As we corkscrewed 8,000 feet up a precipitous mountain road on our way to Valle Nevado ski resort, our small group had a wizard at the wheel, but the van still lurched around switchbacks. The scenery was astounding: cliffs, gorges, desert-type vegetation, including large saguaro cactus plants, and an occasional farmer making slower turns on horseback.
The driver put on chains when we finally got above the tree line and into the snow, for the climb the last 1,000 feet. He dropped us at the Hotel Puerta del Sol in the middle of a vast snowfield.
It was summer in our heads, but in front of us at Valle Nevado was 22,000 skiable acres of snow. Some of the terrain is hidden in bowls, and there's more had we had time to venture over to the interconnected resorts of La Parva and El Colorado.
There's a 2,600-feet vertical drop on groomed slopes, and a 6,000 feet descent for skiers who go heliskiing in higher areas of the spectacular Andes Mountains (second only to the Himalayas in elevation).
We had been in transit for 20 or more hours, 11 of them overnight on Lan Airlines, who brought the group together. Tired, yes, but that didn't stop us from checking in, rushing through lunch, picking up rental skis, and skiing that afternoon.
The light was flat, so sticking to groomed runs made sense, even for the better skiers and the snowboarder in our group. Wider exploration was possible after a good sleep and on the next sunlit day.
Ski School Director Andy Marangunic was a great dinner companion, passing along lots of information about skiing in the Andes. For example, he said more Brazilians ski in Valle Nevado than Chileans. He has anecdotes about his experiences in Vail and other USA resorts. He also knows which grapes are best in his big wine producing country.
On the menus of the eight restaurants in the hotels? Plenty of fish. That's probably not surprising in a country with a shoreline almost as long as the United States is wide.
The best known resort in Chile among North Americans is arguably Portillo, but we chose to sample Termas de Chillán.
It wasn't around the corner, however. We returned to the Santiago airport, boarded a plane for Concepción, Chile's second largest city, about 300 miles south. A van picked us up for a scenic, speedy ride through flat dairy land to the city of Chillán and on to the resort. There was no snow on the ground until we got to our hotel, too late to ski.
The only thing missing in the five-star Gran Hotel is a final "d" in its name. It's a spa, with all the word conjures: luxury quarters, wellness center with thermal water in indoor and outdoor pools, well-appointed dining room, comfortable bar, casino, and ski in/ski out convenience.
My first impression of the mountain was disappointment, even though my son had cautioned me not to be too hasty in judgment, "Wait till you get to the top of the 22-minute chair lift ride." (He and his wife skied here last year and have planned a return visit.)
The chair rose above the trees and over the beginners' area and base lodge. It ascended through a rocky ravine and a few mini bowls where some adventurous skiers had made tracks. One segment of the ride was bordered by shiny black formations that any geologist worth his basalt would identify as lava rock. Some larger pieces looked like cubist statues chiseled by Picasso.
We alighted from the double chair and discovered wide, groomed runs, a little firm in the morning, but manageable and exciting. Three dormant volcanoes, one of them venting, stood sentinel in the distance over billowing snowfields.
Some statistics: 3,300 feet vertical drop; 28 slopes; 24,700 acres;11 lifts; 276 inches of natural snow a season; an eight-mile run, longest in South America.
We had time to loiter in downtown Chillán on the day of our departure, where farmers and food merchants hawked their wares. We saw enough sausages to supply every restaurant in the land at the indoor market place. The outdoor fruit and vegetable stands were a riot of color, and offered a chance to stroll with locals.
There were other cultural tidbits. A statue of Bernardo O'Higgins stands atop an imposing monument in the city's main park. Chilean? Irish? We discovered that Bernardo was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman, who was born in Ireland. Bernardo was born in Chillán and educated in London. Back in Chile, he was a hero in the 1817 war that gained independence from Spain.
How edifying can a simple little ski trip be?
- 22 Resorts
- Consistent Snow
- Diverse destinations
- Resorts open before those of many other states
- Home to Vail, Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain