Note to friends/family: If you want to read about our trip specifically, skip to the next post.
We knew since we arrived in Argentina that we didn't want to leave without skiing the Andes. When we started researching for our trip, we were seduced by the descriptions of Las Leñas with its light fluffy powder and rugged terrain. Skiworld calls it "the South American resort to visit."
I didn't find Las Leñas to be a world-class ski resort, but instead an overpriced and overrated mountain, with horribly slow lifts, not enough trails, and little challenging terrain unless you go off-piste. With a few exceptions that I'll get into below, I would encourage travelers looking for a South American ski vacation to go elsewhere.
My complaints break down into two main categories: the quality of the skiing and the quality of the services.
Skiing: A beginner-intermediate mountain
Here's a trail map to make it easier to follow my description of the available skiing. (Click to see a larger version.)
The mountain is divided into two main areas, which I'll refer to as the "base" and the "Marte trails" (accessible via the Marte lift, in the upper left quadrant of the map).
Most skiers stay on the trails in the base area, which is served by several chair lifts and several pulley lifts. At first glance, the base area seems to offer a number of trails for skiers of all levels. There are the green trails for beginners, some blues, and even a fair number of "reds", equivalent to single black diamonds in the U.S. The problem is this: the greens are entirely flat, meant only for those just learning to ski; the blues aren't real runs for the most part, simply connecting trails between different parts of the mountain; the reds don't even offer much in the way of difficulty and are overcrowded because of the lack of other trails. The vertical in this part of the mountain is only about 300 meters, the runs are short, and the chair lifts very long. The single-person pulley lifts are actually the fastest lifts on the whole mountain. When we were there, the general skill level of most of the skiers/boarders wasn't that good, meaning this area was crowded, boring, and quickly got skied off.
The only on-piste trails worth skiing in my mind were those off the Marte (I'm an expert skier, but not one with much off-piste or powder experience, having grown up skiing in New England). The Marte lift is seriously steep, traversing several crevasses, and you ski down the backside of the mountain, rather than under the lift, making the runs much longer and more worthwhile. When the sun is out and the snow is good, the Marte runs are thoroughly enjoyable (though again, not overly challenging — Ben is an intermediate skier and could handle them easily). But there are still several problems. First, there are only a few trails off the Marte, not enough to keep you busy for a whole week, or even several days. Second, getting to the top of the mountain involves taking three lifts (Venus, Neptune, and the Marte), which takes up 40 minutes total. That's a long time sitting on very slow lifts, especially when it's cold. Finally, the sun doesn't reach that area of the mountain until the afternoon. When we were there, the snow was too hard and icy in the morning until the sun hit it, essentially negating the value of this part of the mountain for the first half of the day.
Caveat: The mountain was seriously lacking snow while we were there, meaning no one was skiing off-piste. If you are a good enough skier to go off-piste and there's plenty of snow, then many of my complaints won't apply. But the vast majority of the skiers/boarders there last week weren't good enough to venture off the marked trails, and so the availability of off-piste skiing wouldn't significantly change the experience.
Services: Unwelcoming to day-trippers
My complaint here basically boils down to this: there is no lodge or other corresponding services for day-trippers.
Las Leñas largely caters to guests who stay on the mountain, usually via their "skiweek" packages, which start at US$2200 per person for the week (that doesn't include lunch, lessons, rental equipment, or transport to the mountain). This was outrageously expensive for us, so we chose to stay in Malargüe, about an hour away. There were hundreds of other day-trippers like us, arriving via bus or car, and skiing at a cost of US$75 for a single-day lift ticket.
But despite the fact that Las Leñas welcomes these day-trippers and takes their money, it provides none of the basic services offered by every other ski resort I've ever visited. When we arrived the first morning, we kept asking, "Where is the lodge?". Except we didn't know how to say this in Spanish so we tried to explain what we were looking for: "A place to sit down without having to buy food, take on and off your gear, use the bathroom, and store your belongings." Instead, we were directed to outside bathrooms, a restaurant, and a locker-room that charged US$15 per day, and was the only available place to store your belongings (bringing the total cost of a one-day lift ticket to US$90). Las Leñas has no base area for its day-trippers — it provides them with no comfortable space to put on their gear and no place to sit down for a break without paying for food. It is, overall, inhospitable and unwelcoming to those who don't have on-mountain accommodation.
Again, if you are staying on the mountain, this complaint won't apply (except beware, the restaurants are expensive and the food is terrible). And if Las Leñas wanted to limit its guests to those staying on the mountain, it would be well within its rights to do so (which in turn might reduce the crowding on the mountain). But it doesn't do this. It encourages day-trippers and takes their money, giving them little in return.
I skied at Portillo six years back and came away loving skiing in the Andes. The snow was fantastic, the trails were steep, the services were luxurious. I could only hope for the same experience at Las Leñas and came away severely disappointed. Setting aside the off-piste options, it is at best a beginner-intermediate mountain desperately in need of infrastructure improvements. I would never return, and would encourage others to consider whether Las Leñas really deserves its reputation.