Southern Heights: Otherworldly Skiing in South America
Development is scarce but the scenery is breathtaking
By Lana Bortolot
Perhaps no ski resorts offer a more stunning stage from which to plunge than those in Chile and Argentina, thanks to the backdrop of the Andes, which contain active volcanoes, ice fields and the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere.
“The Andes really define those countries,” said John Clary Davies, editor at Powder magazine, a publication for core skiers.
But the allure of the mountains has not yet attracted much real-estate development around ski areas. What makes skiing here otherworldly—dramatic vertical drops, virgin land, sweeping views—also presents challenges. Resorts are remote, accessed by long and winding roads (or by helicopters for the affluent and adventurous), and infrastructure in many places is outdated. Even the most famous ski areas—Portillo in Chile and Las Leñas in Argentina—don’t measure up to international standards.
Kristina Schreck, who lived in Chile for 20 years, working with the tourism industry and individual ski resorts, said that for but a handful, most are not ready for prime time.
“It’s been very difficult to get American skiers … It’s growing, but those people coming to ski stay in a hotel” rather than invest in a second home, she said. Ms. Schreck noted Valle Nevado, about 40 miles east and a 90-minute drive from the capital city of Santiago, is the only resort “following the American model in terms of creating high-end condos, with an eye toward creating a village.”
“The demand [could] totally be there, it’s just been lack of supply,” said Mauricio Banchieri, a Chilean businessman and entrepreneur who is now trade commissioner of Chile in New York. He noted that while some resorts in Chile such as Valle Nevado and Portillo are more internationally oriented, they are “still under the radar,” hampered by access. Mr. Banchieri noted if proposals to construct through roads are realized, “that will absolutely increase demand.”
If Chile is under the radar, Argentina is nearly off it, with an uneven economy and a government historically not open to foreign investment.
For the most part, “international investors are not interested in our mountain resorts as they are small compared to Europe or the USA,” said Fernando Méndez, a real estate agent with Finca Sur, an agency in San Martín de los Andes in Neuquén, Argentina’s Patagonia region.
Pablo Goldemberg, a sales director for Vines of Mendoza, which sells small vineyard parcels to enthusiast winemakers, agrees. He recently returned from Vail, Colo., and said, “That’s a good example of what we don’t do in Argentina,” noting infrastructure at Argentine resorts has “always been delayed and basic.”
But that may change.
Though the ski market in Argentina is “still young and not yet developed, there definitely are very good opportunities to acquire lands close to the resorts to develop this business,” Manuel Otero Ramos, a long-time real-estate agent and a winery owner in Mendoza, wrote in an email.
Mr. Goldemberg said two new projects on the horizon in Mendoza will show that “the door to Argentina has been opened.” He cited two developments in the pipeline: One in Las Cuevas, five kilometers from the Los Penitentes resort, reportedly a US$40 million investment from a Swiss company, slated to open in 2019; and the second is proposed at a 3,000-meter base in Manantiales near Tunuyán in the Uco Valley, funded by a local family.
“For us, who like skiing, this is amazing,” Mr. Goldemberg said. “We’ll be happy, be drinking wine at night and skiing during the day.”
Southern Hemisphere resorts operate from June to October (mid-to-late July is peak season). Ski-in/out places aren’t common, no one follows you to unstrap your boots, and even a place like Portillo, Chile’s oldest and most storied resort, defines its own quirky brand of luxury. But for those wanting unadulterated skiing, it’s the ultimate indulgence.
Here are six Andes ski experiences any level of skier can enjoy.
Its remote location via switchback mountain roads, and on the edge of Inca Lake, makes this a hallowed destination for skiers. Jean-Claude Killy scored the first gold medals of his career here, and the resort has attracted elite ski instructors from Europe since, making this South America’s prime ski school. At 9,350 feet, it is 100% above tree line and offers wide-open bowl skiing, snowboarding and off-trail skiing.
“It’s a very particular place, and a lot of the magic of it is because they’ve eschewed things like TV and big rooms,” said Maxine Davis Phillips, a sports enthusiast from Maryland who stayed there last year on a family ski trip.
The iconic yellow Hotel Portillo is the only structure in the valley—unfussy and self-contained with recreation facilities, fitness center, a spa, day care and dining. Ms. Schreck said, “Portillo is a very unique resort.”
But, you can do as the heli-set does: buy your place in Santiago, and take a helicopter from the Santiago W Hotel. If you’re inclined to make the two and a half hour drive from the capital, choose a place on the eastern side of the city, such as the Los Dominicos neighborhood, where Sotheby’s lists a 1,970-square-foot open-layout home for US$1.26 million. The multi-tiered home offers views of the mountains.
