Chile’s big two international resorts, Portillo & Valle Nevado, are justly world famous, but that’s only scratching the surface: head south from Santiago and for 1000km you pass a string of volcano ski areas, some fairly developed, others basic, but all offering a fresh Chile ski experience with hardly another western skier, or as you can see here, often any other skier, in sight – like Antillanca and Volcan Osorno.
Volcan Osorno, a big glacier-capped ice cream cone of a peak, and rustic Antillanca, set up by the local ski club way back in 1935, are two of the best, in the awesomely beautiful southern lakes region.
There’s something about skiing volcanos anywhere that gets the blood pumping. For starters, the weather – as North Island skiers can tell you, a volcano attracts whatever weather is going, and the bigger it is the more weather it attracts. So you have to pick your days, and even then it’s a lottery – like our day at Antillanca, the postcard perfect morning with boot deep powder and amazing views shown on the preceding spread changed to a wild blizzard (opposite, bottom), in no time – we literally raced the storm back down to the lodge, just beating the thick cloud, wind and driving snow. Then when you think that’s it for the day an hour later out popped the sun again. That’s volcanos. Go with the flow or don’t go.
I’ve been in love with Antillanca for 25 years, ever since we first lobbed there researching a guide book on Skiing The Andes.
It’s just off the Chilean side of the main pass over into Argentina, only a 4 hour drive from Bariloche (see The Ticket box for options/itinerary ideas). You wind up through amazingly lush rain forests with giant ferns hanging over the road, more reminiscent of driving from Bellingen to Dorrigo than going skiing. Then suddenly the forest changes to more typical mossy bearded lenga trees and the hat-shaped cone of Volcan Casa Blanco (White House Volcano) sits up dead ahead.
The welcoming shingle and log Hotel Antillanca at the base has a distinctly Germanic feel, not surprising when the whole zone was settled by Germans in the late 19th century. They were and are mountain men, seeing the area’s potential and carving a track through the forest to build the original rifugio back in 1935. That must make Antillanca one of the oldest ski areas in the Southern Hemisphere, and up on the peak surely not a lot has changed in nearly 80 years.
One double chairlift, 3 t-bars and a beginner lift is the total “infrastructure”. Holidays and weekends it can get busy, but midweek it’s often deserted, and they won’t neccesssarily bother firing up all the t-bars in that case.
No matter, cruisers get plenty of empty runs regardless. “That’s the best day’s skiing I’ve had all year!” Carmen enthused, her year including 2 weeks in Hokkaido and 2 months at Cerro Catedral Argentina for comparison. It was the total lack of crowds that she enjoyed most.
For more of a challenge a 10 minute hike gets you to the level of the top t-bar for hitting the back bowls even if it’s not going, as it wasn’t. Or, with AT, tele gear or splitboard there are endless options for finding fresh lines, including much steeper than the 40° or so back bowl pow lines. Obviously you’d need to know the weather, and going with a local would help – we had no trouble talking some into an excursion in exchange for international magazine fame. Most of the lifties, patrol and ski school crew work European seasons as well, so they have some English if your Spanish doesn’t cut it.
The rambling club run hotel offers comfortable rooms at reasonable rates, nothing flash but it includes breakfast and buffet meals are good value. Aside from which there’s a cafe on the mountain and one at the base.
Entertainment runs to a disco and make your own; other facilities a pool, gym hall and small ski shop.
At the bottom of the access road thermal pools – either the cheaper public riverside complex, or the full on 5 star luxury and spa version at Termas de Puyehue Hotel (a magnificent old hotel offering superb accommodation) where you can do a day package with lunch, all drinks, and thermal pools etc included. Be warned, last time we tried the lunch deal it led to far too many ‘free’ pisco sours and an enforced overnite stay, driving not being an option thereafter.
Back on our first trip in 1989 the locals showed us how to dig hot baths in the gravel at the side of the river, harder yakka but a free way of getting your hot soak.
Antillanca is relatively low, so it can rain a lot, but if the weather craps out just go the thermal pools instead.
It’s only 90km from the city of Osorno, and the complex is run by the Club Andino there. It’s also only a couple of hours from Villa La Angostura on the Argentinian side, or 3½ from Bariloche.
Don’t confuse the city with the volcano of the same name. Osorno Volcano is a day only area, with just a small base complex and the basics of ski school, hire, patrol and a couple of restaurant/cafés.
But it’s a serious peak, going much higher than Antillanca to reach 2652m with a glacier on the top – which always gets me thinking that since it’s the same latitude as Launceston what a shame Ben Lomond didn’t have another 1000m – then Tassie would kill it!
“Those ice blocks you see are like 10 storey buildings up close” explained Victor, the Ski Patrol boss when I asked how long it took to hike up; 2 – 3 hours he reckons, with crampons and full gear usually neccessary to summit.
Two double chairlifts combine for 460m vertical from the carpark at 1200m. Short hikes can access some great bowls and lava gullies when it’s good, but being a volcano the elements are ever present – sweet as in one spot, wind blown ice rink in another.
On piste they groom a few cruisy runs off both chairs, and on a sunny day there are plenty worse places you could learn to ski.
The views of Lake Llanquihue are amazing, the whole settled area is a beautiful lush green. Yep, that means it’s well watered, but Osorno is high enough so it mostly gets precipitation as snow in winter so just because it’s grey and rainy in lakeside Puerto Varas is no indication it’s not snowing or clear above the cloud.
Sure, you wouldn’t make either of these your sole destination for a ski holiday, but as part of an itinerary in the region, where you can choose from half a dozen ski areas within a few hours in both Argentina and Chile, they are well worth it – especially if you come ready to skin/hike a little to maximise their potential.
Chile is booming, well organised, and easy to drive around. The food and wine are great and tourists using cards paying dollars don’t pay the 19% sales tax on accommodation, ski tickets and transport.
Antillanca & Osorno [the ticket]
getting there Connect same day off LAN flights from Sydney/Auckland down to Puerto Montt in southern Chile www.lan.com
But don’t stay in Puerto Montt, a busy city nowadays, the lakeside town of Puerto Varas is much nicer and not far from the airport. Shuttle day trips run from Puerto Varas to Volcan Osorno, or just get a car. Several daily bus services connect to Bariloche in Argentina.
Staying on the Argentina side you could day trip to Antillanca with a car from Villa La Angostura, but if the weather forecast is good go stay a night or two. Hire a car either side and various extended circuits are possible, or on a budget you can bus it down from Santiago or Argentina.
to stay/resort info Hotel Antillanca www.antillanca.cl double rooms from @ $USD 105 – $210 according to season
antillanca top lift 1700m base 1236m vert 464m lifts 5, 1 double chair
osorno top lift 1700m base 1240m vert 460m lifts 5, 2 double chairs www.volcanosorno.com