Volcanoes, dead or alive, are often great places to ski. Chile’s magnificent 2865m Lonquimay volcano is one of the best. Enjoy the expected lava-gully natural half pipe insanity, and the unexpected – ancient araucaria forests in a landscape that, apart from the odd eruption, hasn’t changed much such dinosaur days. It’s like no where you’ve ever skied, and even better, you can be dining in the 5 star Corralco Resort the same day you left home thanks to included shuttles for the 90 minute trip up from Temuco airport, a 1 hour flight south of Santiago.
With the season already shut down weeks ago across most of the Southern Hemisphere Corralco finally closed on 1st November, still with plenty of snow – looking as good now as it did when we swung by late August last year for this story. So that’s a pretty good indication of the snow reliability here, and if you’re looking for something spectacular and different for your big southern winter holiday in 2016 get on the early bird airfares now and be ready.
Like most overnight success, Corralco’s has been a bit longer in the making than that. The first lift, a poma, went in 14 years ago, at the urging of local school teacher Tio Pepe who was keen to provide young people in the area somewhere to go skiing, and he convinced the local government to fund it. Then in 2003 a Chilean investor took a 45 year concession over the whole valley, and put in a double chairlift. Apart from locals few took any notice, until in 2011 he finally got an investment group together to kick things along. First a base lodge and more lifts went in for 2012, then in 2013 they opened the superb 5 star Valle Corralco Hotel & Spa a kilometre below the base lodge. It’s ski in most of the season with a free shuttle up to the base.
Then last year they opened the Cumbre t-bar, almost doubling the vertical to 860m (960m skiing back to the hotel, or 1400m plus if you hike/skin to the summit). That one lift bumped the lift accessed terain to 500ha, with just 15ha of that taken up by groomed runs. The rest is a pleasure garden of off-piste bowls, open faces and monster gullies. The company owns 80ha of land just outside the National Park, with longer term plans to develop a village there with an access lift that would have a load station at the hotel.
“The investment group has a lot of faith in regional skiing in Chile and the opportunity to develop markets in cities like Temuco” says Corralco GM Jimmy Akerson, an American ex-pat with nearly 40 years involvement in Chilean skiing, including long stints at Portillo and then as GM at Valle Nevado.
“The idea is to be committed to growing a regional destination, but as you can see, there’s plenty to appeal to a much wider market.
“This morning I was on the hill with Sasha Reareck, the Head Coach of the US Alpine Ski Team, for all four disciplines. He’s considering bringing their athletes here to train, and the more he looked the more he was just blown away – I showed him the Downhill the French have built now (who we saw in action), and the Super G, GS and Slalom options.”
Massively expanding the vertical has made all that feasible, but what makes it more appealing to the ski teams is the outstanding reliability of the seasons here, some 700km south of Santiago, with it’s own winter micro-climate.
“Lonquimay town historically suffers from what they and all Chileans know as terremoto blanco, the white earthquake. I remember the first year I ever came to Chile in 1978 seeing the TV coverage with images of farm animals buried up to their chests and being hand fed, and all the roads blocked, the communities isolated. They just seem get more snow than any other Chilean ski area” says Akerson.
Being in a pocket where they get most of the cold fronts coming from the south west, plus the tail at least of the big storms from the north west that give the Santiago ski areas their best dumps, means Lonquimay rarely misses out.
“There’s something to be said for the argument that further south than here they get more lake effect snow, which makes the likes of Villaricca, Antillanca and Osorno more humid, but the absence of lakes at Corralco means more snow accumulates, and it’s usually drier. I’ve been coming here since 2005 and there’s always been lots of snow.”
“What’s the average snowfall, have they got any reliable statistics?” I asked.
“Not really, no one has been checking that in the past, but we just measured today the top of the Downhill course, there’s a solid 3m of snow, and at the bottom of the poma there’s 1.8m, and it hasn’t snowed for a while.”
This was the end of August in what was a generally a well below average snow year the Andes ski resorts in both Chile and Argentina.
Our 600km road trip up from Bariloche in Argentina bought us to Corralco from the east, past Lonquimay town, then through the Las Raices tunnel that was built in the 1930s as part of a master plan to link the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail. Politics and/or economics meant that never happened, with a single lane road laid through the old rail tunnel now. It passes right under the Sierra Nevada range, the cordillera that continues on from the volcano. This looks like a back country ski paradise – even in this light on season it was slathered in snow, with an amazing variety of lines. Next time!
