I must be dreaming. It's the Fourth of July, and I'm having one of the best ski days of my life. I'm romping through long fields of powder on eight inches of fluff, through surreal tunnels of lenga trees with wispy, snow-coated strands of lichen hanging from barren branches. Below is the Patagonia region of Argentina, with a shimmering alpine lake and a pair of not-distant volcanic peaks rising from the Andes. If this is a dream, let me slumber as long as I can.
Here in Argentina, where winter arrives in June and lasts through September, a Yank is hard-pressed to celebrate Independence Day. As luck would have it, waiting for a chairlift at Chapelco, a largely unknown resort that may be the best intermediate mountain in South America, I encounter a couple from the States and we exchange high-fives to commemorate the Fourth. That bit of business completed, we can now ski merrily off without guilt.
It's hard to believe that in the remote corners of Patagonia, a region tucked into the southern tips of Argentina and Chile, 2.5 hours by jet from Buenos Aires, skiers can savor an experience that ranks among the best in the world. Thanks to a new generation of American and European managers, the fledgling Argentine resort industry is modernizing, with new lifts, lodges and grooming. The resorts have come a long way since the first ones were founded 30 years ago by Argentine businessman Billy Reynal, the father of South American skiing. Reynal built the mega-resort of Cerro Catedral now known as Catedral Alta Patagonia at Bariloche, and then, a few years later, added Chapelco, which is 75 miles north at San Martin de los Andes.
What makes these two ski areas unique is that they are the only ones on the continent with true ski towns, and both are located on the shores of spectacular mountain lakes.
Bariloche, filled with elegant hotels, trendy chocolate shops and gourmet restaurants, snuggles against Lake Nahuel Huapi. Located in a national park, this alpine basin is a montage of forested islands, enchanting inlets and mountain vistas, which have drawn world leaders and artists for decades. Even in winter, motorized catamarans carry sightseers across the water to visit nature preserves. After all, Bariloche is usually below snow level, even though the ski area is just 10 miles away. This warmer climate is why many skiers stay in town, rather than in the small mountain village. Another reason is the après-ski options (including a casino) that allow visitors to tango all night.
The town of San Martin is smaller than Bariloche, and is just a few miles from Chapelco ski resort. It is perched on a scenic lake, called Lago Lacar, and has a lively downtown of small inns and hotels, quaint bistros and craft shops. In contrast to the European flavor of Bariloche, San Martin, with the rustic, cut-timber facades of its newer buildings, resembles a mountain resort town in the Canadian Rockies.
Skiing? There's plenty at both resorts. At Catedral, which has a relatively low base elevation of 3,445 feet, the best skiing is in the upper bowls, which top out at 6,855 feet. You can get there on the two newest lifts, boarding a six-pack that rises up from a shopping mall and transfers skiers to a mid-mountain quad. At the summit, take your pick of corduroy pistes or powder stashes in the drainages.
While Catedral's slopes are mostly above treeline, Chapelco's trail network includes just about everything, from exposed bowls to runs that meander through the forest. And they are rarely crowded. At the base lodge at 4,100 feet, skiers take El Balcon Gondola to access the upper third of the mountain. From there, you can ski to the bottom or ride an assortment of chairlifts, platters and T-bars to explore the heights of Cerro Teta and Cerro Mocho.
Ski hard, because it gives you a perfect excuse to indulge. Argentines consume more beef per capita than anybody else on the planet; after a taste you'll understand why. The favorite meal is asada, a tray of heated various barbecued meats. Slather on a spicy piquant sauce called chimi-churri, followed by a robust red wine. In no time, you'll be singing like a gaucho.
Ski Las Lenas, Argentina with Dave Swanwick and Kim Reichhelm. www.laslenasvacations.com/swany/swany_and_kim/