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Chile: Sep 1-Sep 17, 2006

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I wrote a review of my recent trip to South America for a local group so I thought I would post it here for others considering going to Chile. Pictures to follow when I transfer them from the laptop. Apologies in advance if it’s too chatty for this forum (not sure what the standard is). That’s how most of them are in our e-Group and I didn’t have the energy to edit it down to the bare facts. Here it is, uncensored:

Trip was from Friday, Sep 1 to Sunday, Sep 17. Bradt guide to Chile was a very useful resource.

SEPTEMBER 1-3: AA from DCA/MIA to Santiago (SCL). Immigration very easy; bags quick (skis come on same belt as other bags); everything x-rayed before allowed to enter the country. If taking a taxi into Santiago, book it at the "Official Taxi" desk right next to the baggage claim. Don't wait until you get through customs and out into the crowds because you'll be swamped by taxi drivers trying to get you to go with them. It's a bit much after the overnight flight.

Stayed in Santiago for the weekend at the Plaza San Francisco, a very decent hotel ($89 per night) in the older central part of town (called "Centro" no less). The hotel has fine food, a decent bar, a good indoor swimming pool and an okay gym. Internet access you've got to pay $10 per day for cable or $15 for wireless. It's easy to walk from this hotel into the older part of Santiago, mainly around the central market and Plaza de Armas/Cathedral and along the river (no great sight). I preferred it to Las Condes & Providencia areas (further east, I believe) because they reminded me of suburban America (malls, Applebee's, etc.), but I suppose they're worth a quick visit if you have time. The Bellavista area is just across the river (about 15 mins walk) and that has some really interesting looking trendy/alternative kinds of places, more Bohemian than superfashionable (go to Las Condes for that).

SEPTEMBER 4-9: Picked up a car (Nissan Sentra 1.8) from Alamo. Car rental is generally expensive in Chile for some reason and gas is about $4 per gallon ($1 per liter). Headed up the R5 Norte motorway to Los Andes, which is the closest town to Portillo. I was interested in staying at Portillo originally (when it was going to be a group of people going), but the group fell apart and I didn't want to go to the hotel on my own as it is cruise-style seating at all meals. Also, Portillo generally sells 7 night stays, though later in the season it seems you can get 4 nights but nothing less. I wasn't sure how long I wanted to stay there, so booking into a nearby hotel worked out well. Stayed at the Hotel Plaza in Los Andes, which was totally fine (good food/drink and free wi-fi) and cheap ($34 per night). I noticed there are other “hotels” (guest houses) on the road up to Portillo so it’s possible to stay even closer. Check out www.nevasport.com and ask Carlos (from Los Andes) to make recommendations.

Los Andes is about 1h15m drive up the main road which crosses the Andes mountains. The road is heavily travelled by semis and buses going to/from Argentina and there's no way to get to the ski resort in a decent amount of time without doing the kind of driving/overtaking of vehicles that you'd never think about doing normally — single/double yellow lines mean nothing; two-lane mountain roads can turn into tight four-lane highways as cars pass semis in both directions. Very scary at first, but really enjoyable after the first two days!!! It became part of the ski experience because the road weaves so much I felt like I was still going down the slopes.

Portillo itself is a one-hotel place (two out lodges for budget travellers). I had a great time there. No crowds, very easy-going, clear weather except for one day. The lake was frozen, all the runs were open but Rocca Jack was only open intermittently. Plateau (labelled intermediate/advanced) and Juncalillo (intermediate) kept me busy. Food at snack bar very overpriced so bring your own stuff up and you can eat in your car if you want a break (and have a car). I think it could be a great place to ski and really unwind for a week, though I hear people start getting cabin fever towards the end since you really are in the middle of nowhere. I went up Tue & Wed (Sep 5/6); Thurs the mountain road was closed due to a storm so I toured the nearby villages; then went up again Fri & Sat (Sep 8/9). About closures on the mountain road, go to Portillo’s website and check rather than asking the hotel to call the local highway department (what I did at first) because they always said it is closed, even when it turned out it wasn’t. It may have been closed to Argentina but not to Portillo.

