By: Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman
I flew into Chile over the majestic Andes mountain range. The immensity is palpable from the heights and the infinite ribbon of mountains intimidates me from the safety of my window seat. I hadn’t even set foot on the ground and I was already in love with the natural environment cradling the city of Santiago. I had come to see the snowy peaks, so without further ado, I headed for the legendary mountains that show so many different faces along the length of the Americas. I soon left the city behind.
Our first stop was Farellones. This ski village lies some 31 miles —or as the Chileans would say, forty curves of altitude— from the Plaza de Armas in the heart of the Chilean capital. I first heard mention of the curves as we wended our way up at nearly 8,000 feet; I thought it was a reference to something picturesque. However, by curve number 20, I began to see that I should have paid more attention to the warning. Sure that I was in good hands —with a driver very familiar with the route and an expert at driving on snow— I turned my attention to the landscape and counting backwards from forty as I enjoyed the whimsical play of white, black, and green on each curve.
Just as I was starting to see double, some superb wood houses appeared in the snow, presaging our arrival in the small ski village. Although European immigrants nostalgic for their beloved Alps enjoyed the snow in all its glory in the south of the country, it was not until 1937 that the first hostels were built in the Chilean Andes. Eighty years ago, the curiosity and spirit of adventure of a few visitors paved the way to the Farellones mountains and fun in the snow.
Today’s roads also lead to Valle Nevado, La Parva, and El Colorado, ski resorts catering to different budgets and levels of difficulty, each with its own charm for adventurers from around the world.
A little disoriented from the ascent and the overpowering landscape, I get out at the entrance to Farellones Park and take a minute to adjust to my new reality. The pure white snow glistens and reflects the sun perfectly, as if the mountain were seeded with thousands of mirrors. It is nearly impossible to open your eyes without dark glasses. There is not the slightest hint of a breeze and I thank the fates for bringing me up here on the best possible day.
The park offers everything from skiing lessons for beginners to high-speed runs for experts. Those not interested in skiing can choose among options like tubing, snow biking, and zip lining in this environment that may be completely foreign to some visitors.
I have never been good at sports and I can barely stand the cold, so I decide to stroll the street lined with restaurants and shops selling clothing, sunglasses, sleds, and everything you need for a great day of winter fun. Along the way, my guide told me that Brazilians form a significant part of the winter tourism wave, and they are invariably surprised by the sight of snow. I soon witness this when I see them lining up to take pictures with a snowman. Their accent gives them away, as do their happy faces: the land of soccer, carnival, and the girl from Ipanema meets snow.
Our excursion continues and a few minutes and a couple of curves later, we stop in the middle of nowhere. There seems to be no danger, so we climb out, focused on the mission: getting what Hollywood promised us, in other words, a snowball fight! The Brazilians infuse me with energy and my fear of the cold disappears.
The guide tells us that the snow is fresh, meaning it is very soft. Without understanding what this means, we run to the mountain and —oops— we sink up to our knees and fall face first into the frozen fluff. Looking like kids let loose in a toy store, we toss aside all decorum and notions of “adult behavior” and snow begins to fly. The wetness in my boots ceases to bother me and I enjoy the deep blues and whites around me. There is something about snow that brings out the inner child in all of us. There is something about the intense cold and the white blanket that makes us see things differently and lets us enjoy being wet and cold at high altitudes. The time is far too short; the guide calls us back to continue on our way. I want to throw myself down, to lie here and feel the sun on my cheeks and not get up again, but I don’t: it’s hard to make snow angels when you can’t see the ground and you have to lift your feet to knee height to walk. Besides, I don’t think I’ve lost enough of my fear of cold to give myself up completely to the snow.
The last stop is Valle Nevado, the highest point I will reach today. Located at nearly 10,000 feet, the town gives me lunch among the most sublime mountains I have ever seen. I want to take off my glove to feel this thing that has held me spellbound for so many hours. I touch that blend of crusty salt and soft cotton candy and, even though my hand is numb, I once again give thanks for being here on this white, sunny day. I spend some time watching hundreds of expert skiers flash down the ski runs.
The following day’s excursion begins as the city is still waking. Swaddled in five layers of clothing, we leave for Cajón del Maipo. Thirty-seven miles to the southeast lies San José de Maipo, a small community once inhabited by Chiquillanes, Incas, and Mapuches. When the winds of independence blew after the Conquest, this small settlement played a big role in uniting armies from Argentina with those fighting on this side of the mountains. The San José de Maipo of today remembers its history in a peaceful way ―handicrafts clearly evoking those who walked these streets long ago are offered in an open plaza. Not many people pass through here nowadays; those who do are on the way to the El Yeso Reservoir, one of the region’s most acclaimed attractions.
This man-made lake provides drinking water to the city of Santiago and the surrounding areas. The Maipo River flows almost silently in the background during our journey; the current strengthens during the summer, when the river is used for water sports. The sun comes out again and the landscape glows as if we had agreed that it would go all out to allow me to enjoy these astonishing panoramas.
We reach the entrance to the reservoir, where a rather apocalyptic sight awaits. Our guide tells us that the enormous concrete structures blocking the view are the remains of a miners’ hostel as we admire the birthplace of the water we drink in the city.
My feet touch snow again and, once more, I feel the crunch of my boots breaking the surface and hear the eggshell “crack” that brings me back to this reality. Everywhere there are people, dozens of languages, cameras, coolers, and food; I don’t quite know what’s happening. I fall in line behind a herd of humans, which disappears before I realize it. A few minutes later, I spot the reservoir, a turquoise lake that serves to enhance the landscape further, if that’s possible. The panorama stuns.
We are only two hours from the city, but it feels like a world of difference. About two hours more walking takes us to an even more spectacular landscape. I round a curve framed by mountains; there are fewer and fewer people, the wind dies down, and the water is an unblemished mirror that pulls you into a reality where up and down mean little.
The altitude and the beauty take my breath away and the only thing I can do is breathe in this surreal landscape that surely sprang from the imagination of an artist whose name escapes me. The brushstrokes of thousands of shades of blue and white play with my senses. Faced with the grandeur of nature, we understand that we are mere visitors on this magnificent planet.
Time is the enemy of these moments, when your only desire is to be one with the mountain. I’m half an hour late for the return journey, so I hope that one of the picnicking families will invite me to join them for the rest of the day. Before heading back to reality, I step off the road and make the effort to climb up the mountainside, where I do indeed throw myself down in the snow.