Together with Argentina, Chile is the Southern Hemisphere’s top destination for skiers and snowboarders, with challenging and wonderfully diverse terrains, great snow conditions, and ski resorts which range from those with world-class infrastructure to the attractively small and rustic.
In addition, there is lots and lots of superb back-country terrain for those who want to keep away from the crowds, commune with nature, and make first tracks. The majestic peaks and dramatic scenery of the high Andes, combined with outstanding terrain and conditions, make skiing in Chile an awesome experience!
There are three principal geographical regions where you can ski in Chile:
- In the central Chilean Andes the ski resorts are located between 2, 800 and 3,000 meters, on wide-open rugged mountains, above tree-line. The snow is generally dry and the terrain varied, providing slopes for skiers and boarders of all abilities. The principal resorts are El Colorado, La Parva, Valle Nevado, Portillo, Lagunillas, and Chapa Verde.
- In the southern Andes, the average height of the mountains is considerably lower, precipitation is much higher and as a result there is both more and heavier snow. The resorts are largely on the lower slopes of volcanoes, many of which are active, and provide very different terrain than farther north, with large gullies and dense native forest. The views of lakes, forest, and distant volcanoes are exceptional. In addition to lift-access skiing there is extensive and excellent terrain for ski touring. The best resorts are Termas de Chillán, Villarrica, Antillanca, Lonquimay, Las Araucarias, and Corralco.
- Patagonia has ski infrastructure at Cerro El Fraile, near Coyaique, and at Cerro Mirador in Punta Arenas, where you can ski and enjoy spectacular ocean views. Because of their latitude, these resorts have the longest ski season of any in Chile.
History of Skiing in Chile
The first Andean skiers were British engineers, commissioned by the Chilean government in 1887 to investigate the feasibility of constructing a railroad from Valparaiso, Santiago’s principal port, to Santiago, crossing the mountains into Argentina, through Mendoza to Buenos Aires. In order to study the proposed line in winter conditions, two Norwegian engineers were hired. With snowfalls of up to 8 meters in the high passes, the most efficient way for the Norwegians to mobilize themselves in winter was on skis. In another historical ski footnote, fourteen Norwegian skiers were hired to transport the mail across the mountains in the winter of 1889, a novel scheme but one that didn’t catch on. During construction of the Trans Andean Railroad, the largely British engineers used skis to get around in the winter. In 1910, when the railway was inaugurated, recreational skiers began to use the narrow gauge railway as a ski lift.
In the 1930’s, a rudimentary lift was constructed in the Portillo area—so called because it was a small pass between the mountains—and adventurers from Europe and North America became the first ski tourists. Ski instructors were brought from Europe and a rustic mountain lodge served as the first hotel. In the early 1940s the company Hoteles de Cordillera S.A was set up to build what would become the Gran Hotel Portillo, inaugurated in 1949 with 125 rooms. In 1946 Portillo installed a chair lift, the first on the continent. In 1960 the Chilean government, who had owned and operated the ski area up to that point, decided to sell Portillo, making it one of the first state-owned companies sold to the private sector in Chilean history.
In 1966 the World Alpine Ski Championships were held in Portillo, which focused international attention on Chile’s emergent ski industry, and also kindled national interest in the sport. France’s Jean-Claude Killy, Karl Schranz of Austria, and Billy Kidd from the United States were three famous participants.
Over the years three speed records were set on Portillo’s slopes, including the 1978 record for US skier Steve McKinney, who exceeded 125-mile (200 km) per hour for the first time in skiing history. During the 1960s top international ski racers began to train during the northern hemisphere summer on Portillo’s slopes and later in El Colorado, La Parva and Valle Nevado.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the sport expanded rapidly with new ski areas being set up in the central Andes near Santiago and in southern Chile, largely on the slopes of volcanoes. During the 1980s, improvements to infrastructure included new ski lifts, greater and better hotel capacity, and improved roads. Chile’s reputation as a world-class ski destination was launched.