I met Bert, a Dutch guy, in Mendoza and we skied together for a couple of days. Torrecillas is probably the most aesthetic peak of the backside of Marte. We noticed it and decided to go for it. Hours of putting one step in front of the other were necessary to reach the top. A steep face was waiting to be skied but not before we enjoyed the silence and the beauty surrounding us!

As I mentioned earlier, Marte is closed often. Las Lenas is completely above treeline and out in the open so it catches a lot of wind. In case of heavy winds the chairlift will be closed and there’s not much you can do. The remaining terrain is not exciting enough and skinning the slopes is not my favourite activity. The village of Las Lenas is quite depressing in my opinion so on bad weather days when Marte most likely will be closed, you leave the village if possible. You can go to nearby Malargue to go horseback riding for example. Pretend to be a true gaucho for a day!

The only horseback riding experience I had was in China where I was actually just sitting on the horse instead of real riding. In reality I was a complete novice when it comes to riding horses. We started slowly but the French skiguide I joined for the day was a serious rider. As he went full speed I was confronted with the fact my horse was in love with his one. I suddenly went full speed as well because my horse wanted to follow the other one, scary stuff!

Luckily my horse slowed down just before my legs were too tired. What a relief, I jumped of the horse and was happy to be alive! I changed horses and got a more relaxed one. What a difference, I suddenly had full control of my horse. Riding the pampa’s with the Andes on the background made me feel a gaucho for a minute, even though I was a complete novice…

Accommodation is not really easy to arrange in Las Lenas. Hostels don’t exist and hotels are way too expensive. You have to be a little creative if you want to stay on a budget. I contacted some French skiguides and stayed at their place. They own two apartments in the Residencia area and buy groceries in nearby Malargue. As a result, I had an affordable stay with some great barbecues or asados as locals call them!

The skiing in Argentina can be legendary but the country has so much more to offer. After my trip in 2005 I decided to see more of the country. In 2006 I visited Iguazu Falls. These impressive waterfalls are located on the border with Brazil and Paraguay. I almost missed my flight to this remote area. Kevin, Adrian and Tim from Aspen, who I had met in Las Lenas, took me on a big night out. Luckily they had woken me up early next morning and I caught a cab. I slept the whole flight, didn’t notice taking off and landing, and arrived in the far North of Argentina. In Las Lenas temperatures fluctuated around freezing level, here it felt tropical in 30-35 degrees Celcius. I visited the falls from both the Argentinian and the Brazilian side. Really impressive…

In 2009 I combined skiing in Las Lenas with a visit to Puerto Madryn. The latter is known for whale watching. I short flight took me to this small coastal town. I checked in at the Chepatagonia hostel and got a warm welcome by the owners. They were really helpful and their place had a good atmosphere. From the balcony I could see the tales swim around. Woohoo!

The next day I had a little kayak adventure. I went to the beach with two other guests from the hostel and booked our ‘boat’. Our guide took us straight into the ocean and we had our exercise. This all sounds pretty normal but the difference here was there were huge whales swimming between the kayaks! What an experience!

The next day we went to Peninsula Valdes where the actual whale watching tours take place. It was remarkably quiet, maybe because the beginningof August was still early in the ‘season’. We got into the zodiac and went for a ride. The whales were everywhere and very close to the boat. I heard stories of others where the whales were more than 100 meters away and they classified it as an amazing sight. Well, here they sometimes swim underneath the boat, as was the case during my tour!

I will never go whale watching somewhere else in the world because it can not get any better!

When you’d like to escape the crowds and ski off the beaten track, go to the end of the world as Ushuaia is called. In summer this is probably one the most popular places to visit by tourists but in winter it’s quiet there. Many people seem to think it’s minus 20 degrees Celcius or so. In fact, the climate it pretty mild and temperatures rarely go below zero during the day. Wind however can make it feel kind of chilly…

There are several options to go skiing near Ushuaia. One is the skiresort Cerro Castor. A nice resort, not to big but fun for a day or two. Another option is to go skitouring on the Martial Glacier. A two to three hour tour will get you to the top from where you have amazing views of the Beagle Channel.

In the Freestyle hostel a group of Argentine friends noticed a pretty Dutch girl and soon I became their translator. We had many laughs and good times but in the end they failed to make a decent move. I wasn’t the best help as you probably already expected. The guys took me out to the restaurants and bars in Ushuaia and showed me parts of their culture. Of all countries I traveled to, Argentina is the only country where it’s very common that locals take you with them. They are proud and friendly people who like to have a good time and show you their culture. I love it!

Argentina and Chile are both great countries. I have visited them four times now and I guess I’ll be back more than once…

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