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January 2, 2008

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Where's Frankie D ...                 Ski Chile (pt. 2)



How and why to ski Chile: Part 2
By Francis DiScala

Welcome back to our unforgettable excursion into the Andes Mountains (click here if you missed last week's introductory installment.) Join us as we sample two more famous South American ski resorts. The snow and weather are providing ideal skiing conditions as we head north into Chile's warmer climates. We are about to climb to even higher altitudes, up bigger mountains and even above the tree line, into the thin atmosphere.

Located about two and a half hours from Santiago, Valle is nestled at the top of the Andes Mountains at an elevation of about 2,800 meters. As you drive toward the resort, the landscape changes around you. Desert plants replace the palm trees and plant-covered balconies of Santiago's modern apartments: agave, prickly pear cactus and even saguaro cactus. The buildings give way to contemporary, glass-walled houses, built into the rising hillside. Eventually, you'll pass through a police-monitored gateway into the mountains where Carabineros (Chilean policeman) warn you to apply chains to your tires. The road immediately begins a moderate climb toward Valle. And up we go. Hairpin turns, linked one to the next, in a series of switchbacks, crawl up the mountain. Every so often, a group of crosses remind us how treacherous this road can be in inclement weather. Gradually, even the desert vegetation fades away, replaced by a blanket of snow. We are above the tree line. It is a "snow desert". Over 60 switchbacks later, you start to see a cluster of buildings at the top of the mountain, surrounded by more snow than you can imagine. The vista is uninterrupted, snow-covered mountains, except for the hotels and lifts that are Valle. Propped on the shaved top of a mountain, Valle presides over the world like a Vegas casino building slung to the top by a giant. Our arrival coincides with sunset. It is unbelievably beautiful, the colors of the ending day reflected in the snow. We are at the top of the world and there is very little else around. Just sunsets and beauty.

Celebrating its 20th year, Valle is the brainchild of a French architect and ski buff. Currently owned privately, the ski resort boasts the fastest lift in Chile and is interconnected with two other local ski areas: El Colorado and La Parva. There are three hotels at Valle and they are currently building and selling condominiums. Hotel Valle Nevado (rates from $1365/per person for seven nights) is the most upscale, boasting wireless Internet throughout the hotel and direct access to the slopes. Hotel Puerto del Sol (rates from $1120/per person for seven nights) is a mid-range hotel, geared towards families. It has two restaurants inside, as well as a cyber café and an extensive child-friendly game area. The third hotel, Tres Puntas (rates from $840/per person for seven nights), is approximately 150 meters from the snow and is the most affordable option.

We stayed at Puerto del Sol and had a comfortable room with a terrace overlooking the mountain and heated outdoor pool. The room's decor was reminiscent of Swedish design: economically furnished but comfortable. The elevation takes some getting used to, and the hotel even advises guests to drink plenty of water, avoid excessive salt intake, and to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages. Yet they invite you for a welcome drink in their bar on the night of arrival! We happily accepted their offer for a welcome Pisco Sour (the best I have tasted yet!) and met Ricardo Margulis, the hotel's General Manager. Ricardo told us the history of the property as well as informed us of plans to refurnish all the rooms of Hotels Valle and Puerto. Ricardo then hosted us in the hotel's Italian restaurant, La Trattoria, for a delicious Italian antipasto buffet and "make your own pasta" dinner.

After sampling more delicious Chilean food and wine, we retired to our room to rest up for our next day on the slopes. Sleep was hard to find, unfortunately. The relatively oxygen deprived climate makes it difficult to rest and the dry mountain air is harsh on the body. Nonetheless we made it to the ski rental by 8:30am to get our gear. Valle Nevado's ski rental department is well equipped, with equipment for all levels.

The resort also provided us a guide to get acquainted with the local terrain. Joe was super friendly and proud to show us around his Valle. He brought us almost directly to Tres Puntas, the highest point on the mountain, at 3,730 meters. Access is by a very long pommel lift and is not for the faint of heart. However, Joe told us it's the place to be on a busy weekend at Valle. Apparently, most day-trippers from Santiago stay close to the main base area on the weekends and even though there may be upwards of 2,000 skiers on the mountain, the terrain around Tres Puntas remains relatively empty.

