South American Ski Guide: Las Leñas, Argentina

Eduardos, Las Lenas, Argentina. August 2011. photo: miles clark/snowbrains

It’s August already, and even if we want to deny it, the season in the United States is over. However, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean that we must put our skis away until next year. In fact, I would dare to say that the real adventure hasn’t even started.

When people ask me “Where are you from?”, and I say “Argentina”, many nod in agreement, but only a few will actually be able to point it out on a map. In fact, many do not even have a clue of what I’m talking about until I tell them: “Argentina, the land of Maradona and Messi, the best soccer players in the history of humanity”.

But don’t worry, it is never too late to learn a bit about geography. And I can guarantee that you will not only learn to locate Argentina and Chile in a planisphere, but you are going to discover some of the sickest, most stunning and breathtaking places in the world to practice this marvelous sport that is skiing.

With a population of approximately 40 million, Argentina is the world’s eighth-largest country and the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. There are about fifteen ski resorts in Argentina, located along the Andes mountains. However, in this guide, we will only mention a couple of them, which are internationally-recognized. We can place them into three major regions: the Central Andes ski resorts, the Lakes Region ski resorts, and the Southeast ski resorts.

After this, we are ready to begin. Our first destination is Las Leñas Ski Resort, in Mendoza, Argentina.

Las Leñas is located in Mendoza Province, Argentina.
Las Leñas is located in Mendoza Province, Argentina.

More than 7,500 hectares of skiable terrain make Las Leñas one of the most important ski resorts in South America. Great for beginners, and a real playground for experts, Las Leñas has 14 lifts. But what makes this place so special is the Marte Chairlift, a slow, sketchy ass double chair which provides access to 43,243 acres of terrain and 3,936 vertical foot runs from the top of the chair, at a top elevation of 11,250 ft.

Some believe that in Las Leñas, heli skiing from a chairlift is possible thanks to Marte.

Las Leñas is famous for its backcountry skiing.
Some believe that in Las Leñas, heli-skiing from a chairlift is possible thanks to Marte.

If you are looking for big mountain, steep terrain, narrow couloirs, world-class skiing, then there is no doubt Las Leñas should be your next destination.

Eduardo, one of the most famous lines in Las Leñas.

The base stands in a valley deep in the Andes Mountains, at an altitude of 7,350 ft over the sea level, and the summit, as said above, 11,253 ft, making Las Leñas the highest ski resort in Argentina. With 65 skiable kilometers spread over 29 tracks, it has the longest continuous decline in the country (4.4 miles long). There is a Terrain Park for freestyle, 1.2 miles lighted for night skiing, heli-ski tracks and cat-ski expeditions. It’s important to say that all skiing in this ski resort is above the tree line: there is not a single tree in Las Leñas. From the base, we can divide the mountain into two main sectors: the front-side, and the Marte area.

30-minute climb to Cerro Martin. Worth it.

The front side consists in four Pomas (TK Urano, TK Eros I, TK Eros II and TK Minerva) two double chairs (TS Vulcano and TS Vesta) and two four-passenger chairs (TS Minerva and TS Caris), which provide access to most of the slopes. Alpine skiing in Las Leñas is pretty good. Home for international testing speed disciplines, Las Leñas has tracks for every ski level. Venus track is custom made for beginners and little kids who are taking their first steps; Minerva is excellent for intermediates; and Vulcano and Caris are ideal for advanced skiers. 

The "front side" of the mountain.
Las Leñas front side.

On the other hand, the Marte area is formed by a series of three lifts (TK and TS Venus, TS Neptuno, and TS Marte) that will locate you literally on the very top of the world, providing access to an undescribable quantity of virgin snow. This is the main reason why Las Leñas is known worldwide: its freeride potential.

Marte chair
Marte chair will locate you literally on the very top of the world.
marte
Marte is the master key for freeskiing in the Andes Mountains.
Las Leñas
Las Leñas could be divided into two main sectors: the front-side, and the Marte area.

So, considering that you are an advanced/expert skier or snowboarder and your goal is to ski steep, challenging terrain, your day should be something like this:

  1. Take the Venus chair.
  2. Take the Neptuno chair.
  3. Take the Marte chair.
  4. (optional) Take the Iris lift.
  5. Choose your line and go off-piste.
  6. You’ll probably end up on the front side of the mountain, so find your way back to the base and repeat the process at least three times before making any stop.

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But this plan will not always run well. Sometimes they will say it’s because of the high winds, sometimes because of the low visibility, sometimes because of the high risk of avalanche, or sometimes they just won’t give any reason. But the truth is that Marte’s chair, the one that makes this place so special, will be many times closed (unless you’re too lucky).

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Las leñas is a real off-piste playground.

Of course, this shouldn’t stop you from visiting Las Leñas. But knowing this in advance will allow you to take a series of considerations before booking your stay. The most important one: go for at least ten days or two weeks. You don’t need to be a mathematician to study the odds. The more days you go, the more chances Marte is open.

