What serious skier or snowboarder hasn’t daydreamed of riding pristine powder in August?
Massive mountains, friendly people, and lift-serviced terrain–it seems too good to be true. In reality, however, South America serves up just that, and is only an overnight flight away. For the intrepid rider, there may be no better adventure than leaving North America’s sweltering heat behind and heading for the Andes.
While all this is seemingly at one’s fingertips, there is some legwork that needs to be done before hopping on Delta 147 to Santiago, Chile. Good snow does await powder-starved riders from the northern hemisphere, but it doesn’t come without some serious planning. Plus, there’s a web of cultural and logistical problems that need to be navigated before one even gets to the slopes. But, with a little due diligence, some patience and a bit of luck, there’s no reason that this summer can’t make up for last winter’s missed powder days.
Photo Credit: Griffin Post
Like every ski or snowboard trip, timing is everything and there are no guarantees when it comes to snow quality down south. That said, there are ways to hedge one’s bets. After a half-dozen trips in South America, this is the way that I’ve come to think about the southern hemisphere’s abbreviated winter: July is comparable to December, August is comparable to February, and September is comparable to April. That is, July has the best odds for light powder but at the risk of a shallow base, August generally has the best odds for powder with a decent base, and September is the month for corn with diminishing chances for powder as the month goes on. Of course, there are always exceptions.
One period to avoid is South America’s winter break, which usually falls in the mid to late July. Not only are the resorts more crowded, prices are significantly higher.
The odds of picking a one-week window in South America and hitting fresh powder are pretty slim; therefore, budget as much time as possible. A longer trip gives you some options to explore other areas, chasing the snow where it’s flying. Also, keep in mind most resorts offer Saturday-to-Saturday lodging discounts, so schedule flights accordingly.
While gringos who speak hardly a lick of Spanish can get by, what better opportunity to brush off those mental cobwebs from high school Spanish class? Take the time to learn some basic phrases, which can go a long way in getting around, ordering food and generally disarming people. Although your Spanish may not be perfect, a little effort and whatever you can absorb during a quick crash course (no pun intended) on the flight down can go a long way with locals.
Although the cost of living is significantly cheaper in urban areas, particularly in Argentina, around the resorts things have gotten quite expensive. Anticipate paying prices that are similar to US resorts at better-known destinations. It’s not uncommon for lift tickets to run between $80 and $100 during high season.
Location: Valle Nevado. Photo Credit: Valle Nevado Resort
ATMs are readily available throughout the majority of snow destinations in South America and represent the easiest and cheapest way to get your hands on local currency. While most ATMs are compatible with US debit cards, there’s the occasional exception; be sure to check with your bank before you leave. Also, unlike most US ATMs, you must ask to retrieve your card after you receive your cash. Do not make the mistake of taking your cash and forgetting your card.
Theft can be a major concern when traveling in South America, particularly in crowded urban areas such as bus stations and airports. Be proactive about managing your gear and limit opportunities for would-be thieves. Keep all valuables such as computers and cameras on you if possible; consider your passport your greatest valuable of all. As a gringo traveling with a lot of luggage you’re going to be a target, just try to make the bull’s-eye as small as possible.
While renting gear is possible in South America, don’t count on getting anything top of the line. If it’s not possible to bring all of your equipment, at a bare minimum bring your own boots. Nothing can spoils a good trip like making every turn in several-year-old, stinky rental boots.
Once you’re down there, getting around by bus is cheap and surprisingly comfortable. Unlike many buses in North America, buses in South America are built for comfort, with many offering fully reclining seats. Renting a car or hiring a private shuttle are other options, but are exponentially more expensive than public transportation. The one drawback of bus travel is the de facto requirement of hanging out in bus stations, which are prime stomping grounds for thieves.
Chile and Argentina are the major destinations for skiers and riders in South America, and each has its advantages and drawbacks. Resorts in Chile, particularly those around Santiago, are easier to get to and the country tends to be safer in general. On the other hand, while more difficult to get to, resorts in Argentina boast better terrain, but also have the ever-present “A-factor,” shorthand for what seems to be a countrywide Murphy’s Law. Here are things to consider about each destination before buying a plane ticket.
