Chile

Whenever skiers gather and talk about their bucket lists of ski destinations there are always a few that dominate the conversation.  The Alps of Europe, the Rockies in the United States, the Alps and Hokkaido of Japan and of course, helicopter skiing in Alaska.  When the Andes of South America are mentioned, Portillo, Chile is the destination of Dreams.  Linda and I are no different so in 2014, we booked a week at Portillo and flew to Chile to experience it's legendary skiing.  Chile is a long way to travel for skiing so we extended our journey an extra month to explore a country we knew virtually nothing about.  Our journey included Easter Island, a road trip through sleepy villages up the coast and the Atacama Desert.  What we discovered was a country rich in diversity both in it's landscape and people.


Portillo

To ski Portillo is to experience over the top decadence.  Portillo only accommodates 400 guests per week. A hotel for the "big spenders" and limited dorm accommodations for those who are not.  As a bucket list item, Linda and I booked  the top floor with one of the 8 rooms that includes a "veranda".  Sometimes in life when you are planing a once in a life time adventure,  you just have to splurge.   The exclusiveness becomes even more apparent because many of the rooms are taken up by national ski teams doing Summer training.  The day you arrive you take your boots to the boot butler and your skis to the ski butler.  With astounding facial recognition ability, the next time you are seen walking down the stains and no words spoken, your equipment is sitting out ready for you.  Huh? there is 400 new faces each week, certainly something I could not do with 8.  Meals are massive, 4 a day, Chilean style with a wait staff of 3 per table,  Weight gain was inevitable for it was impossible to balance ski calories out to meal calories in. 


Unfortunately, nature was not on our side.  it was a drought year in Chile.  Portillo was suffering from inadequate snow coverage.  The lowermost lift was trucking in snow so we could ski to the base.  The famous ultra steep avalanche chutes of which comprises most of Portillo runs were thin.  Yet if you chose your line wisely, all was skiable.  If you are not comfortable skiing ungroomed, off piste steep adventurous terrain, perhaps Portillo is not for you.  With only 4 runs machine groomed, STEEP challenging terrain IS your only option. The majority of terrain is only accessible by "slingshot" lifts designed to transport you straight up into the face of an avalanche chute.  If you cannot ride the lift or if you fall on the journey up, you have no business being there. 


From my experience, to ski Portillo Chile is the ultimate skiers dream destination.  Snow conditions non-withstanding, (for our visit), the fantastic challenging terrain,   the level of accommodation and personalize service  cannot be matched anywhere else in the world for an accomplished skier.





Easter Island





Upon returning to Santiago we immediately bundled up our ski gear and checked it into long term storage at the airport.  No need to lug around our skis when our next destination was to be what may be considered the most remote inhabited spot on earth.  Easter Island lies 2,182 miles west of Chile in the South Pacific Ocean.  It's nearest neighbor is Pitcairn Island, 1,289 miles away. 


The island is known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui. It acquired its current name by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722  to commemorate their first landing upon Easter Sunday.  Easter Island is most famously known for the gigantic carved moai statues scattered throughout the islands 63 square miles.  The moai were probably carved to commemorate important ancestors . Over a few hundred years around 887 moai were carved from volcanic tuff.  The quarry where the moai were carved still contains an estimated 400 more moai waiting to be finished.A mystery that is still being debated is how these stone statues, some weighing upwards of 80 tons were moved and placed upright at their various locations around the island. 


Although some of the statues are now standing, that wasn't the case in the early 1800's.  When first sighted in 1722 it was reported that all of the statues were standing. Later when Captain Cook arrived at the island in 1774 he reported all the statues were toppled and the entire island was deforested.  It had appeared that once the islands resources were depleted there was a civil war and toppling the statues displayed the dominance of the victors.  


In 1955 an American archaeologist, William Mulloy, began restoring the moai upright once again on their platforms.  Through a multinational effort about 50 moai have now been restored in their original places.


Coastal Road Trip





While in Portillo we heard about many other ski areas in Chile.  Seeing as how it was winter and we did have our skis with us the thought of skiing a different area was quite appealing.  We gathered our ski equipment from the airport and headed South to  the ski area of Nevados de Chillan where the snow was reportedly better.  When we arrived in La Tranca we were greeted with a torrential rainstorm and in the morning the mountain displayed an ice sheet coverage from its summit to its base.  It was an easy decision for Linda and I to change our ski plans and instead return to Santiago via the coastal route to experience Chile on our own terms. 


There is something to be said for traveling in the dead of winter.  At home August is prime tourist time yet in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed.  On many occasions we felt as we had entire villages and beaches to ourselves to explore without the bustling crowds of summer to deter from our experience.

Our journey eventually brought us to Valparaíso, the second largest city in Chile.  It is a port city that was once known as the "Jewel of South America"  in the heyday of shipping prior to the building of the Panama Canal.  Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it's attractions are the colorful buildings and murals of the old historical district.  Built on 42 hills it is a maze of steep winding streets connected by dozens of steeper stairways and numerous "ascensor's" (funiculars).  But the coolest part of all is that artists from all around Chile and the world have had free reign to paint murals on every conceivable paintable surface throughout the city.




Atacama Desert

Our final destination in Chile was to be the Atacama Desert.  Once again we packed up the ski gear and put it into storage at the Santiago Airport and then hopped on a plane North to Calama.  There we rented a car and made the drive to San Pedro de Atacama where we would spend the next week exploring the wonders of the Atacama Desert.


The Atacama Desert in Chile in the driest place on earth.  Nestled in the rainshadow of the Andes it averages just 0.004 of an inch per year. (That's 4 one thousandths of and inch, yep, it takes 250 years to rain one inch) There are places in the Atacama that it has not rained at all in over 400 years.  Being the driest place on earth does not mean there isn't any water there.  Quite the opposite  Lakes and rivers abound fed by the snow capped Andes to the East.  At approximately 8,000 feet in elevation, the Atacama rarely gets hot, it averages only 63 degrees (18 C) year round.  Other interesting facts about the Atacama is that at an estimated 150 million years old it is the oldest desert on the planet.  The El Tatio Geyser field is the highest in the world, 4,320 meters (14,170 ft), and after Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Valley of the Geysers in Russia it is the 3rd largest in the world.  It is also lush with life, plants have adapted to existing on moisture from the fog or evening dew that occasionally forms during the cool evenings.

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