Patagonia is becoming a top destination for skiers because of its vast unexplored landscapes, its volcanoes —many of them the highest in the world, topping out at 22,000 feet—, high quality powder and a unique culture. Oh, and don’t forget world-class quality meat and wine! Here is some information you shouldn’t do without if you plan to ski there.
So what is so great about ski touring in Patagonia?
Unlike other popular skiing destinations, Patagonia has many areas of jaw-dropping beauty that still don’t receive a lot of skiers.
Besides, Patagonia is a very unique setting as the Andes is the highest mountain range in the world after the Himalayas.
Whether you plan to ski in Argentina or in Chile, it is important to be well-informed about some details, like how to choose a mountain guide, or where to lodge and buy gear, so take a look at this guide to arranging an awesome ski trip.
Which are the best ski locations in Patagonia?
There are several places of spectacular beauty with excellent snow conditions for skiers to venture forth, but here are some highlights that you should definitely consider when arranging your trip:
Bariloche is Argentina’s most popular destination for fans of ski and mountaineering. It receives lots of tourists —over 100,000 foreigners and half a million locals— every year, so you will get a remarkable service when it comes to accommodation. Cerro Catedral is the biggest ski resort in South America, but it also offers great terrain for off-piste skiing away from the crowds. And from Catedral’s ridge you can access the huts circuit, where you can spend days ski touring in vast valleys with amazing snow in between Frey, Jakob, and other refuges. Another great option, an hour dirve from Bariloche, is the Mountain Reserve of Baguales, a paradise for ski touring and catskiing, with several huts that connect the whole area, and a fully equiped lodge to rest and enjoy after some intense skiing days.
El Chaltén is a village far to the south of Patagonia, in Santa Cruz, about 140 miles from Calafate. It doesn’t get packed with tourists in winter, although its amazing landscapes are considered by some as the most beautiful in Argentina. It is considered the country’s hiking capital, but in the past years winter sports are also breaking ground in the region. This esoteric condition turns it into a mecca for elite-skiers looking for undiscovered tracks and unique experiences. There’s no ski resort there, so everything is about backcountry and ski touring. So get your skins ready, and prepare yourself to ski with some of the most astonishing views you’ll ever imagine, like Mounts Fitz Roy and Torre, and the Southern Ice Field.
Even though Lanín, Villarica, Lonquimay and Osorno may not ring a bell to many people, they are some of the world’s highest skiable volcanoes, with altitudes around the 16,000 feet, and every year receive heavy snow falls that render them in the best possible conditions for ski tours. Starting from Bariloche, San Martín de los Andes, or Pucón, possibilities are endless on both the Argentinean and Chilean sides of the Andes, so going with a local certified guide will give you the possiblity of enjoying the best spots according to the weather and snow conditions.
Below, a thrilling slope down the Volcanoes of Araucania.
Best periods for skiing in Patagonia
The Ski season in Patagonia starts around June and finishes in October. The southern the destination, the colder the weather, so it starts snowing earlier in the year, and the skiing conditions last longer. September and October are usually considered the best months for ski touring.
However, if you are travelling from abroad, you might want to make sure that you come here to find the best conditions for your ski runs. That’s why, for foreigners, it is preferable to aim for trips from July to September.
Bear in mind that, both in Argentina and Chile, winter holidays for students last the whole 2nd and 3rd weeks of July. So the second half of July and first weeks of August are usually considered peak season in most ski resorts, and prices are usually higher. If you are not really into crowds, but more into a lone, peaceful skiing experience, you should consider this when arranging your trip.
Which are the best resorts for Off-piste skiing?
If you are looking forward to do some freeride ski in the surroundings of a ski center, consider visiting any of the following resorts:
The ski resort in Las Leñas, in Mendoza province, allows for awesome panoramic views over the treeline. It offers a very thorough lift-access all around its terrain which extends over more than 200,000 acres, with narrow chutes and open bowls allowing for a fantastic ski experience.
Catedral Ski Resort
Catedral allows for backcountry skiing over 3,000 acres, with spectacular views of snowcapped summits and several lakes. As mentioned, it is the biggest ski resort in South America.
The ski center at Portillo, near Aconcagua and the internatinal pass ‘Cristo Redentor’, is probably the most famous in Chile. Its features include a fitness center, a disco, a bouldering wall and even a swimming pool.
Accommodation between ski trips
Per-day-rates in Ski resorts vary according to the season, and range from 50$ in low season to 65$ when on high season. Of course, the prices will get more convenient if you purchase a pack for several days.
