Endless Winter: Ultimate Guide to Skiing South America
Written by Alexa Owen • Dec 12, 2016
Need a high alpine fix next summer? Start planning now for a ski vacation to South America.
Photo: Ski Portillo
High in the Andes Mountains of Chile and Argentina you’ll find some of the most renowned skiing in the world: a wonderland of above-tree-line expansive terrain, delectable cuisine, cozy hostels, luxury hotels, and nightclubs that will have you tossing your pisco sour to the side to tear up the dance floor. While pro skiers from across the globe flock here for the unmatched terrain and heli skiing, anyone can make a South American ski vacation one to remember. All it takes is a little planning, a lot of excitement, and a dedication to embracing these fantastic cultures.
As winters in the Northern Hemisphere seem to be shortening, South America has become increasingly popular for those seeking a summertime skiing fix. The main destination countries are Chile and Argentina, and while the continent as a whole boasts over 30 ski resorts of varying quality, these two countries offer the most when it comes to great terrain, developed infrastructure, and accessibility. You’ll have to make a few changes to your normal ski routine, of course: mainly factoring in siesta after après and acclimating to dinners after 9pm, but it’s all part of the adventure.
Note that the hotels at major resorts offer all-inclusive or partially-inclusive packages that include room and board. This is the best option for families or those who would like to focus on skiing while the rest of the day’s events are taken care of. The resorts in this guide also offer independent accommodation where guests are responsible for their own meals – a viable option for those who want to eat on the cheap. In this guide you’ll also find insider tips on where to eat, sleep, ski, party, and play when you’re off the slopes. Keep reading for our ultimate guide to skiing in South America!
Ski Resorts: Chile
Gorgeous, eclectic Chile extends 4,300 kilometers down the western coast of South America, and is home to 20 plus resorts of varying size and accessibility. You’ll find that northern resorts like Portillo have more developed infrastructure and facilities; as you travel further south, resorts will resemble a more mom-and-pop operation. Much of the lift accessed terrain is above tree line across the Andes Range, and while you can expect plenty of sunshine filled days, occasional inclement weather causes lift closures due to high exposure.
Fly into Santiago International Airport, which is the main access point for Portillo and the Tres Valles. If booking a ski week package at Portillo, shuttle service is available from the airport to the resort on Saturdays. Valle Nevado and the Tres Valles area is 80 kilometers from Santiago; public van shuttles are available for a budget option, or private car service when booking a package deal.
Portillo is Chile’s most well-known resort among destination ski vacationers: as such, it caters completely to those seeking a South American ski vacation chock full of long ski days, social dining hours, lively nightlife, and the ease of all-inclusive package deals. While Portillo gets the occasional day tripper, you’ll likely need to book a Saturday-to-Saturday ski week that includes accommodation, meals, lift tickets, and the works. Because of the isolated nature of the resort base (which basically consists of the bright yellow structure of Hotel Portillo and surrounding accommodation), Portillo offers a true sense of “getting away”. Between the flawless views, steep slopes, international visitors and cruise ship like dining routine, you’ll experience the quintessential Chilean ski vacation – with lots of new friends to boot!
Best For: The all-inclusive ski vacation getaway; lounging in the scene of a classic Warren Miller movie.
Stay…at the iconic Hotel Portillo for an all-inclusive ski week.
Ski…Kilometro Lanzado off El Caracara for fresh tracks on a powder day.
Fine Dining…Enjoy fresh gourmet meals on white linen at the main dining room inside Hotel Portillo.
Cheap Eats…Stop by La Posada for traditional Chilean fare and a break from resort life.
Après...Get a beer and small bites at the Ski Box, located at the base of Las Lomas.
Party…Head downstairs to the disco in Hotel Portillo for late night dancing and piscolas.
Off The Slopes…Stretch it out at afternoon yoga class at the fitness center inside Hotel Portillo.
