Today's lesson - how to make the most of Chile's slopes

As ski season opens in the southern hemisphere, Minty Clinch heads for the Andes where the resorts are learning the true value of their natural assets

In Chile, fabulous ski slopes are guaranteed. The longest, narrowest country in the world is dominated by the mighty Andes, rarely out of sight as they run parallel to the coast for 2,000 miles. Fabulous skiing should also be guaranteed, but in South America, development is often subject to political crises. Chile is now the continent's most stable democracy, but the election of the left-wing president Salvador Allende in 1970 crippled the economy, and it took two decades under the Pinochet military dictatorship and its democratic successor for the country to recover.

In Chile, fabulous ski slopes are guaranteed. The longest, narrowest country in the world is dominated by the mighty Andes, rarely out of sight as they run parallel to the coast for 2,000 miles. Fabulous skiing should also be guaranteed, but in South America, development is often subject to political crises. Chile is now the continent's most stable democracy, but the election of the left-wing president Salvador Allende in 1970 crippled the economy, and it took two decades under the Pinochet military dictatorship and its democratic successor for the country to recover.

Chile's two leading ski areas are not as big or as interlinked as they might have been, but they are close to Santiago, very user-friendly, and starting to appear in competitive ski package brochures for the first time. Tour operators are offering a week's full board in Portillo or Valle Nevado for around £600. This doesn't include flights, but the internet has some bargains.

As the resorts could hardly be more different, anyone who is prepared to travel that far should opt for a combo holiday. Portillo is the grand dame of Andean skiing, in action since the late 19th century when Norwegian engineers surveyed the Uspallata Pass for the railway. After it was completed in 1910, the train acted as a ski lift, though not a very rewarding one because it ran only twice a week.

The resort took on its present form with the building of the Hotel Portillo in 1949. It is an ocean liner of a building, standing alone among remote peaks overlooking the mysterious Laguna del Inca in the catchment area of Aconcagua, at 6,959m the highest peak in the Andes.

Throughout the skiing world, the Hotel Portillo is synonymous with its legendary American owner, Henry Purcell. After graduating in hotel administration from Cornell, he came to work for his Uncle Bob, the resort's new owner, in 1961. "I didn't know how to ski," he said, "but I liked the idea of learning the language and getting to know another culture. I planned to stay for two years, but I never left." Now in his early seventies, he runs the hotel with his son, Miguel, skis for at least two hours every day, and hangs out with two-year-old Henry Jr, his son by his second wife, Ellen.

In Portillo, what you see is what you get. No shops, no bars, no restaurants, just a hotel that takes a maximum of 450 guests, served by 450 staff. The public rooms are handsomely traditional, with gleaming polished wood and deep comfortable sofas. As there is nowhere else to go, all guests are on full board, three meals a day served with due formality by red-coated, bow-tied waiters. Purcell presides over the dining room throughout the season, inviting regulars to share his table. The clientele is Chilean, Brazilian, and American, a cheerful polyglot crowd who mingle freely, seduced by Purcell's time-warped country-house style. A few are British. Grant Hamilton, a London-based tax lawyer, booked his holiday on the internet. "I've travelled in Burma," he said, "and I find the colonial atmosphere similar here."

Portillo means "narrow valley", an accurate description of terrain that determines the nature of the lift system. The lake and the hotel stand between two unconnected areas. Turn right for the El Plateau chair to Tio Bob's, the only mountain restaurant. When it's sunny, which is most of the time, lunchtime crowds gather for wine-tasting on the terrace overlooking the lake. This may provide the courage to edge into the rocky jaws of Garganta, the challenging black run back to base, rather than glide down the friendly blue.

Left out of the hotel opens up sweeping Juncalillo, at 3.2km the longest piste in the resort. Portillo has radical terrain on both sides of the mountain, but the first challenge is to reach it, which means tackling one of two va-et-vient slingshot lifts. Skiers are linked together on buttons four or five abreast and blasted upwards at high speed. Debutants ask for advice; new friends are guaranteed.

From the top of Roca Jack, a high traverse leads to a series of testing couloirs and the Flying Kilometre downhill track, which regularly generates world speed records due to the altitude. When the lake is frozen, skiers can take the steep powder slopes down to the shore and skate across back to the hotel. At this point, custom dictates a dip in the heated open-air pool, followed by a roll in the snow banks and yet more new friends.

Although Valle Nevado, La Parva and El Colorado could develop into a Chilean Trois Vallées, they still have some way to go. La Parva is condoville for Santiago's élite, a collection of apartments occupied mostly at weekends, while El Colorado offers a scattering of accommodation around a shabby base station. The piste map suggests they are connected, but bridging the gap in reality requires an enterprising river crossing.

Both are efficiently linked to Valle Nevado, a compact development resembling a mini Les Arcs, its high-rise wood-clad buildings silhouetted against the surrounding peaks. Its architect, Eduardo Stern, studied in France before returning to design Valle Nevado in the late 1980s. Residents can use the facilities in the other resorts and wear passes to access complicated arrangements in six restaurants, of which the best are La Fourchette d'Or and Don Giovanni.

Advanced skiers should sign on for spectacular helicopter flights over 5,000m peaks to the awesomely remote powder fields. In good snow years, when flights are short, it's exceptional value at around £60 a shot, including powder skis.

Santiago station is the starting point for the four-hour journey south to Chillan, with onward taxi connections to a luxurious ski and spa complex under twin volcanoes. No one speaks much English and the pistes are not extensive, but the food is excellent and the welcome warm. In skiing terms, this is as Chilean as it gets.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of Ski All America (08701 676676; www.skiallamerica.com), which offers seven nights at Hotel Portillo from £628, Hotel Tres Puntas in Valle Nevado from £584 and Hotel Valle Nevado from £947. Flights cost extra but can be booked through Ski All America. The easiest route is via Madrid. Returns from around £700.

Where to find out more

Chilean embassy's tourism division (020-7580 1023; www.visit-chile.org). The season ends in October.

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