I took over 1500 photographs during my two-month stint in Argentina. I had both a DSLR and a point and shoot camera. On the last day of my vacation, as I journeyed back to the airport, something devastating happened at a bus station layover. I had been warned many, many times to be careful with my belongings. Well, for the first time in two months, I turned my back to my bags for five seconds to ask a bus driver if I was about to board the correct bus. Well, those five seconds would prove to last a lifetime, as my backcountry/carry-on backpack was stolen behind my back. Now, I would have been fine to get all of my ski stuff and everything I owned stolen EXCEPT this bag. It held a journal that I wrote in daily, tirelessly, and with great commitment, sometimes passing ten pages of writing per day. A journal that held the email addresses of every person I met, the feelings I felt while at each location I visited, a ten page letter to my parents, phone numbers and addresses of all of my friends and family at home, and exactly what I did each day. This is absolutely irreplaceable. Additionally, it held my Nikon D100, my camera that was GIVEN to me as a gift for this trip, with over 4gb (1300+) of photos and memories. I tried to be extremely diligent, with this being my first trip and all, to go out of my way to take beautiful pictures of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. To top this off, every piece of paperwork (receipts, tickets, expenses, etc.) that I had saved along the way was in the backpack. Camera batteries, my passport, memory cards, my dictionary, a book I had saved my entire trip to read on the plane ride home, an instrument that I had hand made for my best friend, my annotated guidebook…everything that was irreplaceable was stolen. After a long visit with the primitive and horrible authorities in this terrible town of San Rafael, along with an unanticipated and sleepless night in an awful hotel, I was able to reschedule my bus ride to get to the airport in Buenos Aires with only the memories in my mind. So, some pictures are from Google images. I really wish I could share the real pictures with you. Imagine how badly it hurts me.
I can only hope that the value held by the camera and the other goods in my bag created wealth for the thief exceeding the unhappiness I have been struck with since the theft. If that is the case, the karma is good and I am glad he/she has now has food on the table or in the baby’s stomach or whatever it may be. It must have happened for a good reason.
Now, to the story.
Sometime last school year I decided to try to go to Argentina over the summer. I wanted to travel and I wanted to ski. A whole bunch. I had never really traveled internationally, let alone all by myself, except Whistler camps, let alone in a country that is non-English speaking. I don’t know when I actually decided to go for sure, but I did. I bought a ticket pretty late in the game. I had virtually no money saved. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. But I always hear about people doing fun things, so I wanted to do something fun, too. I was ready to go on my first adventure of this kind. So, I went.
I took a big backpack and big ski bag and left SLC as soon as May term ended at Westminster College (the greatest ski school on earth), my student government campaign and elections were over, and Snowbird was near closing.
So, a day or two later, I was in Argentina. Now, mind you, I had zero plans. It was the beginning of June and I knew winter hadn’t hit hard yet. So, I decided to travel. But I had a huge ski bag, which can translate to a bit of a problem for fast and light traveling. Luckily, the kind lady, Melissa, who sat next to me on the airplane, said I could leave it in her small apartment for the month or so until the snow fell. Well, once arriving at her apartment (after a very quick and strong culture shock upon landing in Buenos Aires, and the first of many life-threatening taxi rides), I saw that her and her fiancé’s small apartment was, in fact, SMALL. The smallest I had ever seen. My ski bag took up an uncomfortably large amount space—a very limited commodity in their tiny closet of a home. But, fortunately, they were a super nice couple and sent me on my way with a couple of maps and sound words of advice. I was off.
So, I was on my own. My Spanish was very limited (let alone my Castellano, or the dialect of Spanish spoken in Argentina)), but I wasn’t concerned about the “right” way of traveling. Instead, I realized how selfish traveling truly was—that I was doing this entirely for myself—and I went day-to-day, just trying to experience the greatest amount of variety.
I went straight to Iguazu Falls, a waterfall area much larger than the Niagra, after only two or three days in Buenos Aires (one of which was entirely spent trying to find fuel for my Jetboil). It was huge and awesome.
I took amazing pictures there. Just imagine. Rainbows can be seen all day. I took a boat to San Martin Island, saw extremely exotic and tropical looking birds, snakes, huge hairy spiders, and food taken off of people’s tables by Coatimundi.
At night, I found some open grass in the city and lied down to read. I thought a riot was going on, only to learn that this is how crazy it truly got when a soccer team was victorious. It was nuts.
The next day I took a bus to Salta. In Argentina, a short bus ride is 5-10 hours, a medium bus ride is 10-20 hours, and a long one is like 20-48 hours. They get looonggg. The buses are usually two stories with tv’s that show bad movies and chairs that recline almost all of the way. On long bus rides one can usually expect a meal, sometimes hot. There are attendants like on a plane. Because of some oil shortages in Argentina, they rarely used heat, and it gets COLD. Buses are the main method of transportation throughout the country, and all of South America, for everyone, including locals.
Considering I generally do not usually like cities, Salta was a pretty cool place. I had a flute made for a friend and drank mate, or Argentine tea, with the crafter and his friends. I hiked to an overlook, too.
