I used to visit Chapelco to ski because a good friend of mine was in charge of running the resort’s mountain restaurants. When he quit, I kept visiting Chapelco anyway because it offered a magical, intimate experience that I didn’t find at other Argentine resorts. It still does. The resort has expanded over the past decade, and our favorite refugio Pradera del Puma has sadly been expanded into a large restaurant, but the intimate quality of this resort remains, and the resort staff and local population are friendly and enthusiastic in spite of a boom in tourism and vacation homes around the area.
Chapelco is located just outside San Martín de los Andes in Argentina’s Lake District in the Neuquen Province. San Martin is a fairytale village with charming Swiss-style architecture and a zoning law that keeps buildings limited to three stories, unlike its urban-sprawl-in-the-forest neighbor Bariloche. The town sits on the shore of Lake Lácar in a truly picturesque setting, and the welcoming attitude and spirit of San Martín makes it a great destination for foreign skiers. Towering above the town is Mount Chapelco, where the ski resort is located. There is no lodging at the resort, so you must shuttle up and down the hill every day, by car, bus, taxi or thumb.
The ski resort sits in a thick virgen forest of lenga trees, a deciduous beech tree dripping with a curious yellow-green lichen called barba de viejo, or “old-man’s beard.” There are 35 runs and a modern lift system including a gondola, and a new high speed quad, plus a base center and a variety of restaurants serving surprisingly good food. Try the restaurants Rancho Manolo, the La Casa del Bosque, or the aforementioned Pradera (which has truly spectacular views).
In terms of snow, Chapelco receives solid coverage usually all the way to the base, and when it dumps Argentines head indoors and leave the mountain open to people like me who don’t mind horrible visibility for the chance to make turns in powder. Chapelco is smaller than Catedral in Bariloche, so you’ll learn the mountain within two days, but with half the terrain suitable for advanced skiers you won’t get bored if you spend 4 or 5 days here. There’s a lot of open-field terrain above the treeline, and my snowboarder friends like the resort’s natural gulleys.
The last time I visited Chapelco my friends brought their kids and they went nuts over Chapelco’s dog-sledding races. There was a sort of “mountain fair” happening that week, and on our last day we descended on skis on our last run into an outdoor party at the base where they were blasting music, and the resort staff was handing out cups of mulled wine from huge vats to skiers passing by. In addition to the fact that it was a powder day, it was seriously the best end-of-a-ski-trip day I’ve ever had.