There is only one lunch and one bathroom option on the mountain: Bar Zero. Beyond that, it's back to the hotels at the base. We stopped at Bar Zero, where they serve a typical selection of hot dogs, hamburgers and sandwiches, as well as Chilean beer, wine, Piscos and even a full bar. When we returned to the base area, we found a lively scene, including music and the requisite sunbathing skiers.

Valle is happening. It's got a pulse and an excitement about it. It feels French and bistros abound. And the pulse says this is where a party is. While there's plenty for the entire family, there's even more for young adults. Or for people who feel young. Hang out in the disco until 4am. Heli-ski the backcountry. Dine in multiple restaurants and shop in expensive stores that line the buildings.

The terrain features long runs that drop off to challenging "off Piste" caverns. Deep crevasses make even east coast experts wonder. And great lifts wisk you into the thin air 14000 feet above an unseen sea level. From the top you can see Santiago blanketed under dense milky/mud brown smog. No smog on the top of Valle De Nevado though. We are far from anything that even looks like smog.

For $200 a person, we couldn't say no to a backcountry heli-ski adventure. After signing multiple waivers, we walked across the resort parking lot and headed to a van, which took us 300 yards to a waiting helicopter. It looked like a brand new toy, bright orange and not a scratch on it. The huge propeller blades sagged impatiently.

Our ski guide is a level three instructor who holds a degree in sports psychology. He's young, energetic and serious. Before we load into the helicopter, he gathers us for a safety orientation. He hands each of us an avalanche beacon, which is essentially a Walkman-sized transmitter. Each is attached to a Velcro harness, which he tells us to put on under our ski jackets. We all start to get a little nervous, understanding for the first time the danger involved in making first tracks at 4,000 meters. Next he walks us through the steps to uncovering a victim (!), instructing us, "If you are caught in an avalanche, cup your hands in front of your face if you can no longer swim with the snow. You want to make an air space so that you can breathe. And don't forget, the snow will be very compact. You will have very little time to live if you have no air."

Gulp! It's a sobering warning. We think perhaps we've had enough, but muster enough courage to get into the helicopter. "The helicopter will land on top of the mountain," he says. "There may only be room for one pontoon. Get out and immediately crawl on your knees away from the helicopter. Keep your head down until I get all your gear and the helicopter flies away!"

Speechless, we strap into our safety harnesses. Our guide stores our gear in the external cage and climbs in alongside the most macho-looking pilot you can imagine. He turns and looks at us through his fly-like lenses. We lift off into the mountain air and in seconds, tilt forward and head off the mountain parking lot over the thousands of feet of air below us.

We head into a no man's land territory between Chile and Argentina that is purposely kept unoccupied by both governments to keep the peace. The landscape is vast wilderness, nothing but sharp peaks and snow. In a little while, we turn and see both the pilot and our guide pointing to a barren piece of rock and snow on top of a mountain. It's reminiscent of the scenery from Lord of the Rings. There's nothing to land on! We head to the peak and the helicopter touches down on one pontoon just like our guide had said it would. The cabin door opens and we spill out and lie prostrate on the little eight-foot wide patch of snow, our small cushion between the mile-deep valley floor below.

The guide skis down first; then we alternate men and women. After some fear-based inertia on Cricket's part (our guide's sports psychology degree came in handy), we all cut nice turns in deep powder and waited for each other at the first valley. The snow is amazing. The Andes are amazing. There was not a cloud in the sky and everything was right with the world. We continued on, having the time of our lives, floating across the lightest, untouched powder, in a place we have never been.

Ultimately, we reach a peak where we can see our tiny chopper waiting for us in the distance, on a plateau of snow. The scene is surreal and there isn't another soul around. Exhilarated, we take our seats in the helicopter. It lifts us away from this hidden valley and sets us gently down on the groomed slopes above the hotel. A great advertisement for the next group of lucky skiers!

That night we enjoy a delicious meal at La Fourchette D'or and more magical Chilean wine. The following day, we're off to our final destination.

