I remember being a teenager and reading in ski magazines about how you can ski in South America in the summertime. Well, it’s summertime where I live, in Durham, North Carolina, USA, but in South America, it’s winter.
The seasons are flipped.
In North America in August it’s the middle of summer, in South America, the middle of winter.
My birthday is in August and I always thought it would be cool to snow ski in August in South America.
Not only that, but once I moved to Lake Tahoe, in California, I caught the wine bug. I’ve traveled the vineyards and worked in the wine business for 10 years.
So a exotic land with huge Andes mountain, the opposite seasons, and lots of vineyards in Chile and Argentina, that a powerful recipe for me.
My 40th Birthday
I’m very close with my Mom’s brother. He’s always been the favorite Uncle. Uncle Rob. Uncle Rob was the first person to visit me when I moved to Lake Tahoe after college, when I didn’t know anyone east of the Mississippi.
Uncle Rob came out to ski and he brought his old friend and business partner Jim Allen, the founder and winemaker of Sequoia Grove vineyards in Rutherford, Napa Valley, California. Uncle Rob and Jim Allen introduced me to Napa Cab, and I got hooked and that changed the entire trajectory of my life.
Anyway, Uncle Rob asked me what I was going to do for my 40th birthday. He asked if I wanted to travel anywhere. He said he’d buy me a plane ticket.
I told him how I always wanted to go to South America to go snow skiing. I had dreams of skiing powder on my birthday, August 4th.
Uncle Rob offered to buy my plane ticket.
I thought, holy shit! This might actually happen. It’s hard to think something is really going to happen, when you’ve been thinking about it for 25 years or so, and not thinking it was very realistic.
That was sometime early in 2019 and even though I thought I had a chance to go down to South America, I put it in the back of my mind and just went about my business.
Then the summer came.
I started to think more about what I was going to do for my birthday. Next thing I knew it was July. I tried to reach my Uncle and ask if he was going to be able to buy my ticket. If he wasn’t, I’d probably just go to the beach in North Carolina for a few days.
Problem was Uncle Robert was traveling to England. He went to watch the Wimbledon tennis tournament. I couldn’t get a hold of him while he was over there. I finally spoke to Uncle Rob when he got back. My birthday was only a couple weeks away.
He said it’s amazing how much champagne the spectators drink at Wimbledon. Apparently you can walk in with your own champagne bottles. He said you can hear the spectators popping corks right there inside the stadium. And he said he was going to buy the plane ticket to Santiago, Chile.
My plane ticket was for a departure to Santiago de Chile on August 22nd.
Holy shit, I thought, I’m actually going.
Then I flew out to the middle of nowhere to my sister’s house on the Fall River in south eastern Idaho and hung out with her family for a week.
While I was in Idaho, I needed to start planning my Chile trip. I’d never been of the North American continent. I’m not a savvy international traveler. I don’t speak Spanish. And I hadn’t done any research on Chile. And I was going solo.
I knew the Andes where there and they have a lot of vineyards.
One of the most interesting facts I learned is, even though Chile is on the west coast of South America, Santiago, and I’m guessing most if not all of the country, is in the same time zone as the East Coast of the US. I live on the east coast in Durham, North Carolina. So that meant no jet lag.
Growing up reading ski magazines, I’d hear about this ski resort in Chile called Portillo. It’s the most famous ski resort in Chile and it has a large yellow hotel that is surrounded by tall mountains.
I figured I’d go there. It turns out Portillo is expensive. But they have these 2 lodges, next to the main hotel, that have shared rooms, that are much cheaper than getting a regular room in the main hotel.
I figured I’d stay in the cheap lodge. I didn’t care about luxury bullshit. I wanted to ski big mountains and steep terrain.
Portillo is also great in terms of logistics. The hotel is only 1.5-2 hour bus ride out of Santiago. They even have a bus that can pick you up at the airport.
So it seemed pretty easy. Fly to Santiago, pick up the bus to the hotel. Ski for the week, take hotel bus back to Santiago and fly home.
Just one problem.
Portillo didn’t have any snow. It was mid-August, which as far as I can tell is equal to February in North America. The Andes were experiencing a drought and Portillo had 2 runs open.
This is famous Portillo. In August famous world class skiers come to Portillo and hold steep ski camps. But this year they didn’t have snow and many of those skiers cancelled their trips.
I confirmed this by searching on social media, and particularly Instagram, for photos of Portillo. Yup they didn’t have snow.
And that’s a Pro Tip. If you want to know current weather conditions for somewhere, do some searches on social media, and you’ll get a pretty good idea.
No Snow In The Andes
What the fuck?
I didn’t know what to do. I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains. I understand droughts and low snow years. Timing is huge and you just can’t plan perfect weather.
My main goal for traveling to South America and Chile in the summer was to go snow skiing. I’m sure it would have been nice to tour Chile and do sightseeing, but that’s not the cool shit I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid.
I dream about adventure and skiing big mountains.
I reached out to my childhood friend Adam. Adam lived in South America after college and has traveled the continent extensively. Adam put me in touch with his friend, Ian who runs a snowboard tour company in Chile.
The southern Andes had snow.
That’s where I’d have to go, to the snow. Problem was I didn’t know anything about how to operate on my own in Chile.
Planning Transportation in Chile
Nevados de Chillan is a 6 hour drive south of Santiago. The mountain doesn’t have it’s own convenient bus that will pick me up at the airport in Santiago.
