With the end of the Northern winter, I’m thinking about an endless ski season, one that seemlessly moves from winter to winter, from north to south and lands me high in the Andes. Today, I ask: Why Ski South America?
Ask the Experts
To get answers, I turned to four experts with extensive South American experience.
Robin Barnes is the Director of the Portillo Ski School in Chile. You may remember her from my article on the benefits of women taking lessons from female instructors and skiing with other women.
John Clendenin is a world champion freestyle skier and the creator of the Clendenin Ski Method. I went to one of his camps in Aspen this season. This September will mark CSM’s 12th year at Portillo.
Scotty McGee is the Nordic Team Coach for PSIA and an instructor at a big mountain telemark camp in Patagonia. Scotty has helped me with several articles, including “Take Your Tele Skills to the Next Level.” Most recently, I reviewed his new guidebook to Nordic skiing.
Diego Allolio is a honest-to-goodness Argentinian, a long time NOLS instructor and the founder of Magellenica, an outdoor adventure travel company.
Okay, So WHY Ski South America?
1. Bragging Rights.
Let’s face it. We skiers are not humble. We are passionate about our sport, we talk about it, read about it and, yes, post about it. Skiing is a sport that inspires emotions ranging to from pure joy to pure jealousy.
And while it’s fun to make your friends and family jealous, it’s even more fun to be skiing when you would ordinarily be lying on the beach or sweating over your mountain bike.
As John Clendenin put it, “It feels great to say ‘It’s September and I’m skiing!'”
2. Good Snow. Outstanding Terrain. Natural Beauty.
That said, you can ski in North America during the summer, most notably at Mount Hood. But unless you’re there for race camp, the experience is limited. Thus, if you’re looking for powder and a wide variety of terrain you need to go where it’s winter.
As for terrain, the Andes have a reputation for being steep, but this shouldn’t discourage anyone. South American resorts have terrain for skiers of all abilities and ages. There is something for everyone.
The Andes also have a reputation for being high. Portillo’s base is at 8,360 feet, with the summit at 10,860. While these are high elevations, they are no higher than most Colorado resorts. The difference is in what surrounds the resort.
“There’s no place on earth (I know of) where you can have an authentic meal at 10,000 feet and be surrounded by peaks that rise an additional 7,000 feet,” explains John Clendenin.
Summing it up, Diego Allolio puts it this way,
Skiing in South America is different. The terrain is big and high at the central Andes. In the Lake District, you ski amidst lakes, broad leaf trees and araucarias (a South American evergreen) all in close proximity to hot springs. The snow isn’t the driest on the planet, but the whole experience makes it once in a lifetime.
3. ¿Necesito hablar en Español?
No, you don’t have to speak Spanish. English is spoken at South American ski resorts and all resorts have English-speaking instructors. But everyone suggests that you try. As with travel in any country, the locals appreciate it when you recognize their culture and try to speak their language.
But just because you can speak and hear English in South America, don’t expect a North American-style experience. Chile and Argentina are known for warm hospitality, fantastic local food and wine and a slower pace of service and life. As with skiing in the Alps, take time to slow down, enjoy the vistas, the snow and the long meals. Skiing in South America is a holiday, not an endurance contest. “Slow down, smell the flowers, learn a couple of new words and it’ll all work out just fine,” advises Robin Barnes.
4. It’s Surprisingly Close.
If you’re looking for summer skiing, South America is the easiest and closest destination from North America. Jet lag is minimal. For example, Santiago, Chile is three hours ahead of Denver, Colorado. Compare that to Queenstown, New Zealand which is 18 hours ahead!
When, Where and How?
According to Robin Barnes, the best conditions at Portillo are in August and September. August, which is the equivalent of our February, can see a lot of big storms, while September can go either way with lots of powder or spring corn snow.
Pick A Resort.
As you might guess, Portillo is near the top of most everyone’s list. A world-famous resort, Portillo hosts the U.S. Ski Team, and other national teams, for summer training.
Because Portillo has only one hotel that holds about 400 people, you’ll be rubbing shoulders, and sharing the slopes, with international skiing champions, as well as other skiers from across the world. Day traffic is limited, so its like you’re at a private resort.
For a different feel, try Valle Nevado near Santiago. With many hotels and restaurants, Valle Nevado has a Chilean clientele, many of whom come from Santiago.
Las Leñas, Argentina is recommended for its challenging terrain, while other resorts mentioned by my experts include La Parva, Vilarrica, Termas del Chillán, Las Araucarias, Antillanca, Osorno, Chapelco, Cerro Bayo, Catedral Alta Patagonia, La Hoya and Cerro Castor in Tierra del Fuego.
Oh yes, and Diego Allolio also mentioned extensive backcountry terrain. There is clearly no shortage of South American skiing.
Solo or Group?
Once you’ve decided to ski in South America, you’ve got to decide if you’re going with a group or camp or if you’re traveling independently.
If you’re a confident, experienced traveler, independent travel is said to be quite easy.
If you want someone to help take care of all the details or you’re looking for a week of instruction, a group or camp might be your best option.
“Either way you go, you’ll make new friends,” shares Scotty McGee, “and hopefully have fun with them ripping around at new area, in a different country, on another continent.”
Camp Shout Outs
There are many options, but I know the leaders for both of these camps and give them high marks.
Magellenica Patagonia Telemark Camp at Cerro Bayo and Catedral Alta Patagonia, Argentina. Led by Scotty McGee, the camp is for intermediate to expert tele skiers who aspire to move from resort to backcountry terrain. Depending upon the size of your group, Scotty will work with you to design the perfect schedule combining top-notch instruction and skiing, with time for visiting other parts of Argentina.
Clendenin Ski Method Camp at Portillo. I’ve got first-hand experience with John’s Aspen camp: Good people, great instruction with the Clendenin Ski Method, and tons of fun. Throw in some pisco sours, Portillo’s awe-inspiring terrain, and some fine Chilean seafood and you’ve got yourself the alpine skiing adventure of a lifetime.
Who wouldn’t want to ski South America?
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