Then I went to Cafayate. There, I trekked for a couple of days in the surrounding mountains that are filled with cacti up to 30 feet high! I bivied in the sketchiest place ever, and enjoyed really getting into the Andes mountains for the first time. I only saw one other party on my hike in, so I got fairly far from anything or anyone.
Then I went along the Quebrada de Humahuaca. This is a part of northern Argentina that begins (south) a bit touristy and ends (north) quite remote. I started in Iruya. It is the very northern tip of Argentina. It was my favorite town of my trip. Extremely remote, it is accessible only via the sketchiest four-hour bus ride of my life, as it winds down hairpin turn on countless switchbacks, crossing a 4000m ridge, and diving into the Andes’ most beautiful valley.
After a day of hiking to San Isidro I returned to my hostel to start hiking the following day. NO information was to be found ANYWHERE on the surrounding mountains, so it was time to explore. I hiked back up the riverbed to San Isidro, which is about a 4 or 5-hour hike away.
From there, I headed into the mountains. I camped at the most amazing overlook of my life. The next day I headed deeper into the mountains, and instead of hiking all day, since I had no true destination, decided to set up camp early.
The spot was so beautiful that I didn’t want to waste it. So, I simply sat for a huge part of the day and took in the mountains for hours on end. I wrote endlessly in my journal and took many pictures. I’ve never looked at mountains for so long. It was great. And it never, ever got old. At night, I was awoken by herds of mountain goats outside my ten and flocks of condors with 5+ foot wingspans flying right above my tent. The next day I planned to head back into Iruya.
Although I have lived a life of hiking and skiing and rock climbing and putting my life on the line, I was put in the scariest situation of my entire life as I tried to escape a valley in which I got cliffed-out. I don’t want to talk about it. I eventually got back to the city, happy to be alive.
After leaving Iruya at 5am on that same terrifying road, I went to Tilcara. Out of Tilcara I walked to Pucara, which was supposed to have all sorts of cool ruins and stuff. The next day I hiked to the “Garganta del Diablo,” or “throat of the devil.” With a name like that, these waterfalls MUST be cool, right? Wrong. It was manmade cement with a trickle of water dripping the 25 feet to the bottom. Too bad the town was touristy, I had to pay money to see ruins that were fake and re-created, and the devil’s throat must be the size of a coffee stirrer.
Next stop along the Quebrada was Pumamarca. This town is alongside the “Cerro de los siete colores,” or “Mountain of the seven colors.”
It was really cool, but the coolest part was the 4000m+ mountains that were in the clouds in the near distance. Man, did I take cool pictures of them. Oh well.
Then I continued on to Jujuy, where I went to Calilegua National Park.
As a cloudforest, jaguars, pumas, and other cool animals call this region home. I hiked all day here, following a set of jaguar tracks for over ¾ of the day.
Cordoba was next. Cordoba is interesting. Firstly, I was sick while I was there. Secondly, it is home to the oldest university in Argentina. For this reason, the city is said to be residence to as many as ¼ MILLION college students from that single university. Beautiful people are everywhere and a really happy and upbeat vibe is prominent and can be felt throughout the city.
La Cumbrecita ended up being next. This is a remote town that is modeled after the alpine towns of Europe. It had a much different feel than all of the other places I had been to. After a night in my bivy in a closed campground in temperatures in the teens, I woke up the next day in frost and decided not to go on a 3 or 4 day hike that I considering because I was not feeling well. Instead, I went to Villa General Belgrano. This European town was full of rich, European-looking people. A big change from the dark-skinned and often impoverished natives I had become used to seeing. This German alpine-style town prides itself on its Oktoberfest festivities instead of its location to the surrounding mountains. For this reason, I left the same night I got there after buying some Christmas gifts. It was June.
The time had finally come to SKI!!!!!!! I bussed my way back to Buenos Aires to get my skis. When I called Melissa, she invited me over. I was still getting sick, and she not only went out and bought me vitamins, but she cooked me dinner, her husband gave me mate, she fed me snacks, she let me use her computer, and they even left me alone in their apartment while they ran errands so I didn’t have to sit in the bus station to wait for my bus. It was really nice to have a little hospitality, home-cooked food, English conversations, and a couch to lie down on. A couple of hours later I left with a full stomach and a ski bag that seemed heavier than when I brought it.
Being a vegetarian in Argentina was not the easiest thing I’ve done. While I have been a vegetarian my whole life, the meat-based diet of South America was not super conducive to healthy eating for a little tree hugger like me. So, after a 25+ hour bus ride to Bariloche, I started to feel quite sick. Sick enough to want to sit in my hostel in Bariloche for a couple of days. I found a hostel and just lounged for a day or two, using the 28k internet (too common in Argentina) to catch up with family, friends, and sponsors. I was SICK, and it sucked.
Still sick, I decided I had to explore this amazing lakes district.
I explored the city and its beautiful surroundings. The town was pretty much like any high-class ski town, with expensive restaurants, equipment shops, fur coats, and graffiti.
Even fake New Era hats. Go Cleveland!
I went to Cerro Catedral, the ski resort of Bariloche. It was where I planned to ski. There was no snow.