The Valle Nevado, La Parva and El Colorado resorts collectively comprise 7,000 skiable acres—the largest in South America—and is Chile’s version of a megaresort in the making.
Valle Nevado, founded in 1988 by French entrepreneurs, features a cluster of hotels and chalets on a ridge overlooking mountains, and offers the most international experience with advanced lift options (it installed Chile’s first mountain cable car in 2013), heli-skiing, backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
It is also the only resort of the three offering ski in/out condominiums. Prices for a new condo in the Licancabur building range from US$310,000 for a two-bedroom unit to US$650,000 for a five-bedroom.
Backcountry skiers head to Corralco, 450 miles south of Santiago, for its skiing on the Lonquimay volcano—a 9,400-foot elevation, 4,052-foot vertical drop—off-trail runs, and skiing that lasts into springtime. Still an emerging destination, the town of Malalcahuello has seen a slow infusion of investment: paved roads and an upscale hotel, reports powderhound.com, a site for ski enthusiasts. Sales of condo or second homes are extremely limited.
On The Market
Location: Los Dominicos, Santiago, Chile
Price: US$1.26 million (UF 31,500)
The multi-tiered “Italian-style” home, with double-height ceilings and a tiled roof, offers views of the mountains, but you’ll have to drive, or take a helicopter, to Portillo. There’s a Jacuzzi for post-slope warm-ups.
Location: Valle Nevado, Chile
Prices: US$310,000-US$650,000 (UF 7,190-13,190)
Licancabur offers ski in/ski-out condos, ranging from US$310,000 (UF 7,190) for a two-bedroom unit to US$650,000 (UF 13,190) for a four-bedroom. Owners don’t need to worry about the remote location: an on-site management company handles rentals and maintains the units while owners are absent.
Location: Corralco, Chile
Price: US$4.2 million (UF 102,000)
This seven-bedroom, seven-bath rustic lodge has a whirlpool, swimming pool, three guest cottages, and an event space with restaurant. Surrounded by volcanoes and virgin forest, it is fewer than six miles to the slopes.
Cerro Catedral, Bariloche
Surrounded by mountain lakes in Argentinean Patagonia, Cerro Catedral, the largest ski center in South America has an additional edge over other Andes resorts for its spectacular panoramas overlooking Nahuel Huapi Lake.
The resort at its base invested more than $8 million in improvements in 2003 that added lifts, gondolas and expanded runs, with additional updates in 2013. Cerro Catedral has the most developed market for second homes, said Arturo Andres Amos, an agent with the Remind Group, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate in Patagonia. But, he noted that houses near ski areas largely belong to wealthy families from Buenos Aires, and represent 80% of the leisure housing stock. The town of Bariloche, about an hour’s drive from the base, boasts robust nightlife.
Los Penitentes, Mendoza
Sitting on the trans-Andean highway between Santiago and Mendoza (about 100 miles west of the latter), the 38-year-old Los Penitentes resort sees mostly a local crowd from Mendoza and weekenders from Buenos Aires. Current offerings include ski, snowboarding, and heli-skiing, and if proposed development plans are realized, the mountain may take on more of a resort village feel.
For now, some of the best options exist on existing wine estates that offer vineyard, garden or orchard parcels with building rights. Owners can select their type and size of parcel, work with their own contractor on approved plans or work with the estates’ contractors for a more turnkey option.
Las Leñas, Western Mendoza
Argentina’s other mega resort, 750 miles from Buenos Aires, is known for its off-trail and backcountry skiing, though the best terrain is subject to frequent closures due to high winds. (And if high-elevation skiing isn’t enough of a gamble, the world’s highest casino by elevation in the world is at the Piscis Hotel.)
On The Market
Location: Bariloche, Argentina
Price: US$1.49 million
ReMind Group, an affiliate of Christie’s International Realty, is selling this eight-bedroom, nine-bath home with a home theater, library, wine cellar and quarters for service staff set on a private park within the Arelauquen Golf & Country Club, about nine miles from Bariloche.
Location: San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina
Price: US$100,000 to US$1 million
Algodon Wine Estates,marketed by Sotheby’s, offer the only real luxury option on the main road to the Las Leñas ski area, about 100 miles away. There’s a full-service golf resort, and vineyard and garden estate parcels range from a half-acre to a 7.7 acre lot with building rights.
Location: Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina
Price: US$100,000 to US$540,000
Vines of Mendoza, is the first of several companies in Argentina to offer building rights on individually owned vineyard plots. (Architectural plans must be approved by the company.) A six-acre vineyard plot costs US$450,000-US$540,000, and one- to three-acre plots run US$100,000-US$300,000, depending on the plantings (new or mature).