Destinations: Valle Nevado in Chile

Take a ski trip to Valle Nevado in Chile for gorgeous scenery and excellent skiing.

As the ski season comes to a close in the northern hemisphere, it’s just getting ready to begin for our neighbors to the south. The ski season at Valle Nevado typically runs from approximately June to October, depending on snowfall. Located in the Andes, east of Santiago, the resort is pretty accessible from the airport via one of the many transport services available. I got a great deal through Turistik, a company I would highly recommend over the much more expensive Ski Total.

The road to the resort is narrow and twisting and is limited to one-way traffic at certain times, so be prepared. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for livestock because they can access the road, so watch your speed lest you hit a stray cow or horse.

The road from Valle Nevado Ski Resort to Santiago Chile is long, windy, narrow, and stunning.
The road connecting Valle Nevado Ski Resort to Santiago is a Class VI drive.

Why Valle Nevado?

In my case, it’s easy – I won my trip. As in, I filled out a form on the internet, and the contest was actually real and not just data mining. Yeah, I was shocked, too. The prize did not include airfare, but it did include 6 days of hotel, breakfast & dinner, and lift tickets, all for two people. It was pretty sweet.

The prize was only for late season – I went in September – and the conditions were appropriately slick for late season skiing. However, I had a lot of the mountain to myself. There were days that I was pretty much the only person skiing the backside and all of the lifts back there were open. It was like having my own private mountain.

I do think I was lucky to have the coverage I did. Even though it was icy, the vast majority of the runs were open. One worker I talked to told me that the prior year there had been almost no snow left that late. If you plan a late season trip to Valle Nevado:

  1. Don’t count on powder
  2. Don’t even count on snow.

Just research conditions before you book anything.

The balconies of the Hotel Puerta del Sol have a stunning view of the Andes
View from the balconies of the Puerta del Sol looking out over the frontside of the ski runs in the Andes.

Where to stay?

There are three hotels of varying price range at the resort. The Hotel Valle Nevado is the most expensive, followed by the Puerta del Sol, and then the Tres Puntas. There are also condos (the Mirador del Inca being one), that our driver told us can sometimes be rented. A quick search on Airbnb brought up some possibilities, so I’d consider trying there and comparing prices to the hotels. My prize included lodging at the mid-range hotel – the Puerta del Sol. The view from the room was stellar, with a little patio overlooking the Andes, but the room was average. It was older and a bit small, with two little twin beds and not very many outlets. The hotel did provide a little set of outlet adaptors, but you’ll likely want to bring your own so that you have more than one.

In short, you might do better in an Airbnb. I wasn’t overly concerned, I was simply excited to get to ski, but it’s worth noting and likely worth a bit of research.

Two of the three hotels at Valle Nevado Ski Resort - Hotel Valle Nevado and Puerta del Sol
The Hotel Valle Nevado on the left and the Puerta del Sol in the back to the right.

The Tres Valles System

Valle Nevado is part of the Tres Valles system of Chilean ski resorts, which also include La Parva and El Colorado to the north and west. Both of those other resorts are visible from various parts of the mountain and are accessible by skis if you can afford the lift tickets to them. Actually, in the case of La Parva, it’s possible to accidentally ski down the mountain to it. In this case, you would be stuck buying a lift ticket to get back to Valle Nevado on skis. Caution is advised in this regard. I caught myself just time – take note that any unmarked lifts on your Valle Nevado map may not be Valle Nevado lifts at all.

The resort is situated in a high mountain bowl and is known for its excellent powder in peak season, but spring visitors to all resorts in the area should be prepared to ski ice and crud. The mountain groomers did an excellent job with what was available and only one of the six days I skied was icy enough that I quit the mountain early for the bar. However, spring conditions are spring conditions, and visitors should be prepared for them.

Visitors should also be prepared to get to watch an incredible array of ski racers train in the mornings. One of my favorite activities was to sit on the patio outside the gondola unloading area and admire the skills of the racers after I had myself completed my morning runs.

A view of El Colorado from Valle Nevado during a stunning pink sunset.
The sunsets at Valle Nevado are stunning

Off-Piste

Skiing aside, the resort has other offerings for non-skiers or skiers taking a break from the slopes. There’s a hot tub, outdoor fire place, and several shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s best to purchase a food package, as it’s particularly expensive to eat if you don’t. One can save a bit of money by filling up on soup and hot cocoa at the daily apres ski event before dinner. Also, there’s a little grocery a short walk from the Puerta del Sol and Tres Puntas which can be used for food to save you from having to eat at the expensive restaurants. If you do visit the restaurants, tipping is expected and will be added to your bill at the end of your stay if you don’t tip along the way. When we visited, there were three restaurant options – Chilean, French, and Italian. They were all excellent, but the Italian place offered a free glass of wine if you booked early.

We ate Italian all but two nights.

The treacherous class VI drive up the mountain is far enough from Santiago that transport will need to be arranged in advance and if you choose to not rent a car, it can be difficult to get to other areas. A shuttle is available from the hotel area to the base of the gondola and non-skiers are allowed to ride that gondola up to its end at mid mountain if they have a lift ticket. Some other shops are available at the gondola base, and food and drink are available mid mountain for skiers who do not pack snacks.

