If you’re a keen, adventurous skier or snowboarder of any standard and have been devastated to miss this last season (and potentially the one before), thanks to Covid-19, then this could be the year to take a summer trip to the Southern Hemisphere.
While the rest of Blighty is scrabbling to visit the Costas or dip their toe back into the Med, a summer spent exploring the legendary Andes and enjoying some of South America’s spectacular snow, scenery and heart-warming hospitality has never felt more enticing.
There are a number of excellent ski resorts to tempt holidaymakers south – three of the best are Portillo in Chile, and Las Lenas and Bariloche in Argentina. Each offers its own unique style, culture, landscape and experience, giving plenty of options for every type of skier or snowboarder.
Granted, the idea of a 16-hour flight to Chile or Argentina might feel somewhat daunting, especially after being cooped up in lockdown for so long, but the reality is that skiers generally spend at least a day getting to the mountains in Europe. A long-haul flight in the opposite direction is no reason to put off exploring the longest mountain range in the world, with the tallest peaks outside the Himalayas.
Another, more obvious and pressing concern, is the ongoing pandemic, with the threat of new variants sending shivers down the collective global spine. In South America, Chile has done an excellent job vaccinating its people and is currently listed fifth for vaccinations in terms of countries with significant populations – unfortunately though it does, for the time being, remain on the Government’s ‘red list.’
What’s more, the nation has this week been plunged back into lockdown. Medical experts in the country have blamed the government for causing cases to surge, by reopening the economy too early as the vaccination programme forged ahead. As ever, it’s a fast-moving situation so if tempted to visit this summer keeping an eye on all developments will be key.
Worries aside and in a plea for optimism, here’s why, when things settle down, South America’s slopes should be top of your post-lockdown to-do list – the perfect reward for your snow-starved patience.
Chile’s crown jewel
Portillo is famous for receiving huge dumps of powder quickly followed by spectacular blue skies and searing sunshine. With just 12 lifts you might assume the skiing is limited to beginner and intermediate runs, but the opposite is true. Like Chamonix, Portillo’s piste map gives little indication of the variety and extent of its off piste terrain. It attracts many of the world’s best big mountain skiers and boarders, like Chris Davenport who runs his Superstars Ski Camp there every August, as well as European and American ski teams doing their summer training – anyone making the trip will certainly be in good company.
Steeped in history
One of most appealing aspects of the resort is the fabulous Hotel Portillo itself – often referred to as the Cruise Ship. Looking like a brilliant yellow ocean liner the hotel was founded in 1949 by American skiers Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich.
The Purcell family have run the resort ever since and Portillo has remained a model of delightful, old-world charm. With only 450 guests and as many staff to look after you, Portillo feels like the early days of the Palace Hotel in St Moritz, the Lodge in Sun Valley or Little Nell’s in Aspen – the main difference being that Portillo remains affordable. Prices start at $2490 per person for a room, including four meals a day, lift tickets and access to all fitness and entertainment facilities, along with full refunds offered or credit for 2022 in case of cancellation.
Another unique characteristic is Portillo’s use of Va et Vient slingshot lifts – these are tow ropes attached to a metal bar with buttons for up to five riders standing side-by-side zip. Passengers are dragged up the mountain at high speed from where they can access the numerous couloirs, funnels and powder bowls that lead back down to the beautiful Laguna del Inca lake.
Portillo’s Super C couloir should be on every expert skier and snowboarder’s bucket list. A two-hour climb from the top of the Roca Jack lift brings you to the top of a jaw-dropping 1,500m descent all the way back to the hotel.
Entertainment for all
Like many British chalet holidays, guests at Hotel Portillo usually stay for a minimum of a week, to give them a chance to acclimatise both physically and socially. The Purcells make this even easier by holding cocktail parties every Sunday lubricated with excellent Chilean wines and Pisco Sours. To encourage new friendships there are also no TVs in the rooms but numerous chessboards, card games and backgammon sets dotted around well-worn leather sofas in the lobby.
Children are looked after by friendly babysitters, while grown-ups head to the polished-oak dining room for local delicacies like Chilean sole meuniere, Ecuadorian shrimp, and dulce de leche pancakes as well as some of the most tender grass-fed South American beef you will ever eat.
With a disco in the basement, movies screening every night, a bowling alley, games room, full court gymnasium and outdoor pool, which regularly hosts everyone from the Austrian ski team to Argentinian supermodels, with views over the lake and star illuminated mountains, Portillo makes for a truly unforgettable holiday.
Don’t forget Argentina
While Las Lenas in Argentina may not be able to compete with Portillo’s charming accommodation, it does boast a thigh-burning vertical drop of 1,190m and has arguably the best lift-accessed steep terrain on the continent. You can ski powdery chutes and expert rocky terrain right off the Marte chairlift – although frequent big winds can cause stoppages. There is also excellent cat skiing to expert, off-piste terrain like the Necklace with its famous bowls, narrow shoots and cliff drops.
If you’re looking for a resort with a more European vibe then Bariloche is a mountain town with hugely entertaining nightlife, which has an almost Bavarian feel, on the banks of the magnificent Lake Nahuel Huapi in Argentina’s Lake District. If you’ve flown all that way why not pamper yourself by staying in the five-star Llao Llao hotel from where you can hike, bike, fish and even play golf on the same day as you ski.