September 28th, 2015 will be ingrained in my memory for all my days to come. I woke up to the feeling of sunshine on my face. The warmth from the daylight creeping through my cabin window meant that, after experiencing more clouds and heavy snow storms than expected in Chile, the weather had finally changed. In a few hours, I would be celebrating my best friend’s champagne birthday. With champagne. On the top of a volcano.
Okay, maybe I should back up just a little. Earlier this year, my best friend and hetero-life partner, Jessica, suggested we go on a ski expedition. We had both been battling through some challenging months and were feeling pretty weighed down. We agreed that time back on our skis would be just the remedy; the only baggage we would continue to haul would be in the form of skis and a touring backpack.
My job has me working heavy hours in the winter; so, we began researching where we could go skiing in the fall. It didn’t take long for us to stumble across information about resort and back country skiing in Chile, convince two other girls to join us and find a guide willing (and nuts enough) to lead the four of us around some volcanoes and ranges found in the Andes!
As the four of us girls had never done a trip like this together, we saw Chile as an opportunity to get to connect with one another. On and off the mountain. Despite not having perfect weather, we packed our days with fun, laughter and support for each other. The result of doing so? We became much more than friends; we increased our sisterhood of outdoor women.
I wish I could share the vast details of our shenanigans. However, if I crammed into one blog post all the volcanoes, lodges, hikes, jokes, wines, onesies, hot springs, dance parties, road trips, stray dogs, cute boys, late nights, early mornings, and unforgettable moments that accompanied our trip, Hike 365 would turn on the Oscar music and drag me off the stage. Instead, I decided to highlight a few of the mountain destinations that resonated with us and provide some additional recommendations.
For those that are attracted to alpine skiing, and want to leave the uphill work to the chairlifts, we loved the following resorts.
Portillo is South America’s oldest ski resort. It is located in the Andes, just off the main highway to Mendoza, Argentina, about 60 km east of the city of Los Andes. It is known for its yellow hotel that is nestled amongst iconic alpine couloirs and over looks the stunning Laguna del Inca. When you arrive you think you have died and gone to ski heaven. Portillo not only offers breathtaking views it also has world class skiing, you’ll most likely run into professional skiers and teams from all over the world. It has great variety of lift access runs and an even better slack country if you want earn your turns and escape the “crowd.” I am using the word “crowd” lightly because even when the hotel is at full capacity you will never have to wait in line for a lift, and it is not uncommon to have runs all to yourself.
Another part of what makes Portillo so special and a true vacation destination is that it is an all inclusive resort. Guests pay a flat rate to stay Sunday-Sunday which includes unlimited skiing, charming rooms, outdoor hot pools and 4 meals a day. Unlike some dodgy Mexican resorts, you will receive 3 course meals and be treated like royalty.
If you are more budget conscience but still want the Portillo experience you can also stay in the Inca Lodge. It is dorm style lodging and meals are eaten in the self service cafeteria. Even though it doesn’t come with all the perks it was brought to my attention that staying here is a great way to allocate funds towards heli-skiing.
La Parva Ski Resort is located approximately 50 km northeast of Chile’s capital city, Santiago. It is sandwiched in between to other alpine resorts: El Colorado and Valle Nevado. It rests high above the valley and offers absolutely spectacular views. When you reach the top of Las Aguilas lift, you’ll be in front of infamous peaks including La Falsa Parva and Cerro Bismark. Behind you, you’ll see the red rock of the desert valley.
If you’re without a vehicle in Chile, there are public and private van shuttles that run from Santiago to La Parva. We treated ourselves to the latter option and booked a private mini-bus through PowderQuest. It was reasonably priced and the driver conveniently picked up/dropped off right at our hotel. If this option works with your budget, it is recommended as travelling the narrow road to La Parva – which climbs over 8,000 ft to the resort via seemingly countless switchbacks- is (marginally) more comfortable in a private shuttle.
Ski Pucón is a tiny resort located 12 kms from the town of Pucón and runs up the Volcan Villarrica. While the chairlifts are vintage and frequently closed due to the wind exposure, this resort is worth a visit for two reasons. Firstly, Villarrica erupted March 3rd, 2015. Even though there are the areas of the volcano which are currently closed to hikers and tourers, the resort remains operational. Where else can you ski on an active volcano?!