And of course, I find it needless to say that you shouldn’t ski alone, or go to places you don’t know. Locals will be glad to show you the mountain, so don’t be afraid of asking. Always remember to carry -and know how to use- your avalanche safety equipment.

If you are new to off-piste skiing, then Ceñidor and Mercurio are great options for you.

To conclude, we can say that if you are looking for a world-class terrain, with easy access from the lifts, this is the right place for you. Below, a couple of maps of all the lines you can make just taking a couple of chairs -and sometimes walking a bit-.

Las Leñas is the nearest (1200km) ski resort to Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. The closest airport is Malargüe, but there are very few flights from Buenos Aires and they depend a lot on weather conditions. The second closest airport is San Rafael, with daily flights from Buenos Aires. From San Rafael, you must take a 3:30-hour bus to Las Leñas. Another option is flying to Mendoza airport, from where you must take a 6-hour bus to Las Leñas.

However, I strongly recommend the direct bus to Las Leñas. There are direct buses which depart every Friday around 6 pm from Retiro Bus Terminal (center of Buenos Aires) and arrive at Las Leñas the next day early in the morning. So you get on the bus, have dinner, recline your seat and wake up surrounded by snowy peaks. This option is not only the cheapest one, but also the most secure in terms that you do not depend on the weather, or in if a flight is canceled or not. Besides, you won’t have any trouble with your bags on the bus.

andesmar2
The direct bus Buenos Aires – Las Leñas is the best option.

Whatever you decide, always remember that you are in Argentina and you never know if pilots or bus drivers will decide to make a strike the same day you plan to travel.

For flights, you can check www.skyscanner.net and for bus tickets, you must visit www.plataforma10.com (Bus companies enable their availability approximately 30 days in advance, so don’t worry if you cannot find any tickets right now).

The village is small, but there are options for everyone. From 5-star hotels to apartments where you can cook yourself, here are our recommended ones.

ElValle
The four buildings with red roofs are apartments. They are really close to the lifts.

5-star Hotels: Virgo Hotel & Spa. Design and functionality define Virgo Hotel & Spa, the newest luxury hotel in Las Leñas. It’s unique style in the valley, pure lines and neutral colors, recreate a serene and elegant mountain retreat for rest and relaxation. Its excellent location in the stage of Las Leñas, offers magnificent views of the mountain landscape and provides the perfect setting for renewal at the Health Club & Spa or enjoy a drink in the exclusive Wine Bar & Cellar. Ski in-out. More info here.

Las Leñas, argentina
Virgo Hotel & Spa is probably the most luxurious hotel in Las Leñas

3-star Hotels: Hotel Club de la Nieve. Literally situated on the slopes, in the heart of the Valley, the Hotel Club de la Nieve offers apartments for 5 people with kitchen and double or triple rooms. This hotel has its own restaurant and an infrastructure designed to achieve a unique experience. It isn’t as luxurious as the Virgo but offers a much more familiar, cozy atmosphere. Ski in-out. More info here.

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Hotel Club de la Nieve

Condos and Apartments: DeMartis. Apartments are a really good option if you want more privacy and independence. For couples, families or groups of friends, apartments provide all the amenities of a hotel room, except they have a complete kitchen and much more space. Even though they are not ski in ski out, they are very close to the slopes, as the town is really small. Apartments range from 2 to 8 people and are much more accessible. More info here.

Las Leñas, argentina
Apartments in Las Leñas are a good option.

Hostels: Leñas Hostel. Specially designed for young travelers, Leñas Hostel offers all the amenities for a dream stay in a warm, modern and youthful place. It has more than 70 beds, bedrooms and shared bathrooms, lockers, kitchen, SUM, and one deck to enjoy the outdoors. More info here.

The town is very small.
Map of Las Leñas “Town”

As we said before, there isn’t much to do in Las Leñas apart from skiing. That’s true, but… When the sun goes down, and skiing isn’t possible any more (except some days where night skiing is allowed), the real fun begins. Las Leñas is small and you can move around from one place to another by walking. People are very friendly and will be glad to help you find anything you may need.

nightskiing
Night skiing is available in Las Leñas.

Around 5 pm, when the ski day is over, people meet at the base to have some beers and dance a while. Aprés-ski in Las Leñas is something you really don’t want to miss. Then, you can play some billiards and foosball games or go to the Casino, at the Piscis Hotel. Finally, after having dinner, you can go to the “boliche”. But remember, nightlife in Argentina runs very late, so don’t get surprised if the party at the dance club begins at 2 am.

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“Aprés-Ski” is one of the best things to do in Las Leñas.

Lifts: 14

Runs: 40

Terrain Parks: 1

Night Skiing: Yes

Skiable Terrain: 43,000 ac

Base elevation: 7,350 ft

Summit elevation: 11,253 ft

Vertical drop: 3,973 ft

For further information, you may visit the official Las Leñas website. If you have any doubt, don’t hesitate in contacting me.