A South American snow-hound’s paradise

Within a short distance of Chile’s capital Santiago, there are several top-notch ski resorts that make for a perfect day trip – or a few days’ snowy getaway.

Sunny winter days, wide open horizons and acres of groomed ski slopes, all within hours of the city. Although this may sound like a North American powder paradise, believe it or not you are actually in Chile.

Andean snow, at its best, is renowned for its dry powder, and within a short distance of the country’s capital Santiago, there are several top-notch ski resorts that make for a perfect day trip – or a few days’ snowy getaway.

Set high in the skinny mountain chain of the Andes, these resorts offer fine skiing between June and August or September. They can get packed on weekends, but visit during the week and you may find the perfectly groomed slopes all to yourself.

Just out of town
The mountainside of Farellones is only 30km east of Santiago, and the ski village can be reached in 45 minutes when traffic allows. It is at 2,430m above sea level and only has handful of lifts, but it is well connected by shuttle bus and ski lifts with the neighbouring resort of El Colorado, where the skiing goes as high as 3,333m. Between the two, you will have access to more than 70 pistes.

Farellones was Chile’s first ski resort – founded in the 1930s by European immigrants – and the ambience is certainly of the Swiss ski chalet variety. One of the oldest and loveliest places to stay is the genteel Hotel Posada de Farellones – all wood and stone and roaring log fires. In a good snow year, you might just be able to ski all the way to the door.

High altitude ski network
But Farellones is only the start. Another 15km along the same road takes you to La Parva, perhaps the smartest of the ski bases close to Chile’s capital and where the country’s elite have their mountain homes. Set at 2,670m above sea level, the resort has 1,200 hectares of terrain in a wide-open, sunny bowl, with plenty of good skiing for beginners and families.

Just 12km east of La Parva is Valle Nevado, the largest area of skiable terrain in the southern hemisphere with some 3,000 hectares and a variety of runs to keep skiers occupied. Valle Nevado is renowned for dry, powdery snow, and at an altitude of 3,669m, the season can run all the way into September, by which time the pistes are getting mushy – or even muddy – at La Parva and El Colorado.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Farellones, El Colorado, La Parva and Valle Nevado is that they are all connected by lifts and ski runs. Though some of the connecting slopes are best left to advanced skiers, transport is also available between the resorts. Together they form a vast high altitude ski network to rival those in the European Alps – but arguably with better snow conditions.

Towards the border
Slightly further from Santiago – about 160km to the northeast, deep into the heart of the Andes and close to the Argentinean border – is perhaps Latin America’s most emblematic ski resort. Portillo is set at 2,880m above sea level and receives some 6m of dry powder every winter. This is the playground of Latin America’s smart set, but you will not only hear Spanish and Portuguese spoken here. Portillo is the summer training ground for many northern hemisphere ski teams (the US, Canadian and many European teams have all trained here) and you can watch them in action on the most technical slopes. There are a few accommodation options: the sunny yellow Hotel Portillo , set breathtakingly on the edge of ice-blue Laguna del Inca; Octagon Lodge, which has comfortable bunk-style accommodation and a handful of family cabins; and Inca Lodge, a very basic youth hostel-style hotel. No matter where you stay, you have access to the hotel’s salubrious public areas, including the outdoor heated swimming pool with its incredible mountain views.

On the quieter side
is about 70km southeast of Santiago in the Cajon del Maipo (the Maipo Canyon). Run by the Club Andino de Chile, a mountain recreation and ski club, this is the only non-commercial resort close to the capital. Lagunillas has three lifts and 13 runs, a good ski school, a single refugio (mountain refuge) which can accommodate some 30 skiers, and a convivial family atmosphere, quite different from the larger commercial resorts. The only drawback is its snow: because the resort is only 2,048m above sea level, there is reliable powder only in late June, July and early August, depending on the season.

Skiing around Santiago (and Latin America in general) is an expensive business. In most resorts, a night’s accommodation for two is double what you might pay in a North American or European resort, while lift tickets are generally a third more. If you book a ski week in Portillo, for example, be prepared to pay some 4,000,000 pesos for two in a standard room in Hotel Portillo, with meals and lift tickets included. The same amount might could give you two, perhaps three, weeks of all-inclusive skiing at the smartest resorts in the Rockies. The low-key resort of Lagunillas is the exception to this rule. Here a lift ticket is about half the cost elsewhere and a night’s accommodation in the refugio – with shared bathroom – costs around 55,000 pesos.

If you drive yourself to the snow, you will need to factor in the cost of car hire and snow chains – it is compulsory to put chains on before you arrive at the snowline. For a more affordable trip, shuttle buses run regularly from downtown.