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In the Andes, surprising twists
I first rode a South American ski lift last year, on a sparkling June night in the Argentine Andes.
The sun had set only a few minutes earlier, but the Milky Way was already arcing from one end of the valley to the other. Below were the glistening slopes of Los Penitentes, a tiny ski resort where I would soon fulfill my nearly lifelong dream of skiing the Andes.
I should have been enjoying the view.
Instead, I was staring at my hand.
More specifically, I was staring at what was in my hand: a diesel-soaked ball of fiber impaled on 1 1/2 feet of rebar.
I was about to participate in a form of night skiing that a Los Penitentes staff member had described as a "bajada con antorchas." I understood that bajada meant "descent." But I had thought that antorchas meant "flashlights." Actually, antorcha means torch, as in a flaming object you carry in your hand while skiing down an unfamiliar mountain with about 30 other torch-wielding people you have never seen in the daylight. Although such activities are apparently not uncommon in Europe or South America, for an American the concept seemed a personal injury lawyer's dream.
But at Los Penitentes, just a few miles from the Chilean border, the torches were lighted with gusto and abandon. Soon a line of skiers was creeping down the Andes by firelight, and some people had begun to whoop. I was laughing.
Then, after our first turn, I looked at my torch and discovered that the flames were lapping over my glove. Rule No. 1 for skiing with fire: Become one with the mountain, not the torch.
Fulfilling a dream
Since I was a kid, I'd wanted to ski South America. When I was younger, it was because I liked the idea of skiing during the North American summer. Then, after earning an undergraduate degree in Latin American studies, I became fascinated with the Andes. So when I realized that a 10-week trip through South America would land me in ski country in June — the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere — I came up with a plan.
Well, sort of. My plan was not to plan, to search out snow, take buses and travel cheaply. I hoped to ski the lofty peaks in northern Argentina and the lower, wetter mountains in Patagonia, the southernmost part of the continent. Besides that, I had no itinerary.
My girlfriend, Laura, met me in the Chilean capital of Santiago, and we spent several days in Chile's arid north before heading southeast. Although Chile has several world-class ski resorts, Argentina's recent economic crisis meant that prices there were cheaper.
Still, I wasn't sure what to expect from Los Penitentes. I'd read about South America's big, ritzy resorts — Chile's Portillo and Argentina's Las Leñas, for instance — but the only thing I knew about Los Penitentes was that it was easily accessible by bus, just across the Chilean border and on the highway linking Santiago with the Argentine city of Mendoza.
As it turned out, Los Penitentes was the closest thing to a roadside ski resort I've ever seen. Its small base area sits opposite a gas station, next to a two-lane highway used mostly by heavy trucks carrying freight across the border. Overall, it felt like a good place to build a gulag or hide weapons of mass destruction.
This does not mean that the resort is ugly — only that it feels hidden and remote. Built on one side of a sparkling, treeless Andean valley, Los Penitentes is surrounded by soaring peaks and stunning rock formations.
The resort's name pays homage to the most distinctive of these, a 4,000-foot-high rock wall whose jagged contours are said to resemble a line of penitent monks walking to prayer. Aconcagua, South America's tallest mountain at 22,834 feet, is also nearby.
Although impressive, the scenery did not inspire me to open my wallet. No, I booked Laura and me in the least expensive place I could find, a hostel called Refugio Cerro Aconcagua, next to the gas station. There we got breakfast, dinner and our own room of bunk beds for just under $10 each.
The next morning, we headed to the mountain — and Laura's first ski lesson.
Los Penitentes is small by Sierra Nevada standards, with two chairlifts and five surface lifts to ferry skiers uphill. It claims about 740 skiable acres, and its lift-served slopes begin at 10,499 feet and descend to 8,465 feet — a respectable but unspectacular vertical drop.
Still, most of its terrain is too steep for beginners, so Laura and I headed to a short "bunny" slope. South American slopes are generally rated green, blue, red and black, with green as the easiest, black the most difficult.
Although I've skied for nearly 20 years, I was nervous because everyone — from other travelers to a hot-dog vendor — had warned me against teaching Laura, predicting total relation- ship meltdown if I tried. As it turned out, my biggest problem was persuading her to practice stopping and slowing down.
"But going fast is fun," she said.
Convinced that Laura was fine, I caught two lifts to the top of the ski area. The terrain there was different from anything I'd ever skied: A ridge divided the mountain into a bowl and a broad gully, which drained to a stream. Gleaming snow and reddish rock walls extended in every direction.
Better yet, the icy 24-inch base at the bottom of the mountain had swelled to nearly 70 inches of packed powder at the top. I shot across the bowl as if I were on fire, which, 18 hours earlier, I almost had been.
After two days of flying across wide-open bowls, I got an itch to see something new, and we caught a bus to Mendoza to figure out our next move.
Three days later, we were 500 miles to the south, skiing in a Patagonian forest.
Before leaving Mendoza, I'd spent hours in Internet cafes, scouring the Web for good snow. We'd heard a rumor that poor conditions had closed every Argentine resort except Los Penitentes, and this seemed to be only a slight exaggeration.
Las Leñas, Mendoza Province's biggest resort, had received rain, and only 20% of the slopes around Bariloche, the Patagonian mega-resort, were open. But when I checked Chapelco, a resort about 60 miles north of Bariloche, a note caught my eye: lift tickets at a discounted $15. The snow did not sound perfect, but the price certainly was.
That night was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, and we spent it on a bus headed south to Neuquén, a hub of Patagonia's flatlands. There we transferred to another bus bound for the resort town of San Martín de los Andes.
In the morning, I watched gray-green wastelands roll by my window in the milky winter light. The sense of remoteness was classic Patagonia, the region of mountains, lakes and cold desert plains at the southern end of South America.
