You might more closely associate South America with tropical jungle and beaches, but the Andes in Chile and Argentina offer some top ski resorts that are ripe to discover. If you want to hit the powder, here is our guide to the best South American ski resorts in both Chile and Argentina:
Right on the cusp of Argentina, is El Portillo. The first ski resort established in South America, El Portillo is just 10 minutes from the border of Argentina tucked up high in the Andes – about 2 hours from Santiago. Well equipped with 34 pistes for skiers and snowboarders of all levels, as well as an outdoor heated swimming pool, yoga classes, a nightclub and a 3D cinema. The best time to visit for wine lovers though is during their well established Wine Week and Wine Fest for two weeks during August where every night during the week some of Chile’s top wineries are invited to warm up the crowd with some of their finest wines and a charm during two weeks in August.
The closest and most convenient though is Valle Nevado. After driving an hour and a half east from Santiago along a precipitous, serpentine road, the quasi-modernist Hotel Valle Nevado pops up over a rolling hill. It’s not an attractive building, and the stark contrast it creates with its high-altitude setting gives it the look of a moon-base. But Valle Nevado makes up for its architectural shortcomings with its high, snow-sure slopes, miles of intermediate terrain and broad, easy-to-access bowls for off-piste skiers. Intermediates and beginners can ski for miles without crossing their own track, and while experts may have to search around with a bit more effort than they would in Portillo — or even in neighboring La Parva — there’s still much fun to be had for the hardcore crowd. On the south-facing slopes above the hotel, advanced skiers can traverse to their right from the top of the Andes Express lift and ski a series of steep faces leading eventually down to a deep natural halfpipe called “La Garganta de Bruja,” or The Witch’s Throat by locals.
Only two and a half hours from Mendoza, what Los Penitentes lacks in size and glamour, it makes up for ten-fold in scenery and accessibility. Named after a row of monk-shaped peaks in the mountains, this tiny village could not be more conveniently located as it is literally bisected by the main road to Chile (165km west of Mendoza City). With a base altitude of 2580m rising to 3200m, these powdery slopes provide tremendous opportunities for all levels to downhill or cross-country ski and snowboard. The resort has a total of 28 runs, 11 of which have been approved by the International Ski Federation. All vary in difficulty, and stretch a total of 22 kilometers that cover around 300 hectares of mountainous slope. The best spot to stay here to take advantage of the snow is Hotel Ayelen, run by expat couple Steve and Mecha who will warm you up apres-ski with Malbec and whisky.
Next door is Los Puquios (Parque de Nieve), an unpretentious and family friendly ‘snow park’ with a large variety of other activities on offer. If you don’t want to ski or snowboard on their smaller runs but like to stay on your feet you can have a go at snow shoeing, which is basically trekking around the resort with shoes similar to tennis rackets on your feet, or you could try your hand at ice skating in the small outdoor ice rink. For those of us who quite like to use their bottom as a snow cushion there are a couple of fun options, and don’t trick yourself into thinking they are just for children. Try out the culi-patin (literal translation butt skating) for a surprising adrenaline rush throwing yourself down a large hill on slippery plastic sledges, or go ‘tubing’ and sit your derrier in a large inflatable rubber tyre as you slide down the slopes. There are also play areas for the rug rats to make snowmen and throw snowballs at each other, while the adults sit back with a beer or homemade rustic argentine food at the resto-bar nearby.
The original ski spot near Mendoza is Vallecitos – this is where Mendocino ski history began. It is the province’s oldest ski centre, nestled into the stunning Cordon de Plata mountain range at an altitude of 2,900m (rising to 3,200 for the highest run). 80km south west of Mendoza City and just 16km past Potrerillos, it is perfect for day trips or one night stays when there is a heavy fall of snow. (Note: It only opens on very snow heavy years.)
San Rafael and Uco Valley, Argentina
Las Leñas lies 445km south of Mendoza City in the heart of the Andes. This is the biggest, the best, and by far the most expensive of the resorts in the area. It attracts snow starved enthusiasts from the north who can´t bear the thought of a summer without snow, along with well-heeled Argentines who ski by day and party by night. Las Leñas has a total of 35 marked runs that cover a distance of about 64km, the highest of which reaches 3,430m. Of these runs, 30% are to be considered beginner, 25% intermediate, 20% black and another 25% double black. One run even includes the added spectacle of lights and music to accompany your ride. For those craving more adventure than a double-black can offer, there are said to be around 4,000 hectares of off-peak slope. Keep on eye on the forecast because if it starts snowing, staff close all but 2 lifts inciting dreadful hour-long lines at the base. The village at Las Leñas’ base contains modern luxury hotels, restaurants, casinos, nightclubs and of course a multilingual ski school. If you decide to stay in nearby Malargue (70km) you get a 50% discount on the lifts. Buses leave regularly from the Mendoza bus terminal, and from the Uco Valley you are only an hour away.
The southernmost slopes in the world, Cerro Castor is just 26km from Ushuaia and usually has guaranteed snow till October – which, considering the season started in June, makes it one of the longest ski season’s in Argentina. This area has become one of the favourite spots for European professionals who come here during their Summer for excellent off-piste skiing and no risk of the altitude sickness which can sometimes affect sportsmen in the higher Andes slopes. With 10 lifts and 28 trails, there is plenty of white stuff to explore and a snow park to keep you in training on your skis or snowboards. This is also a favourite spot for alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, sledding, dog sledding and snowshoes, and its fabulous location tucked between forests makes it picture perfect.
