As a family, we enjoy active skiing holidays, but in the past few years we have not wanted to give up our warm December holiday to spend time in freezing conditions on a ski slope in the Northern Hemisphere, so we decided to look for an alternative in the Southern Hemisphere and ski during July.
While New Zealand offers skiing potential, Argentina seemed the more interesting destination. Ever since I’d read about the beautiful, feisty Evita Peron as a teenager, and then seen a few polo internationals between Argentina and South Africa, I have had the country on my bucket list. Armed with little more than anecdotal information on ski resorts in Argentina, we started looking online at what to do and where to go.
Our research led us to the town of San Carlos De Bariloche in the Rio Grande, Patagonia. It’s a sparsely populated region located at the southern end of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. San Carlos de Bariloche (commonly called Bariloche) is a charming town bordering Lago Nahuel Huapi, a large glacial lake surrounded by the snow-crowned Andes.
The timing of our trip for the end of July meant we avoided the peak holiday season. We flew on SAA, via Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires, and arrived, after our transit through Sao Paolo (with a flight delay), in Buenos Aires, close to midnight. Our first experience with the famed city was trying to negotiate with the local taxi drivers, who feign any knowledge of English, only finding a few words when they need to argue the price of the fare.
In hindsight, we should have learned better conversational Spanish, as Google translate could not keep up with our demand for words late at night, and there is no Uber in Argentina. Fares are variable, and sadly, as in so many other countries, exhausted tourists late at night are easy pickings. Despite the late hour, we found the centre of Buenos Aires buzzing with activity. We stayed at the Hotel Esplandor, and were impressed with the spacious size of the rooms and convenience to the centre of the city.
On our first day, we spent a few hours exploring before heading to Bariloche. We would soon learn that, when traveling by air to Argentina, you should expect delays. Eventually, after a three-hour flight, we began our descent into Bariloche. I stared out of the window and was somewhat perturbed to see very little snow, just what looked like muddy slush, sparsely scattered around.
This is not the kind of picture you expect when you go skiing. All of the pictures I had seen online a few days before had shown the area to be thick with snow. Had global warming switched off the weather in Argentina overnight and melted the ice caps?
Our taxi driver was charming, her taxi (like most in Argentina) rather battered, and again, she didn’t speak a word of English. Our Spanish had improved to a few critical words, but not good enough to get a reasonable explanation for where all of the snow had gone. Bariloche is popular among active travelers due to the many lake activities, as well as hiking, trekking, climbing and skiing in the nearby mountains. The town is reminiscent of Europe, with strong architectural influence from the Germanic regions. Indeed, the Germans have had a long history with Argentina, and their influence is deeply felt, not just in the architecture, but the food and, to some extent, the genes of the locals.
Skiing in Patagonia:
In the ski village, which is about a 30-minute drive from the main town, we found several ski shops and helpful locals, mainly youngsters, who spoke English. They confirmed there was snow higher up the slopes and the skiing was good. The forecast was for more snow in the coming days, so, relieved, we made our way to our hotel, thankful that our long trip would not be in vain.
We checked in at the Pire Hue Hotel, which suited our needs perfectly. The Pire Hue is fully equipped with good skiing equipment, and you literally walk out with your boots and skis onto the gondola to get up to the top of the slope. Our room was spacious, although slightly old-fashioned. The hotel has a big, comfortable lounge and library with fireplaces, a bar and restaurant, and a small spa, complete with a steam pool, sauna facilities, and massage therapy.
Most of the staff spoke English and were very friendly, helpful, and professional. We hit the slopes as soon as we could. As we went higher, we caught sight of the mountains glistening with powder-white snow. What a delight!
For the next week, we had a fantastic time, skiing, eating, sleeping, and meeting locals. There were only a handful of tourists, mostly Americans taking a short weekend break. The locals are friendly and genuinely interested in South Africa, so we shared many conversations about rugby, economics, politics, and people. We watched the rugby match between South Africa and Argentina in a local hangout, an experience all on its own, as Argentina won the match. You can just imagine the celebration.
