Valley of the condor

Skiing in Chile is more accessible than ever, says Stephen Wood
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The Independent Travel

Even though I half-knew what to expect, it still came as a surprise. The drive away from Santiago started on a ring road that looked strikingly third-world - lined with scruffy industrial buildings, piles of rubbish and scavenging dogs. The continuous, slow-moving ribbon of traffic edged into a suburb of luxury apartment blocks and shopping centres, one which was being built under the imaginative name of "Mall Plaza". We then turned off into hills whose topography (plus the mix of hippy cabins and designer houses) reminded me of Marin County, near San Francisco, before hitting a series of hairpins that would lead us up to our destination.

Even though I half-knew what to expect, it still came as a surprise. The drive away from Santiago started on a ring road that looked strikingly third-world - lined with scruffy industrial buildings, piles of rubbish and scavenging dogs. The continuous, slow-moving ribbon of traffic edged into a suburb of luxury apartment blocks and shopping centres, one which was being built under the imaginative name of "Mall Plaza". We then turned off into hills whose topography (plus the mix of hippy cabins and designer houses) reminded me of Marin County, near San Francisco, before hitting a series of hairpins that would lead us up to our destination.

Finally, there it was: a French ski resort jutting out of the mountains. Not merely something that looked like a French ski resort, with high-rise blocks perched on the sides of a narrow, 3,000m-high ridge, but the real thing, transplanted from several thousand miles away. Purpose-built by a French company in the early 1980s, Valle Nevado is an Alpine-style resort with modern lifts and groomed slopes, whose links to nearby La Parva and El Colorado provide about 100km of pistes.

So eerily do the buildings resemble their French counterparts - one even apeing the ski-jump roofs of Avoriaz and La Plagne - that they make the Chilean Andes seem quite out of place. The landscape is forbidding, its colour palette limited to blacks and browns plus occasional dashes of red in the rock. In the penultimate week of last season, the retreating snow revealed not verdant pasture but earth as dark as night. The only hint of green in the ski area was provided by lime-coloured lichen and patches of thick moss.

On slopes that rise from 2,860m to 3,520m, the absence of trees was to be expected. But none was visible below in the arid, high-desert valley - the first tree is 16 hairpins and 13km down the mountain towards Santiago. On my descent I spotted the first spring flower at hairpin 31, and the first cactus at 39. Looking up the ski area the condors were conspicuous in their absence around the 5,430m peak of El Plomo.

Better conditions can be found at Valle Nevado earlier in the season. By the end of September its two linked ski areas had closed, and Valle Nevado itself (which had unusually poor snow in 2003) was struggling to provide cover. To me the skiing seemed good although lacking any real challenge - but to the Brazilian magazine Viagem&Turismo it is "the best ski mountain in the world". No disrespect to the resort, but Viagem&Turismo's writers should get out more.

Valle Nevado is one of two Chilean resorts in the tour operator Crystal's 2004 programme. Although it has a reasonably-priced heli-skiing operation, Valle Nevado is more suited to beginners and low intermediates than Crystal's other Chilean destination: Portillo, something of a cult resort that already attracts adventurous skiers.

In its early days Portillo was only accessible via a narrow-gauge railway, which since 1910 had run up the pass from Los Andes and across the Argentine border to Mendoza. In the 1930s skiers began to use the train to access the slopes alongside the Laguna del Inca, at 2,850m, and rudimentary ski lifts were installed. But only when the Chilean government built the 125-room Portillo Grand hotel in 1949 (which guests entered via a heated tunnel from the station) did Portillo became a proper ski resort.

Two US partners bought the resort in 1962 and set about marketing it around the world. It hosted the skiing World Championships in 1966, for which an access road was built that finally killed off the railway. The steep terrain and reliable June-September snow continue to attract expert skiers and racing teams from the northern hemisphere, plus a local clientele until recently dominated by Argentinians before their country's economic collapse.

When I arrived, Frank Goffey, the resort's safety director, gave me the bad news. Portillo is prone to avalanches, and after 10cm of snowfall overnight he was taking no chances. While the blizzards continued, the bulk of the area would stay closed until it stopped, when he would be able to assess the risk.

The snow did not stop. And the lifts did not open, apart from a two-seater chair and two drag-lifts. I rode the Conejo chair, climbing 70m and skiing back down. Then I wandered over to a drag-lift that looped endlessly up a nursery slope whose snow was deep enough to cover a child's knees.

Chile is, of course, an upside-down place, with sunny north-facing slopes, taps marked "H" for cold and "C" for hot, and a ski season which runs through our summer. But it would appear that the high-mountain weather is as capricious here as it is in the northern hemisphere. As the three lifts shut down for the day, the sky cleared. The high wind had blown itself out, leaving the Inca lake flat and still, its surface reflecting the cleft of mountains. The sky was clear blue and the whole image acquired a pink tinge as the sun set. It was a beautiful vision, and it held the promise of great skiing the following day. Unfortunately, by then I would then be heading down towards Santiago airport.

Crystal Holidays (0870 160 6040; www.crystalski.co.uk) offers seven-night packages at the Portillo Grand from £1,204 per person (based on two sharing) including scheduled flights to and from Santiago, transfers, a lift pass and tuition.

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