Secondly, the town of Pucón is incredibly charming. Coined the Chilean ‘Banff’, the town is full of artisan vendors, quaint accommodations and delicious restaurants. Our favorite restaurant was ecole! which is a wonderful vegetarian spot. It is attached to a hostel sporting the same name and serves up daily- changing, home-made delicious meals.
If you looking to earn your turns in the Andes back country, I suggest the following:
1. Get in touch with Donny Roth from Chile Powder Adventures. He is the owner of the company and has spent the past twelve winter seasons guiding in Chile. Not only is he an experienced guide who arguably knows the country –its mountains, people, culture, language etc—better than most of the Chilean population, but he is also hilarious, kind, thoughtful and passionate about his clients. If you tell him that the Canadian Chicas sent you, he will probably offer you a discount if you promise to never make him listen to Justin Bieber.
2. Have Donny take you to the following volcanoes/regions:
With waterfalls at its start and a massive caldera at its top, the trek up this volcano is not to be missed. Also, if you make reservations at the unique yurt style Lodge Nevados de Sollipulli, there will be river side, wood-burning hot tubs and pisco sours waiting for you at the base.
Shrouded in Araucaria, or Monkey Puzzle, trees and offering views of Volcan Lonquimay, the summit of this stratovolcano will render you speechless.
I will always consider this volcano special as it was here that we popped the bubbly I mentioned above for Jessica’s birthday. It is a twin volcano composed by two glaciated stratovolcanoes. Double the summits, double the fun! Plus, it is situated not far from Huilo Huilo which is home to a beautiful natural reserve and some insanely cool hotels. If you have never heard of Magic Mountain, google it immediately!
We got fancy for Jessica’s birthday dinner at Mountain Magic’s neighbor hotel, Nothofagus. The food was incredible; we were treated to a tres leches cake I haven’t stopped dreaming about.
Regardless of if you are planning to ski or not, here are some additional tips to keep in mind if you are thinking about visiting Chile.
- Eat all the empanadas you can get your hands on. These magical Spanish donairs are sold at a variety of vendors, in a variety of flavors, across the country. Some of the best ones we feasted on were purchased from family run, road side stands. The traditional, empanada de pino, is stuffed with seasoned beef, one raisin, one olive and half of a hard boiled egg. We aren’t exactly sure how the Chileans arrived at those ingredients or portions but we do know this: be weary of your teeth if you order the pino because the olive is typically not pitted.
- Make an effort to learn some of the slang (and swear words). Often referred to as chileñol, Chilean Spanish is truly a language in itself. It is pretty challenging to understand and the fact that the locals speak it at mach speed doesn’t help. However, unlike some other cultures, the Chileans appreciate when you make an effort to speak their Spanish and love if you know some of the unique slang. Plus, the swear words, which we won’t include here, are super fun to say.
- Take the bus. If you aren’t planning on renting a car, Chile has an amazing bus system. The fares are extremely affordable. Splurging for luxurious, fully reclining seats on overnight rides is highly recommended.
- Contact the police if you are in trouble. When we were first contemplating visiting Chile, safety was obviously a concern for us as a group of women. Having been in other Latin and South American countries, we were shocked to learn that the Chilean National Police, the Carabineros de Chile, are reliable, non-corrupt and very willing to help travelers and natives alike.
- Do not blindly trust the cab drivers. Especially in big centers such as Santiago and Valparaiso. A common scam, which we experienced firsthand, is when you a pay a driver with cash, he/she will quickly swamp out the bill you provided with one of a lower denomination and claim you haven’t paid enough. Be ready to put up an argument if this happens to you. These drivers won’t back down unless you threaten to get the police involved. Or make a mad dash away from the vehicle. To mitigate the risk of being conned, we suggest you look for the most senior (aka elderly) drivers in a taxi line up and agree on the price prior to departing.
- Do not think you can easily drink multiple Pisco Sours. While you must try this staple drink, be cautious. It is a deadly potent cocktail disguised as a delicious, lemony elixir. After one, you may want to share some pent up feelings. After two, you may want to dance on the tables of the establishment you’re at. After any more than that, you may not make it back to your lodging in time for curfew (yes, many places have curfews in order to be polite to other guests) and be forced to find alternative accommodation until 6 am the following morning when the hotel re-opens its doors.
- Do not pretend, even for a second, that you won’t fall in love. Be it with a man, a street mutt or the country itself, leaving the country without a full heart is completely inescapable.
If you are interested in learning more about our time in Chile and/or would like to connect and share your own travel stories, leave a comment or send Chelsea an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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