SIA Ski Guide To Argentina, Part 1
In my job I am fortunate enough to get to travel and ski in many places throughout the world. Argentina provides one of the more interesting challenges when planning a ski trip. This is my sixth time out here in the last ten years and as always, as a ‘gringo’ the lessons are right there waiting for you to learn – the hard way! Our aim is to try and give you some little tips to make your life easier and your trip less costly.
Arrival in to Buenos Aires is easier than ever even as a British citizen unless your passport carries the name Clarkson. A Visa is awarded for a 90 day stay without question. Many skier at this point would make their way to the local airport to take a short flight to one of the many possible ski areas, we opted to hit the tarmac and drive! Car hire is easy to find and best organised on arrival as the many rental companies within the airport are always fighting amongst each other for your business, leaving you free to negotiate a good deal
Car rental sorted, so time to get moving, our first destination – San Carlos de Bariloche a reportedly bone shattering 1500km. Surprisingly the roads on route are actually pretty good and for the most part, long and straight and the breathtaking approach to Bariloche rewards you with some of the most awesome views you will ever see.
Although single carriage way, the lack of traffic means you can average a hypothetical 150km per hour, just be aware that fuel stations are extremely far apart and not open through the night. Generally the YPFstations are the best and the only ones which accept credit cards. Don’t expect large service stations with McDonalds and Starbucks but think more a shed with a rusty pump outside. We cover the distance in a respectable 12 hours arriving in to Bariloche at just after 22.00. Although we have not booked accommodation in advance, in such a large town there are always many options for places to lay your head and by using the Blue Rate of exchange even the most expensive hotels are really quite affordable.
The Blue Rate you ask? Simply put this is the exchange rate available to those that know how to work the system. Let me explain; Currently the exchange rate is around 10 pesos to the Euro or 9 pesos to the U.S. dollar. The Blue Rate will get you 16 pesos to the Euro and 15 pesos to the U.S. Dollar. What is amazing is that this is not a secret and everyone, including the authorities and the government allow this black (or blue) market to take place in the open, in fact if you turn on the local TV the rate is actually advertised.
This means if you want to get the best deals and value for money, you need to go against all travel advise and arrive in Argentina with big bags of cash, and not withdraw cash from cash machines or use your credit cards. This will make your stay up to 35% cheaper when paying in cash that you exchanged at the Blue Rate. Cash points that actually work with European Bank cards are seldom and only allow you to withdraw a rather measly 1,000 pesos with a bank charge of 55 pesos. Remember that this is roughly only €100. The best Blue Rate can be found in Buenas Aires so where possible, change your money when arriving by spending a night in the city before traveling further.
Finally, contrary to many beliefs, Argentina is not a cheap country and I would say it is comparable with any Western European country, what does make it acceptable is the Blue Rate of exchange.
So, back to Bariloche… From this fully functional town (that also has an airport for those wishing to arrive by plane) you can quickly access the ski resort of Cerro Catedral around 20km away. Although it is possible to stay directly on the slopes of Cerro Catedral most opt to stay in the main town as here there are some great restaurants, varied accommodation and a night life that sees the mainly Brazilian tourists partying long and hard. If you stay up at Cerro Catedral you are limited and will miss out on the fantastic atmosphere of the town.
Argentina like many of the Southern Hemisphere resorts can have the most memorable snow conditions for all the right reasons and also the most appalling. This season was going to prove the former!
The journey to the ski resort takes as little as 20 minutes or as much as 1.5 hours to get to by car. Don’t leave too late is the advice as the staff at Cerro Catedral are frankly, incapable of organising the heavy traffic arriving at the resort. If you park in their secure parking near the lifts it will cost you €7 and this is only the beginning of the criminal prices. Not only is a day lift pass expensive at €75, but also if you have not taken my previous advice you will stand in a queue for up to an hour waiting to get one at the cash desks. Of course, you can opt to buy more days and this will start to bring the price of the lift pass down and save you the problem of queuing each day, but be warned that the mountain suffers from adverse weather and this means that all the higher elevations with the good skiable terrain can close frequently, leaving you limited skiing on a nursery area covered with 1000 Brazilian school kids. Check the weather predication carefully before committing to a long term pass and it is worth noting that you can actually buy a lift pass that allows you to take days off and does not run concurrently.
In previous seasons I have skied as little as 2 good days from 10 thanks to high winds and the fact that Bariloche is relatively low for South America it leaves it subject to rain at its lower levels, however for our short visit we were rewarded with fantastic snow at all elevations.
Upload on to the mountain is shared between several chairlifts and an interestingly decorated old gondola system.
Most of the lifts are antiquated but serve the purpose, just don’t expect European efficiency and speed. That said, you can expect lift operators who are friendly helpful and actually seem to like their job. Now that’s something you don’t get in Europe!
The pistes are mostly well prepared, but always check a run out before committing to it at full speed as sudden, leg shattering dips and grooves can be found at random. If it’s moguls and off piste you enjoy then this resort will reward you with your desire. Views from the top are amazing with the lake stretching out before your eyes.
Avoid eating and drinking on the mountain, in general it is pretty expensive and not holds little nutritional value. There are plenty of superior restaurants and cafes at the bottom of the mountain for a fraction of the cost. We find it better to opt for an early start on the hill (to beat those queues) with a short break for what can be loosely described as coffee before heading into town for a afternoon snack in Bariloche, where surprisingly in this meat loving country, you can find on the road St. Martin a vegetarian cafe which offers a great break form the constant pressure to eat milanesa, lomo or hamburgers.
Our first day on the hill proved to be epic thanks to a good fall of snow over the previous week. Pistes were in prime condition and the mogul fields were steep and challenging, the week continued to be equally as amazing with blue bird skies, great skiing on uncrowded slopes – a paradise for the snow lover!
Time to take a break from skiing and drive the famous Ruta 40 South – Next stop El Calafate. This is the base for those wishing to visit the awe inspiring glacier of Perrito Moreno and the fantastic beauty of Mount Fitzroy
Ruta 40 is absolutely incredible. It is now 90% Tarmac but it still has challenging sections of dirt road that make the journey very interesting. Fuel stops are often over 300km apart and it is not unusual to see no other traffic for the same distance, so fill up your car at every station you can! This is a long journey of 1800km running along the edge of the Andes.
Anyone who has taken the trouble to fly the long distance to Argentina can only be classed as stupid if they fail to make the effort to view Perito Moreno. It appears on every bucket list for a reason when searching the Internet. Unlike us you can fly directly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate so no need to trouble yourself with the long drive. Once again make sure you arrive before the crowds as they will simply irritate you and spoil what can be a personal highlight in your own life. As one of the few expanding glaciers its impressive size combined with its constant cracking and moving is very impressive.
For those staying in El Calafate get yourself to the restaurant Don Pichon and enjoy the quality of their Patagonian Cordero (Lamb) together with a bottle of Zuccardi Q Malbec wine.
Next on the itinerary, the 250km drive to El Chlaten and although most blogs will claim this is a difficult road and can take up to 4 hours this is actually outdated, as it is now Tarmac the whole length and is easily done in 2 hours. Here you are rewarded by the spectacular Mount Fitzroy which you can actually see on route from El Calafte and for those of you planning to fly, sit on the right side of the plane and you will fly passed this incredible landmark. Those up for a hike can take one of the many tours that will get you close to the base of the mountain, a great experience if you have the time and energy!