By Matt Hansen
As ski season in North America winds down, most skiers' attention turns to their mountain bikes, fly rods and kayaks. But with another ski season just getting ramped up in the Southern Hemisphere, we will allow you one quick reprieve to the desert before jumping back in for more.
And no better place to go for skiing in July, August and September than Chile. It's like Europe in that are few boundaries, meaning a skilled skier can make use of seemingly unlimited terrain in huge mountains. The climate and terrain is similar to the California Sierra; the Andes are only a few hours from the Pacific coast, so access is easy and there are multiple climates—from lots of sunshine to ginormous dumps. But the big difference between Cali and Chile is that down south there are a helluva lot less people. Many gringo skiers equate the Chile of today to how the Sierras were 50 years ago: vast and relatively untouched, with nary an opportunity to cross a track. But the best part about Chile is that it's not like anywhere else. Santiago is metropolitan, culturally diverse, and easy to navigate by subway or car. The seafood is as good as it gets. Local wines are superb and relatively inexpensive to what you find in California or Europe. Pisco sours, pebre, congrio, Kunstmann beer…buena onda.
And then there are the Andes, just east of Santiago, rising up to the 22,841-foot Aconcaqua, the highest mountain in the Americas.
David Johnson, founder owner of CASA Tours, a tour operator based out of Montana, says the beauty of Chile can be found in "the variety and aesthetics of the terrain, terrain for all ability levels, the lack of crowds and the Andean powder."
"Traveling in Chile offers a sophisticated yet rustic experience," he says. "Meals are definitely a highlight of every trip. There are wonderful mountain lodges and the people are incredibly friendly. No better way to escape the heat and humidity of August than a snow holiday to the Chilean Andes."
Chile did sustain major damage from the 8.8 earthquake that struck off the coast on February 27, 2010. The quake, centered 70 miles from the city of Concepcion, killed nearly 500 people and displaced tens of thousands. Though many services were halted after the earthquake, all travel operations are now fully functional, and none of the country's ski resorts sustained any damage. For the people of Santiago, life was back to normal within a week or so after the quake.
While there are many ski destinations to choose from in Chile, three stand out: Portillo, Valle Nevado, and Nevados de Chillan. Since now is the time to start planning that Chilean adventure, here is a synopsis of what you can expect from each of these unique ski areas. If you keep coming up with excuses as to why you can't go, just remember the famous words from Warren Miller: "If you don't go this year, you'll be one year older when you do."
Valle Nevado is only 37 miles from Santiago, but nearly half of those miles cross at least 60 switchbacks as you climb 7,000 feet. As you leave Santiago, the road passes desert landscape, waterfalls, beautiful river gorges, and free-range horses. But it's getting less dicey, as the road was recently re-paved and much of it widened.
Upon the road's apex, you come upon a giant expanse of snow and mountains. The change in elevation and topography is stunning. And unlike Portillo, where most activity is confined to one general area, the base area of Valle Nevado is much more modern, with a few tall hotels and an assortment of restaurants. Coupled with the neighboring ski areas of El Colorado and La Parva, the options in this corner of the Andes are nearly limitless.
Currently, Valle Nevado is offering a deal where five nights of lodging gets you two more free, all inclusive (book before May 16, 2010).
Also unlike Portillo, the mountains at Valle Nevado are not so abruptly in your face and the lifts are more similar to what you find in North America. But with Cerro El Plomo looming at 17,795 feet, the terrain can be just as serious. Most of the mountain is spread over eight lifts on generally low- to medium-angle terrain. The best skiing is off Tres Puntas, a 5,200-foot-long poma (yeah, it's that long) that tops out at over 12,000 feet and accesses several cliff bands and short rocky chutes. Crowds are so minimal that on a powder day, it's possible to lap this zone for several hours and get fresh tracks on every run. Touring potential is also unlimited from the top of this lift, with couloirs and bowls within a few hours of skinning—that is, if you can handle the altitude. Lift-served vertical is 2,800 feet, with much more available by hiking.
Providing even more diversity in terrain and ski culture is the fact that Valle Nevado borders El Colorado and La Parva, two smaller ski area that have for years been a must-stop for North American skiers. While you can link all three resorts together on one lift ticket (for an additional $40-45 each), you might want to check them out individually because they each offer such a wide variety of terrain. Altogether you have lift-access to more than 7,000 acres. Valle Nevado, which continues to expand with new lifts and skiable terrain, was modeled after resorts in the Alps. With nearby villages linked by an assortment of chairlifts, it feels like they have succeeded. Last year, the Freeskiing World Tour made its first-ever stop in La Parva, a testament to the terrain.