How To Do a Season in Bariloche, Argentina Right | Tips From a Patagonian Ski Bum

Nicholas Lawrence | | BrainsBrains
Bariloche, ski-bum, argentina, patagonia
Beautiful Bariloche. Credit: Miles Clark/SnowBrains

Keen to be a ski bum but sick of drunk Aussies in Whistler or aggressive Yanks in Colorado? Feel like making everything just slightly more difficult but much more of an adventure?  Things we normally take for granted like transport, accommodation, food, drink, weather, security – are all much more fun (cough – “an experience”) when you have no idea how they work.  That’s why you should do what I did and spend a winter season in Patagonia, Argentina.

If you want big mountains in the Southern Hemisphere (or either hemisphere for that matter) but feel like “roughing it” a bit more, a true adventure, then Patagonia is the place to go.  It’s big, gnarly, remote, extreme, variable and mesmerizing.

Once I decided to do a snow season in Patagonia the trick was figuring out where, because Patagonia is a big place.  I wanted a mix of decent resorts, vibrant town life and ease of access to big backcountry lines.  Chile has its volcanoes, and northern Argentina has Las Lenas, famed for its dry snow and powder days, however, the best combination of all three requirements was definitely Bariloche, Argentina.

Cerro Catedral (the biggest resort) is only 25mins from town, Cerro Bayo is 1.5 hours away and Chapelco is a three-hour bus ride away.  Resorts: tick.

Bariloche, ski-bum, argentina, patagonia
Cerro Catedral. Credit: Nicholas Lawrence

Google Bariloche and you will see that it’s a tourist hotspot.  The main street is as nice as any first world ski town (even if once you’re off the main street it’s a bit rougher around the edges – which I actually came to prefer in the end) and there is an abundance of bars, clubs, restaurants, cafes, Air BnB’s, hostels and hotels.   Vibrant town: tick.

The last, but definitely most important requirement for me, was access to the backcountry.  This is where the Bariloche region truly streaks ahead in my opinion.  Tick, tick, tick.

However, it’s not exactly easy to find information on the different places to go skiing around Bariloche in the winter.  Having now spent nearly three months in the region and done more than a month’s worth of ski days outside of the three main resorts, I think I am able to provide a bit of a run down for those first-timers wanting to come skiing in this region without having to pay through the nose for an organized tour with a foreign (gringo) guide.

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Snow! Credit: Nicholas Lawrence

Before you arrive

Obviously the more preparation you do the better, but no respectable snow lover is overprepared (save for Jeremy Jones or Travis Rice).  Despite that, there are a couple of things I would recommend doing before you get to Bariloche:

  • Learn some Spanish (the more you know the more people you will meet and the more enjoyable your season will be);
  • Purchase all necessary gear because there is not a lot of it in Argentina and what is there is ridiculously expensive (especially if you plan to go into the backcountry);
  • Purchase adequate travel insurance (even though it nearly cost me an arm and a leg, getting full cover for out of bounds skiing was worth it – I knew more than one person during the season who was injured off-piste);
  • Get a cost-effective credit or debit card, because transaction fees, exchange rates, and ATM fees are ridiculously high in Patagonia (I got a Transferwise debit card as it was the best option in New Zealand).

You can fly (2-3 hours) or bus (20 hours) to Bariloche from Buenos Aires and there are many hostels downtown where you can get to know people.  When booking things (especially flights), be aware that strikes are a constant occurrence in Argentina so your flight may be affected.  Learn to leave some downtime between travel plans just in case.

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Get to the resort for 9 am before all the locals arrive. Fresh tracks all morning… Credit: Nicholas Lawrence

Once you arrive in Bariloche

Once you get to Bariloche for the first time my recommendation is just to get a bloody taxi.  Whether you are at the bus terminal (there is one main bus terminal on the edge of the city which all the buses go through) or at the airport, get a taxi and get them to take you wherever your first nights’ accommodation is. In the scheme of things the taxis there are much cheaper than in first world countries and it is worth the extra few dollars not trying to lug all your ski bags on crowded buses, especially if you speak little Spanish and don’t know where you’re going.  For this, however, make sure you have cash ready because the taxis don’t take cards.

The hostels in Bariloche are a bit more expensive than the rest of South America, however, they won’t break the bank by any stretch.  I’d recommend the Penthouse Hostel, as there are plenty of travelers there and it’s a great location for your first few days in town, with great views over the lake from the top floor of an apartment building.

If Cerro Catedral is open (can be the end of June if it’s a good season) then jump on the 55B or 55P bus which takes you up to the mountain, experience what the resort has to offer and get talking to the locals on the chairlifts and bars at the bottom of the resort.  Beware, however, the buses only run once every hour and are super crowded most of the time.  Make an effort to get to the bus stop 10-15 minutes before the bus is scheduled to leave to make sure you’re in line to get on the bus.  They pack them full like sardines but people still usually miss out (especially in high season, which is the end of July during the Buenos Aires school holidays).  Also, make sure you have purchased a SUBE card as they don’t take cash (you can get these from most Kiosks).  However, worst comes to worst for the first day or two get a couple of mates together and pay for a taxi to the mountain, its only 25 minutes away.  Oh, also, hitchhiking is completely acceptable and very common so you can easily just put your thumb out for a ride to the mountain (waiting times vary from 30 seconds to 2 hours).

