SIA Ski Guide To Argentina – Part 2
After completing over 4000km by road we opted to fly to our next destination of Ushuaia the home to the 2015 Interski in September 2015. Although only another 870km by car from El Calafate it becomes a little more complex to travel down to the most southern city in the world. To arrive into Ushuaia you would need to drive in to Chile and then back in to Argentina and take a short ferry. Car hire companies want to charge a premium for you to cross the border and that combined with traffic at the crossing make it not worthwhile. The option to fly and collect a car at the airport is far more economical and time efficient. We left our other rental car at the airport with our baggage inside that we did not need in Ushuaia to avoid a penalty charge for excessive luggage on our flight. The idea was to collect the car again in a few days.
The flight to Ushuaia is short, at just under an hour. As standard seats are reserved and held back for locals you will often find that you can only book business class seats as a foreign traveller if you do not book well in advance. Both Ushuaia and El Calafate airports are small and have limited facilities, so don’t arrive to early hoping to kill time shopping in duty free. We collected another rental car for our week in Ushuaia with ease – I love it when a plan comes together!
Ushuaia is a small town but has everything you need, accommodation is easy to find and there are good restaurants and shops in abundance down the Main Street. There is also a very big, functional gym in a shopping centre located slightly out of the centre but it has a extortionate daily cost of almost €35!!
We opted to stay in a Cabaña which are small houses that can be rented very cheap for 2 or more people. With real bedrooms, kitchen and living area it gives you a welcome sample of normality after living out of a suitcase in hotels for weeks.
Ushuaia is the springboard to Cerro Castor which is the most southern ski resort in the world and only about 25km away. It is one of my absolute favourite places to ski in the world thanks to its location, views and quiet pistes – a must visit for any snow lover.
The next day we had breakfast and then prepared our skiing gear for the day ahead. On opening my ski bag I was horrified and devastated with what lay in front of me – A broken pair of World Cup slalom skis 🙁
This immediately presented itself as a huge problem, as on all flights there is a limit to weight allowance and so I had left my other pair of skis in our original rental car which was still parked at El Calafate airport assuming that one pair would be enough for our few days skiing.
Renting a pair would be an option but as any proficient skier knows, renting a suitable pair here would be almost impossible. Be warned that most skis available for rent in Argentina are substandard, very old and I’m pretty sure, serviced with a cheese grater. After a few favours from some locaI contacts, I manage to acquire a half decent pair and furiously made my way to the airport to report the damage only to be informed that they would not take responsibility as I had not reported it immediately.
So another lesson learned the hard way! When you collect your luggage make sure you unpack everything at the airport conveyer belt to check that it is ok before exiting. To break a pair of World Cup slalom skis that are titanium plated in half would have taken incredible force. It was so obvious that the damage had taken place at the airport somewhere but as far as the airline was concerned it was not their problem. You live, you learn.
It is a 30 minute drive to Cerro Castor from the main town of Ushuaia and due to its southerly location it opens late, 10am in the main season but similar to Bariloche resort you want to avoid the long ticket queue that takes for ever to clear.
Cerro Castor is very low for a ski resort and it does not even boast a 1000m elevation yet the snow is reliable and the pistes are great to train on. The base area has been modernised in the last few seasons and you can find good food and drinks to give you a break from the Antarctic chill that makes the temperature feel 10 degrees lower than it states.
Lift pass prices are not as extreme as those found in Cerro Catedral and can be likened to European prices. The road can be tricky at times but all rental cars are supplied with winter tyres. The journey in and out of the resort should be driven with caution as the roads are often dangerous and the many slow moving lorries are a peril.
On the road to the resort you will see many fun things to do like ski-doo and take a dog sled ride but for many, the main reason to travel to Ushuaia is to travel to the end of Ruta 3. Ruta 3 is the most southern road on the continent and it seems obligatory to take a #selfie next to the sign post stating this. To enter the national park is actually free in winter and from Ushuaia it is only a short drive to the end of the road.
We enjoyed a few days skiing and sightseeing and then headed back to the airport to fly back to El Calafate and collect our original rent a car and drive to Las Leñas, Mendoza.
All was going relatively smoothly if you overlook the smashed €1500 skis!
On check in at the airport for a short return flight we were informed that the flight was conditional, thick fog had enveloped the Airport at El Calafate for the last 30 hours and no flights had been able to land. Still, they were hopeful we would fly and we were told to go to the departure gate. It is common place for flights to be delayed or simply cancelled so make sure you build in a buffer zone for this and where possible never pre-book and pay for accommodation that you may be unable to reach.
The flight take off time came and went and we waited patiently together with a gang of locals who many had already been delayed since yesterday and were less than happy. Eventually the manager came out and informed us all that the flight was unlikely to take off and they would announce an update in 45 minutes. This would be the end of the matter if we were any where else in the world, as one would appreciate for safety reasons they had took the correct decision, however here it produced a small demonstration by the angry mob and a blanket of abuse towards the manager. The police did what they normally do when the Argentinian public demonstrate against something – stood back out the way leaving the airline manager to front the on slaughter.