The ski slopes are long, not busy, and easy to ski, so the runs were enjoyable, but perhaps not as challenging as other ski resorts we have frequented. There were few black runs, mostly red and blue ones, so our skiing was more about speed than technique. The views from on top are stupendous, reaching far across the Rio Grande. We were fortunate that it tended to snow at night, so we had clear skies and great visibility.
The gondolas on the slopes are in good working order, although not high-speed as in the USA or Europe. There are several ski huts and après-ski opportunities on the slopes to rest, eat and drink, and then, after a long day skiing, we would either ski down to the village or catch the gondola, which deposited us right into our hotel. After a long, hot bath or shower, we would relax by the fire at Pire Hue, or dip in the steam bath before going out into the village.
My ever-sociable husband William hooked up with a group of young locals and we went skiing on routes that were not that easy to discover on our own – making our trip more interesting. One of the young couples, Marta and Juan, invited us to dinner with their friends. They had recently graduated from University in Buenos Aires and spoke to us about hopes and dreams as well as concerns for their future, given the high levels of corruption and Argentina’s failing economy.
In the village itself, après-ski is dominated by two large nightclubs around the center of the village, where the locals hang out to hipster DJ music and fashionable décor. There was no shortage of places to eat. The staple diet is beef and lamb (and chocolate). They also make good wine and local craft beer. The only downside was a lack of fresh salads and vegetables. There are also no such things as smoothies, green juices, natural juices, or coconut milk, so I personally struggled to adjust my eating habits and to maintain my usual clean-eating regime. Local eating was tasty, but we found the food and drink very expensive, equivalent to dining out in good restaurants in Europe.
In Patagonia, and indeed in many parts of Argentina, dinner is served only after 8pm, so we started getting into the routine of hanging out at one of the local nightclubs, listening to trendy music, before moving on to one of the many local restaurants. Argentinians like their food. We had some terrific local meals, but our best experience was a dinner of lamb asador at the Pire Hue. Asador (which is reflective of Argentina’s Basque heritage) is a method of cooking whole animals – pig, lamb, or goat – which are butterflied and fastened with wires (or hooks) to an iron cross and cooked on an open fire. I have never before tasted such a beautifully prepared dish of lamb, served simply with a green salad and a glass of local red wine.
We also discovered the joys of drinking yerba mate tea, a popular local tradition. Our newfound friends shared mate over dinner and explained that it was what got them through their exams. Yerba mate is a traditional South American brew that’s been said to offer the “strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate”, all in one beverage. It was called “the drink of the gods” by many indigenous South Americans and later referred to as “the green gold of the Indios” by European settlers.
The other local delicacy is chocolate. The town of Bariloche is known for its artisanal chocolate, and there are chocolate shops everywhere. It is very hard to resist, and I have to admit we ate far too much of it during our stay. We discovered pretty quickly that if you have dollars, you are treated like a king. The street value is much higher than the official quoted exchange rate, so it’s useful to take this currency with you. You get better value for money if you have cash.
After a week of skiing, it was time to make our way back to Buenos Aires. The city is an eclectic mix of old and new. You can see the influence of French, Italian and Spanish culture on the city, a lot of beautiful old buildings peppered with some offbeat 1970s architecture, and yet, it also has this amazing third-world energy to it that reminded me of Johannesburg in time past.
We visited the famed cemetery in Recoleta and marveled at the elaborate tombs. It’s an interesting city, from the trees and gardens, buildings and old cars, to the dogs being walked (and there are many of them). Shopping was fun, but a lot more expensive than we had anticipated. We could not resist some wonderful examples of local brands in bespoke shops, such as La Martina, famous for its polo clothing range. I especially loved Paul’s French Café in the Soho district for its quaint nursery, tea shop, and beautiful linen, and there are many leather shops around – another local specialty.
Argentina, but particularly Patagonia, stole our hearts and, in hindsight, the 10 days we spent there weren’t really enough to get to know this beautiful country and it’s friendly people. I can’t wait to return again soon.