Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Our ski trip to Las Leñas

August 11, 2012
For our last adventure in Argentina, we traveled west to ski at Las Leñas. In the Andes, across from Portillo in Chile, it's supposed to be the best ski resort in Argentina.

The resort offers only extremely expensive lodging, so we stayed in Malargue, about an hour's drive from the mountain. To get there, we took a 16-hour overnight sleeper bus from Buenos Aires to San Rafael (like the one we took to Mendoza in May, and a fraction of the cost of flying), and a second bus to Malargue. The buses were stopped several times by the police: at 1a.m. we had to disembark in the middle of nowhere and run all our luggage through a mobile X-Ray machine. We had learned the lesson from the Mendoza buses and opted to skip their awful food, bringing our own instead. Entertainment on the buses consisted of bad movies dubbed in Spanish, played on screens and over the loudspeakers; we brought Steph's laptop and (trying to block out the loudspeakers) passed the waking time by watching Deadwood, reading Kindle books, and listening to podcasts.

When we looked for lodging, we found only two locations in Malargue with an online presence. One was an apartment-style place that didn't answer its phone and replied to every email with a 10-page form letter. (Once in Malargue we realized it was also very far out of the town, not feasible to stay at without a car.) The other place, which we chose instead, was the Microtel, part of a big chain that seemed to be a better option. Interestingly, there were a dozen or more other motels in town, but none exist online: I guess some people still use brick-and-mortar travel agencies to vacation.

We arrived in Malargue mid-afternoon on Saturday, and everything was closed for siesta, even the supermarket. So we ate ice cream for lunch. We rented ski equipment, then ate dinner at the hotel's restaurant, which had a very creative menu but only mediocre food.

Sunday morning, we took a shuttle van to the mountain. The weather was sunny and not too cold, but the mountain and resort themselves, from the beginning, were disappointing. First, it wasn't nearly as big or as unique as I imagined the Andes would be. (The pretty pictures are of the mountains around the slopes, not where you actually ski, and putting aside that the base elevation is extremely high, the mountains aren't that high even by New England standards.) There was no lodge, only cafes and private clubs, so we had to put on our gear outside. No free coin-operated lockers either, only expensive ones. There wasn't much snow.

(Read more here on why we think Las Leñas is overrated.)

Despite all that, skiing the first day was very nice. Steph's an advanced skier, and it didn't take long to learn that rental skies have no edges, so she skied more conservatively after wiping out on a turn. I'm an intermediate skier, used to turning more by skidding than by edging, so I worked on my technique. In the afternoon we took the Marte, a steep lift up to the mountain's highest point (with the mountain's only advanced trails) and did a few runs on that. There were dangerous beginners everywhere, all decked out in fancy gear but not knowing what they were doing, making a lot of the runs very dangerous. There were as many snowboarders as skiers, and they especially hard to predict, making very wide and erratic zigzags. One guy crashed into Steph coming off a slope onto a lift line. The lifts were all very slow, but at least the lines were short.

An hour back to Malargue, then dinner at a restaurant called Bodegón de Maria, with very good homemade ravioli, and early sleep.

Aside: Argentine food is way too heavy on ham and cheese. At the mountain cafes, pretty much every sandwich was some variation of ham and cheese. At the restaurant, even the lasagna had ham and cheese. I realized on this trip that as much I like Buenos Aires' best restaurants, I really won't miss Argentine cuisine.

Up the Marte
Monday was cloudy and cold. The slow ascent up the Marte was too cold and windy to be worth the runs. We had brought our own lunch, but without a lodge, we had to eat outside on a bench. Afterwards we were freezing so we went inside the cafe for a hot chocolate. As we sat there, Steph realized she had left her helmet, filled with a bunch of gear, on the bench. We went outside and it was gone. Someone had stolen her helmet, goggles, gloves, and balaclava! We kept trying the lost & found, and looking for skiers wearing her helmet, but it was gone.

We managed to reshuffle our gear and keep skiing. But by this point we were both feeling sick: Steph had been fighting a cold for a week, I had managed to hold it off but my immune system gave in. The slopes by this point were all ice. We went in early, and killed time before the shuttle with another overpriced hot chocolate. Back in town, we had the buffet dinner at the hotel, which was worse than the on-menu items, and were glad the day was over.

Tuesday was our last skiing day. With our spares, we substituted most of Steph's stolen gear enough to ski, but she still didn't have goggles, and we traded off my mittens to go over our liner gloves. The sky was gray and the trails were still frozen. To avoid the boring and cold chair lifts, we did runs off the faster pulley lifts. We braved the Marte and it wasn't so bad. Halfway down one run, we went in for a hot chocolate, and it started to snow. Pretty soon it was nearly a blizzard, with snow falling sideways. But finally the trails had powder again! So we did the Marte a few more times, not able to see the ground (especially Steph with only glasses), navigating by the trail markers. (That we could do this is a testament to the mountain's lack of expert trails.) Despite the weather, we managed to get in a bunch of good runs by the end of the day.

On the shuttle back, a bunch of Argentines who had never seen snow before were enthralled. One woman took dozens of photos out the van's front windshield of nothing but snow and slush on the road. The driver and passengers offered us maté (in which everyone traditionally shares the same straw), we declined so as not to share our germs and they probably thought we were snobby foreigners. I was feeling really sick by this point and took a long nap when we returned. We had dinner again at Bodegón but it wasn't as good as the previous time. We went to sleep early, woke up late on Wednesday, and it was a beautiful sunny day. No doubt the mountain was now covered in fresh powder, but we got on a 16-hour bus instead, back to Buenos Aires.

- Ben

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