After popping out of the tunnel it’s an easy run up from settled farmland through the auracaria forests to Corralco, the road lined by a collection of new business options from accommodation venues to ski shops, with plenty more under construction. It seems there’s a mini boom in progress, not just for the skiing but for the year round outdoor active/ecotourism potential here, both of which are huge in Chile generally for locals and international visitors alike.
Most visitors come from the Chilean side, with easy road access off the Pan American Highway and a free shuttle from regional Temuco airport just 90 minutes away for hotel guests. That makes it super easy coming in from Australia or New Zealand – just connect in Santiago and you can be chilling with a welcome pisco sour early evening the same day you left home, before tackling the Club Med quality dinner buffet.
The hotel is making a big effort to offer something special on the service front, GM Akerson going as far as poaching the cocktail bar waiters from his previous gig in Valle Nevado, with the goal to achieve a similar personal feel to the service you get at Portillo. It seems like they are well on the way to achieving that after just two seasons.
Apart from the French ski team the other main guests were Chilean families, and it’s ideal for getting started on snow with kids, or adults for that matter, with a massive open learner area that progresses to long, empty intermediate runs.
Unfortunately for better skiers the achingly slow first double chair is the only option out of the base, but with no queues it’s no big deal. Get up high on the top t-bar and the options are unlimited and they stayed virtually empty during our midweek stay.
So you know there’s great terrain, heaps of snow, and a great hotel. But for me the really special thing are the ancient araucaria forests, which the resort actively participates in re-foresting. Just near the hotel you can take a hike out to a 1000 year old tree with a hollow base, with the line between the very old and the much younger little trees clearly demarking the last big eruption on this side of the volcano.
In a normal season the back ridge offers plenty of scope for skiing the trees with a hike or skin up, or long traverse possible around from the top lift. Unfortunately it had gone right off in the trees during our stay. It’s tree skiing like nothing else that’s for sure, you don’t want to collect the spiky branches losing it.
Best of all is that it’s still so undiscovered – too far from Santiago to attract lots of Chilean skiers, and still mostly off international radars. Put it on yours, soon, it’s an amazing experience that’s as easy as anywhere O/S to access for us now.
The whole area is pumping along in tandem with the success of the ski area and the raft of year round eco/adventure tourism opportunities, and if you don’t want/can’t afford to go 5 star there are some very affordable options none better than Chilean/Australian couple Lavinia & Fernando’s Chile Wild complex of chalets. They are keen skiers & split-board snowboarders who offer something very special to ski Corralco and the surrounding backcountry, including the magnificent Sierra Nevada range. They have developed an eco-friendly chalets complex on 7ha within the magnificent Aruacaria Biosphere Reserve above Malcahuello (the funky base town for Corralco), with sweeping views of the valley and mountains. The choice of 5 chalets sleep from 2 – 6 people in comfort.
Corralco is only around 15 minutes away, with a shuttle service available if you don’t have a car (Chile is fantastic to self drive around, especially in spring in this region) & your hosts can organise airport pick ups from Temuco for you – just ask when making your reservation.
Apart from the amazing skiing & boarding the options include 3 thermal pools in the area, and visits to local restaurants and artesan markets. This is the heart of Mapuche territory, with a strong indigenous influence. The hosts are at hand to help you get the most out of it, from organising back country guiding to where to dine or find some Chilean aprés.
the ticket [ corralco ]
getting there Corralco is 120km from Temuco regional airport @ 90 minutes with a free shuttle pick up included with hotel reservations, you can easily arrive same day from Australia/New Zealand or off overnight flights down from North America
From Santiago it’s @ 700km by road. Flights www.qantas.com www.lan.com
cost Hotel packages 4 nights from $USD 1184 pp 2 share includes breakfasts, dinners, lift pass daily (or exchange pass for a range of excursions/activities), and return airport transfers from Temuco
Qantas have great early bird deals from Australia to Chile valid for winter 2016 if you book by 5 November 2015; Travelplan can add the land package to go with your flights – last 2 weeks of July are the local school holidays and most expensive, snow wise is good July – October.
Self-contained chalets sleeping from 2 – 6 from CLP 60,000 per night www.chilewild.com
resort-bookings www.corralco.com packages www.travelplan.com.au chile info http://visit.chile.travel/au