There is a ski lodge on site but you’ll have more fun staying in one of the many accommodation options in Ushuaia. The city is a year-round destination for wildlife spotting and getting that all-important passport stamp from ‘the end of the world’. Renowned for the fabulous centolla (king crab), other shellfish and rich Patagonian lamb, most après-ski action in Ushuaia involves eating and drinking while staying warm in the many restaurants. Other attractions are the museums, the train at the end of the world, and the spectacular Tierra del Fuego National Park. Whether you want to stay in the city or in one of the host of more luxury options on the hillsides surrounding the port, there are plenty of places to choose from: Arakur is the newest and flashiest hotel in Ushuaia with stunning bay views and an indoor-outdoor pool in the middle of a nature reserve; Los Caquenes Spa and Resort offers a handsome vantage point along the Beagle Channel and a well equipped spa as well as their own private boat for excursions into the Channel to visit the wildlife; and Cumbres del Martial offers quaint snow-surrounded cabins with a traditional and cosy English tea house right next to the glacier.
With over 120kms of slopes, and 600 hectares to discover by ski, Cerro Catedral is one of the most established and extensive ski destinations here. There are 39 lifts to get you up to over 50 well-marked runs which cater for all types of skiers from newbies to advanced black run and off-piste fans. There is a kids club to keep the children entertained so the adults can go off and play, and there are schools and practice parks to hone your skills on the powder.
Just 20kms from Bariloche, most people stay in the popular mountain destination when visiting Cerro Catedral. Bariloche is famous for its beautiful lake district, homemade chocolate and artisanal brews. While the weather might be a bit windy for too much walking, you’ll certainly want to save some of your calf power for after the slopes to explore the many different treks that are accessible nearby the city. Another popular pastime here is fishing, which can be done as catch-and-release all year round.
If you are weary after the snow though, Bariloche is the ideal place for warming hot chocolates and a relaxing pint or two of home brews. The pretty city centre is easily walk-able and you can poke your head between the different chocolatiers, bars and restaurants with ease. Accommodation runs from simple hostels and B&Bs to the renowned luxury of Llao Llao Golf & Spa resort located in a perfect ambling spot on one of the lower mountains in the national park; the aptly named Charming resort close to downtown but with the luxury of private spas in each suite and a restaurant overlooking the lake; or get a flavour of estancia life at Peuma Hue luxury estancia with horse-riding and boat trips from their private estate only 30mins from the ski slopes.
If Portillo is the resort for somewhat wealthy off-piste adventurers, and Valle Nevado is for intermediates with a few experts mixed in, Nevados de Chillán is the realm of the young, the dreadlocked, the GoPro and neon ski pant wearing, those who rock ultra-wide skis with semi-pornographic top-sheets and don’t think twice about smoking in the lift line. Though less well known than its northern neighbors, Chillán is Chile’s largest ski area — and though it does have a few significant drawbacks for international travelers — it has a deserved cult reputation among the nation’s serious skiers.
Occupying the south side of an active volcano, Nevados de Chillán features one of a kind terrain, covered with cornices, natural half pipes, humpbacks and many short, but terrifyingly steep pitches. This isn’t to say that Chillán is only for experts. Beginners can ski a large, mellow area below tree line, serviced by two T-bars, a poma lift, a quad and a double. Because of Volcan Chillán Nuevo’s convex profile, the upper part of the mountain is a playground for intermediates, and the long, wandering Tres Marias run which snakes through stunted forests to the north of the main resort is a must-do.
There’s no denying, however, that off-piste is the main attraction. The proving-ground for advanced skiers in Chillán is the lower flank of Volcan Chillán Viejo, a manageable hike and traverse off the skiers’ left side of the Otto lift. In this amphitheater of narrow 45-degree couloirs, a fall will send you to the bottom in a hurry. On the opposite extremity of the resort, a short jaunt out-of-bounds will leave you in a beautiful, isolated valley called “Shangri-La” by locals. Don’t venture past the stone mountain hut, however, or you’ll be in for a long, heinous slog back to the base.
When conditions permit, a snow cat will take you to the summit of Volcan Chillán Nuevo, and a few deep gullies underneath the Wenche lift will lead to some excellent tree-skiing in hardwoods draped with a light, green moss called “Devil’s Beard.” But here’s the rub: conditions rarely do permit. Wind can wreak havoc upon Chillán’s lift system, and a relatively turbulent local weather pattern shuts down all but the lower parts of the mountain during much of July and early August. While Chillán receives far more snow than the resorts to the north, it also receives massive dumps of rain, even in midwinter.
The slopeside Hotel Nevados de Chillán offers a convenient, pampered and similarly quasi-futuristic atmosphere to its guest. Many, however, prefer to stay off-mountain in the nearby village of Las Trancas — a smattering of rustic hostels, cabins and hotels sprawled along the forested access road. Though the area lacks any central focus, the architecture is tasteful and the natural scenery compelling. And while the town is far from paradise for night-owls, there are a few hotspots during weekend evenings, including the popular Snow Pub.