Comforts of Vail left far behind
Special to the Vail Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
After finally purchasing a car we packed it tightly and headed for the Patagonian Lake District and the financial investment that would bring us to Villa La Angostura, Patagonia and the ski resort of Cerro Bayo.
We had to decided to invest into a small bar/restaurant called a “refugio,” or refuge, that was located at the top of the ski mountain of Cerro Bayo. We knew very little of the place but the partners were some of Marisa’s grade school friends from Buenos Aires and we had heard nothing but great things about it.
Our drive through the Patagonian Lake District was beautiful and full of excitement as we waited to see how the next three months of our lives would play out. We had decided that if the investment was going to be made, that we might as well go and be a part of it.
We had no particular plans anyway and it was in a ski resort which made us feel right at home, coming from Vail. In fact I remember thinking it would be a good transition for me as I knew the ski town life and could brush up on my Spanish before moving to the big city of Buenos Aires.
We arrived in the town of Villa La Angostura and were pleasantly surprised to find a small quaint town that resembled the main drag in Breckenridge. We had seen some pretty rustic towns along the way and had our doubts and concerns. We had also just driven through Bariloche, which is the largest ski resort in South America and were incredibly disenchanted by the traffic, big buildings and lack of small ski town charm that I remembered from 10 years ago.
In Villa La Angostura beautifully constructed shops and homes line the downtown village like a Christmas book image. The construction is the true version of what Vail has tried to impose on developers through its building regulations and codes.
The buildings are constructed from the very trees and rock that are cleared to construct a structure. In fact it is common practice to stack the trees, move a portable sawmill onto the site and cut the wood on site to construct these incredibly ornate structures. Some of these storefronts and homes look more like backdrops used to portray the homes and villages of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings.
The ingenious craftsmanship is simply breathtaking at times. We located the home we had rented and bedded down for a much needed night’s sleep and the beginning of our new adventure.
We arrived at the base of the ski mountain, Cerro Bayo, which is a small resort boasting eight chairlifts, 20 runs and views that National Geographic has dubbed the best in the world from a ski mountain. This area, as you might imagine, has massive development plans in store for it. It has just been purchased by a development team out of Buenos Aires.
The ski mountain, however, was the labor of love of one man by the name of Jon Pier from Bavaria. He was the gringo that was thought by the town’s people to be somewhat crazy when he would ride his dirt bike up the mountainside with a chain saw in his back pack and would cut down trees all day. He began to mill and sell his wood to finance stage two.
One day Jon Pier showed up with a used chairlift he had traveled to Switzerland to purchase and started erecting poles for the private ski resort he would share with his friends and family. The stories told of this living legend are that he literally dug the holes to place the poles in one after another.
So with the taste of a new adventure on our tongues, Marisa and I drove up the six-kilometer dirt road that takes you to the bottom of this tiny ski hill. We knew we had left the comforts of Vail far behind, but were not quite ready for what saw over the next hour.
The beauty was like nothing I have ever seen from any ski resort in the world. However the resort looked like something a group of friends had built in their spare time and, come to think of it, that is exactly what had happened. Used chairlifts, actual single-chairs lifts, shacks for rental shops and friendly faces make up this resort.
With only days to open we arrived at the Refugio restaurant we had signed up to run, only to find a place completely under construction. The partners had failed to tell us that the first guy hired to do the remodel simply left with the money and the second one had bought the materials and then gone on vacation for a month.
The room was stacked chest high with virgin planks of wood that were intended to be the walls and the hardwood floor. The sinks and toilets of the bathrooms were sitting next to the only heating supply in the room – a 50 year old tank formerly used to transport gas to the Lake District before tankers ventured this far south.
We were greeted by an older gentleman holding a cigarette in one hand and the beloved drink of the Argentines – mate – in the other. His smile was welcoming but that was the only thing that was as we were scheduled to open the following weekend when the ski mountain did.
I should tell you a little about mate as it plays a role in everything Argentine. Mate is a type of herb grown in the north and is as strong a tradition of the Argentines as the tango. It is bitter and commonly drunk out of a gourd with a bombilla, or silver straw, and almost boiling water. It is almost always shared with someone else in the room or with the whole family. It is truly a staple for family, friends and everything else Argentine – and something I have grown to love. In fact I am having one right now as I write this article.