It was super funny to see, I wish I still had my pictures of it. It had an area of snow at the base, about 100ftx100ft, with about 9000 people trying to learn how to ski.
The ski village was cool, and I walked around it, but I knew that it wasn’t where I was going to ski for the entire month of July like I planned. I hiked the rest of the next day or two, taking in some of the most breathtaking scenery, I think, in the world. The pictures I took there were the best I’ve taken in my life. Oh well—see Google images below:
I really liked hiking there, but I had to move on. It was ski time! I heard that Las Lenas, nearly 20 hours away by bus, had snow. So, after just a couple of days in Bariloche, it was time to finally go to Mendoza province—an area I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see. I had no idea where I was to stay or how I was going to get passes or anything. I found a hostel that was a one and a half hour bus ride away from Las Lenas in the small town of Malargue. See, Las Lenas is in quite a remote valley. Because of this, you either have to stay right in the village of Las Lenas ($$$) or in the closest town, an hour and a half a way. I figured out the bus schedule—which changed daily—and went to Las Lenas the next day. I soon learned that it wasn’t unusual, at all, for this bus to break down. Each time it happened, we would go through the same process. I would be sleeping and wake up to the smell of smoke. I would open my eyes and everyone would be looking around the bus and at each with fear in their eyes. We would eventually pull over and all be forced to get out. The driver would open the engine bay, as if 1) it never happened before, and 2) he had no idea what to do (he didn’t).
We would all stand outside for 5 or 10 minutes, and then load back on the bus and finish the last hour of the miserable drive. Often, I would get frustrated and walk straight off the bus and start hitchhiking. Too bad no cars ever came.
I always got back on the bus.
After going in circles my first day in Las Lenas, I finally found Manu—a great, great man. At Las Lenas, Manu is in charge of two things: international marketing and being the man. He hooked me up with a pass and got me on my way in Las Lenas. For over a week I toured in the Las Lenas backcountry every day.
I explored the infinite lines and options surrounding Las Lenas. I made some friends and skinned all over with them.
From Spanish traveling skiers to Alaska heli guides to Swedish big mountain rippers to Colorado skiers and snowboarders to Tahoe regulars to Argentine local guides to Brazilian ski bums and beyond, there were some really good skiers there who just loved to ride year-round.
Luckily I was able to beat the gringo-rush by skiing in July. Conditions started pretty thin, so it was ideal that I was able to skin in other parts of the valley, not at the resort, to ski some fresh corn and slush. When it was time to use my pass, though, it started dumping. It was your dream come true: infinite amazingly steep terrain that no one but a handful of people ever venture to ski; 4000 vertical feet of skiing on almost every line; dumping all night; and sunshine all day. Goggle tans were provoked and steep, gnarly lines were ripped. The terrain down there is mind-boggling. Chutes are everywhere, often reaching 50 or 55 degrees (see below, where, although I am only a couple of feet from blue-suit, yet I am looking DOWN on the top of his head—before the chute even hit its steepest point). Las Lenas has to be one of the greatest resorts on Earth.
You can ski freshies days after a storm, ski “the best run of my life” EVERY run, and never cross a single track for thousands and thousands of vertical feet. You can ride what I call “the world’s greatest charilift,” Marte, to the top of Las Lenas. Then, without even taking your skis off, you can access an enormous amount of terrain. With a short boot pack or skin you can be on top of even more HUGE lines.
I skied Las Lenas for another week or two, skiing terrain too incredible to articulate. I’ve never skied such steep lines with such amazing snow—anywhere. I took my first tumble down a chute, self-arresting with my pole just before a cliff that would have ended my day. I started the scariest avalanches of my life and hiked further into the backcountry than I ever have before. Some of the people skiing this terrain were better equipped than I, with ice axes, crampons, ropes, and harnesses.
One weekend, while awaiting a much-needed storm, I decided to head to the city of Mendoza for a little break. I went there and enjoyed the city for a couple of days with some friends. I tried to go paragliding but it was cancelled. I took a bus partway to Aconcagua National Park (the tallest mountain outside of the Himalaya, at 22,834 feet) and hitchhiked the rest of the way. This mountain is totally stunning and I was fortunate to be there on a rare-but-beautiful cloudless day. I hiked the only trail open in the off-season, which was only a couple of miles in the snow, and took some really cool pictures of the looming peak. ☹
I returned to Las Lenas after almost having my point and shoot camera stolen when I was confronted by a young Argentine boy who was convinced he could get it from me by sticking his hand in my pocket in broad daylight in the middle of the town square. Good thing I’m so huge and so super duper strong.
And upon my return to Malargue, my new friends—the family who owned the hostel—welcomed me with open arms.
The skiing at Las Lenas was unlike anything I had ever done. It was an absolute dream and it is, obviously, hard to explain how much fun it was to ski there. Having wide-open snow fields or long exposed couloirs in front of you can’t do anything but bring a smile to your face. Traveling in Argentina allowed my Spanish to improve alongside my skiing, and my cultural knowledge to expand along with my views of what makes a great skier.
School is back in session and the winter is once again upon us. Smile, pick those skis up, and get out there to have fun.