Portillo boasts 1,235 acres skiable terrain. The breakdown is 15% beginner, 30% intermediate, 30% advanced, and 25% expert. The resort is a hot spot for pro skiers from across the globe, who play in the powder filled chutes and bowls; beginners and intermediates will find plenty of mellow cruisers that are groomed nightly. The occasional shift in weather patterns can make for icy conditions, but the hot Chilean sun softens slopes up by late morning.
Photo: Ski Portillo
Lodging options are clustered together at the base area, which is defined by the bright yellow Hotel Portillo; there are three main options listed here, as well as private chalets available for advance booking.
Book well in advance at Hotel Portillo, whose high-end offerings include four gourmet meals per day, swimming pool and hot tubs, fitness classes, spa services, and childcare.
An extension of Hotel Portillo, the Octagon Lodge features private rooms with bunk beds and balconies; you’ll have access to all the amenities and meal offerings in the main hotel.
The rooms are small at the hostel-like Inca Lodge, but the price is also right; there’s a self-service cafeteria for meals, while remaining main hotel amenities are accessible.
Bookings at Hotel Portillo and the Octagon Lodge include all meals for the week; expect the works at each sitting from servers who will welcome you by name.
Four meals per day are served in the main dining room of Hotel Portillo; expect a fixed choice menu of finely prepared gourmet meals crafted from local cuisine in a fine dining setting.
For a change of pace (because the same table in the same dining room may just get a bit old), opt for an evening in the Portillo Bar, which takes private bookings for sushi or fondue parties.
The Posada Restaurant, located at the end of the Hotel Portillo driveway, is a main hangout for employees; it’s also the best spot for local Chilean cuisine and rockin’ parties.
Après ski that lasts through dinner and far into the night is traditional at Portillo; for the limited nightlife options, there’s impressive variety.
Stop into the Portillo Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail and snack, and return afterward for boisterous conversation and Chilean red wine.
Head downstairs to the hotel disco for late night dancing with the hardcore party crowd; DJ starts spinning just before midnight.
What happens in the Posada Restaurant may or may not stay there, but if resort employees are letting loose in this cozy spot, you sure can too.
Hotel Portillo is the central spot for daily indoor activities; the resort also offers day trips to area attractions.
Downstairs in the hotel you’ll find a basketball court, indoor rock climbing wall, and tons of games to keep kids busy; there’s also a free yoga class every afternoon.
Snowshoes are available to rent; if you need an afternoon out of ski boots, explore the side slopes on foot.
Watch the Ski Portillo calendar for updates on themed weeks – especially wine tasting; winemakers from local vineyards offer tastings and talks at the hotel (and sometimes trivia to win a free bottle)!
We recommend bringing all the gear you’ll need from home; South American resorts don’t have the ski shops you’d expect in, say, Colorado.
If the traditional 9:45 pm dinner seating is new for you, factor in time for an afternoon siesta and pre-dinner snacks.
Photo: Valle Nevado
Purpose built in 1980 and inspired by the French Alps resort of Les Arcs, Valle Nevado resembles the classic destination resort town. Where it lacks quaintness and history it makes up for in top-notch service and amenities. This is a top South American pick for families because of the various programs for kids on and off the slopes, as well as the ease of all-inclusive lodging and dining packages. Similar to the layout of Portillo, lodging and dining options are largely condensed at the resort base, so getting around on foot (with or without little ones) is super convenient.
Best For: Families; the most modern resort experience in Chile.
Stay…at Puerta del Sol for the perfect rooms with a family of four.
Ski…Sol for a (nearly) top to bottom leg burner first thing in the morning.
Fine Dining…Enjoy Mediterranean cuisine in the elegant dining room of La Fourchette.
Cheap Eats…Lounge slopeside on the deck of Bajo Zero with grilled sandwiches and stiff pisco sours.
Après...at The Bar Lounge with stunning views, spinning DJs, and avid party-goers.
Nightlife...the hottest spot for dancing and live music is Bar Tres Puntas.
