Patagonia or Milton Keynes?


As I cruised down the blue slope for the 20th time at the Xscape snowdome in Milton Keynes, I reminisced of days when my summer skiing fix did not entail a trip up the M1.

In fact – it was significantly more than a mere fix. After finishing school in the summer of 2006 I followed the snow to Argentinean Patagonia on a quest to achieve a BASI (British Association of Snowsport Instruction) qualification and soak in some culture. With many young ‘explorers’ preferring the lure of South-East Asian beaches and other similarly trodden paths, I was smug in the fact that Patagonia felt like a genuine adventure.

Admittedly, from my ivory tower I had to concede the fact there are obviously more intrepid ways of exploring the Nahuel Huapi National Park but any feelings of self-reflection were shelved as the rumours of beautiful steak, ski slopes and scenery were set to be realised.

After a brief mosey around Buenos Aires’ barrios – my short connecting flight to Bariloche and subsequent coach transfer led me to Hosteria El Retorno on the shore of the picturesque Lago Gutierrez.

The BASI assessors didn’t arrive at the lake for four weeks into the nine-week trip, which gave us time to navigate the mountain with some of Argentina’s best ski instructors, in particular, Ivan Bonacalza who skied slalom for Argentina in the 1980 Olympics. Ivan was a welcoming, warm character with incredible skiing ability and an affinity for hopping over, or indeed through the shrubs, which punctuate the vast off-piste of Cerro Catedral.

Other than skiing, tea was the recurring theme of the trip. Anybody who has been to Argentina will testify to the importance of Mate – the hot, bitter, herb-based drink that holds strong cultural and social importance among many of the South American countries. The etiquette surrounding its drinking is absolutely fascinating – some people found out the hard way that both holding onto the cup too long – “no es un microfono” – and moving the straw it is drunk from, are both totally unacceptable!

On the other hand, the Welsh tearooms in Gaiman were more recognizable to British tea-drinkers as the tearooms provided huge amounts of scones and cakes. Whilst demolishing said cakes, we learned about the history of the Welsh settlers and why the retention of the Welsh language in the region is so unique and important.

The actual skiing in Argentina was fantastic, the uncrowded slopes made carving down any run a possibility and the snow coverage was fantastic – in fact it was their best season for over 25 years. Whilst the season is short  (June-September) it snowed consistently which made for some awesome recreational powder days littered amongst the piste-orientated instruction.

View Skiing in South America in a larger map

There were no bitterly cold days during our stay, which the fair weather skiers amongst us enjoyed, the flipside of that was that when it did snow it tended to be quite wet and heavy. No problem on the steeper slopes but very hard work on the flatter trails.

Despite my technical flaws, which were obviously the conditions’ fault and not mine, I addressed them to a level deemed acceptable to the BASI trainers and received my qualification. A proud moment in a beautiful setting.

A piece of advice for those planning a similar trip would be to take all equipment with you, not only is it equally as expensive as Europe, but the resorts of Argentina tend to resemble a trip back in time – the 2nd hand European lifts of Esquel and ski shops in Cerro are charming and functional, yet slightly archaic.

Not only did I return with a bag full of Mate and Boca Juniors apparel, I felt fulfilled with a sense of achievement unique to this kind of trip. British summers – eat your heart out!