The ski season in South America is now open for business – which is perfect for those of us who can’t wait until December and want a little more than what a French or Austrian glacier has to offer.
The word “Andes” conjures up visions of remote, towering peaks with condors soaring high above the snow. Add delightful locals (in both Chile and Argentina) and you have a recipe for a genuinely unforgettable ski trip.
The whole culture of the Andes – including the language of course – is so different from the Alps and indeed the Rockies that no-one I’ve ever met has returned from this magical continent without stars in their eyes.
To many people’s surprise there are some 45 ski areas dotted on either side of the Andes, and the standard of skiing and equipment in the main resorts compares quite well with the Alps.
So, if the idea of skiing in South America has grabbed your interest, read on…
What You Need to Know
Even the most obvious aspects might come as a surprise to some! It’s the southern hemisphere, so the prime winter months are July, August and September (although, as in the Alps, some years the snow arrives earlier, in June – their equivalent of December). It’s the south-facing slopes which hold the snow.
The language in both Chile and Argentina is South American Spanish, although there are subtle differences in pronunciation. For example, the excellent high-altitude Chilean resort of Portillo (2880–3310m – and just 100 miles from the capital, Santiago) is pronounced Port-ee-oh. But if you cross the border into Argentina, just up the road, it will be pronounced Portee-jo.
Traditionally it has been impossible to take a rental car from Chile to Argentina – or vice-versa. No-one quite knows why (and believe me, I’ve spent 20 years trying to find the answer) but during my last visit in 2014, it was, at last, possible to take a rental vehicle from Chile to Argentina. But not the other way round! You can avoid worrying about this by taking a bus in either direction!
If you are driving a rental car across the Andes, you will have to do it the way I did it last year – starting in Chile and handing in the rental vehicle in Argentina.
Remember that there are only TWO mountain passes open between the two countries in the winter months. The bleak Uspallata Pass (AKA Bermejo Pass or Cumbre Pass), which runs parallel with the now long-defunct Transandine Railway, links the Chilean capital of Santiago with the wine-growing region around the Argentine city of Mendoza (with Portillo almost right on the border). And the Passo Samorè (formerly Passo Puyehue) linking Entre Lagos and Osorno in Chile and Villa La Angostura and San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina.
Because of the restrictions on rental vehicles, and the fact that there are only two passes open in winter, it’s best to ski the Chilean side before venturing into Argentina. You won’t able to wander freely backwards and forwards between the two.
Assuming you start from the Chilean capital, Santiago – which is very close indeed to the mountains (Buenos Aires is miles from the nearest Argentinean resorts and in any case would be starting the wrong way round if you wanted to ski in Chile as well as Argentina) the closest resorts, rather like local version of France’s 3 Valleys, are Valle Nevado (the only true destination resort of the three) El Colorado (popular with day-trippers from the capital) and La Parva (in many ways the most interesting terrain with some good off-piste).
Valle Nevado is known for its heli-skiing, which is a bargain by Canadian or European standards. Experienced skiers and riders can complete up to 4,000 vertical metres in a morning, usually consisting of two of three drops on peaks above the resort.
Although you can ski between all three resorts without taking your skis off, the three don’t always see eye to eye every winter in terms of a joint lift ticket, so you might have to pay a small extra fee to make the link between them.
Portillo is the country’s oldest ski area, 160km north of Santiago on the Argentinian border. The mustard yellow Hotel Portillo – the only hotel here – sits on the shore of the beautiful Laguna de Inca surrounded by impressive peaks including the 6960m Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere. The terrain is steeper than in either Valle Nevada or Nevados de Chillán.
One important aspect to remember about Chile is that it’s LONG and THIN – and has been compared with a bootlace. So if you want to drive down to the Samorè pass to reach Argentina, once you have left the Santiago region it will be a long trek to the next ski area which is likely to be Nevados de Chillán (still known to most people by its old name of Termas de Chillán).
The skiing here is in the shadow of three magnificent volcanoes and if the wind is blowing the right direction you can even sniff the sulphurous fumes. Quite a few of Chile’s smaller ski areas are close to or actually on volcanoes – particularly Villarrica, near Pucon, which erupted spectacularly in early 2015 – plus Lonquimay, Llaima and Antillanca.
It’s worth a side trip to Chillán – with its chequered history of fires and earthquakes – just to visit the birthplace (in 1778) of newly independent Chile’s first president, who had the unlikely name of Bernardo O’Higgins. He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish officer born in County Sligo, Ireland, who became governor of Chile and later viceroy of Peru.
Even today, wherever you travel in Chile, it’s almost impossible to escape that name – there are taxi companies, florists and even a football team named after him.
On the Argentinean side, the main players are at San Carlos de Bariloche (where the ski area, Gran Catedral – the most European in appearance and culture, takes its name from the cathedral-like spires, Chapelco (reached via the idyllic little town of San Martín de los Andes) and Las Leñas, which has such challenging terrain that it’s been likened to the Chamonix of the southern hemisphere.
Bariloche is the most popular of the bigger Argentinean resorts, with extensive intermediate terrain colourful apres-ski and some stunning Patagonian vistas across Lake Nahuel Huapi.
One more exotic location you can visit is Cerro Castor (Beaver Hill) at the southern-most tip of Argentina, where what’s left of the Andes tumble lemming-like into the waters of Cape Horn. It’s a long way south, so flying from Buenos Aires (1470 miles) is the best bet.
Whichever side of the Andes you ski – preferably both – you won’t regret the long journey. The peaks are high and handsome, the lifts – for the most part – are up-to-date, the snow is usually good, and the people are a delight. And where else in the world, be it Alps, Rockies, Japan or Australasia, are you likely to share the mountains with the condors?