For backcountry skiers, you will find different options, depending on the specific locations that you are planning to ski on:
In El Chaltén there are no ski resorts, but some mountain refuges and huts. Many ski spots can be reached in a day trip, returning to the village to sleep in any of the multiple hotels and hostels. While when doing longer trips, in some places there are refuges where to sleep, for example Gorra Blanca refuge, while in others camping under the stars is the only option.
In Bariloche, instead, the ski resort at Cerro Catedral, offers many cozy places to sleep for those doing off-piste ski, with plenty of options ranging from budget to luxury accommodations. While those touring away from the ski centers can find comfort in the mountain huts in Frey, Jakob and Baguales, where you can also combine skiing days in the backcountry with nights in the first-class lodge.
In regard to reaching the different spots, you can move from hut to hut with your skis, explore the locations «en étoile»—staying on a single refuge between ski runs—, or road tripping in a Ski Safari.
Weather / Snow powder conditions
Near the Argentinian/Chilean border, the dry weather and the winter snow falls allow for perfect skiing conditions. Expect to find some awesome powder caches!
The volatile weather in the Volcanoes may sometimes condition the skiing, but it is also one of the reasons you can get the finest powder there.
Other locations that have become famous for the possibilities of their snow include El Chaltén and Frey (depicted).
Bands of both unusually warm and cold temperatures reach at the Pacific shores of South America every year, in a feedback loop. In the meteorological field, this phenomenon receives the name of El Niño Southern Oscillation, and we, laypeople, just go for El Niño —which almost always refers only to the warm phase—. The reason why El Niño actually happens is unknown, but its effects on precipitations in Patagonia are extremely important.
Always check when and how strong El Niño is going go hit the ski locations, as the amount of powder you will get depends on that. Last year, 2015, was a great season in terms of snowfall in many ski destinations in Patagonia, specially on the Argentinean side of the Andes. And the forecast is also good for 2016, so get your gear ready!
Finding the best guide for your trip
When looking for a guide in the Andes, you should look into this:
Qualification! You are going to ski in the beautiful wilderness of some vast and barely inhabited regions. Be sure you travel with someone knowledgeable. Aim for an IFMGA or AAGM certified guide whenever possible.
The best Patagonian guides are well-known for their friendliness and knowledge of the culture. Having a friendly native tell you about the history and geography of Patagonia or some not-so-well-known spot for skiing is nothing short of invaluable. Probably, he will also know how to prepare some good Asado.
If you want to, we can help you find and get in touch with local AAGM / IFMGA certified guides, as we highly endorse their skills and qualification.
Buying or renting the right gear
Some expeditions may mean too much of a strain for them ol’ skis, so we suggest you to ask your mountain guide about everything related to equipment needs, as he will know better the exact conditions of the snow or the necessities of the expedition.
More often than not, you may choose not to bring some apparel with you to save some luggage space. In that case, you can rent some of those items at El Establo, Los Troncos or Xtreme School, in Bariloche, or at the Calafate Mountain Park before parting towards El Chaltén. Again, double check with your guide for other options.
In case you need to buy anything after landing in South America, whether it be Buenos Aires or Santiago, buying the equipment in the city will probably be the most unexpensive option. There you will find at least one Patagonia or Black Diamond store, as well as several affiliate dealers.
If you want to acquire some accessories or apparel while in Patagonia, you still have some options left. If you are heading towards El Chaltén, make a stop in Calafate to gear up; if you are not going so far south, but to Bariloche, Baguales or the Volcanoes instead, you can get virtually any ski paraphernalia at the Cerro Catedral Shopping Mall.
Take a while to decide how to reach Patagonia. At what international airport should you arrive: Buenos Aires, in Argentina, or Santiago de Chile?
If you plan to ski in Bariloche or El Chaltén, arriving to Buenos Aires will surely imply a second, internal flight to the airport in San Carlos de Bariloche, or to El Calafate if you aim for El Chaltén, while Santiago de Chile is closer so you can opt for a reaching Patagonia via a long-distance bus.
If you happen to spend some days in the city, you should consider enriching the whole of your trip experience with the liveliness —good wine and a hectic nightlife are the order of the day— of any of these South American cities. Both are well worth spending enough time to get a glimpse of their unique lifestyles.
Try to opt for a flight scheme based not only on the locations where you are planning to ski, but also on your personal taste for the distinctive cultures of each city: do you prefer the Tango and world-class meat in Buenos Aires, or do you fancy plenty of seafood and Pre-Columbian art as you may find in Santiago?