In Chile, It's Just Starting To Snow

Despite some late-spring snowstorms, virtually all the big U.S. ski areas have called it a season. But that doesn't mean skiers have to store their gear until next December. In Chile, winter is coming on fast, and some Andean slopes will shortly be coated with fresh powder. From mid-June through mid-October, a half-dozen areas near Santiago offer great skiing.

Virtually all flights to the smoggy, bustling capital are overnight, about nine hours from Miami. Then, a 90-minute ride by bus or limo takes you 9,000 feet higher, to the clear air of the ski-resort neighborhood. The facilities range from staid Portillo to ultramodern Valle Nevado.

Unlike devotees of South American skiing who favor Argentina's isolated Las Lenas area for its casino and other amenities, the serious skiers who head to Portillo forgo frills. They settle for broad slopes, four daily meals in a big dining room, and such 45-year-old traditions as afternoon tea. For some, the scenery is worth the expense: from $1,200 a week, meals included, to $1,800 in the peak period of August to mid-September. The old 550-guest hotel resembles a huge grey-and-yellow fort, but it faces a frozen mirror of a lake and is ringed by dark peaks with wide expanses of snow.

In contrast to Portillo's sedate ambience, the five-year-old Valle Nevado complex caters to a youthful, international crowd. Four restaurants specialize in different cuisines, and there are piano bars, outdoor pools, a child care center, cinema, gym, and satellite TV, plus heliskiing, hang gliding, and other adventurous pastimes. Walkways and sun decks link a 55-room inn, brand-new 130-room hotel, and a condo complex with 50 apartments. Weekly rates range from $1,186 to $2,103 per person, meals included.

PARTY CAPITAL. Valle Nevado's owners plan to extend their network of lifts and trails to other nearby resorts. One, La Parva, is just 35 miles from Santiago. It's favored by weekenders who fill the condos and tend to relax apres-ski with Chilean wine or pisco sours. The practice has built La Parva's reputation as party capital of the Andes.

Travel agents such as Any Mountain Tours (800 296-2000) offer inclusive one-week packages to the resorts. A package from East Coast cities, for example, runs $2,000 to $2,300 per person, including round-trip airfare and lift tickets. Think that's steep? It's nothing compared to the narrow Farellones Road, with its 53 hairpin turns, that leads from Santiago up to the mountains.

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