Little Andorra a big draw for skiers, hikers

Location between Spain and France makes it a popular weekend getaway for Europeans.

We started out for Andorra late on a Friday night, the car full of snow gear, food and a group of four of us — an American, a Brit, a Portuguese and (yours truly) an Argentine — eager to escape the loud noises of Barcelona for a weekend.

The drive from Barcelona to Andorra is just under three hours and takes you through quiet Catalonia towns as you make your way up the Pyrenees Mountains bordering Spain and France. A couple of hours into our ascent, the rain we were facing turned to snow, piling up on the road and getting thicker by the minute.

As we neared Andorra, we were engulfed in white: snow-capped pine trees and white snow dunes all around us. The sky was bright, full of flurries floating around in no particular direction. It looked like a snow globe after you’ve shaken it too many times. Still following our GPS, we found ourselves in a town with signs in French — at some point, without us realizing it, we had crossed into France. Once we came across the Andorra border crossing, however, it was past midnight, and the place looked deserted. No one patrolled the stands and the lights were off, with only a few cars parked on the side of the street gathering snow.

We had made it to Andorra.

Andorra, a small country nestled between Spain and France in the Pyrenees Mountains, was until a couple of generations ago mostly isolated and impoverished. Today, after developments in transportation, the roughly 180-square-mile country employs the economic weapons popular with other small European countries: a banking sector with tax-haven status and duty-free shopping. It’s common for people from Spain and France to drive a few hours to buy cheap tobacco, alcohol and electronics. Those living close enough to the border even go to Andorra to fill up on gas, which was half the price of that in Barcelona.

But what primarily draws around 10.2 million tourists annually are the very same mountains that kept the country isolated for so many years. Summer and winter resorts advertise mountainside hiking and skiing, with the latter season being the most popular. Plenty of online package deals offer weekend and weeklong getaways in Andorra that include hotel, food and ski gear.

With a population of roughly 85,000, Andorra is the only country whose official language is Catalan. It has been an independent state since 1278, but is technically known as a principality, as it is a monarchy headed by two co-princes: the president of France and the Roman Catholic bishop of Urgell in Spain. This arrangement dates back to the 13th century, when Spanish and French nobles married and agreed that the principality would be neither French nor Spanish.

Andorra la Vella, the country’s capital, looks a lot like an outdoor shopping mall, full of department stores, restaurants, banks, hotels and resorts all crammed close together within the valley. A futuristic-looking glass needle stands out in the middle of it all: the Caldea spa, considered Europe’s largest with 18 floors.

We stayed in the much quieter Canillo, closer to France. While the town is mostly pastry shops, bars and hotels, it boasts of some Middle Age history as well: an 11th-century church mostly intact called Sant Joan de Caselles. Our hotel was within walking distance to the ski rental shop, which (to my delight) was full of Argentine employees and Latin American reguetón music playing in the background. Of the five men helping us with our ski gear, three of them were Argentine, one was Chilean and one was Spanish. When I brought up the Spanish guy’s Argentine accent, he laughed and said it’s hard for it not to stick when you’re constantly surrounded by them, pointing to his co-workers.

As I came to find out the rest of the weekend, it’s very common for Latin Americans — most of them fairly young — to spend the winters of Andorra working the ski slopes and the summers of Andorra working the ski slopes in the Chilean or Argentine Andes Mountains, when it’s winter there. When I asked another Argentine guy who worked as ski patrol about the high number of Argentines working the slopes, he confirmed what I had noticed.

“Yeah, it’s 90 percent Argentines around here,” he said, smiling.

In fact, I unknowingly ended up in the one Andorran town that gets the most Argentine workers. At least according to Veronica Zanetta Luco, 30, who is originally from Viña del Mar, Chile, but now lives in Pas de la Casa, Andorra, right along the French border. She moved six years ago on her own because she wanted to travel and get to know Europe; she had heard through acquaintances that there were plenty of seasonal jobs in Andorra.

“There’s a really strong Latin American presence here,” she said, adding that most of the women she works with at the restaurant are also Chilean. “We really take advantage of the mountains. Everyday life consists mostly of working and skiing, or working and going on hikes.”

Unlike a lot of the seasonal workers who get six-month work visas and go back and forth between Latin America and Andorra, Zanetta lives in Andorra year-round. And she plans to stay there indefinitely, mostly for her 3-year-old son, who was born in the small country.

“I’m happy here, it’s a safe country, there’s no crime, the quality of life is great,” she said. Plus, the fact that her son will grow up exposed to so many languages — Catalan, French, Spanish and Portuguese (through her ex-husband) — is a plus.

Andorra has the curiosity factor that encompasses many of Europe’s small countries: huddled in between two of Europe’s largest powerhouses, safely inside the Pyrenees Mountains. And in fact, that charm caught the eye of folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, who in 1962 wrote a song entitled “Andorra” that praises them for having a military budget of only $4.90. But despite their lack of a strong standing army — or their need for one — Andorra remains popular with tourists wanting to know more about this tax-haven mountainside country, as well as those seeking an escape into the nature those mountains have to offer.

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