The hot tub at Valle Nevado as viewed from above.
The view down onto the hot tub makes it look a bit like human soup.

A Note on the Lifts

The majority of the lifts at Valle Nevado are surface lifts, which is to say they are mostly J-bars (Poma lifts) with at least one T-bar. There is a gondola and a high speed 6 pack up front as well as few others chairs, but every lift on the backside is a surface lift except one. That includes the Tres Puntas Poma which is like riding a bucking bronco. It throws you up into the air at the start, so be ready. It’s fun once you get used to it, but it handed me my only fall of the trip. Beware of Tres Puntas lift.

This is all fine, really. It just gets a little tiring, so it’s good to know. I’m told it can get pretty windy, so this is probably part of the reason for the abundance of surface lifts.

The Tres Puntas lift is mildly treacherous, so beware.
View from Tres Puntas Lift

The Verdict

If you can afford to ski Valle Nevado, do it. It’s a beautiful place with excellent skiing, even in late season. I will say that if you are into steeps or trees, this isn’t your mountain. The runs labeled as steep here really aren’t and everything is above tree line. There is some nice looking skiing out of bounds here so, if it’s a good snow year, consider the resort’s heli skiing services or a reputable backcountry guide service such as Powderquest. If you want powder, don’t come late season, though that goes without saying. The reason I enjoyed myself was:

  1. I got to ski. Anytime I get to ski, I’m a happy human.
  2. There were almost no lines. This is likely the best perk of skiing late season here.
  3. It was free, or nearly so (I bought snacks, plane tickets, transport via Turistik, and I tipped).
  4. I got to ski.
  5. The Andes are spectacularly beautiful.
  6. I love to travel.
  7. I got to ski.

If you want a cheaper way to ski in Chile, I’ve heard that it is more affordable to stay in Farrelones. This is a small mountain village from which El Colorado can be accessed. Since Valle Nevado is accessible via El Colorado, this is one way to ski that resort without staying there. Unfortunately, this option would require lift tickets for both El Colorado and Valle Nevado since, to the best of my knowledge, the resorts do not co-operate in an fashion in regards to lift tickets.

Regardless of all of this, Valle Nevado is worth your time if you can manage it. Not only because the skiing is excellent, but the staff are lovely and very forgiving of those with poor Spanish language skills, as personal experience attests.

So You Want to Learn to Ski?

A view of the Rocky Mountains from the top of a ski run at Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado
The View from the top of La Belle Dame at Eldora in Colorado

As has been the case with so many others, I moved to Colorado in part for the skiing. I love it, it’s long been one of my favorite sports, but it’s expensive as Hell and not getting cheaper. I’m a PSIA certified ski instructor because I love the sport and enjoy teaching, but also because it’s how I get a ski pass. For most of my life, I’ve been unable to ski due to the expense, and I’m done with that.

In my opinion, the giant white elephant in the room of the ski industry is increasing lift ticket costs, especially for single day passes. Most of us can’t afford to front the cost of a multi-resort pass (e.g. Ikon or Epic) and many people who are new to the sport and aren’t sure if they like it yet are justifiably not yet willing to pay that much. Since the situation is not likely to change anytime soon, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the topic. I will say that if you have a friend who has a multi-resort season pass, you might be able to buy a discounted “buddy ticket” if you ski with that person. Check out Liftopia, too. They don’t have discounts for every resort, but they might have what you want.

So, here you are. You want to try skiing, but it’s expensive, traffic to get to the ski area is terrible and the place is distant, and what’s up with the gear?

A view of the gondola at Keystone ski resort from the base.
Looking up at the Gondola from the base at Keystone – ski areas can get very crowded.

Where do I go?

Obviously, it depends very much on where you live and how much you are willing or able to spend. However, if you are new, also consider going to a place with a lot of beginner terrain. If you look up the terrain map on a resort’s website, you’ll find that the runs are organized by color – green for beginner, blue for intermediate, and black (and sometimes double or triple black) for advanced. These ratings do not necessarily transfer between resorts. In other words, a black diamond run in Indiana is not necessarily the same difficulty as a black diamond run in Colorado. At a minimum, the Colorado run is highly likely to be much longer, but also more difficult in other ways.

The author on skis with her friend Sukhinder at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia.
Skiing with my friend Sukhinder at Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia – the first place I ever skied. Do as I say, not as I do – wear a helmet. Photo credit: Yad Deol

What do I wear?

Synthetics or wool, never cotton, and definitely not jeans. Snow pants over top of long underwear are best, along with a winter coat and a balaclava that fits under a helmet and/or a neck gaiter. If you don’t have a helmet, rent one. Most resorts offer that service. On top, you’ll want a synthetic base layer with a fleece over it. Also, you want only one pair of synthetic or wool socks and you don’t want them to be very thick. Ski boots fit tightly and bulky socks interfere. Bring gloves.