Off The Slopes…Snowshoe walks and igloo building are offered through Vallee Nevado guides.
At 2,225 acres, Valle Nevado is comparable to standard North American resorts; that statistic more than doubles when counting off-piste and heli-skiing terrain. Intermediates will be comfortable on the mellow slopes, which account for 30% of total terrain. The off-piste gullies and powder fields attract advanced skiers, but overall the resort doesn’t offer serious steeps. Recent infrastructure developments include lifts interconnecting Valle Nevado with La Parva and El Colorado, offering guests access to the entire Tres Valles area and 7,000 acres of lift-accessed terrain.
Valle Nevado has three main hotels and clusters of apartments to rent – mind that most need to be booked for an entire week during peak season (July), and shorter bookings are available in June, August and September.
Hotel Valle Nevado got a complete makeover in 2010; it offers ski-in/ski-out access, private terraces, spacious rooms and highly personalized service.
The rooms at Puerta del Sol are modern and comfortable; the best are north facing with resort views, and the 2-story loft style room ideal for families.
For dorm-style rooms a 2-minute walk from the slopes, book at Hotel Tres Puntas; the common areas and hotel bar make for a social hostel vibe.
Most restaurants are found within major hotels in the ski-in/ski-out base village; breakfast and dinner are included in most ski stay packages, with more options for lunch.
Dine in elegance at La Fourchette inside Hotel Valle Nevado; chefs serve up delectable French Mediterranean cuisine paired with options from an extensive wine list.
Fill up at the casual Restaurant Sur for traditional Chilean cuisine; portions are generous, and carnivores will have the most menu options.
La Leñera is a hot spot for après that lingers into dinner; sunset views and crafty cocktails accompany an international menu with Chilean flair.
Après can run long into the evening; transition after dinner to quiet drinks in hotel bars, or shift into dance party mode at the legendary Bar Tres Puntas.
Bar Valle Nevado has a sophisticated ambiance and quieter crowd – a good option for small groups and close conversation.
Cut some serious rug at Bar Tres Puntas; live music, karaoke, and a wild crowd will party into the wee hours.
For a glass of wine by a roaring central fireplace, drop into Bar Lounge inside Hotel Valle Nevado; DJ’s spin late night.
Photo: Valle Nevado
Activities and events at Cerro Nevado are pre-organized and well suited for kids and families; take an afternoon off the slopes to explore the outskirts of the resort.
Watch the torchlight parade from the resort base Saturday nights during peak season.
Take the family on a guided snowshoe walk to the resort boundary; guides instruct guests on how to use constellations to navigate the way home – there’s also an opportunity for igloo building.
The Tres Valles area boasts some of the best heli skiing in South America; consider adventuring beyond the resort for a guided day in the backcountry.
The base village here has a handful of ski shops; rent gear on site if you don’t feel like schlepping it from home.
Ski Resorts: Argentina
Spicy tangoes, lively music, decadent food and affinity for late-night parties: even in the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, you’ll find the foundations of Argentinian culture. From the lakes region of Bariloche to the southern most tip of South America, the peaks of Argentina offer high alpine bowls, playful tree fields, expert chutes, and long, winding groomers that satisfy skiers of all ability levels. Resort sizes and infrastructures vary, as do vacation costs: drop into major resorts like Cerro Catedral with its 5-star luxury hotels and high speed quads, or explore a smaller locals’ scene at mom-and-pop style Batea Mahuida. Wherever you go, you’re bound to find the best of what Argentinian ski culture has to offer – including all-night parties headed up by visiting Brazilians.
Fly into Bariloche (2 hr flight from Buenos Aires) to get to Cerro Catedral. Taxis and private cars are readily available to drive the 17km from Bariloche to the resort, and roads are well paved. Las Leñas can be reached by flying into Malargüe and shuttling to the resort.
