Snow fell late this year in the Patagonian resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, but it was worth the wait: a 3ft base and a fresh layer of powder overnight to top it off. Heaven for any skier but particularly for Europeans who can't wait till Christmas.
"Late" means mid-July: Argentina being in the southern hemisphere, winter runs from July to October, when most of us are still only dreaming of snowcovered pistes. Investing in a ski home south of the equator may seem far-fetched, but upgraded, wellgroomed resorts in the Andes now compare favourably with the finest facilities in Europe and the United States. And San Carlos de Bariloche is Argentina's top mountain getaway, with a four-year, $8million (£3.9m) improvement plan delivering a season-long, full house of holidaymakers, along with an influx of "long-haulers" into the local housing market.
But it is not all about the snow, as Maria Reynolds of Reynolds Propiedades points out: Bariloche remains "open for business" all year round. "Hiking paths, riding trails and fishing lakes attract an altogether different clientele," she explains, "while the devalued peso, pegged against the dollar, is enticing foreign property buyers to take the plunge, many offsetting their annual running costs by tapping into the holiday rentals market." Lake-and-mountain real estate is a growth sector, agrees Kevin Prior, sales and marketing director of Obelisk International: "Buenos Aires has paved the way as a fashionable buy-to-let location, but the open country is acquiring its own fan base - property buyers love it because of the vastness and diversity."
Prior's pitch is persuasive, given the number of expats grabbing a foothold after 2001, when Argentina's financial collapse effectively put a two-thirds-off sign on everything. "One in three property transactions in the capital is now made by foreigners," he says. "Beyond that, Argentina's 'great outdoors' is an unspoilt playground for Europeans and Americans.
Real estate values in touristy regions like Patagonia are up by 60 per cent since 2004; it's a good time to buy."
Hanging off the southern lip of Lake Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche's St Moritz-style chalets, sparkling lakes and mountain scenery feel like a vaster version of the Alpine getaway. The similarities arise from the peculiarities of history. Germans and Austrians settled in this southern Andean city during the 19th century, forming the gingerbreadhouse/ fondue-ski culture that remains.
The result is a curious mix of Argentine and European culture, which locals enjoy as much as holidaymakers; tourist guides carrying themselves with a swagger that comes from exploring the great outdoors rather than spending too long in the visitor bureau. Cruisy open bowls, tree-lined runs and off-piste trails cater to all levels, with chic boutiques and upscale bistros delivering a lively après-ski scene.
"Cerro Catedral resort, 12 miles from Bariloche, has the concession of the whole mountain," explains Peter Haller of Maison Buenos Aires, "while Cerro Chapelco (100 miles away) appeals to families, with groomed trails and a wellequipped ski school."
Top of the "most wanted" league are skiin, ski-out chalets, complete with Shakerstyle decor and log fires: "A 1,700 sq ft chalet will set you back around £90,000," says Maria Reynolds. Growing numbers,
however, are succumbing to turnkey alternatives in resorts like the Arelauquen Country Club, just 15 minutes from Bariloche centre. The club sports an 18-hole golf course, polo field and tennis centre. Bungalows there start from £70,000; larger two-storey villas with exposed beams and floor-to-ceiling windows sell for upwards of £300,000. "You've also got a rental pool to tap into here," she adds, "owners netting in the region of £700 per week during 'crunch time' [July to September]."
Bariloche's surrounding Lake District - where the provinces of Neuquen and Rio Negro kiss the Chilean border - straddles three distinct climate zones and offers its own four-season fun; there, waterfront property ranges from £60 to £80 per square metre. "Building costs for good to high-end solid wood houses are between £40 and £70 per square metre," says Ms Reynolds, "and they last a lifetime or two. But property choice is pretty vast, with a new wave of boutique properties, rebuilt historic lodges (estancias) and chalets ushering in Argentines and outsiders. The Bustillo corridor, from Bariloche to the village of Llao Llao, is set to boom in the next five years, as are the less expensive communities of El Bolson and Lago Puelo."
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