SEPTEMBER 9-15: On Saturday, skied until 5pm at Portillo then headed back down to get the R5 going south towards Santiago and to Valle Nevado. Made a critical mistake of not carefully mapping the route before going, thinking it would be clearly sign-posted. It wasn’t!!! It shouldn’t have taken more than 2.5 hours from Portillo to Valle Nevado but I got lost and had to stop multiple times to ask directions. Basically there’s a ring/orbital road around Santiago (called Americo Vespucio) and you hit it on the north side when returning from Los Andes and then have to travel clockwise to get to the suburb of “Lo Barnechea”, where there is a little road off “Las Condes Avenue” which goes up to Farellones and then Valle Nevado. It took hours to find this little road! By the 6th stop for directions (and having gone through the same toll plaza 3 times), I was contemplating paying someone to let me follow them to this elusive road. When I finally found it (10.30pm), I was suspicious and wondering if I was making another wrong turn somehow. Started heading up into the mountains and finally saw a sign for Farellones (the village up near the resort) so I knew I was going the right way. This road was narrower and more intense than the road to Portillo. Portillo has about 28 or 29 marked “curvas” on the way up and they are not too bad if the traffic is light. To get to Valle Nevado, there are 39 marked “curvas” (180 degrees turns, some very tight) among many other "curvas" that don't get a number before Farellones and then 20 more to get to the VN resort itself. It’s doable if you take it slowly and I found it easier at night because you can see the headlights of other traffic. Arrived at VN at 11.45pm and checked into the Tres Puntas hotel.

After the other two hotels plus the look around Portillo, Tres Puntas was disappointing. I read on this forum it was noisy and it really was. The pub stays open until 1am and you can hear and feel the music two floors away. The walls in the rooms are VERY thin and I felt I really came to know my Brazilian neighbors (most foreigners at VN are from Brazil). But you get over this after a while, especially if you turn up your TV volume. The skiing was pretty good (very icy in some places) on Sunday and Monday — larger area than Portillo and an express lift, “Andes Express”, can get you up to the top quickly enough. A wide variety of intermediate, advanced and expert areas to choose from.

The resort complex (it consists of four hotels, I believe, and some shops and restaurants) is self-contained and all purpose-built. It’s not a town. It has some great mountain views to the east. There are lots of restaurants to choose from and you make your dinner reservation in the morning with your concierge before heading out to ski. Decent snack bar and drinking area with music slopeside. The gym is pretty good and they have yoga/stretching classes at 8am and 6pm. Those were nice to take a break from skiing and also chat with other guests. They have a full range of spa services and outdoor Jacuzzi. Wi-fi is very unreliable and they don’t seem to be bothered if you have to check work emails and their network is down for hours. The ski shop is also not what they advertise (“the very best in Chile”) as I had a gear issue (mentioned in another thread) and they said no one there was qualified to look at it and I should drive down to Ski Total in Santiago (so Ski Total is “the very best shop in Chile”). I ended up phoning Ski Total and they were great. They do rentals and run a daily shuttle bus up to the VN and the guy there was very helpful.

OK, so back to skiing. Tuesday was a washout due to clouds covering the resort from about noon. Got in a few runs and then headed back to the hotel to wait it out. Part of the day on Wednesday was similar but visibility recovered around 1pm and was fine for the rest of the day. By end of the day on Wednesday, I was looking for something else as I felt I had done all I wanted to do at VN. Some Brazilians I met suggested going as a group to La Parva on Thursday, so that's where I ended up going (by car, about 20km away). The slopes were pretty much deserted. However, it’s a town so there was activity in other areas. I enjoyed some nice long runs and think it’s definitely worth a visit. Maybe alternate between VN & LP so neither becomes stale? You can ski to LP from VN too. I spent all day at LP and then went back to the hotel and crashed.