Ski Resort Location: Central Chile
Ski Resort Elevation: 2,880m (9,450ft) to 3,670m (12,040ft)
Ski Resort Vertical Drop: 790m (2,590ft)
Ski Resort Inbound Terrain: 21 runs, 15% Beginner, 40% Intermediate, 30% Advanced, 15% Expert
Lifts: 9
Backcountry Access: Excellent
Heliski: Yes
Annual Snowfall: 315+ inches

With one hotel and no town, Portillo is isolated entirely above tree line, nestled beside Inca Lake. The setting, once inside the grand old hotel, is serenely beautiful. Portillo, owned by American family man Henry Purcell, combines skiing with the concierge service of a Greenwich Country Club. Glide up to the front desk and old world staple luxuries saturate you. No one needed to tell us that we were, at least for that moment, part of a very privileged group soon to be spoiled by a permanent staff that exceeds the number of guests. Smiling faces, greeters and guests made the lobby feel like an ongoing après ski party. The fine polished wood telegraphed the quality hidden in the floors above. Unmistakable first class resort is at my fingertips. While Cricket preferred Valle, for me there is no better place to spend a summer ski vacation.

Portillo's ski history is rich, beginning in the late 1880s with Norwegian skiers assisting the Chilean government in a railroad building effort, then a postal route and finally the origins of a ski club, which would focus on skiing the area around "Laguna del Inca" -- the lake at the base of the hotel and ski area. In the 1940s, the Portillo Hotel was developed and after stumbling and struggling during the '40s and '50s, Purcell family members combined efforts to put the legendary ski resort on the map in the 1960s. Home to the World Cup in 1966, Jean Claude Killy's victory secured Portillo to the list of the world's greatest places to ski.

Portillo is perched above the road from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina, and international-bound tractor-trailers careen below one of the chair lifts. Luckily, the road is only a switchback and none of the traffic is even noticed on any other lift or trail. Hotel Portillo is a venerable yellow structure that houses 123 cozy bedrooms without televisions, a dining room with views of a pristine Alpine lake, all set amongst bowls of skiing with little or no lift lines. Once you gain access to this magic kingdom, you're safely out of earshot and sight from highway traffic. Hotel Portillo's walls are adorned with original artwork and historical photos throughout the entire five-story structure and the simplicity of life in Portillo is beckoning. From the moment you arrive, the experience is first class. It's akin to arriving at a family reunion where all friends and family are on hand. The lobby is quaint, efficient and the polite, smiling staff do all they can to make us feel right at home in the mountains. Just be careful not to step on one of the two giant Saint Bernards that lie across the floor in the lobby.

Below the first floor is the ski rental shop. Efficiently designed, you can get skis, poles and boots from one area and then, after skiing, friendly attendants exchanges skis for a ticket and the boots are exchanged for your shoes. With Portillo's staff to skier ratio (maximum, approximately 450 guests and 465 staff!) there are more staff on hand than guests and there's never a long wait for anything.

The mountain and hotel provide several dining options. I couldn't imagine anywhere else I'd want to eat other than in the main dining room. Elegance in a ski resort? Portillo reeks of it. White tablecloths spread across tables and fine china greet us as we pass into the room; expertly trained waiters wearing red jackets and the perfect grooming of a fine establishment. The walls are lined with leather squares that resemble oak paneling. The ceiling is twenty feet above your head and the windows look out onto a lake so serene it looks fake, painted in with surrounding mountains and tiny chair lifts.

The food is prepared like the chef is trying to win a competition. For dinner options, we had early or late seating and a limited menu of gourmet foods prepared to perfection.

Daytime dining choices abound but our favorite place to eat is Tio Bob's, a tiny, open-air restaurant halfway up the mountain overlooking the resort. Meats of all sorts are grilled to order and served at your table while Chilean music plays gently and you gaze at your view of the Andes and the hotel far below.

Portillo's skiing is world class. Experts will be challenged with impossible steeps and ungroomed terrain. Intermediates and beginners will be entertained with long sweeping mogul-free runs and easy grades. And every skier will feast on beautiful views of the lake and Andes Mountains.