Located near the popular and bustling city of Bariloche in Argentina’s northern Patagonia region, Cerro Catedral boasts the most developed ski resort in South America. Named for the gothic cathedral-like rocks that shape the peak of Piedro del Condor, Cerro Catedral offers skiers and riders stunning mountain views, huge terrain variety, and all the amenities one could expect at a world-class resort. A recent multi-million dollar investment contributed to high speed lift service and infrastructure upgrade.
Best For: Family getaways; the largest resort experience in Argentina.
Stay…at Sudbruck Hosteria for the slopeside boutique experience.
Ski…Cruise across the ridgeline on Panorámica for gorgeous views.
Fine Dining…Mind that La Chimenea is reservation-only, and book ahead for a leisurely multi-course meal of Patagonian cuisine.
Cheap Eats…Tage is the go-to for steak sandwiches, milanesas, cold beer and loud polka music.
Party…at Mute for a dance club scene that kicks off around midnight.
Off The Slopes…Now is your chance to take a spin with snowbiking – lessons are available through the resort ski school.
Compared to Tahoe ski resorts for its heavy quality snow and proximity to gorgeous area lakes, Cerro Catedro sits in a league of its own by Argentine Patagonia standards. The 3,000 acres is largely suited for intermediate and advanced skiers, who can enjoy the slopes on the upper part of the mountain. Beginners need to stick down low, which can be problematic in poor snow seasons due to low elevation. There’s a well developed terrain park for tricksters. Pro skiers and riders flock to Cerro Catedro for the expert hike-to and out-of-bounds terrain.
Photo: Pire Hue Hotel
Luxury and boutique options with European flair abound in Cerro Catedral’s base village; for cheaper digs, opt for rooms a short walk from the lifts.
The 5-star, antique-clad Pire Hue Hotel boasts ski-in/ski-out access, elegant rooms, Turkish bath, heated outdoor pool, and full service spa.
Stay at the Sudbruck Hosteria for a charming boutique experience; the architecture is unique, the location slopeside, and the rooms ideal for big mountain views.
You can’t beat the cost at Paralelo 41; this hostel-style spot offers rooms that sleep 6, a comfy lounge area, and good location 450 meters from the slopes.
Many of the village restaurants are closed from 7-9pm, and dinner starts late; if that’s not your style, you’ll still find good options.
For traditional Patagonian cuisine and table side views of Lake Nahuel Huapi, book a table at El Balcon.
Book a table at La Chimenea inside the Pire Hue Hotel for the white tablecloth experience; expect local cuisine paired with local wines in a cozy, quiet dining room.
It may not be the swankiest spot on the hill, but Rodeo Parilla is the hot spot for great steaks and friendly service in a casual and eclectic dining room.
There’s one true nightclub option at Cerro Catedral, while most bars wind down around midnight; for more all-night parties, head into downtown Bariloche.
Meet up with friends for low key drinks at Jackson’s Bar.
Head to Mute after skiing or siesta for a lively crowd and the occasional late-night party.
Recent resort investments included purchases of quad bikes, snowmobiles, and snowbikes for alternative ways to explore the resort; there’s also an excellent spa inside Village Catedral.
Book a snowbiking lesson with instructors at the Catedral ski school for a different way to enjoy the slopes.
Take a day off and indulge in therapeutic offerings at Spa del Cerro; body wraps, hydrotherapy, and specialty massages are available, plus access to sauna and Turkish bath.
Most skiers flock to Cerro Catedral for extreme skiing, but the cross-country skiing tracks offer a mellower way to enjoy the scenery.
Hit the slopes early to avoid crowds; the resort is popular with destination vacationers and locals alike.
The lower half of the resort often lacks snow coverage; expect to stick to the upper mountain, and downloading at day’s end.
Photo: Las Leñas Resort
Las Leñas is one of the most popular resorts in South America, and is often featured in big mountain skiing films and magazines. Pros flock here for the unparalleled access to backcountry skiing, as well as inbounds terrain that could pass as heli-ski caliber anywhere in the world. When the weather cooperates with heavy snow followed by bluebird days, this place is any ski vacationer's dream. The resort is developed by Argentinian standards, with elegant hotels, vibrant nightlife, and plenty of gastronomy options.
