There’s one thing every ski bunny will be praying for this winter: snow. After a couple of dry years Mendoza is in need of a good sprinkling of powder in the Andes, and these are the months for it. Whether you are an international playboy with a penchant for skiing, or a penny pinching backpacker who’d like to learn, Argentina’s ski resorts have something for everyone.
Close to Mendoza:
This is where Mendocino ski history began. It is the province’s oldest ski centre, nestled into the stunning Cordon de Plata mountain range at an altitude of 2,900m (rising to 3,200 for the highest run). 80km south west of Mendoza City and just 16km past Potrerillos, it is perfect for day trips or one night stays. The resort has a total of 12 runs, 20% for beginners, 60% for intermediates and 20% for the advanced, making for about 88 hectares of skiable ground (when there is enough snow). Apart from the marked trails there are a number of out-of-bounds bowls and chutes to be explored. This is another resort that has outdated equipment when it comes to world standards so take the extra time suspended above ground to enjoy the view. Vallecitos is modest in size but also in prices. You best bet for accommodation is in the town of Potrerillos or at the plush La Alejandra Estancia http://www.estancialaalejandra.com.ar/
What Los Penitentes lacks in size and glamour, it makes up for ten-fold in scenery and accessibility. Named after a row of monk-shaped peaks in the mountains, this tiny village could not be more conveniently located as it is literally bisected by the main road to Chile (165km west of Mendoza City). With a base altitude of 2580m rising to 3200m, these powdery slopes provide tremendous opportunities for all levels to downhill or cross-country ski and snowboard. The resort has a total of 28 runs, 11 of which have been approved by the International Ski Federation. All vary in difficulty, and stretch a total of 22 kilometers that cover around 300 hectares of mountainous slope.
Los Puquios –Parque de Nieve
This is much more than a ski resort. In fact, it is a ‘snow park’. There are a handful of different ski runs here (with varying levels – some which are good for beginners as well as others designed for intermediate skiers) but this unpretentious and family friendly resort also has a large variety of other activities on offer.
If you don’t want to ski or snowboard but like to stay on your feet you can have a go at snow shoeing, which is basically trekking around the resort with shoes similar to tennis rackets on your feet, or you could try your hand at ice skating in the small ice rink by one of the restaurants.
However for those of us who quite like to use their bottom as a snow cushion there are a couple of fun options, and don’t trick yourself into thinking they are just for children. Try out the culi-patin (literal translation butt skating) for a surprising adrenaline rush throwing yourself down a large hill on slippery plastic sledges, or go ‘tubing’ and sit your derrier in a large inflatable rubber tyre as you slide down the slopes – either way you are bound to be a convert.There are also play areas for the rug rats to make snowmen and throw snowballs at each other, while the adults sit back with a beer or homemade rustic argentine food at the restobar nearby. And if you want to spend an entire day at the resort, Los Puquios offers night skiing three nights a week with floodlit pistes, live DJs and mulled wine. Los Puquios is just a couple of kilometers further up the road from Penitentes with the same gorgeous Andean scenery. www.puquios.com
Where to stay
If you want to take advantage of Mendoza’s nearby Los Penitentes and Los Puquios resorts, or even Chile’s El Portillo, book yourself in for a night or two at Hotel Ayelen. This hotel opposite the Penitentes ski resort has been taken over by British and Argentine duo Steve and Mecha who have created a warm and friendly environment, comfortable and attractive large living areas and a restaurant with winter-warming food – great for a lunchtime stop if you are touring the mountains too. Even when the snow has melted, this is a great place to set up camp and explore the stunning surrounding Andes doing some mountain treks, rock climbing and Aconcagua admiring. You can access the hotel and ski resorts by catching the thrice daily from Mendoza Bus Terminal (3.5hrs). www.ayelenpenitentes.com.ar
Chile isn’t that far away. In fact it’s only a 4-hour drive from Mendoza and just the other side of the border is El Portillo, the first ski resort established in South America. Well equipped and newly renovated for 2013 with 34 pistes for skiers and snowboarders of all levels, as well as an outdoor heated swimming pool, yoga classes, a nightclub and a 3D cinema. The best time to visit for wine lovers though is during their well established Wine Week and Wine Fest for two weeks during August where every night during the week some of Chile’s top wineries are invited to warm up the crowd with some of their finest wines and a charm. In its twelfth year, the wine celebrations carry on late into the night with a party after wine tasting. Wine Week is 3 – 10 August, and Wine Fest is 24 – 31 August. www.skiportillo.com
Outside of Mendoza
445km south of Mendoza City in the heart of the Andes, this is the biggest, the best, and by far the most expensive of the resorts in the area. It attracts snow starved enthusiasts from the north who can´t bear the thought of a summer without snow, along with well-heeled Argentines who ski by day and party by night. Las Leñas has a total of 35 marked runs that cover a distance of about 64km, the highest of which reaches 3,430m. Of these runs, 30% are to be considered beginner, 25% intermediate, 20% black and another 25% double black. One run even includes the added spectacle of lights and music to accompany your ride. For those craving more adventure than a double-black can offer, there are said to be around 4,000 hectares of off-peak slope. Keep on eye on the forecast because if it starts snowing, staff close all but 2 lifts inciting dreadful hour-long lines at the base. The ski-lifts are mildly outdated and even during normal conditions the ride from the base to the summit takes about 45 minutes. The village at Las Leñas’ base contains modern luxury hotels, restaurants, casinos, nightclubs and of course a multilingual ski school. If you decide to stay in nearby Malargue (70km) you get a 50% discount on the lifts. Buses leave regularly from the Mendoza bus terminal. www.laslenas.com
Close to Las Leñas is Los Molles ski resort. Tranquil and low key, it has the added attraction of thermal baths to wind down after a hard day on the slopes.
The most famous resort in Bariloche is Cerro Catedral which is one of the largest and oldest ski areas in South America. With 38 lifts, the different routes on this mountain are endless including a run with a vertical drop of 3,000 feet. Activities here are dominated by ski and snowboarding, but you can also try out Nordic skiing in the forests and there is a terrain park too. The main base for this resort is Villa Catedral at the base of the mountain which has rental shops as well as all your necessary conveniences. www.catedralpatagonia.com
The easiest route to the powder…
If you want to go skiing but are feeling a bit too lazy to organize your own ski pass, gear, transport and accommodation, speak to the Oso Loco (translation: Crazy Bear) – Mendoza’s very own grizzly gringo ski bear. Otherwise known as Adam, this ski fanatic has been running his own ski tour company for 8 years and can get you kitted out with everything from cramp-ons to the best guides with the ultimate off-piste knowledge and experience. Specializing in helping foreigners get the most out of their ski experience in Argentina, Adam works mainly in the Los Penitentes, Las Lenas and Bariloche resorts. Contact Argentina Ski Tours: www.argentinaskitours.com
In all the mentioned resorts watch out for different events throughout the season such as provincial championships, obstacle races and torchlight nighttime parades.