I’ve learned that Chileans love a good switchback.
As I already mentioned, the first part of this trip is all about skiing. We researched the Chilean ski season, their resorts, etc. and everything indicated that they’d be open and we’d have snow. However, the beautiful weather and (mostly) dry mountains left us skeptical. Nevertheless, on our first day, we headed to Portillo to check out the situation. Portillo is a well-known ski resort, known for its advanced terrain and its pristine location perched aside Laguna del Inca (Inca Lake), an exquisitely blue oasis of alpine water nestled amongst the mountains. Unlike other ski areas, there is no town, commerce, or other ski resorts on this part of the mountain: only a single ski resort and a hotel. That’s why we chose it.
Now, about those switchbacks. The drive to Portillo from the B&B isn’t long as the crow flies, but it includes a harrowing bit of road that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s called “Los Caracoles” (“the snails”) because the road is like a series of snail tracks that switches back upon itself, meandering along a sheer side of mountain that is peppered with a multitude of signs indicating active rock falls. Each of Los Caracoles’ 28 hairpin curves is signed (Curva 1, Curva 2, etc.), a courtesy for which I cannot discern a practical purpose, except maybe to inform the white-knuckled drivers just how many Hail Mary’s are left to mutter beneath their breath. It’s so tight that on a GPS map, the route looks more like the human digestive system, with Los Caracoles as the intestines. We slowly make our way up this snail track, rising higher and higher, seeing more and more hints of snow as we lumber along slowly behind a string of semis (it’s this moment that I felt grateful for dry roads and beautiful weather, no matter how disappointing it was to see when we first arrived). After completing our trial-by-switchback, we arrive at Portillo. The snow is clearly low, but the chair lifts are operating and there are skiers on the slopes. Victory! As it’s late in the afternoon, we make a plan to go the next day.
The next day, we were met at Portillo by Francisco and Fernanda, a friendly pair of locals that we met at our B&B who were also planning to ski the same day. They broke the bad news: they had just discovered that very day would be the last of Portillo’s season. *Sigh* Our disappointment was short-lived—we had a fantastic day of skiing with our newfound Chilean friends and made the most of Portillo’s final day of the season. Also, David and I came prepared with backcountry gear, so we simply returned the next day and skinned up and skied down their slopes, squeezing as much out of them as we could (for those non-backcountry skiers, “skinned” means we hiked uphill with our skis on, which is made possible by a piece of material that you stick to the bottom of your skis, which you remove to ski down).
Eager to eke as much skiing as possible out of this trip, we then drove south to Valle Nevado, another resort that is still open. Again with the switchbacks—this time, a set of that made Los Caracoles look tame in comparison. These were narrower, tighter (I didn’t even think “tighter” was possible), and had even more curves (the last sign was Curva 39, but there were more after that). I was silent for most of that drive because I feared that if I opened my mouth, I would say “let’s turn back.” (I was seriously on the verge. I mean really…is skiing all that important?). Somehow, I managed to keep my mouth shut and we made it to Valle Nevado in one piece and enjoyed another day of low-snow skiing at the largest resort I’ve ever seen (this isn’t saying much, my repertoire of ski resorts is frightfully limited).
So that was the ski portion of our trip in a nutshell. Between ski outings (while the weather was bad), we enjoyed a relaxing day of wine tasting and spa, where we treated our sore muscles with a massage and soaks in the thermal pools. We also gained many new (unintentional) souvenirs on the bottoms of our skis, courtesy of exposed rocks, which were plentiful and often hidden with a thin layer of snow. Every scratch will be a reminder that you don’t need to have a ton of snow to have fun skiing. Sure, it definitely helps…but it’s all about the vibe, the atmosphere, and the attitude you bring to it.
Now it’s off to Valparaiso…