Bariloche, ski-bum, argentina, patagonia
Talk to everyone. Buy them a beer! Credit: Nicholas Lawrence

Once skiing or riding, talk to everyone you can.  Most of the decent local skiers and boarders are happy to meet good riders and show you around.  You never know when a simple “buen dia” will end up with an offer to show you a cool ski spot or good apres-ski watering hole.

Also, there are various season pass ticket options but unless you have a crazy amount of money to blow I would not recommend paying for a full season pass lift ticket as they are ridiculously expensive.  Talk to the local riders at the local bars (I would recommend La Cruz which is next to the bus stop at the bottom of the resort at Cerro Catedral) about the different ticket and season pass options. The resort itself and its staff have such a limited amount of information (and are not very inclined to help you) its best to discuss what to do with those who have been there a few seasons and know the best deals.  For this reason, just shell out for a day pass if you have to for the first few days until you have talked to the locals to get the lay of the land and how to go about obtaining the best pass for you.

On the fourth or fifth day riding at Cerro Catedral, an American friend (who I met at Penthouse Hostel) and I ended up meeting a local rider in La Cruz who had an apartment for rent for the season right on the resort.  It’s these kinds of perks that you can find if you talk to the locals.  There are always a couple of people trying to do cash deals or who know other people who want to.  If you keep asking for something you will eventually find it.  Ski-bum communities are tightknit like that, even in South America.  Just keep on talking and asking the right questions.

I’d recommend trying to get a place right on the resort or finding some form of transport if you don’t because you don’t want to be catching the 55P or 55B bus to the mountain from Bariloche every day.  It’s always packed and not very reliable.  It just adds extra stress and time to the beginning and end of every ski day, which is the last thing you want when you want to be hooking into the beers.

I would also recommend joining the “Expats in Bariloche” Facebook page.  There you will find others like yourself who will definitely be able to help you with skiing, accommodation or whatever else you need.  People are generally pretty helpful because they know how overwhelming it can be if you don’t know the place.

The good thing about Bariloche and Cerro Catedral, however, is that once you have been there a couple weeks and figured out how things work, it’s remarkably easy to navigate. Timetables and opening hours aren’t always online, or if they are they are usually incorrect, but you will get to know these things by heart and eventually laugh as you skip lines, avoid queues and find the cheapest meals and beers while the other tourists get frustrated.

Bariloche, ski-bum, argentina, patagonia
Hike for the best lines. Credit: Nicholas Lawrence

Some tips on skiing in Patagonia

Find some local shredders and buy them beers.  Then get them to take you white line hunting (in the snow I mean). Chances are they’ll be more than happy to help you out.

There are a number of backcountry mountain refugios near Cerro Catedral which are surrounded by insane terrain.  I won’t go into detail on them here but take my word for it that if you are into backcountry riding, they are where you want to be.  Check out Refugio Frey, Refugio Lopez, and Refugio Jakob.  You can sleep, eat and relax in the refugios, but you have to pay cash, so bring lots of pesos.  Oh, and you must also remember to bring your own toilet paper!  You can buy your meals there (and beers) if you want but it adds up in terms of cost.

On Cerro Catedral itself, the best places are definitely the Nubes chutes (underneath the Nubes chairlift) and La Laguna (the valley to lookers left of Del Bosque chairlift).  La Laguna requires a 15 – 20-minute hike to access it but you will see a well-established bootpack as it’s pretty popular.  Definitely bring your touring gear out here as it’s not patrolled and avalanches happen.  I personally spent days and days and days out in La Laguna, there are so many aspects and so many great runs out here.  You can always find a fresh line that hasn’t been skied.

Cerro Bayo and Chapelco in Villa La Angostura and San Martin respectively are also nice mountains, but both are much smaller than Cerro Catedral.  However, their infrastructure is a bit nicer and have beautiful views so they’re definitely worth checking out.   You can get a 1.5-hour bus to Villa La Angostura from Bariloche, and a three-hour bus to San Martin.  From there you can either taxi, hitchhike or bus up the mountains.

My biggest tip for skiing at Cerro Catedral would be get to the mountain bang on 9 am.  So many of the locals don’t even bother getting there until 11 am so you will have powder runs to yourself for two hours before everyone else gets there or you will get fresh turns on corduroy to warm up the legs before a coffee at 11 am when everyone else is just arriving.

Get your skis waxed and sharpened by an awesome local guy called Lauti who has a container behind the Epic ski shop at the base of Cerro Catedral. You can either drop your skis in the Epic shop or walk directly to his container out the back. Lauti is a legend of a guy and always happy to help.  He also has his own blossoming ski apparel and ski building business called Klan Co-working.

Spring skiing

Even though Bariloche mountains get the odd great snow season (which I was lucky enough to experience in 2019), most of the time the snow is hit and miss, so the best time to ski according to most locals is later in the season when you can consistently ski spring slush as it warms up each afternoon.  Therefore, I’d definitely recommend sticking around into September to make the most of this.  Later in the season is usually better than early season around here, especially if you’re into touring.  Not much beats skiing in a t-shirt at 7:30 at night as the sun sets behind the epic Andes skyline.

If you have any other questions, big or small, detailed or not, feel free to get in touch in the comments below and I’ll do what I can to help out.  Otherwise, disfrutante la nieve!!

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