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Ski Resorts in the Central Andean Region

It's no longer just a summer getaway for skiing fanatics in search of the endless winter. In 2006, North American guests came close to ranking number one in client visits at the major Chilean ski resorts. The allure? Andean skiing delivers a combination of world-class terrain, glorious weather, and an exotic journey that is without peer. The novelty of skiing from June to October does have some cache, but skiers have also discovered that the Andean terrain has everything from easy groomers to spine-tingling steeps, and with so few people on the slopes here, that powder lasts for days, not hours. From mid-July to late September, a 3m (9 3/4-ft.) base of snow is guaranteed. There are few lift lines, and passes are generally 50% cheaper than ski resorts in France, Austria, and Switzerland. The ambience is relaxed and conducive to making friends and waking up late. For families, the kids are on vacation, and most resorts offer reduced rates or free stays for kids under 12. Beware, however, that during the school holidays in July, when children in Chile are on vacation, prices can soar by as much as 80%.

The major resorts in Chile are top-notch operations with modern equipment and facilities. Resorts centered on the Farallones area, such as Valle Nevado, La Parva, and El Colorado, can be reached in a 1- to 1 1/2-hour drive from Santiago or the airport, and can be visited for the day. Note that Valle Nevado requires a minimum of a 5-night stay during high season if you'd like to spend the night. At a little over 2 hours from Santiago, the venerable, world-renowned Portillo can be visited for the day, but most skiers headed to that resort bunk in their all-inclusive hotel, which must be booked from Saturday to Saturday during most of the season. Don't overlook Termas de Chillán, even though it is a short flight and a 1 1/2-hour transfer shuttle away, or a 4 1/2-hour train ride followed by a 1-hour transfer; this wonderful resort offers tree skiing, a casino, and an extensive spa. Looking for wild adventure? Check out "Backcountry Bliss", below, for ideas about out-of-the-ordinary ski and snowboard adventures.

Getting to the Resorts -- Portillo organizes transfers through its own company, Portillo Tours & Travel, when you reserve. If you've booked a reservation for any resort through a U.S.-based tour operator, they'll book your transportation for you. You do not need to rent a vehicle if you are planning to spend the night at any of the resorts listed in this section. Ski Total (tel. 2/246-0156; www.skitotal.cl) has transfer shuttles to El Colorado, La Parva, and Valle Nevado for $18 (£12) round-trip per person. The shuttles leave at 8:30am from their offices at Av. Apoquindo 4900, no. 42 (in the Omnium shopping mall in Las Condes -- there's no Metro station nearby, so take a taxi), and no reservation for these shuttles is required. Round-trip transportation with hotel pickup costs $30 (£20) per person, and requires a reservation made 24 hours in advance; pickup time for this service is 8am. All return shuttles leave from the resorts at 5pm. Transfer shuttles to Portillo require a minimum of five people, and cost $35 (£24) per person for one of their 8:30am shuttles.

Ski Portillo

Internationally famous, Portillo is South America's oldest resort and one of the more singular ski destinations in the world. The resort is set high in the Andes on the shore of Lake Inca, a little more than 2 hours from Santiago and near the Argentine border. Unlike most ski resorts, there is no town at Portillo, just one sunflower-yellow lodge and two more economical annexes. Although open to the public for day skiing (call ahead -- they're open to the general public only when conditions are optimal), Portillo really operates as a Saturday-to-Saturday, all-inclusive resort. The ski area is smaller than Valle Nevado and Termas de Chillán; however, Portillo boasts steeper terrain and fewer crowds. Champion skier Steve McKinney set world records here, and it was on the slopes of Portillo that a woman exceeded 100 mph for the first time. Portillo is billed as a "boutique resort" with a maximum of 450 people, giving visitors the sensation of skiing in their own private resort. Indeed, the camaraderie that grows over a week spent here brings many guests back to Portillo year after year.

Portillo is not for everyone, specifically groups with a member who does not ski. There is not a lot of terrain here suitable for intermediates, yet the ski school here is world-class and can greatly push you to boost your ability level. There are no TVs in the rooms, an attempt by owner Henry Purcell to stimulate social interaction among his guests, a gesture which, for the most part, is appreciated. The grand yet rustic hotel forgoes glitz for a more relaxed atmosphere encouraged by its American owners. Rooms are on the small side but comfortable; the best rooms are the sixth-floor doubles because they come with balconies and larger bathrooms. The Octagon annex has rooms with four bunks and a private bathroom; the Inca annex is for backpackers and has Lilliputian rooms with four bunks and a common bathroom. The Octagon and the Inca annexes offer a special price for only three people per room; otherwise, if you're less than four, you might share with strangers. The main dining area features hearty staples and is for hotel and Octagon guests only; Inca guests dine in the cafeteria or at the mountainside restaurant or snack bar on the slopes. Portillo loves a party, and on some nights the fiesta really cranks up with live music in the hotel bar, a thumping disco, and an off-site cantina.

