When you’re facing out across the mighty Pacific Ocean from Santiago, it’s an impressive sight: thousands upon thousands of miles of uninterrupted briney. It’s a sobering thought if you’ve just discoed yourself seasick in the hotspots of Chile’s capital. What you’ve turned your back on in the meantime is one of the planet’s truly great mountain ranges, the Andes. These mountains confine Chile to a mere fingerhold on the continent for 2,500 miles of the country’s length and more or less isolate it from the rest of South America.
If you decide, and you really should, to sample some of the skiing you might get some idea of just how big a barrier the Andes is to cross-border cultural exchange. The height is also confirmed simply by listening to the wheezing of the massive trucks as they grind their way up past Portillo to the Argentine border. That’s if you can hear anything over the pounding of your own heart and the wheezing of your own air-intake manifold.
So is the skiing any different in Portillo from say, France? Blimey, not half. This tiny little resort sits beside a lake and between two of the daftest ski lifts you’ll ever see. El Condor and Roca Jack are the closest you will ever get to being a human cannonball, or rather, fired from a shotgun. On the Condor, four of you get catapulted up a couple of hundred metres on an insane, bouncing, elbowing, giggling, nervous joyride. They tell you how to handle the take-off but not the arrival. They have no air traffic control in Portillo. But you do get the hang of it and you should get the hang of it on the Condor before you try Roca Jack. Gee whizz! I don’t know who Roca Jack was, but he should be ashamed.
Aside from these two unique and crazy ski lifts, Portillo offers heli-skiing the Andean way: on a Lama. Okay, it is a type of helicopter not a relative of the camel. They can take you to unmarked slopes descending an average 750m from a 4,250m drop-off.
The terrain can be alpine bowls or couloirs and in case you’re wondering, the guides are Canadian trained and safety has the highest priority. If you like your skiing spooky then I can recommend some of those couloirs. How many turn-in-the-fall-line-or-die turns can you do at 4,250m?
The closest you’ll get to a European ski resort is Valle Nevado. It’s kind of Trois Valleé-ish in its appearance but small and perfectly formed. This is a busy, bustling place on a weekend and there’s plenty happening in the few big hotels at the resort base. The snow cover is extensive here: utterly different form Portillo (no condors, except, maybe, flying overhead) and the runs offer massive scope for cruising. Over the other side you can slide to La Parva, a sweet little resort with views of people in the Santiago smog staring at the Pacific.
Valle Nevada only has a few hotels and consequently only so many beds, so the slopes are never really busy and lift lines are generally short either side of lunchtime.
Now, call me a softie; all of the above is all very well but I have to say that my favourite Chilean skiing was Termas de Chillán. I completely made a pig of myself in the Gran Hotel, a spa hotel with a major thermal spring thing going for it. Massage, soak, Chilean wine, Chilean food! Crikey, it makes finishing the day’s skiing or boarding all worthwhile.
Skiing out from the hotel, you’re not in the chairlift long before you spot where all the hot spring water is coming from – the fissures in the volcano down which you’re about to slide. You quickly get used to the sulphurous pong on the mountain and if your sinuses ever give you bother then here’s a real opportunity to show them
The best thing about Chilean mountain resorts is the food and wine. Between Santiago and the mountains the Chilean farmers preside over a fecund plain, a vast market garden and vineyard. Skiing in Chile for the Chileans is a rich man’s sport. For Europeans the cost is more than easy to bear considering the service levels. It works out about the same as Austria. Valle Nevada, for instance, may look a little bit French but in the restaurants it couldn’t be less French if it tried. Service you see... does it every time.
Crystal offer packages to Portillo and Valle Nevado. www.crystalski.co.uk