SANTIAGO, Chile — It's summertime, hot and hazy. Your skis are buried in the back of the garage. Dig them out. Because skiers who spend their summer counting the days till winter comes can fulfill their ski fantasies now. Snow season is in full swing in the Chilean Andes.
Chile's ski season begins officially in June, but August and September are the best months to go. The weather and snow conditions are more dependable, the prices are lower and it's much less crowded. And it's easier to get there than most people think. Twice-a-week flights leave Los Angeles in the afternoon and arrive in Santiago the next morning, causing no more jet lag than taking the red-eye to New York. Little more than an hour's bus ride later, you can be in one of Chile's four major ski resorts.
Only 35 miles from Santiago up a steep curvy road, at 8,860 feet, the base facilities for La Parva are terraced at the foot of the ski area. Old families from Santiago have skied this area for generations. Chileans--as well as an increasing number of Argentines and Brazilians--own many of the condominiums and some private homes. La Parva is their weekend getaway.
I stood, on that first morning in La Parva last August, at 11,910 feet in the clear crisp air, looking down on sumptuous white rolls and hillocks in brilliant sunshine.
An overnight blizzard had dropped two feet of snow over the Andes, and without a tree or a rock in sight, and only an occasional skier, my companions and I had nothing to stop us from pointing our skis in any direction. Swooping down gullies, up over ridges, making first tracks through knee-deep powder, we had to force ourselves to end the ecstasy and traverse back to the lift--or else find ourselves below with a long walk back up.
"I never thought I could ski in powder," remarked a gasping, excited New Yorker.
I never thought I could either, until I was let loose on the wide open terrain of La Parva.
Always above tree-line, the runs are clearly marked, but there is nothing to inhibit an average skier from meandering off the piste into untracked snow. Expert skiers revel in this complete freedom to fly off cornices, drop down chutes and to experience, without restrictions, the challenges that lure them to the sport of skiing.
Beginners and intermediates can ski with reckless abandon or cautious euphoria over miles of open terrain. In Chile, there are no rules imposed by the ski area to protect them from liability, or you from your own negligence. You are responsible for your own safety--and your own adventures.
Accommodations in La Parva are in modern two- and three-bedroom condominiums. It's a good idea to have your driver stop at a supermercado in Santiago to buy food on your way to the resort. There is a dining room and small bar for hotel guests, plus a small but lively restaurant called La Marmita.
This is where we ate the night of the blizzard. Long wooden tables were crowded with cheese and meat fondue pots, devices for heating raclette (a cheese dish), and a variety of condiments. Bottles of robust red Chilean wine from the 100-year-old vineyard of Cousino Macul were uncorked at each table.
The owner kept the blender whirring with pisco sours--a mixture of lemon juice and pisco, a Peruvian brandy. A generous local who was celebrating his 50th birthday invited us all to share his champagne. This was definitely the locals' watering hole as ski instructors from Canada, the U.S., Australia, Chile and Argentina mingled with the guests. Champagne and pisco flowed. The tables were pulled to the wall and soon guests were making drinks behind the bar. The bartender was dancing on the tables with the guests, and cooks, waiters, instructors and local ski racers joined in the merriment that erased all national identities and joined us as skiers in an evening of raucous camaraderie.
La Parva is wide open and friendly. You can ski from your door to two chair lifts and nine Pomalifts (a chairless lift that employs a disc which one straddles while being pulled uphill.) These will transport you over gentle terrain on to the more demanding slopes where the Canadian National team trains in the summer. We watched them jumping off the roofs of farmhouses between slalom runs. Snowboarding is a fast growing sport in Chile, as it is in the U.S. Lessons and rentals are available and there are plenty of low cornices to twist up, down and over along the edge of the pistes.
Each day ends around 5:30 p.m. with a gold alpenglow washing over the slopes, then fading as a brilliant red sunset smolders in the western sky over Santiago.