There are 13 lifts, including five chairs, five Poma lifts, and three "slingshot" lifts that tow skiers to the top of vertiginous chutes. Heliskiing costs $195 (£130) per person for the first run, and $150 (£100) for the second run, based on three guests, and the cost of the guide (split between the guests) is $55 (£37) for the first run, $34 (£23) thereafter.

Where to Stay -- Hotel Portillo's 7-day packages include lodging, lift tickets, four meals per day, and use of all facilities. Per person rates are: $1,450 to $2,650 (£967-£1,767) double with lake view; $2,000 to $4,700 (£1,333-£3,133) suites; $1,200 to $1,990 (£800-£1,327) family apartments (minimum four people). Children under 4 stay free, kids 4 to 11 pay half-price, and kids 12 to 17 pay about 25% less than adults.

For more information or to make reservations, contact the resort's office at Renato Sánchez 4270 in Santiago (tel. 2/263-0606; fax 2/263-0595; www.skiportillo.com), or call the toll-free lines at 800/829-5325 in the U.S., or 800/514-2579 in Canada. Lift tickets cost $36 (£24) for adults, $28 (£19) for children under 13. Amenities at the resort include an outdoor heated pool, fitness center, sauna, child-care center, game room, salon, massage, laundry service, a full-court gymnasium, disco, cybercafe, and theater.

Valle Nevado

Valle Nevado sits high above Santiago, near El Colorado and La Parva resorts, and it is the only resort in Farallones (also called the Three Valleys) area that offers a full-service tourism infrastructure. The resort complex is not a town, but there are clothing, gear, and souvenir shops, seven restaurants, bars, a disco, and a full-service spa, making Valle a good destination for nonskiing guests accompanying their family or friends. The French-designed resort is Chile's answer to Les Arcs, with three hotels and two condominium buildings that straddle a ridge line. The terrain is large enough to entertain skiers for days, and they can purchase an interconnect ticket for an additional cost and traverse over to La Parva and El Colorado. The steeper runs are at Portillo, yet Valle is larger and the runs longer. Of all the resorts in Chile, Valle is the most snowboard-friendly, offering a terrain park and monster half-pipe, and the resort hosts the Nokia Snowboarding World Cup every year. There is a lot of intermediate off-piste terrain here, whereas most off-piste terrain at Portillo is for advanced skiers.

Many Santiaguinos visit Valle Nevado on weekends -- note that traffic up the hill can back up for hours if there has been a recent snowfall, and the wait can be excruciating. Saturdays and Sundays bring long lift lines and crowded slopes in the morning, but everyone calls it a day after lunch and the runs in the afternoon are gloriously people-free.

Where to Stay -- Valle Nevado offers all-inclusive packages that include lodging, ski tickets, breakfast, and dinner (lunch is an additional cost), which can be taken in any one of the resort's restaurants. Unlike Portillo, Valle's more economical hotel does not have shared rooms, and are more akin to a regular hotel room. Prices are per person, double occupancy. The elegant world-class Hotel Valle Nevado is, per night, $190 to $350 (£127-£233) for a standard double, and $280 to $460 (£187-£307) for a suite.

The midrange Hotel Puerta del Sol, which is popular with families, is $162 to $348 (£108-£232) a night for a double, and $183 to $319 (£122-£213) a night for a suite.

Hotel Tres Puntas has rooms with either two twins or four-bed bunks; and they are great values for their private bathrooms. The hotel is popular with younger guests and families; rates are $120 to $220 (£80-£147) per night.

The Edificio del Sol building has condos for up to six guests, for $340 to $600 (£227-£400) per night, not including meals or lift tickets; however, this lodging option can ultimately be cheaper for its fully equipped kitchens.

For more information or to make reservations, contact the resort's office at Av. Vitacura 5250, no. 304, in Santiago (tel. 2/477-7700; fax 2/477-7736; www.vallenevado.com). Lift tickets cost $35 to $42 (£23-£28) for adults, $22 to $27 (£15-£18) for children under 13. Amenities for guests at the resort include an outdoor heated pool, full-service spa with fitness gym, massage and sauna, a child-care center, game room, room service, laundry service, a full-court gymnasium, and a cinema. For the public, there's a bank, high-end boutiques, and a minimarket.

