Hitting the Slopes in Las Leñas
One of South America's top ski destinations, Las Leñas boasts 64km (40 miles) of runs, excellent snow, and typically small crowds. The summit reaches 3,430m (11,250 ft.), with a 1,230m (4,034-ft.) vertical drop. There are 30 runs, with approximately 8% set aside for beginners, 22% for intermediates, and 70% for advanced skiers. The resort's 11 lifts are getting seriously outdated, and there are loud calls for some infrastructure improvements. When the top lift shuts down (as it did for 2 of the season's 4 months in 2006, due to an avalanche), options for experts are limited. When all is running smooth, the lifts here can transport up to 9,200 skiers per hour, which is far more capacity than the town has in accommodations. Consequently, you seldom have to wait in line to get to the top, except during the crazy-busy weeks of Argentine national winter holidays, at the start of August.
Las Leñas is a destination resort -- everyone comes on a package that usually includes 1 week of hotel accommodations, lessons, and lift tickets. It has one small grocery store, an interesting little museum and no nearby town to speak of. Essentially, you must eat all your meals out. It definitely has the feel of a winter wonderland, with no car traffic or high-rises, and hardly any trees. Because the climate is so dry, the powder snow is terrific. In season, it attracts wealthy Porteños and Argentine celebrities, as well as international skiers looking for extreme and challenging off-piste terrain, and it has an active nightlife in winter. Local ski instructors are excellent. The majority of people on the slopes are beginner/intermediates, which has historically left the advance terrain virtually untouched and ready for exploration. Today, the numbers of foreigners chasing extreme powder this way each year has grown substantially. Snow season runs from late June to mid-October. In summer (Dec-Feb), Las Leñas offers mountain biking, trekking, rafting, and fishing, and hotel prices drop significantly. The resort is most easily reached via a 90-minute flight from Buenos Aires to Malargüe, followed by a 1-hour bus to Las Leñas (68km/42 miles). Alternatively, you can travel by car or bus from Mendoza, which is a 4- to 5-hour drive (399km/247 miles).
The stylish new Virgo Hotel and Spa opened in 2005. It is a 105-room minimalist resort that has taken the lead as Las Leñas' best hotel, which definitely gives the resort something to celebrate. Rooms are spacious and bright. Their quadruple rooms are a great value for larger groups. Bathrooms have a Zen-like simplicity with all natural elements and large showers. The spa is so nice you may not even want to hit the slopes, although with a lift just 15m (49 ft.) from the lobby, it's easy to start linking your turns.
In addition to housing the resort's casino, the 90-bedroom Piscis Club Hotel has well-equipped rooms that accommodate up to three people, though it's not quite the five-star hotel the sign proclaims. A stay here includes breakfast and dinner. Like most of the lodgings here, it is ski-in, ski-out. Following a day of skiing, the hotel provides hot drinks and warming by the fireplace, and the indoor pool, Jacuzzi, and sauna should reinvigorate the remaining cold parts of your body. The restaurant, Las Cuatros Estaciones, is the best around. All the hotels offer ski instruction and children's activities, as well as adult activities in the casino and nightclub. After a siesta and then a late dinner, swing by La Cueva del Esquiador wine bar and sample from a long and impressive wine list. They have special tastings of Mendozan wine throughout the ski season. As vibrant in the evening as it is on snowy winter days, the place hosts night skiing three times a week and regular concerts, parties, and events.
Las Leñas lies in the southwest of Mendoza province, near the city of Malargüe and close to the Chilean border. To drive from Mendoza, take the RN 40 to the PR 222. Most bookings are done online at www.laslenas.com. PowderQuest (www.powderquest.com) offers packages popular with North Americans and Europeans. A 7-night package includes flights from Buenos Aires and excellent guided English-language ski tours with guides who know the mountain fantastically well. They'll also include a few days of wine touring in Mendoza before or after.
Lift tickets run about $60 (£41) per day, with multiday passes available. A weekly pass, for example, will run you $305 (£207). Prices for lifts, as well as those for accommodations, depend on the time of the season. September is generally a great time to come -- fewer crowds, cheaper prices, and longer days. Great last-minute end-of-season promotions are available as well.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.