By that afternoon, we reentered the mountains and arrived at San Martín de los Andes, the closest town to Chapelco.
There is much to San Martín's charms. The town sits on a finger lake and is packed with chocolate shops and nice restaurants, all of which charge perhaps half of what you might pay at a U.S. resort.
Our first night, we ate in an Italian restaurant with a roaring fireplace, spending about $20 on a meal for two that included a bottle of wine, trout ravioli and free Champagne, among other treats. We then retired to our basic but comfortable room, for which we paid all of $15.
The next morning, a shuttle took us to Chapelco.
Although it had drizzled constantly in San Martín, several people had assured us that the conditions were better at the ski area, higher in the mountains. And indeed, Chapelco — with a gondola, a ritzier mountain than Los Penitentes — had plenty of the wet, heavy snow that tends to fall in Patagonia.
Unfortunately, the staff had groomed only a few runs, and most of the mountain was closed.
Although this annoyed me, it also forced me to quit obsessing about my form and enjoy what was easily the most unique ski setting I've ever experienced.
At Chapelco, the slopes are covered with lenga trees, an ancient species whose lineage dates to the time when South America, Africa and Australia were united in one super-continent.
The trees lose their leaves in the winter but maintain a fur of eerie green moss year-round. It was like skiing through a scene in "Lord of the Rings." Laura thought the area looked like Endor, where the Ewoks lived in "Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi."
Either way, it was a nice break from Earth.
Change of plans
Finally, I had a plan. I had skied a treeless Andean valley and a Patagonian forest. To top it off, I would bus to Chile and ski an active volcano.
Or so I thought when we left San Martín for Pucón, Chile, an adventure sports mecca across the mountains and to the north. Pucón sits in the shadow of Villarrica volcano, a sometimes-smoking cone that also happens to have a ski lift running partway up the side.
Bad snow conditions had closed the lift, but I pressed on anyway, arranging to climb to the crater and ski down.
It was too much for Laura, but a 19-year-old Briton named Ollie signed on to go with me and a guide.
On the morning of our departure, we stood together on the street, trying to will away the clouds settling on the volcano's peak. We couldn't. The guide called the trip off, saying the weather looked too dangerous.
Instead of skiing, Laura and I spent two days exploring the temperate rain forest, hiking past 2,000-year-old araucaria trees and lounging in a hot spring beside a roaring river.
All of it was wonderful, but I kept gazing toward the volcano, wondering if the weather was really bad enough to justify spoiling my plans.
At last, though, I remembered something: I hadn't been planning anyway.
And clearly, this was no time to start.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Find a lift to Argentina
From LAX, LanChile has direct flights (one stop, no change of planes) to Santiago, Chile. American, Delta and LACSA have connecting flights (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $921 until July 7, $1,021 July 8-Aug. 8.
From Santiago to Los Penitentes: From the Terminal Santiago bus station, O'Higgins 3848, take a bus toward Mendoza, Argentina. Make sure it will stop to drop you at Los Penitentes.
From Mendoza to San Martín de los Andes: Go to the Mendoza bus station, Avenida Gobernador Videla and Avenida Acero Este, to catch the bus to San Martín. The 20-hour trip usually involves a change of buses in Neuquén.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 54 (country code for Argentina) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
In Los Penitentes:
Refugio Cerro Aconcagua, Ruta Nacional 7; 261-424-1565. Next to the YPF gas station, it's a decent, bunk-bed budget spot. Per person rates $7-$8.50.
Ayelen Tourist Complex, Ruta Nacional 7; 261-427-1123, http://www.ayelen.net . Comfortable hotel and a rustic hostería, or inn, across from ski area. Doubles at the hotel $65.50. At the hostería, $17.50.
In San Martín de los Andes:
Le Châtelet Hotel, Villegas 650; 2972-428-294, http://www.hotellechatelet.com.ar . Has an appearance befitting its name — as well as a gym, sauna, library and other amenities. Doubles $64-$114.
Hostería Anay, Cap. Drury 841; 2972-427-514, http://www.interpatagonia.com/anay . Has a chalet style, a warm living area, a restaurant and a helpful staff. Doubles $28.30-$35.40.
WHERE TO EAT:
In Los Penitentes: Dining options are limited. Several hotels and hostels include restaurants. Other possibilities:
Por Allá Pizza/Bar, in the base area, offers a warming-hut feel in a funky wooden interior. Serves mostly pizza and burgers, $1.70-$6.70.
Cruz de Caña, also in the base area, has a huge fireplace, a laid-back atmosphere. Prices $1.70-$8.40.
In San Martín de los Andes:
La Pierrade, Mariano Moreno and Gral, Villegas; 2972-421-421. A great Italian restaurant with a roaring fireplace. Entrees $11-$16.
Pura Vida, Villegas 745. Homey restaurant with good vegetarian fare. Entrees $1.30-$5.40.
The South American ski season runs from mid-June to October, but heavy-snow conditions may cause late openings and early closings.
Los Penitentes, 261-424-8633, http://www.penitentes.com . About 110 miles west of Mendoza. Full-day lift tickets cost $18.50-$28.60. Two chairlifts and five surface lifts serve the mountain, which has a vertical drop of 2,034 feet and about 740 skiable acres.
Chapelco, 2972-427-157, http://www.cerrochapelco.com . Thirteen miles from San Martín de los Andes by way of Ruta Nacional 234 and Ruta Provincial 19. Lift tickets $16.50-$29. Has a 2,395-foot vertical drop and about 345 skiable acres.
TO LEARN MORE:
The Consulate General of Argentina, 5055 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210, Los Angeles, CA 90036; (323) 954-9155, http://www.consuladoargentino-losangeles.org .
— Ben Brazil