La Parva

La Parva caters to Santiago's well-heeled skiers and snowboarders, many of whom have condos or chalets here. For visiting travelers, La Parva rents mediocre apartments that have not been updated since the 1970s, and there isn't the kind of infrastructure for tourism that you'll find at Valle Nevado. However, on weekends the center seems to take on the feel of a small village, and the ski center offers good off-piste skiing conditions and the steepest inbound terrain of the three resorts. Also, La Parva is closer to Santiago, if you're heading up only for the day.

There are four chairs and 10 surface lift runs, such as T-bars, and several on-slope cafes for lunch and a few at the base of the resort, including the yodely, fondue-style restaurant La Marmita de Pericles, El Piuquen Pub for pizzas, and the St. Tropez for breakfast, fine dining, and a bar with excellent pisco sours.

Condos have kitchens, living areas, and TVs; the cost is $1,700 to $2,600 (£1,133-£1,733) for six people, $2,700 to $3,650 (£1,800-£2,433) for eight people; maid service is an additional $20 (£13) per day. You'll need to buy groceries in Santiago. Lift tickets are $38 to $49 (£25-£33) for adults, $31 to $39 (£21-£26) for children. For more information, contact the resort (tel. 2/431-0420 in Santiago, or 2/220-9530 direct; fax 2/264-1575; www.laparva.cl).

El Colorado & Farellones

Farellones is a sprawl of chalets and small businesses spread across a ridge below the ski area El Colorado. This ski area is La Parva's blue-collar brother, an older, more economical option that is popular with beginning skiers, tubing aficionados, snowman builders, and the like. There is a wide variety of terrain, and fewer skiers and snowboarders on the slopes than the neighboring resorts, but the lift system is dated. If you are looking for cheaper lodging at the Three Valleys area, this is where you'll find it. There is even a backpacker's lodge.

The resort has five chair lifts and 17 surface lifts. The El Colorado Apart-Hotel is modern and clean, with two- and three-bedroom units with kitchenettes for $198 to $336 (£132-£224) per person, double occupancy, including meals. They'll also take you to Valle Nevado or La Parva if you're looking to ski there. For more information, contact the resort (tel. 2/246-3344; fax 2/206-4078; www.elcolorado.cl). In Farallones there is a backpacker's lodge with very basic accommodations, the Refugio Alemán, Cóndores 1451 (tel. 2/264-9899; www.refugioaleman.cl), with shared accommodations in rooms with four, five, and six beds for $40 (£27) per person per night, which includes breakfast and dinner.

Backcountry Bliss

Skiing beyond the cordoned-off limits of a commercial resort and into the backcountry is an awesome experience that every skier and snowboarder should try at least once in his or her life (with an experienced guide, of course). Here in Chile, it's just you, the spectacularly rugged Andean Mountains, condors soaring overhead, and lots of virgin powder snow. There are several options for backcountry skiing and snowboarding near Santiago, but you've got to be at least an intermediate/advanced level skier to join in. It's best to reserve ahead with the following companies, but sometimes they have a space open at the last moment.

  • Ski Arpa (tel. 802/904-6798 in the U.S.; www.skiarpa.com), located just outside San Esteban, about 2 hours north of Santiago and owned by Austrian Toni Sponar, has two Snowcats, based at a picturesque mountain refuge at 2,700m (8,825 ft.), that carry skiers up to altitudes as high as 3,750m (12,500 ft.). At the top, Mt. Aconcagua, the highest in the Americas, rises in the near distance. Ski Arpa offers day trips from Santiago, and multiday trips with lodging at the Casa St. Regis or Termas de Jahuel; cost for a day trip is $100 (£67) per person, based on four people, for a total of four runs, with an additional flat fee of $100 (£67) for a guide. Round-trip transportation from Santiago is available and costs extra if you do not have a rental vehicle.
  • Chile Unlimited (tel. 08/429-6319; www.chileunlimited.com) is run by an American expat with more than a decade customizing heliski trips throughout the Central Valley region, including Cajón de Maipo and even as far as Termas de Chillan. Guests can lodge in Santiago and head up for the day, or they can book a private home or lodge in the Andes. Chile Unlimited also runs Andes Snowboard Clincs -- check the website for more information.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.