Apart from a few well-known destinations like Chile’s Portillo and Argentina’s Barilloche, many of us don’t know much about the skiing and snowboarding scene down in South America (or up, depending on which way you choose to look at the planet), how easy it is to get there, and what you’ll find when you do!
If you’re planning a trip South of the Equator to the steep slopes of the Andes Mountains, here are a few tips to help you decide where to go.
2. Despite the misconception that South America is a late-comer to the world of skiing, people there have been sliding downhill as long as anywhere else. Some of the earliest reports are from the late 19th century when immigrant railway construction workers used to ride the new train lines uphill, and then ski back down.
3. There are about 40 ski areas in South America, ranging from fairly basic hills to world-famous resorts that can be placed on a similar scale with medium-large Colorado resorts in terms of extent, uplift and vertical.
4. Season snowfall averages typically fall between 13 and 26 feet, although one resort claims an average of 33 feet.
Ski South America’s Big Names
Which terrain you’ll enjoy most is a matter of personal taste, but here’s a quick run down of six of the biggest names in South American skiing:
1. Valle Nevado, Chile
Designed with French inspiration in the late 1980s, Valle Nevado has rapidly expanded, thanks in part to its close proximity to the Chilean capital of Santiago. The road up to the resort is famously scary for its hairpin turns, but was recently upgraded to allow for easier access.Last season, Valle Nevado installed the country’s first gondola lift and continues to improve its facilities.
*Valle Nevado is linked by lifts to neighboring ski areas El Colorado and La Parva, creating a combined area of more than 100 runs served by nearly 50 lifts. It is marketed as ‘The 3 Valleys of the Andes,” and boasts a tremendous amount of inbound terrain.
2. Catedral, Argentina
With summits resembling a gothic church, Cerro Catedral claims to be the biggest ski area in South America – and it definitely has the stats to back it up! It was the first resort established in Argentina in 1936 and it’s located close to the well-known ski town, Bailoche. With Swiss inspiration, Catedral is one of only a handful of South American ski areas to have a village at the base.
3. Portillo, Chile
Established in 1949, Portillo is, for most people, the best-known ski area in South America. Pros from the World Cup ski teams all meet up to enjoy the snow, food, and each other’s company in a timeless resort sometimes called “the cruise ship of the mountains.”
Along with awesome terrain, Portillo has had many claims to fame over the years. The 1966 Ski World Championships were staged here, speed skiing records have been set here, and a lift that is unique to Portillo (the slightly catapult-like Va et Vient) was designed by the man behind the Poma Lift Company.
Portillo is probably your best bet for a classic North American style ski holiday in the Andes. Service standards are a high priority, with one employee for every guest.
4. Las Lenas, Argentina
Established in 1983, Las Lenas is one of the newer resorts on the continent, located 750 miles from the capital of Buenos Aires. It has a glamorous reputation, earning the accolade “the Chamonix of the Southern Hemisphere.”
Those who’ve been to Las Lenas rank it with the likes of Jackson Hole, and for many South American ski fans it’s the best of the best, with its vast expanses of freeride terrain. Unfortunately, the resort’s Marte Lift is one of the only ways to reach the more exciting terrain, and it can close in very windy conditions.
5. Nevados de Chillán, Chile
Celebrating 30 years of business this Winter, Nevados is one of South America’s newer ski areas. Some 300 miles south of Santiago, it is home to the continent’s longest lift (the 1.6 mile long Don Otto chair) and the longest ski run (4.6 miles). Heliskiing also enables skiers & riders to access and explore an additional 10,000 hectares of terrain. Unfortunately, similar to Las Lenas, the lifts can sometimes close due to wind.
6. Cerro Castor, Argentina
Located in Tiera del Fuego at the very bottom end of the continent, Cerro Castor is the most southern major ski area in the Americas.
Although there has been skiing in this region for decades, Cerro Castor in its modern form is also one of the world’s newest ski areas. It was established with the aid of three quad chairlifts that were imported from the tiny European principality of Andorra just over a decade ago.
The ski area has grown considerably and in 2015 will host the global Interski Championships, putting it on the world map.
Eight More Areas Worthy of Mention…
1. El Colorado, Chile: One of Chile’s larger ski areas with 18 operating lifts.
2. La Parva, Chile: One of the continent’s older ski areas that was built by Europeans more than 60 years ago. It is also one of Chile’s highest resorts and home to the country’s first quad chairlift.
3. Los Penitentes, Argentina: A mid-sized ski resort, established 35 years ago on the international highway between Chile and Argentina. Only 20 miles east of Portillo, it attracts skiers from the local cities of Mendoza and Buenos Aires.
4. Corralco, Chile: Established fewer than 30 years ago, Corralco offers six lifts and a five star hotel.
5. Villarica – Pucón, Chile: South America’s highest ski area is also one of its oldest, established more than 65 years ago. Because it’s located in an earthquake zone, rubber sections in the ski lift towers absorb any earth tremors.
6. Chapelco, Argentina: A large, modern ski area serviced by what was originally South America’s only gondola lift (before Valle Nevado built their more advanced one).
7. Volcán Osorno, Chile: The continent’s newest resort, opened just last year.
8. Chapa Verde, Chile: The former private ski club for the managers of the local copper mine. Chapa Verde offers classic, expert, off-piste ski terrain, trails for all standards, and spectacular views across the Andes.