Best For: Pro or wannabe pro skiers looking to throw down some serious powder turns; nightlife enthusiasts are also very welcome.
Stay…at Hotel Piscis for ski-in/ski-out access and all the amenities of a five-star casino resort.
Ski…anything off the Marte Chair on sunny days.
Fine Dining…Indulge in the regional cuisine at the Slalom inside the Aires Hotel.
Cheap Eats…La Cima at the top of the Eros lift serves up delectable Argentinian eats.
Après...at one of the many sunny slopeside decks, and don’t miss complementary wine at the base on Fridays.
Nightlife...UFO Point is always packed with tourists and locals looking to get down on the dance floor; the best DJ’s spin from midnight until 3am.
Off The Slopes…unwind with a hot stone massage in the spa at Hotel Piscis before a night out on the town.
Las Leñas has two distinct in-bounds skiing areas: the upper part of the mountain, serviced by the Marte Chair, and the lower part, which offers beginners and intermediates a vast expanse of mellow slopes. Pro skiers and riders flock to this resort for the backcountry terrain and the lift-accessed terrain off Marte Chair, which some say is as good as any heli-skiing in Argentina. The downside to the resort is that any inclement weather – fog, snow, wind – can make for immediate lift closures. Go for at least a week (and more if you can swing it) to ensure some time on the upper mountain.
Photo: Las Leñas Resort
Las Leñas offers a wide range of accommodation if you know what you want; the nicer hotels have full lodging/food packages, while the super budget-conscious can find comfort in basic hostels and even staff dorms.
Five-star Hotel Piscis offers ski-in/ski-out access most the season, ski valet, heated outdoor pool, and beautiful bar; the dinner service is top-notch, and casino makes for lively nights.
Hotel Aires boasts a day spa, fitness center, and kids club – a good option for families, but without ski-in/ski-out access.
Find all your basic needs slopeside at Hotel Acuario, which is also stumbling distance to the bars and clubs.
Soak up the sun at slopeside restaurants during the day; most hotel packages include multi-course dinners of Argentinian and international cuisine – enjoy siesta, then fuel up for a night on the town.
The Slalom at the Aries Hotel is known for its delectable 3 course meals, included in partial board packages for hotel guests but worth the dinner out if you’re staying elsewhere.
UFO Point is a hot spot for great wine and pizzas in a trendy atmosphere, and there’s always the option to stay for late night dancing.
Drop by La Cima at the top of the Eros lift at day’s end for a mixed Argentinian grill and live après music.
By Argentinian standards, the clubs close early (4am, to be exact) – just enough time to stumble back to bed before catching first chair; dance parties abound, while some hotel bars offer cozy nooks for a quiet cocktail.
Head to Corona Club after midnight for DJ’s spinning pop and deep house for a packed western crowd.
For gambling and laid-back drinks in the lounge, spend the night at Hotel Piscis; it’s one of the more elegant spaces, although dress is still Las Leñas casual.
For 10 pesos you can slip into UFO Point, which is rockin’ from après until 3am with Argentinian DJ’s and plenty of glow sticks.
Don’t expect extensive off-slopes offerings at Las Leñas – the resort activities mostly center around partying and gambling – but here are a few alternatives:
Drop by the health club at the Piscis Hotel Spa for hot stone massage or a sweat in the sauna.
Rent snowshoes and tour surrounding trails for a break between powder days.
The ski school offers something called the “Toast Descent” for those who have taken group lessons: cruise down the Eros II obstacle course to a group toast at the bottom – an après event of sorts.
Las Leñas is a South American hot spot for pro skiers – this is the place to go if you want to ski the stuff of the pros, or just rub shoulders with them at the bar.
Overall, value of the hotel packages can shift dramatically based on exchange rate; check the trends and book accordingly.