The surrounding view from La Parva Resort. Photo Credit: La Parva Resort
Fly into Santiago for easy access to the resorts of Ski Arpa, La Parva, El Colorado, Valle Nevado and Portillo, or take a bus several hours south to Nevados de Chillán, a much more low-key resort away from the smog and cluster of the capital. Santiago, with all the amenities of a metropolis, is a perfect jumping-off point for any adventure in Chile.
A visa is not needed for stays of 90 days or less; the only official document (aside from a valid passport) that is required is a tourist card. This is a small form that you will be given on your flight. Present this form to the customs agent, and then be sure to retain the yellow portion of the form–this is required to leave the country. Also, this form exempts you from an 18% sales tax at any hotels you may stay at during your visit.
Formerly known as Termas de Chillán, Nevados de Chillán gets some of the best powder in the country, serves up alpine powder runs when the sky is blue and phenomenal tree skiing when it’s storming. Although a day’s drive south of Santiago, the secluded resorts offers a break from the crowds around the city. Plus, hot springs at the base of the mountain will redefine your idea of après.
Located about an hour from Santiago are the resorts of La Parva, El Colorado and Valle Nevado. The three resorts provide access to just about every type of terrain imaginable. While the resorts are technically interconnected, a lift ticket that covers all three is pricey, and travel between the resorts can be challenging. However, there are no closer ski resorts to a major airport in South America than Tres Valles, so if time is an issue these resorts are your best bet.
The Valle Nevado Resort. Photo Credit: Valle Nevado Resort
Photo Credit: Valle Nevado Resort
Perhaps the most well-known of all the resorts in Chile, Portillo has become an icon for skiing in South America. Located about an hour and a half north of Santiago, the resort offers some of the most versatile, least crowded terrain in the Andes. However, day trips from Santiago are difficult to pull off and staying at the resort can be expensive, but if you have the coin–or the patience for long van rides–the trip is well worth it.
For a completely unique ski experience, check out Ski Arpa’s cat skiing operation. Located about 100km from Santiago, Arpa offers cat-assisted powder descents in the shadow of Acconcagua. While a bit more of an adventure to get to than other resorts around Santiago, you’ll remember a day at Ski Arpa for the rest of your life.
Fly into either Mendoza or Bariloche for the quickest access to major resorts, or fly into Buenos Aires and hop on a bus to one of those destinations if money takes precedent over time. Mendoza is a great place to spend an afternoon touring the vineyards before catching an overnight bus to Las Leñas and the lakeside town of Bariloche. It’s right next to the resort of Cerro Catedral and within a short bus ride to San Martín de los Andes.
No visas or fees are required for stays of less than 90 days.
Long hailed as the capital for lift-serviced big mountain terrain in Argentina, Las Leñas delivers the goods more so than any other resort in Argentina when it’s firing. That said, Las Leñas isn’t without its drawbacks. The resort is extremely isolated and can be pricey if you don’t have time to sniff out deals. Also, the Marte Chair, which accesses by far and away the best terrain on the mountain, is subject to frequent closures due to high winds, too much snow, not enough snow, or a variety of other reasons that can simply be attributed to the “A-Factor.” However, if the stars line up for you, Las Leñas has some of the best lift-accessed skiing not only in the Andes, but also in the world.
The famous Marte double chair at Las Leñas accesses close to 15 miles of skiable terrain. Photo Credit: Griffin Post
Surrounded by beautiful mountain lakes in Argentinean Patagonia, Cerro Catedral has one of the most spectacular panoramas of all the resorts in the Andes. While its terrain may not be as rugged and extreme as some other resorts in South America, the resort does offer bountiful tree skiing on storm days–something that many of the resorts in the Andes lack. Plus, the nearby town of Bariloche provides affordable lodging and eating options, in addition to top-notch nightlife.
Also located in Argentinean Patagonia, Chapelco offers similar vistas to Cerro Cateral, but on a bit smaller scale. The nearby town of San Martín de los Andes has a quaint resort-town feel, but with most of the amenities of a larger town. While the skiing and snowboarding might not be as spectacular as other, larger resorts in Argentina, the atmosphere of the area more than makes up for whatever the resort may lack in terrain.
Overall, an adventure to South America needs to be treated like just that: an adventure. Perhaps more so than snow-based adventures in other parts of the world, trips to South America come with a lot of misadventures along the way. The trick is to adapt, not fight problems you may encounter. If you can take these idiosyncrasies in stride, they should make the journey that much more memorable.