Skiing to a Latin Beat in Argentina
By David McKay Wilson
South America’s largest ski resort was thumping this August when I fulfilled a lifelong dream to find a dollop winter on a summer vacation to the Andes in Argentina.
At Cerro Catedral Alta Patagonia, Latin music throbbed from the summit lodge, skiers and boarders made wide swooping turns on the silky powder above timberline, while families and young adults hung out at the near base, having a ball in a sprawling commercial complex.
Where else do you take as escalator through a top-end shopping mall to reach the six-pack lift to ferry you up above the snow line?
It’s a resort with 3,600 feet of vertical elevation in a mountain range that looks out on the serpentine Nahuel Huapi Lake down below in the resort town of San Carlos de Bariloche. The terrain from the top provides a vast expanse for intermediates skiing the Punta Nevada and Lynch lifts, on bowls that get groomed nightly. For the advanced skiers, there are more challenging lines from high-speed Lenga and Nubes lifts as you descend powder-filled chutes that open up from jagged rock outcroppings.
For those looking for more adventure, there’s off-piste terrain as well with a short hike into the La laguna area.
With inflation raging in Argentina at over 100% a year, the dollar buys you plenty at Cerro Catedral. Lift tickets were about $50, for those that had to pay. I was pleasantly surprised that a Boomer like myself, who just turned 70 this spring, skied for free. And the exchange rate you get at the authorized “Cambio” storefronts headed in the right direction during our stay, with the dollar able to purchase 5% more pesos in just a week.
No wonder the right-wing libertarian economist Javier Milei was the surprise winner in the first round of the presidential election, which occurred during our stay.
We arrived in mid-winter on a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Bariloche. A vibrant year-round resort community, bustling with hotels, fine restaurants, and a transit system that lets you enjoy the mountain peak 10 miles away without a rental car. Giving the place its youthful flair are the three hotels owned by the chain Travel Rock, which provide week-long excursions for high school and college graduates.
There’s a resort village at Cerro Catedral too, with hotel rooms and apartments to rent up on the mountain. The base of the mountain is at about 3,500 feet, where in a winter with low snowfall totals by mid-August, had no natural snow on the ground and relied on manmade snow to provide coverage for the descent.
We opted for an 8th floor-studio apartment in town that we found through Airbnb for about $100 a night in the Bariloche Center, right on the town’s main street, surrounded by a slew of great restaurants and shopping galore in the commercial district. The studio, which whistled when the winds blew a gale one night, faced west, providing a commanding view of the lake, and a front-row seat for the sunset at days end.
Here are recommendations for a ski trip to Cerro Catedral.
Arrive early: You access the main mountain from the Sextuple lift, which you line up for at the top of the Las Terrazas shopping mall. On our first day, a non-holiday Friday, we waited 25 minutes for the Sextuple at 10 a.m., crammed together with other international skiers. That lift brought us halfway up the mountain, where we waited in a second line for 15 more minutes.
The next day, I arrived before the sun rose to beat the line.
There were alternatives to make it up the hill. On the first day, we took the municipal bus, which leaves hourly, using a prepaid Sube card we bought at a kiosk, with a trip costing less than $1. But the bus was so packed with workers and skiers that we ended up standing during the hour-long ride.
The next day, we sprang for a cab, which turned out to be the best way up the mountain in the morning.
We’d get a cab at 7:30 a.m., arrive around 8 a.m. at dawn to grab a cup of tea before the lines formed. We opted to wait at the Sextuple for the lift to start up at 9 a.m., which got us up the mountains for fresh corduroy runs before the crowds arrived.
At the end of the day, we’d either take the bus or grab a cab back to town.
Be prepared for your descent: There’s only one way down the ski slopes at the end of the day, so be prepared for a certain degree of mayhem on your final descent, with beginners, intermediates and experts looking for room to turn. During our stay, the bottom third of the mountain was covered with manmade snow that got blown in overnight. But by the following afternoon, the snow had piled up in mounds of mashed potatoes providing more obstacles for those competing for terrain on the way down.
Where to rent: We brought our boots but left our skis at home, unwilling to schlep them around Argentina on a 10-day visit. We rented skis at Escuelo Xtreme, located at the heart of the ski res opting for what was called the VIP package, with poles and top-line skis, and overnight storage. I paid $100 for three days of skiing on a pair of Fisher RC Ones, which held up well on the groomers and the steep chutes. The VIP package included the assistance of a chap named Lean, who put on, and took off, my ski boots each day.
Download What’s App: The mobile app, which allows for texting and video calls, is the communication method of choice in Argentina. We used What’s App to communicate with taxi drivers, ski rental services, and the tango instructor we hired in Buenos Aires.
Where and when to eat: Argentinians like to dine late, with some restaurants not offering their dinner menus until 8 p.m.
In Bariloche, we enjoyed La Marca, at Uquisa 230, with dishes of fresh trout and spiced Chorizo sausage, washed down with one of the local Malbec wines. More adventuresome diners should try Chimi Deli Cocina Naturel, at Calle Ada Maria Elflein 54, a hip coffee shop and restaurant, with gluten-free and vegan offerings. After a long day of skiing, the bowl of quinoa and roasted vegetables was the perfect meal.
One night, we took the #20 city bus on a 45-minute ride to the end of the line to Llao Llao, a luxury resort on a bluff, with tea and sweets served late in the afternoon, and dinner commencing at 8 p.m. We had drinks and light fare in the huge central gathering area, with a jazz pianist playing adroitly by our side.
Don’t forget the chocolate: There’s a hint of Switzerland on Mitre, the main commercial drag with more than a dozen chocolate shops, which were thronged with customers. We found our sweet spot Mamuschka, and loaded up at the election day sale in early August.
David McKay Wilson, a veteran journalist who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, is an avid skier, hiker, and swing dancer. His travel writing has taken him around the world, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Hartford Courant, and USA TODAY. He writes the Tax Watch for the Journal News/lohud.com, part of the USA TODAY Network.