Walking around the hotel feels like we are part of a family reunion. Many families return annually, capturing weeks to be with other families that they have gotten to know over the years of repetitive visits. It's one big international party and everyone feels that they are the personal guests of Henry Purcell.

It is impossible to leave this story without a strong mention of the hotel bar. At night, it turns into a showcase for talented musicians playing American and Latin rock and roll music to a packed audience. People of all ages attend; the mood is festive and the music incredible. Don't forget ... if you want to party with the people, go to where the locals go, the bar in the building next door. Drinks are cheap and you'll enjoy some of the local color that creates the backbone of the operation. From the carpeted comfort of the upstairs lounges and dinning room to the softly lit, fireplace warmth of the hotel bar, Portillo exudes the feeling that you could meander all 'round the big hotel in your slippers and pajamas. But people don't; they dress like they're on vacation. One unforgettable vacation.

Ski Resort Location: Central Chile, two-hour drive from Santiago
Ski Resort Elevation: 9,350 base to 10,985 peak
Ski Resort Vertical Drop: 1,635
Ski Resort Inbound Terrain: 23 trails, 55% advanced, 35 % intermediate, 10% beginner
Lifts: 12
Backcountry Access: Yes
Heliski: Yes

We were told to bring back wine. It wasn't necessary. It's available in the U.S. and the price is comparable to the duty free cost. But we bought six bottles anyway ... and almost missed our flight while making the selection. We ran to the gate just to discover that the gate for the flight had been changed. So we ran across the terminal to get to the right one. Luckily, we didn't have to lug the wine. The duty free shop puts it on the plane for you – or so we thought. Actually, they deliver it to the gate where you have to pick it up. Unfortunately, we discovered this while in the air and the wine was still on the ground. Someone in Chile got six expensive bottles of wine on us! So our advice? Bring home only your photos and videos and when you return to Chile, bring your friends!

Click here to check out our two-minute video of heli-skiing Valle Nevado, Chile!

*Please tell us what you think of this story!

Note: This trip was sponsored by LAN Airlines .

International Recreation Expert. Francis J. DiScala (Frankie D) was born to do it differently. On his first camping trip at 10 years old he was sequestered from his group for talking and forced to sleep in an open field away from the safety of the tents. He immediately realized that the moon was much clearer out under the stars and has been "out there" ever since. Never one to say no, Frank has been to Mountains of Montana, Idaho, Arizona bow hunting and sleeping outdoors, fishing off-shore amongst the whales for giant tuna, skiing and snowboarding almost every major mountain in North America, racing motorcycles on international racetracks in New Hampshire, and scuba diving reefs from Australia to the Red Sea in Jordan. fun and games are often interrupted and trips cut short by his need to return to his beautiful wife and to his legal career. He hasn't stopped talking and often can be seen and heard giving strange opinions on television shows including CNN'S Headline News/Nancy Grace and Court TV. Despite a hectic schedule, Frank has also found time to travel and write and in recent years has become an enthusiastic contributor to, one of the most comprehensive travel resources online.

Christina (Dr. Cricket) DiScala is by profession, an equestrian veterinarian, and by nature, a luxury aficionado. Subjected to a childhood filled with luxury and tasteful decor she had to learn "roughing it" early in her career when darting wild Bison in the winter snows of Yellowstone and while tracking wolf and grizzly bear populations in Glacier National Park. Now, most of her traveling is via her work truck, but she enjoys air travel and fine hotels as much as anyone and knows the difference between a tent, a Motel 6 and a Ritz Calton. When not repairing lame international world-class athletic horses she enjoys dressage competition, skiing, beaching, flying first class and sleeping late with her best friend, Cumpee loomps.

Pictures From The Trip


Valle room


Valle buffet


Valle hot pool


Splendid weather in Valle


Mountain food Valle


Mountains Valle


Valle sky


Grand Hotel Portillo


Inca Lake


Gourmet food


Walls of history


Dining room


Ski rental Portillo


Legendary steeps


Level three ski instructors


Tio Bob's restaurant


More dining ambiance


Mountain steaks at Tio Bob's


The drive back to Santiago


Frankie D


Frankie D


Frankie D


On Court TV


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