Update: It is snowing now finally on 15 August 2012 after having no snow since 2 July 2012. As of August 17 14 inches (40 cm) has fallen at the highest elevations at El Colorado.
Chile is dotted with ski resorts from Portillo to the North of Santiago, the Santiago area itself, and Southern tip of the country at Cerro Mirador from which you can ski with a view of the Straights of Magellan and the ocean. At the steep runs of Portillo there is a lake in the middle and the resort is in the shadow of the western hemisphere’s highest peak Aconcagua at 6,959 meters or 22,841 feet. Nearby is Ski Arpa where for a hefty fee they take you to the top in a snow cat where you ski pristine snow accompanied by a guide to keep you from sailing over a cliff. (Arpa says they close after heavy snow due to avalanche risk. This is understandable. An avalance wiped out their facilities and they had to rebuild.) To the North of Arpa there are no resorts since there is no rain. South of Santiago at Chillan the snow rises above the tree line to give thousands of hectares of open terrain without the possibility of crashing into a tree and after skiing you can bathe in thermal springs. Further south in the Pucon area you can skii the active, smoking volcano at Villarica at the bottom of which is a lake surrounded by black sand. The Mapuche Indians there are in open rebellion there against the government as they have been since the Spanish Conquistadors and before them the Incas neither of whom were able to subdue them. There is no danger unless you are a farmer in which case they will burn down your house.
Talk to most Chilean people and they will tell you they don’t know how to ski. Here it is considered a sport for the upper classes, because it is so expensive, and Chile is very much a culture where class matters much. But looking at the sprawling neighborhoods in the upper classes neighborhoods of Las Condes, Providencia, and Vitacura–with their bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, pricey malls, towering apartments, gated communities, and girls and boys whose faces are flush with the color of privilege–there iare plenty of people can afford to ski. So their youth head out to the slopes with their snowboards aplenty. There are lots of ski shops in Las Condes selling used equipment from the USA and new equipment too. There is even a whole mall dedicated to skiing and outdoors sports appropriately named “Mall Sport”. Used equipment is a better bargain than new for anything imported here costs twice as much as in the USA. The tourist can rent skiis here, or you can rent them on the way up, or at the ski resorts themselves.
Most of the people who go skiing here come from Brazil followed by a large contingent from the USA. You can tell the Brazilians for their women are loud speaking Portuguese at full volume. Brazilians make up the bulk of the skiers at the more upscale Santiago area resort Valley Nevado (Snow Valley) with 75% foreigners among which 80% come from Brasil. Those numbers are turned around at El Colorado where 75% of the skiiers are Chilean.
Closest to Santiago, the resorts El Colorado, La Parva, and Valle Nevado are all-side-by side so geographically they are the same–you can buy a ticket to ski all three in the same day. You ski to the top of one and and you can slide over to the other. The only thing which makes them distinct is who leases the terrain (it actually belongs to the government). In fact who leases the terrain has become something of an issue lately, a major issue for some of the hotels at El Colorado. In the arid country of Chile, as in California, you do not necessarily own the water which passes through your property. The person who owns the water rights at El Colorado says the hotels there are seriously in arrears on their bill and have cut off the water to at least one hotel.
People say that El Colorado is a family oriented resort. The upper slopes are vast and there is plenty of room to move about. There are no trees in this dry region of Chile except along the coast and in the south near Chillan and points south. The region around Santiago receives 14 inches (35 cm) of rain per year all of it falling in the winter. The temperature and preciptation is the same as Los Angeles, USA. In the Andes the snowfall is 15 to 21 feet (451 cm to 640 cm).
At the lower slopes of El Colorado you see kids snow plowing down the hill and parents assisting the little ones get their snow legs strapping them to their body seemingly before they can walk. You see beginner adults too flying down the hill out of control until they tumble head over heels and disappear in a puff of snow. One imagines the resort will dig them out sometime in the spring. Some of these people must be the same people that the snow patrol drags to the bottom in stretchers mountain on skis of which you see several per day. Last year two advanced skiers were killed one crashing into rocks and another the pole which holds up the ski lift.
El Colorado is large, larger in fact slightly larger than the somewhat pricier, fancier resort Valle Nevado. The altitude at El Colorado is slighly lower still rising to a lofty 3,400 meters (11,154 feet) so there is plenty of elevation for snow. The highest peak at Valle Nevado is 3,670 meters (12,040) feet. This is not Mammoth Mountain, California so the snow is not 50 feet deep. The resorts here say they get 21 feet of snow per year. The ride up to the resorts is usually snow free since the temperature down in the city of Santiago, some 9,000 feet below, hardly goes below freezing and usually rises to 60 degrees on most winter days. However, at the time of writing this report it is in the forties and quite cold. But there is little humidity so it is not miserable like New York, Vermont, or North Carolina.
Valle Nevado is a step up in, if not sophistication, the price. Beyond the great skiing there is a fancy French restaurant and Colombia sportswear company should you feel the need or have the ability to spend wads of cash. Looking down on it from the hotels it does look more like a valley than a slope clinging to a hillside. For something challenging you have to go beyond the Andes Express chairlift to go to the steepest slope appropriately named “adrenalina”. From the top of the Andes Express chairlift there is a very long run that is not to difficult for the moderate skier that takes you to the bottom of the resort–you have to take a narrow trail to get there. You will often find yourself alone on this long run even on busier days as most people tend to favor the run below the Mirador lift plus they might not know about that narrow trail.