If it’s spring or if conditions are uncharacteristically warm, you’ll want to be able to shed layers. Either store your things in your vehicle (presuming you drove) or rent a locker. If it’s an especially cold day, consider keeping some chemical hand warmers in your pockets in case you need them. Also, if you are fair skinned, sunblock is essential. The sun will reflect off of the snow and you will burn badly.

A ski helmet and goggles with a water bottle and snack.
Wear a helmet and pack water and snacks.

What about gear?

Basic ski gear consists of ski boots, skis with bindings, poles, and a helmet with goggles. The fit of the ski boots is incredibly important. They should fit firmly, but without pain. Your toes should not be jammed against the front of the boot, and your heel should not move around. You definitely want to have someone help fit you properly.

The bindings will be adjusted by the rental tech to fit the sole length of your boots and will be tightened according to your ski ability. If you are a newer skier, they will be set to a lower DIN number than they would for an advanced skier. This is so the ski will release in the event of a fall to prevent injury.

The length of the ski is dictated by your height and ability, but generally they will come to around your chin when stood on end, particularly if you are a new skier. Adult skiers are often provided with poles, but don’t be surprised if your instructor takes them away if you take a lesson. Often new skiers focus too strongly on the poles instead of using their lower body to stop and turn. Children are often not provided poles when they are learning. In general, they are a distraction when you are new, but can be useful to help take your skis off and get up after a fall.

A helmet may not be required, but you absolutely should wear one. It’s a safely issue of course, but they keep you warm and you’ll look more professional. Goggles basically serve as sunglasses and/or a wind block. They are more essential than most people realize. You’ll probably have to buy a pair as most resorts don’t rent them. It’ll be more affordable to do this before you go to the mountain.

Take note that if you rent your gear off mountain, say from an independent rental shop, the tech shop that is at the ski area may not be able to adjust it for you. For that reason, it’s often better to rent from the ski area if you are going to rent. Additionally, I’ve personally found that lots of gear rented off mountain badly needs waxed. That’s not always true, but it has been often enough to notice.

A view of the Andes Mountains from the top of a ski run known as Shake at Valle Nevado in Chile.
Never underestimate the beauty of a bluebird day at a ski area. This is a view of the Andes from the top of Shake run at Valle Nevado in Chile.

So now what?

  1. Should I take a lesson? – In short, yes. I know it seems biased because I am an instructor, but I’ve seen so much struggle from people who try to teach themselves or who try to have a friend teach them. Friends mean well, but tend to forget how difficult it can be when you are new. Having a significant other try to teach you is a great way to end an relationship. I’m not going to say that it never works, but the odds are not in your favor. At least consider a lesson.
  2. How do I get there? – It’s the nature of skiing that resorts tend to be in remote areas, so most people drive. Obviously it depends where you are, but some resorts offer special parking or other benefits if you carpool. I recommend checking out the website of your intended destination. At least one mountain in Colorado is accessible via city bus (Eldora – full disclosure: I work there). Also, there are ski buses that will take you to some resorts off of I70. Services vary depending on where you are coming from (e.g. DIA vs. somewhere else in town), but it’s worth looking into. If you are going to Winter Park, the ski train may also be an option. This is all for Colorado. If you are in a different state, you’ll need to do some research on your own.
  3. What about food? – It’s expensive to eat and drink at a ski area. Period. As with amusement parks, you are a captive audience and are treated as such. Some are worse than others (I’m looking at you Vail Resorts), but they are pretty much all more expensive than is ok. Some places have microwaves available (at Eldora it’s in the West Wing) and some don’t. I like to pack a day pack with a camelback of water, food, and a couple of cans of beer for apres ski. If you do wear a pack, be very careful that it does not get caught on the lift when you ride.
Black Mountain Lodge at Arapahoe Basin ski area in Colorado.
Arapahoe Basin is a beautiful place.

Finally…

There are a few things that ski noobies tend to not know that are useful.

  1. How are moguls made? – Moguls are what happens naturally when snow falls and people ski on it. The runs that don’t have moguls are that way because they have been groomed. If a run has moguls, it’s because the run has not been groomed, allowing them to stay for the enjoyment of advanced skiers. Try not to ski or ride over the tops of them and this will flatten them out. Take a lesson!
  2. What’s powder and where do I find it? – Powder is a type of snow. Specifically, it’s fresh snow (preferably deep and light). It’s a lot of fun to ski and if you come up to the mountain on a powder day, you’ll likely find the traffic and lift lines to prove it. People are unlikely to share the location of their powder stashes with you unless they are a good friend (and even then, “No friends on a powder day” is a thing). You should know that the technique for skiing powder is different from the technique for skiing groomers (i.e. packed, flat snow), so if you’ve not done it, consider a well-timed powder day lesson.
  3. Learn the responsibility code. It’s pretty common sense, but not everyone knows it. Be safe and courteous and don’t be a jerk. Normal shit. Also, in Colorado it’s actually the law. Check it out.

 

Skiing is one of my favorite things to do in the world and I want everyone to love it, so prepare, plan ahead, and have a great time.