We on the other hand were not wishing to board the plane anyway as visibility at our destination was down to 100 metres, so we sat back and enjoyed the airport cabaret act of the mob. The shouting and arm waving went on for more than an hour and then we were told the flight would be cancelled – was this the end? No! They had an even better idea.
In an unusual twist to try and contain the now out of control middle aged mob who were screaming, waving aggressively their fists and stamping their feet, they would fly us all to Buenos Aires and put us up in a hotel overnight and then in the morning they would fly us to El Calafate.
Now, for those that don’t know the geography of Argentina let me help you understand what they are about to do. Imagine you are in Madrid and you wish to fly to Barcelona, a short hop of 600 hundred kilometres. Instead of cancelling your flight and giving you a hotel room in Madrid for the night they choose to fly you to Aberdeen for a night and then fly you all the way back to Barcelona the next day. In fact Aberdeen is actually not far enough North to do justice to my example but I think you get the picture.
To cut a long story short, they did fly us over 3 hours to Buenos Aires gave us a hotel overnight and then the next day they flew us 3 hours back south to El Calafate. So is Argentina!
Our arrival into El Calafate went smooth enough but we were now 24 hours behind our schedule and we needed to hightail it north back up Ruta 40 to Las Leñas. This is an epic stretch of 2,500km so a stop over would be needed as the biggest snow storm for many years was approaching Argentina.
We made excellent progress on our first leg to Bariloche as there is only 80km of rough terrain to drive, the rest is generally good quality tarmac. The biggest issue as always is that travel through the night is not possible as the few service stations that exist are closed after 23.00. We were loaded with extra fuel and snow chains in case of snow which meant we would not need to panic should a service station be closed or as often is the case simply not there anymore!
A well needed break in Bariloche allowed us to recover in a nice Spa Hotel picked up cheaply at the last minute. It is well worth arriving in to a resort, finding a cafe with WiFi and checking the local prices and availability on booking.com or similar sites as they are often half the price of booking in advance.
The snow storm had hit the ski resort Cerro Catedral but Bariloche lies much lower down so only got a downpour of rain. The next day we headed of early, destination: Las Leñas.
The first 150km out of Bariloche is often covered in snow and ice so we needed to take extra precautions. Once again the road to Las Leñas is generally in good condition although there is a section of around 100km that is not tarmac and has an official speed limit of 80km/h. Always check that you have a spare tyre that is the right make and model for your car and it contains air as in the event of a break down you could be stuck for days.
Las Leñas at 2240m stands alone as a ski resort, the nearest small town of Merlargue is 80km away and you can actually fly in to a small airport that is located there from Buenos Aires and pick up one of the many bus transfers that run up to the resort. Once you are in Las Leñas you are ‘trapped’ in the world of skiing and boarding. It is a privately run resort with only one ski school and is famous for attracting Argentina’s rich and famous. The hotels and apartments are not cheap and are generally very dated – not what you would normally expect from 4* Hotels.
Why go to Las Leñas? Simply put, it is the best freeride area in the Southern Hemisphere.
The spectacular and famous old chairlift of Marte takes you to the 3430m summit. Here you can access phenomenal opportunities for freeride without the need for a helicopter or walking too far. The chair lift itself is surrounded by controversy and has been buried and knocked over several times thanks to huge snowfalls.
We were well aware that Las Leñas was about to receive a lot of snow and this was of concern to me as I know how slow the resort can be to open up after big dumps.
Before you may move outside of the pisted areas you will be required to sign a release form with the Police who are waiting for you at the exit points from the safety of the pisted terrain. You will be awarded a colorful band to show you agree that Las Leñas is released from all responsibly should you mess up somewhere on your off-piste adventure.
This is the land of transceivers, shovels and probes so do not go alone! DO NOT go to Las Leñas without these items if you are planning to ski the off-piste terrain. Purchasing anything forgotten or needed in Las Leñas comes at a premium that would be called theft else where. When skiing off-piste be aware of other skiers who have no knowledge of the dangers involved and the unwritten etiquette of skiing off piste terrain. Their lack of understanding increases the risk as slopes get loaded by incompetent or inexperienced skiers and boarders looking for a good time.
Narrow, extremely steep chutes and open bowls of powder await those lucky with conditions. Like much of Argentina, Las Leñas is unfortunately famous for high winds, particularly after big snow falls increasing the risk of Avalanche and also blowing away the metre of snow that landed the day before. You will always need a bit of luck and my advice is to pay for a guide from the ski school, although they know the routes be warned that this does not mean they know the dangers. I myself was in an avalanche several seasons ago with a guided party and had to rescue the guide who was leading the group.