Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Volcán Copahue

On the border between Argentina and Chile

So close, yet so far. I wanted so much to ski down from Volcán Copahue (2953 meters), but despite trying very hard it was not going to happen.

We are at the Caviahue ski area, the first destination on our 35 000 kilometer trip to Argentina. On day 1, we attempt to get the ski area guides organize a trip to the top of the volcano for us. They normally organize such trips, but not on this day. Apparently the local scientists think that the volcano is too active at the moment. Copahue has been in somewhat active mode recently, and is spewing off steam, smoke, and even spreading some ash on the snow fields surrounding the peak. So no transport to the top and no help from the ski area.

Our vacation spot in Argentina

The volcano

Naturally, we decide to climb to the top on our own. However, our late arrival on the previous night, late wake-up, and the time to return to the car to get our gear delays us, and by the time that we start it is already afternoon. And the peak is far away, there are many kilometers to hike, and the peak is almost a kilometer higher than the highest lift. My friend Tero has some problems with the bindings of his ski touring equipment and he stops as we reach the steeper part of the summit cone, but I continue. But by 5 pm even I give up and turn back to return while there is still daylight. At this point I'm maybe 150 meters away from the crater rim and 300 meters away from the summit. But it is good that I turned back; the return route turns out to be non-trivial, and involves hiking across rock fields. We would have been in trouble without light.

This is how far I got. So close, yet so far.

Our route to the volcano

On day 2, we are out of energy to re-try the climb. Tero's hi-tech watch shows that we burned almost 6000 calories on the climb on the first day, and we are still tired. But the sun is shining and we think we have a plan for getting closer to the top with the help of snowmobiles. We spend the afternoon touring with snowmobiles, in part because I needed practice riding them.

My first time on a snow mobile!

On day 3, it is bad weather and our last day. The snow mobile option has dried up; it is a bad snow year and we'd only get 600 meters away from the summit. We'd have to climb in near zero visibility and howling wind, at very cold temperatures. The ski area has a better route and better vehicles - "bandvagns" - but now the weather is too bad for them to let us ski down. I give up, and we spend the day driving to our next destination.

So close, yet so far. A bandvagn.

Bad weather day

Steam coming out from vents near the Las Maquinitas thermal pond

The volcano

Caviahue Ski Area

But despite not making to the very top of the mountain, our visit at the Caviahue ski area was very nice. The area is small, just a couple of runs, but the runs are fun, and the areas around the slopes also provide a lot of space for skiing.

The area consists of two sections served by the upper and lower lifts. The lower section is interesting because of the beautiful Araucaria tree forests. These massive, evergreen trees look like a strange mixture of pine and palm trees. It is easy to find forest routes on the left and right sides of the ski slope. There are some ditches (and obviously trees) to run into in these areas, however, so be careful.

Araucaria trees

Araucaria trees

Araucaria trees

To get to the upper section, one has to ski down a bit from the top station of the lower lifts. At the time that we were in Caviahue, the slopes towards the upper section were closed and you were expected to take a chair lift down to get there. However, with a few meters of walking even these slopes could be skied, as long as you were able to sneak past the yelling lifties. On a normal year, there would have been two meters of snow at the base altitude, but now there was almost none. So normally these runs would have been in use.

Climbing, with a smoking volcano in the background (what else?)

The most interesting off-piste routes are in the upper section. There is a steep face to the skier's right from the top station, for instance, and many interesting valleys and rock faces on both sides.

Skiing off-piste to the skier's right in the upper slopes

Snow dunes and other terrain features on an off-piste at Caviahue

Skiing. Volcanoes. What else is new?

Touring with Snow Mobiles

On our second day, we took a snow mobile tour with eneQene guides. The tour started with a small 4WD drive off the resort, and then we rode half a day on snowmobiles around the volcano area. It was my first time on a snowmobile, and I was surprised how hard and difficult driving on them is. Compared to skiing, one has to be far more careful about where to take the snowmobile; steeps and side-way slopes are off-limits. It was also a lot of work - at least as a beginner - to control the snowmobile.

