Tell someone you’re going snowboarding in South America, and their first reaction is usually one of surprise. Blame the bikini babes of Rio, or the jungles of the Amazon, but few people seem to equate South America with snow – which is silly, really. The Andes is the world’s second highest mountain range, which means it offers plenty of places to play come winter in the southern hemisphere.
With a vertical drop of 1230m in the lift-serviced areas alone, you only have to chat to some of the expats doing a season in Las Leñas to realise it attracts serious snow fanatics.
Take Yannick, for example, a former professional half-piper from France, who’s spending Europe’s off-season here. Such esteemed company can be intimidating for beginners like us. Seeing Yannick’s range of stylish, sponsored ski threads every day compared to our borrowed fluoro Michelin-man numbers is bad enough. Watching him board is far more humbling. Thankfully, there are plenty of Argentinian novices too, ensuring we aren’t the only ones wincing as we gingerly ease ourselves on to bar stools at night.
Suffice to say learning to snowboard is an up and down experience. You get up, then fall down. Repeatedly. Finally, you get the hang of standing up. Then it’s time to try moving. There’s a day or two of bruises to endure, but it’s amazing how quickly the pain fades when you start linking turns and feeling like a pro.
While Las Leñas offers green runs and beginners’ classes in English, there’s no doubt the resort appeals primarily to experienced skiers and boarders. Our Aussie host, Jason, has snowboarded in Europe, Canada, the US, the Himalayas, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. He rates Las Leñas up there with the best of them. This, he says, is due to the steep advanced runs serviced direct off the chair, plus the snow arrives after being pushed over the Andes, so it dries and falls as light powder.
But while the conditions can be stunning, Jason says it’s the lack of crowds, low living expenses and laid-back lifestyle that convinced him to buy a unit in the Argentinian resort.
“It’s comparable to places such as Chamonix, but with nobody on the mountain,” he says. “There’s dozens of people rather than thousands as in North America or Europe. It makes the whole experience a lot more low-key. There’s no ‘powder panic’ – you can take your time and enjoy things, rather than having to rush for a line first thing in the morning.
“Plus, there’s not too many ski towns in the world where as a ski bum you can drink beer and wine and eat steak every night on a budget. Other places you live a more two-minute noodle-heavy diet.”
Argentina’s other slopes
The Lake District
Situated lower than Las Leñas, and with less powder, the appeal of the Lake District is the jaw-dropping views and Alpine-style village lifestyle rather than the quality of the runs. Perhaps the most picturesque of its myriad towns is Bariloche, with the resort of Cerro Catedral. If you prefer your slopes quieter, try San Martin de los Andes (Cerro Chapelco), Caviahue or Centro de Ski Cerro Bayo.
The closest quality ski fields to Argentina’s red wine capital, Mendoza, is Los Penitentes, not far from the Chilean border in the shadow of the monstrous Aconagua (6962m). While it still has a vertical drop of 700m, the slopes lack the variety of Las Leñas.
With fewer thrills than its northern neighbours, La Hoya is the ideal place if you want to explore the wonderland of Patagonia. The powder here is respectable.
Tierra Del Fuego
Boasting the world’s southernmost ski fields, Tierra del Fuego has a windswept novelty value. The largest resort is Cerro Castor; if you’re after something near the larger town of Ushuaia, there’s Altos del Valle or Centro de Deportes Invernales Glaciar Martial.
Top 5 things to do in Buenos Aires
Watch the soccer
La Bombonera stadium, where Maradona once plied his trade with Boca Juniors, is a relatively small stadium by English standards, but still has a 50,000 capacity. If you’re going to a game, be prepared to stand for 90 minutes in cramped quarters, with flares going off around you. The atmosphere is electric, though. Stadium tours are available midweek, while the gift shop has everything from Boca-branded cigars to women’s G-strings.
Do the tango
As a tourist, you don’t have to go looking for tango – it is sure to find you. Night-time shows and classes abound. The decision is between stylised or traditional. For the real deal, head to the craft markets in Recoleta on a weekend when local dancers put on shows
for free – well, donations are expected. As a bonus you can join the quest to find Evita’s grave in the cemetery next door.
Buenos Aires boasts a burgeoning café culture, with caffeine shots served with sickly sweet pastries. While tourists queue outside the grand old Café Tortoni, the price of two of their hot chocolates could buy you a meal at an authentic parilla (steak restaurant). Still, if you treat the mark-up as an entry fee to a museum/art gallery – and Tortoni is effectively both – it’s not so bad.
Join in the nightlife
Or should we say morning life? One thing you don’t have to worry about in Buenos Aires is jet lag. In fact, you’re likely to arrive perfectly in tune with the Latino circadian rhythm. Bars are empty before midnight, and don’t even think about hitting a club before 2am. Many of the city’s watering holes are agonisingly hip, such as Milion, a stunning former terrace mansion where the people inside are no less beautiful.
Works of art
Buenos Aires has plenty to offer art lovers. The national gallery takes you on a journey from the religious art of the 16th century to the squiggles of Jackson Pollock, via names such as Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso. If you want a more local experience, head to Malba, which features Argentinian and Latin American artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Pleased to meat you
Sophisticated it ain’t, but Argentinian cuisine is delicious, and will particularly appeal to red meat aficionados. We’re talking thick steaks, the size of half a dinner plate, lightly seasoned and cooked to perfection on the grill.
Other meat favourites include choripan (chorizo sausage on bread), lomitos (the mother of all steak sandwiches), empanadas (the Argentinian equivalent of a meat pie) and the ubiquitous mixed grill – be warned, this has more organs on display than your average Gunther von Hagens exhibit.
For vegetarians, good luck – but the country’s strong Italian heritage means there’s tasty pizza and pasta to be had, not to mention helado (ice cream) that rivals Rome’s gelati.
Unless you plan on eating alone, it’s best to dine late – it’s not uncommon to find restaurants filled with families at midnight on a Tuesday.