Talk with Dr. Lou Alpern, an eye surgeon in El Paso, Texas, and he'll give you a dozen good reasons to ski South America in the summertime. With a season that runs from early June through mid-September, skiing can be an intriguing alternative to the traditional beach vacation.
"The grooming is great, there are nice long cruisers like the ones at Deer Valley, Utah, and then there's also the fact that it's usually 110 degrees here in El Paso when I go down to Chile in August."
Alpern, who has skied the neighboring Chilean resorts of Valle Nevado and La Parva five times, has become a devoted South American skier. During the average winter, he gets in maybe 20 domestic ski days, hitting Utah resorts such as Park City, Deer Valley, Solitude and Brighton, with a few days at his "home peak," nine-hour-distant Ski Apache, N.M. But every other year, he and his family head to Chile for a vacation they all look forward to.
The family stays at the Hotel Puerta del Sol in Valle Nevado, not the most expensive hotel but one of the best values. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all rolled into the room rate, as are afternoon finger sandwiches and hot chocolate, an experience he likens to "being on a cruise ship."
Likewise for John Leathers, a Pittsburgh lawyer who gets in 30 days a year in Colorado at resorts such as Crested Butte, Keystone and Aspen. Leathers has made South America a regular summer destination. "It's tremendously friendly and very safe," he reports. And he should know: He's been to Chile and Argentina seven times now.
"I'm an upper-level intermediate," Leathers says. "I just like to cruise, but there's plenty of off-piste stuff everywhere. I book a package, and it's seamless. I don't like the jetlag you get when you fly to New Zealand, but it's not a problem here because you fly due south. Valle Nevado happens to be in the same time zone as Pittsburgh."
Nor is language a problem—even for those who don't speak Spanish. "My Spanish isn't very good," admits Leathers. "In fact, it's really guidebook level, but you always find people who speak English."
Alpern, on the other hand, views the trip south as an opportunity to brush up on language skills and broaden cultural horizons. "I speak Spanish, and it's a good place for the kids to practice theirs."
The point being you don't have to be a linguist or an off-piste aficionado to have a good time. There are groomed runs, as well as steeps and chutes, urban sidetrips and the plush South American lifestyle that Brazilians, Chileans and Argentineans value.
Nor does a South American ski adventure have to break the bank. Sure, skiing there will probably cost you more than a trip to the Rockies or Europe in mid-winter. The average cost, in-cluding airfare, hotel, transfers, lift tickets and most meals, runs about $1,800-$2,000 for seven nights. But by taking advantage of low-season airfares, using air and hotel packages, and putting frequent-flier miles to work, you can turn the ski trip of a lifetime into an affordable summertime habit.
Start in Argentina, where Valle de Las Leñas is the first and only choice for many North American skiers. They are attracted by the 40 miles of marked trails and expansive off-piste terrain, which exceeds any single North American resort. Completely above treeline, it boasts steeps reminiscent of Verbier, Switz., and Chamonix, France, with lots of off-piste possibilities. There's a vigorous night-life, including a casino, but it is a stand-alone resort, with no town.
"I like Argentina better as a country than Chile," says Leathers. "If you want to spend a couple of days in a city, then Buenos Aires is the choice. It's a very European city and a pleasant place to be—a lot like Madrid. On the other hand, I find that the skiing in Argentina can be a bit spottier than in Chile because it's on the backside of that moisture hitting the Andes."
If you're Argentina-minded, consider San Carlos de Bariloche, the only town in South Ammerica with a real ski culture, not to mention Swiss-style architecture and a jet-set component. Here, you have the option of staying in town or staying at Gran Catedral, Bariloche's main ski mountain, with 3,400 feet of vertical and 1,600 skiable acres, just 8 miles from town. You might also consider 6,528-foot-high Chapelco and the resort town of St. Martin de Los Andes, a spectacular 75-mile drive north of Bariloche. It's low-key and usually done as an add-on to Bariloche.
In Chile, many North American skiers head to Portillo, South America's oldest ski resort. It's not a town per se but a self-contained hotel that offers a kind of all-inclusive Club-Med-type experience. With a summit elevation that tops out at 10,981 feet, all of the skiing is above treeline, and liftlines are rare because the only skiers are resort guests. It has plenty of steeps, but only so much intermediate skiing. Skiers such as Leathers, who prefer groomers, nix Portillo because it's too small for an entire week. "After two or three days, you've exhausted our level," he says.
That's why he heads to Valle Nevado, Chile, which is perched above treeline on top of a mountain. At this modern inverted resort, you sleep at about 12,000 feet and then ski down. It's 45 miles and a 90-minute drive from Santiago and, depending on ski-resort agreements, you can buy a combination lift ticket here for $48 to ski the adjacent resorts of La Parva and El Colorado. Combined they form one of South America's largest lift-connected complexes.
"They tend to groom the long, blue cruisers really well," says Alpern. "And it's easy to get first tracks. The slopes open at 9 am, and the only folks putting boots on at that hour are Americans. There are many Brazilians, but they only ski a few hours a day, take long lunches and then may or may not ski after lunch. Americans, on the other hand, extract every possible run."
Alpern also likes La Parva, for its long runs and good snow, but warns that, "You're spoiled if you ski Deer Valley or Park City. High-speed quads haven't made it here yet."
While much is made of the fact that you can leave Miami at 10 pm, get to Santiago by 7 am, and be skiing La Parva or Valle Nevado by afternoon, Alpern rolls out a little medical advice against it.
"You're in a totally different environment, and you're very, very high. You have to spend a little more time recuperating between runs or you're going to get a monster headache."
Finally, there's also Termas de Chillan, with a summit elevation of 8,200 feet, some 300 miles south of Santiago via a connecting flight. Its 19,000 skiable acres, 2,700 feet of vertical and Las Tres Marias, an 8-mile trail, beckon adventurers. Thermal pools lure the common traveler.
The Gran Hotel Termas de Chillan is "fabulous," raves Leathers. "This is lake country and resembles the Tahoe area, so they can get heavy, wet snow, and they can get rain. It reminds me of Sierra Cement sometimes. But it can also be great."
Skiing and soaking aside, the only true difficulty that Northerners face in South America is getting a timely dinner. "If you're lucky, you can get served at 7:30 or 8 pm, but you'll be in an empty dining room," Alpern reports, echoing a common complaint. "The Brazilians don't even start drifting in until 10 or 10:30."