But it was a lot of fun and we did get to interesting places with the snow mobiles. We made a brief visit to Chile and saw many snow dunes and ancient volcano craters. We also saw the half-finished geothermal plants, designed to tap into the steam that is generated when melting water from the glaciers reaches hot material a thousand meters under the surface. Hopefully these plants will get into operation, as one plant is reported to be able to generate enough power for 100,000 people.

A snowmobile and a smoking volcano on the background (again!)

And then we ended up in the Las Maquinitas thermal ponds. There are several hot ponds around the in-the-winter abandoned village of Copahue. We chose to visit a lake that was surrounded by collapsed buildings.

It was windy and -10 degrees, but I've come this far, I have to go in. It turns out that the water is warm enough, maybe even too warm. At first I end up sitting on the muddy bottom but quickly realize that is a mistake. My ass is burning from the steam coming from the bottom of the lake. The guide tells me to find a flat stone and sit on top of it.

Las Maquinitas thermal ponds

Collapsed structures near the thermal pond

Almost boiling water... I'm doing OK as long as my ass is not on the bottom

Collapsed structure at the thermal ponds

The abandoned Copahue steam electricity plant

On the snowmobile tour


As the owners of our hotel put it, people come to Caviahue to ski, not to go into bars. We were unable to identify any open bar on our short visit to the village.

Off-piste around the upper slopes of the Caviahue ski center

Important Parameters

Caviahue is 350 kilometers from Neuquen, the closest city with commercial airline connections. Note that most of the domestic flights from Buenos Aires leave from the city airport, AEP, so in order to get to them from an international flight you may have to transfer from the international airport, EZE, to AEP with your luggage.

On our way to Neuquen, Argentina. Buenos Aires below.

Roads in Argentina are relatively well maintened, certainly better than in neighboring countries. You can make the trip in a normal 2WD vehicle, as long as you carry chains. However, police checkpoints are frequent, for reasons that we can only guess. On our way to Caviahue we were stopped a couple of times. One of these stops included dogs sniffing through our stuff, and then having the police take apart our luggage item by item. All the way to checking out individual pills of some of the medicine that I had with me. Had they gone any further in the inspections they would have required rubber gloves. Luckily not, and they let us put our luggage together and leave. Phew! And this was for two western tourists that quite obviously were not in Argentina for any criminal activity! (Except maybe an occasional unauthorized visit to closed-off volcanoes or Chilean backcountry.)

We stayed at Hotel Farallon, the closest major accommodation facility to the ski slopes. The hotel is a 5-10 minute walk away from the ski area. If there had been as much snow as there is on normal winters, the hotel's bandvagn would have taken us to the ski area from the front door. The hotel costs were around 65 USD per person per night, including breakfast. There are plenty of other places to stay at in Caviahue, but they are in the main village and little bit further away. I do recommend Farallon, for its location, the view, and for the nice owners -- who also speak English. For a large part of the Argentinian off-beat tourist locations, that is very rare. And I had failed to learn more than a couple of words of Spanish before the trip, despite my best intentions. Being able to speak at least some Spanish is generally recommended for travels to Argentinian backcountry.

Our hotel's transport to the ski slopes

This would be the way to travel! Your own desert buggy on the back!

The guides that we used on our snowmobile tour were from eneQene. They know their way around the local mountains, and can organize anything, be it from a thermal pool visit to nights in an igloo.

Skiing, with a smoking volcano in the background


Caviahue is far away, certainly harder to get to than, for instance, than other major Argentinian ski destinations such as Bariloche or Ushuaia. Caviahue is smaller, the after-ski and party scene is non-existent, and the slopes are small. But strangely enough, Caviahue would still be my choice for a ski destination, if I had to choose just one place to visit in Argentina.

Let me explain. If was with my kids, I'd like to have a small and safe area where I can watch them. The Caviahue ski area is perfect for this. And if I was on my own, I'd like to find the most radical off-piste touring opportunities. And Copahue certainly has them, too, all the way to ice climbing and volcano summits.

The resident off-piste guide at the Farallon Hotel

Flowing snow

Photographing the steam plant

Volcano spewing smoke

Skiing off-piste near the Caviahue ski area

Photo and video credits (c) 2012 by Jari Arkko and Tero Kivinen


  1. Update in December 2012. Looks like Volcan Copahue is about to erupt: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/23/world/americas/chile-volcano/index.html