So I started research how to get down there. It wasn’t easy because most of the websites for things like buses and trains and hotels were in Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish.
My family was a bit concerned about me going on a solo ski trip to Chile because I didn’t do any planning, I hadn’t traveled much internationally, I was going solo, I didn’t speak Spanish, and I was going skiing.
The skiing part was hard on my Mom and my sister due to my previous experience dying in an avalanche in the Sierra Nevada. I’m a very conservative guy when I’m traveling in the mountains, and that avalanche was a rare occurrence, but it did happen, so I can understand that my Mom and sister would be unreasonably worried about this.
I decided that I’d go to the ski resort Nevados de Chillan. It had snow and it looked big.
Now that I’d made that decision, I had to figure out how to get down there.
There were 3 options to get to the mountain from Santiago, which was 6-8 hours of travel away. I could fly into Concepcion and take a private transport to the mountain, which was 2.5 hour drive from Concepcion. Or I could take a bus to Chillan, and then another hour long bus ride to the mountain. Or I could take a train to Chillan, and then another hour long bus ride to the mountain.
The plane was out because I wouldn’t see Chile, it was super expensive, and it seemed like it would not save any time. So what was the point? No plane.
I wanted to take the train because I thought I’d see the country and I like trains. The problem with the train was, it only had 2 trips to Chillan the day I was arriving. One in the morning, which I wasn’t going to make in time, another at 5:30 pm, which required me to wait around Santiago all day.
So I went with the bus option. Chile has a bus culture. Chile is the longest nation in the world and to move folks around in a reasonably priced manner, a bus industry developed. Once I landed at the airport in Santiago, I’d need to get myself to the Terminal Alameda Santiago. At the bus terminal there are many different bus companies and lots of routes, every day, down to Chillan.
There were so many options, that I didn’t even try to buy a ticket ahead of time. I’d just arrive at the terminal and pick the bus that was leaving the soonest.
Once I got to Chillan, there was another bus that would take me to the ski mountain.
I’d also decided to stay at the Hotel Nevados, which is at the bottom of the ski resort. The stay included the room, 3 meals a day, and lift tickets. It was the expensive option, but the easiest one considering I wasn’t renting a car and had limited options due to mobility.
Catching a Plane to Santiago
I got confirmation of the hotel stay a few hours before I was headed to the Raleigh Durham airport.
I was at the airport with 3 pieces of luggage. My ski bag, my ski boots, and my large red ski/climbing backpack.
I would learn very quickly, that traveling with my large 195 centimeter long ski bag, in a country where I didn’t have a car and didn’t speak the language, would be a huge pain in the ass.
I was surprised that American Airlines didn’t charge me for checking my ski bag. I thought it was a mistake, because when I fly in the states, I always have to pay for checking my luggage.
The airlines make a lot of money charging for this.
I later found out, on international flights to many South American countries on American Airlines, you get to check 2 bags for free. I recommend checking with the airline before you fly to see what the checked bag policy is.
I didn’t check my ski boot bag because you never check your ski boots going to a ski destination. If you ski boots get lost, you are screwed. Boots are the most important part of your gear. You can rent skis, but you can’t rent custom fitted ski boots. Never check them on the way to your destination.
I did check the boots on the way back home, which was nice.
My Uncle Was Sick
While I was waiting to board the plain in RDU, I called my Uncle to say Thanks for the plane ticket again. He didn’t answer so I left a voice message.
My Aunt called me shortly after. Aunt Carmen said that Uncle Rob had just had open heart surgery the week before and he was in the hospital recovering. He didn’t tell me because he didn’t want me to cancel my trip.
He didn’t tell anyone about his surgery and he wouldn’t let anyone see him, except my Aunt, in the hospital. He’s a very private guy.
My Aunt told me not to worry and that my Uncle wanted me to have fun.
I started getting nervous.
It was a short flight from RDU to Miami.
Once in Miami, I found out that the flight was delayed. It was supposed to leave at 10:30 pm, instead it would leave at 11:30pm.
I tried to get a little bit of work done on the computer while I waited.
Finally the plane arrived and we got boarded. I am impressed with these big ass planes that do the longer flights. This thing was huge and decently comfortable. I didn’t have one of the nice seats, just one in the main cabin, but I was comfortable enough.
The flight took 7 hours to Santiago.
I was sitting next to this nice woman from the States that spoke English and Spanish. Since the flight was a redeye flight, after they served dinner all the lights went out.
The woman I was sitting next to offered me a melatonin pill to help me sleep. I usually don’t like to take any pills, especially to help sleep. But melatonin is pretty benign. Your body naturally makes melatonin to help you sleep. It’s not a hard core drug like Ambien.
So I took her up on the offer. The melatonin started working quickly. And it worked. I passed out for 4-5 hours of the flight.
I actually liked it. I recommend trying a melatonin if you are on a redeye flight. It worked so well that I decided to take a melatonin on the flight back home to the states.
When we landed in Santiago, I thought, “Oh shit, here we go.”
I got of the plane and saw a bathroom. I went in and washed off a bit.
Then I looked around and couldn’t figure out where the customs office to check my passport was.
It sucks not being able to read or speak Spanish, in a Spanish speaking country.
Definitely not the end of the story, but 2,300 words, this is long for a blog post. So I’ll break this up into 2 parts.