Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Short Excursion to Las Leñas

article from October 17, 2011
By Jamie Douglas

This time of year, the weather is likely to change faster than the forecast, so when we saw that Friday, October 14, was going to be clear, we decided to take a daytrip up to the famous Las Leñas ski resort in the Andes, just southwest of San Rafael, before the summer sun melted all the snow. The ride there was about 250 km of mostly fine road, almost all of it relatively flat and straight, through a landscape somewhat resembling New Mexico, with the exception that there are huge snowcapped mountains getting closer all the time: the Andes!

We found that with the price of gasoline in Argentina being over US$5 per gallon, our trusty Renault (el Renolito) loved being in fifth gear, propelling us at between 90 and 100 km/h while I was barely touching the gas pedal, giving us over 30 mpg. We left our house at about 10:30, and by 1 pm, we were at the turnoff to Las Leñas, where the not-so-excellent road started its winding climb up the mountain. Within a very short time, we passed the tree line, not that we were in a forest or anything. The way to the resort was very sparsely populated, with only four or five houses along the way, mostly without electricity, excepting the small collection of tourist cabañas at Los Molles.

A short distance before we got to Las Leñas, there was a small roadside area with a hotel, ski rental and a lift, but it was closed. This year, lack of snow, as well as water for snowmaking machines, cut the season short, closing the slopes on Sept 25. However, even though the slopes were partially barren, the shady sides and gullies still had quite a bit of the white stuff, giving us a good idea of just how deep it must have been.

Finally, we got to Las Leñas, and with our built-up appetite, we looked for a restaurant. I was immediately taken aback by the lack of charm the place exhibited. The whole “town” consisted of a few very ugly hotels and one restaurant, which was closed. There went my milanesa fix! There were other restaurants, but they were in the closed hotels. A couple of buses had made their way up the mountain as well, and many of the passengers were seated on the outdoor patio of the closed restaurant, taking pictures and passing around their mate gourds. A couple I briefly spoke with, porteños, (meaning from Buenos Aires) expressed their extreme disappointment over their trip. Hours on the bus and there is nothing here to see!

But we did not look at it that way. I had seen on the map that there was a dirt road that continued for about 20km more to a place called Valle Hermoso, which means “Beautiful Valley.” Maybe they had milanesas there! The drive started out quite nicely, with huge peaks looking down at us on either side and from straight ahead, and snow was currently falling on the peaks, giving the range a misty look. But after maybe 5 km, I was beginning to seriously doubt that we would get our milanesa, and shortly after that realization, we came to the end of our off-road adventure, as the roadway was covered in several meters of snow for as far as I could see. We had reached the avalanche zone. Good time to get out, take some pictures and let our dog, Chica, do her maniacal running through the snow. Fortunately, Julie had brought some apples and oranges, staving off starvation –and scurvy – for the time being.

After a while of enjoying all the grandeur and the intriguing colors of unknown flora, I turned the car around on the narrow ledge and we started back down valley, with our dog happily getting her exercise running alongside. Back through that homely modern ski village and down we went back toward Route 40.

It was not until we were heading back to San Rafael that we found a little rustic roadside inn, which welcomed us with friendly smiles and fed us sufficiently. By 7 pm, we were pulling back into our driveway and heading into the kitchen to cook ourselves a decent meal – to go with that Fine Malbec Wine.

Jamie Douglas
San Rafael, Mendoza

All photos by Jamie Douglas and Julie R Butler:

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.