SEPTEMBER 15-17: On Friday I really wasn’t up for another day skiing in the VN/LP area and decided I wanted to take off and head south to Termas de Chillán, even though I was booked until Saturday PM. If you leave early, they won’t give you your money back (not surprisingly). I checked out at 11am and went back down to Santiago (Lo Barnechea area), stopping at MallSport because someone told me they were having a big sale on skis, etc. I was really curious about the prices the locals have to pay for their stuff. Nice mall but prices not too different from US/Europe. For this trip I bought a map and figured out in advance how I would go to get on the R5 Sur to head south. Unfortunately I got on the ring road going counterclockwise instead of clockwise (it had to happen, right?), so I got a really nice tour of the whole of outer Santiago (their Volvo dealerships and Fedex terminals look just like ours!) as I made my way back around to get on the R5 heading south. Total distance to Chillán is about 400km (c. 250 miles). I had already decided I wouldn’t go all the way to the ski area on Friday but stop in a local town (Chillán) and drive up the next day. I phoned ahead and booked a very nice hotel (Gran Hotel Isabel Riquelme) for $30 per night. It was by far the nicest hotel of the whole trip, with a great bar and excellent food and staff! The drive down the motorway was uneventful. There are tolls on most of these roads (1600 pesos each; keep your receipt). Some very wild drivers doing over 100mph but if you stay to the right they won’t bother you. Got to Chillán after 4h30m (c. 7pm) and easily found the hotel. The town wasn’t very interesting to walk around but the hotel was a great place to relax. I wished I had come a day or two earlier. It was nice being in a room where you couldn’t hear your neighbors.

On Saturday morning got up early, checked out and started driving up to the mountain, which is a volcano (or several right next to each other?). The road was much easier than Portillo or VN. It only took an hour, though the last 7km was unpaved, so that was tricky at times because of all the dust thrown up by the other cars. It can reduce visibility to zero and there are drops into ditches on both sides of the road in places. I checked out the two hotels at the base of the mountain and they looked very nice. I’ve read that they are, though they are more expensive than the place I was staying. The base lodge is small and had a very small-town US ski area feel (like in the mid-Atlantic). I thought it was pretty cool and relaxed. The runs were all fine, though unfortunately “Las Tres Marías”, the 13km run (the reason I wanted to go) was closed. Overall I had a really good day there and was glad I went. It was especially nice to be in a place with trees again (Portillo and VN have none). The volcanic rock was beautiful. I wasn’t aware at the time that the volcano has been active within the last few years. I got the last lift right at 5pm and then packed up and started the drive back to Santiago. I thought I was going to be wrecked skiing all day and then driving 4.5 hours but it was actually fine. I arrived at the same hotel I first stayed in (Plaza San Francisco) around 11pm.

I spent my last day in Chile walking around the hotel area a bit (there’s a very pretty 16th century church right next to the hotel with a colonial art museum) and relaxing by the pool and in the gym. Left for the airport at 5.30pm for an 8.40pm flight. Easy drive and car drop-off. Unfortunately American Airlines check in was so slow I spent an hour and twenty minutes in the line. After that, there’s the long line to go through passport control to leave the country. Definitely plan on arriving three hours before the flight! It was close, but after sprinting to the plane and getting settled in, we had a mechanical problem which kept us on the ground for another hour. Oh well. Had a chance to chat with a Chilean and get his views about his country’s ski areas. Portillo and Chillán seemed to be the favorites, especially Chillán. It’s just one guy’s opinion but I tended to agree.

Overall it was a good trip and I would go back, though if I return to South America soon I think I’d like to go to Bariloche and Las Leñas before Chile. Driving was a very enjoyable part of the trip though probably not for everyone. I would not recommend driving in mid-winter. I think major ice on the mountain roads would have made it too nerve-wracking. In terms of cost, a car is probably the same or a bit more than paying for transfers between each place (if doing all three). If I had the time again, I would probably divide it more equally between the three resorts and not spend the final day in Santiago. That would mean one less bag pack/unpack and hotel check in/out. I’d recommend doing the Santiago tour at the end. Two final comments: cell phone coverage very good everywhere though roaming is around $1 per minute on top of what your own provider charges for international calls; when you take money out of an ATM, you have to select the option "foreign customers" (one of like eight options and tends to be at the bottom) or it will reject your card. This happened several times until I read all the options and saw it and gave it a try. I was worried I was going to run out of cash before I figured it out!
post #2 of 2
sounds absolutely amazing!!!
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