I can’t really remember how it was that we came to decide we should go skiing in high summer, but does it even matter what gets you going, as long as you manage to make a dream come true?
While Europe is drowning under the torrid days of summer, South America is a dream for anyone suffering through the hot season, waiting and counting the days until lady winter returns with its snow, all good and ready for skiing.
Along with a couple of very good friends we decided to pay that said winter a visit, and the former said she’d gladly have us in Chile.
Fast-forward through the logistics, and here I am, mid August, at the Otopeni International Airport, my skis packed and ready to go. You can easily imagine the looks I was getting from everyone around…
Setting foot out of the Santiago airport, the thought of having arrived where winter reigned was already invigorating us, but, to our surprise, we’re greeted by palm trees and spring weather. We exchange slightly worried glances, but we were soon to find out that, generally in South America, snow can only be found high in the mountains, whereas in the towns, on the valleys coming down the Andes and on the ocean coast one can enjoy all the activities normally associated with the other seasons. We set south on Route 5, the backbone going all the way down from the north of Chile to its south. It is a road running basically straight, as far as the eye can see and then the same beyond the horizon.
Three hundred or so miles later we arrive in Nevados de Chillan, where we spent our first week, through the facile access to a vast stretch of land featuring a varied range of off-piste skiable terrain. The accommodation options around the resort area is filled with a few hotels, amongst which the outstanding five-star Gran Hotel. With an architecture that fits almost perfectly in the scenery, immediate access to the slopes, ski-in ski-out, it is the perfect choice when looking for comfort and relaxation after a full day of skiing. We opted for staying in Las Trancas, a small town some 5 miles off the resort, in order to immerse ourselves even deeper and experience as authentically as possible the Chilean atmosphere. With a string of mountain cabins sprinkled alongside the access road to the ski domain, together with a few rustic restaurants and a couple of equipment shops, Las Trancas presented us with the opportunity to meet some very interesting people that had left behind the European summer comfort for the Chilean winter dream.
For the first two days we had hard snow, but the forecast promised a soon to come snow storm. And what a storm it proved to be! Forty hours of non-stop snowing, and the result – four feet of snow!
During the couple of days when it snowed, the upper part of the mountain was closed to the public mostly due to an avalanche danger, but also on account of the lack of visibility. However, Nevados de Chillan is one of the few places in South America where the skiing domain includes forest covered areas, so we could ski at will through the trees.
We climbed the Chillan volcano for the unique thrill of looking down the smoking crater of a dormant volcano, and we came down through the Shangri-La valley back towards Nevados de Chillan in order to enjoy the thermal springs of Rocanegra Mountain Lodge & Spa.
After the first week, we went back to Santiago with a clearly positive overall experience. We strayed west off Route 5 to enter the famous Colchagua valley at one of the most renowned
Chilean vineyards: Viu Manent. Carmenere El Incidente 2007 is one of the best wines produced there, and from the Single Vineyard range of wines, and the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is quite impressive. After a one-hour drive from Santiago, we made it to “Tres Valles” – “The Three Valleys”: La Parva, El Colorado and Valle Nevado. Here, one can often see whole
slopes closed off as European ski teams rent them when they’re here for practice.
One evening, over a scrumptious dinner in Farellones, with abundant quantities of Malbec, we met Serge, a local guide who took us the following day to “Santa Teresita”. An enchanting, less known place, it is in fact a whole mountain side, more than half a mile wide, with a diverse relief: chutes, cliffs, powder fields, and everything one could possibly wish for in order to have a perfect day of backcountry skiing.We then headed for Portillo, a famous South American location where one has equal chances of running into ski teams training for the World Cup, groups of free riders and filming crews. We met the Austrian World Cup Team, Tina Maze, as well as Erik Roner and Chris Davenport, with whom we had the honour and pleasure of skiing for a short while and who was kind enough to give us some valuable tips.
The Portillo Hotel is like a cruise ship anchored at an altitude of almost 2900m, complete with everything necessary for an all inclusive ski vacation. An interesting fact is that when you make your reservation you also receive a few pointers about what staying at the hotel implies. Every single one of the tourists here are more than passionate about skiing, most of them Americans, and virtually all discussions revolve around snow, places seen and adventures had on the mountain.
The Portillo slopes are overlooked by the rock pyramid of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere, at 6,960m) making the grandeur of the mountain felt even stronger. You can heliski, too, at Portillo, but we chose to climb under our own steam, looking to ski the 1,300m descent of the Super C couloir, perhaps the pièce de résistance of the Portillo backcountry. Having accomplished this feat, and since we were in the area, we indulged ourselves with a visit at the Errazuriz vineyard, in Panquehue. Regarding the winery I will simply mention that their products dominate the Chilean wine tops, the foremost being the Vinedo Chadwick 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Robert Parker had given it a rating of 97.
Our two week holiday went by at blinding speed, a snow whirl, powder galore, story filled nights with exceptional people, all topped with plenty Pisco Sours or remarkable red wines.
Waiting in the lounge of the Santiago airport, ready to embark on our flight home, our eyes met and all three of us had the same thought and uttered the same question: When are we returning to South America?