The temperature in Chile is not cold compared to European or USA standards and it does not rain much so that brings into question the volume of snow at least this year. For example last week in Santiago it was cloudy and the temperature was around 10 or 11 degrees Celsius. Up at the ski resorts it was zero or 1 degree in the day. But this week in Santiago it is 21 and 23 degrees. So the resorts are quite warm at 4, 5, and even 8 degrees at the bottom and 0, 2 or 4 at the top. Up at the resorts the best snow is at the highest elevation so go to the top for the best snow. Any slope facing North will melt the fastest because of the Sun (in the Southern Hemisphere the Sun is in the North in Winter). El Colorado faces West and Southwest while Valle Nevado faces South. This suggests that Valle Nevado might be protected more from warmer temperatures. Down in Santiago we have not had rain for four weeks and none is forecast for two weeks more so they are making snow at Portillo, El Colorado, and Valle Nevado. (This is the driest July in 10 years. So the hopeu is that August snowfall will save the season.) Snow making machines working 15 hours overnight can cover to one meter deep 300 square meters which is not a lot of ground. So far this year (it is late July now) we have had about 180 cm of snowfall. Today El Colorado is describing the snow conditions as “springtime” while Valle Nevado says their snow is “powder” while in fact it is spring time conditions as well. The take away message from all of this is the resorts in Chile are open for skiing from around June 23 to October 6 but if you want to see snow piled up all around your hotel and ski back country and off the established trails then you should check the forecast.
The road up to the the ski resorts is almost vertical with winding curves certain to make one car sick. Horses and cattle wander about without fences to contain them. The government has a two year project in place starting in 2014 to straighten out the curves and improve the route. Mining trucks have run over some cars up there this year and people have protested blocking the route and setting tires afire (this is how one protests in Chile and it is a daily affair across the country). Chains (“cadenas”) are obligatory. You can rent them on the way up. The national police “carabineros” at the checkpoint on the way up will ask you if you have them even if there is no snow on the route they are required.
El Colorado has slopes for the beginner, intermediate, advanced and the expert skier. If you are of moderate ability the best way to start your day is to take the chair lift up the pinguino “penguin” slope. When you have found your footing you can ski over to the longer lift just to the right which will take you to the top at Los Leones (“The Lions”). The top of the slope is quite steep but it is easier at the bottom. From Los Leones you can ski laterally across to Condor or Cornisa. Continue your way across then circle back along moderately advanced slope toward Leones. Watch for skiers flying down the slope as you cut across. On the way down you can stop at the bar if you prefer to drink beer and ogle the girls rather than ski or if you are too tired to go back up. Of course the prices are ridiculous so it is best to carry up your own gatorade and chocolate. The newest slope at El Colorado is Los Pioneros to the right rising up to 3,400 meters (11,200 feet). On this side of the mountain you can see the El Colorado mountain (the resort whose name is the same located across from there and not on top) and see El Plomo rising to 5,434 meters (17,783 feet) which straddles the border with Argentina whose glacial topped summit you can see from Santiago. To get back to the ski lodge you will have to take the T-bar a couple of times and ski down because the bottom is below Los Leones. Some of these lifts are quite steep so don’t fall down or you will find yourself on the expert slope sailing to the bottom on your backside.
Here are some basic things to know and a little Spanish to help you
If you learned a little Spanish in college or spent time in Spain you will find none of that useful in Chile. The Spanish spoken in Chile is much different from that spoken elsewhere and even people from Mexico have a hard time understanding what the Chileans say. Made more difficult is that the upper class people here speak differently than do the lower classs. Part of this difference is the speed by which they talk and the idioms they use. You will find all of this indecipherable. Argentines too are difficult to understand whose accent sounds much like Italian. About the only Spanish you might understand here is the Mexican broadcasters who narrative the Discovery, History, and National Geographic channels because they speak slow and use the kind of Spanish you would find in the text books.
At El Colorado you buy your lift ticket from the windows to the right when you ascend the steps. Then you take your ticket to the chair lift (“andarivelas” means any kind of lift and chairlift is “telesillas” while the T-bar is just “T-bar”). There a girl with give you a plastic strip and attach it to your jacket. In Chile women do these things.
The slopes are called “pistas”. Skis are called “esquis” while to ski is “esquiar”. Ski poles are called “bastones”. Snow is “nieve”. The weather forecast is the “el prognostico”.
A van is called a “furgon”. Vans leave from the Centro Commercial Omnium near the Escuela Militar metro. This small place with a grand name is really just a small strip of shops so somewhat hard to find.
A ticket is a “tiket”. If you are Chilean or know a Chilean there are lots of discount programs during the week. For example if you subscribe to the newspaper or have a cell phone there are 20%, 30%, and even 50% discounts. Of course on the weekend all that goes out the window as people who must work for a living pay full price. Senior citizens get a 70% discount so it pays to be old.
For whatever reason Chilean people do not like to share chair lifts so that makes it difficult to pick up “chicas”. And rarely do they encourage people to triple up as the line is not long.
To rent is “arrendar”. A round trip ticket is called “ida y la vuelta”.
You will easily burn in the sun so take sunblock “bloquedor”.