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Escaping the Texas Heat in Santiago and Valle Nevado, Chile

Photo of Meera and Jerry in front of a handpainted sign reading "Bella Vista Bella."
An interior block in Barrio Bellavista opened up into a fabulous array of shops, bars, and restaurants.

Twenty-four miles west and eight thousand feet up from Santiago, Chile, is the only South American destination on the venerable Ikon Pass: Valle Nevado Ski Resort. Getting there requires a ninety-minute drive through at least fifty-eight switchbacks that nearly double the total trip length to forty-one miles. But the journey is totally worth it:

Photo of Cerro El Plomo from the top of Valle Nevado resort.
El Plomo, the enormous peak that looks down over the entire Valle Nevado resort from 17,783 ft.

In August 2023, Meera and I and a friend of ours, Michael, ran from the record Texas heat to cool off, experience a new city and a new continent for the first time, and extend our ski season just a little bit longer.

Day 1: Arrive in Santiago

A flight from San Antonio to Santiago is surprisingly straightforward: an easy late-afternoon hop to Miami and a ten-hour nonstop red-eye to Santiago get you there bright and early in the morning.

Getting our luggage—mostly carry-ons plus three pairs of skis—to the hotel would have been tricky except for the many, many kind Chileans inviting us to partake of their official transport services. (Seriously, they were kind: after we tried to book a taxi that wouldn't have fit our ski cases, the proprietor called to his competitor to book us a shuttle instead.)

We booked the Hotel Boutique Castillo Rojo in Providencia, situated in the iconic Bellavista neighborhood of Santiago five minutes from Pablo Neruda's house, La Chascona. Wikipedia calls Bellavista "bohemian," and all I can think is that instead of a Moulin Rouge they have a Castillo Rojo—but the first was an actual Parisian cabaret, and the place we stayed was actually a hotel and not a castle at all.

Since we arrived so early in the morning, we set out immediately to experience Santiago. We walked to the center of government, Plaza de Armas (make sure you look down to see the centuries-old maps of Santiago embedded in the plaza); the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral; and Castillo Hildalgo on Santa Lucia Hill (honestly, we just saw a bunch of stairs and started climbing them—we only learned there was a castle on top when we got there).

Day 2: La Chascona and the Santiago Zoo

Our hotel was a stone's throw from Pablo Neruda's extremely weird house, La Chascona, so of course we had to visit. Through an entryway far too short for an adult to enter into a courtyard overflowing with vines that apparently once had a stream running through it which was—no kidding—blocked by rebels in the 1973 Chilean coup. The sum total of my knowledge of Neruda upon arriving was, "He's a poet, right?" I learned a lot about him, his wife, and his mistress, although almost nothing about his poetry. Two thumbs up.

The low-hanging clouds made riding the funicular to the top of Cerro San Cristobal—a 2,800-foot hill in the middle of Santiago famed for its views of the city—a losing proposition, so we settled for walking up to the zoo on its slopes instead.

The Santiago Zoo is very small, maybe the smallest I've been to. But they waste absolutely no space, somehow fitting all the exhibits you want to see—including not only the requisite lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and apes, but also gorgeous birds, an endangered frog, and a ton of little Humboldt penguins—in a relatively quick walk that cost about USD4 per person. Yes, 4. (The cheapest ticket to the San Antonio Zoo is USD32 for a significantly worse—and hotter—experience.)

Day 3: Up the Mountain

SkiTotal told us to arrive between 7:10 and 7:20am to check in for our van ride up the mountain. So we checked out of our hotel, grabbed an Uber, and dutifully arrived around 7:00 to discover the doors locked and the place deserted.

An hour and a half later, we finally got on the road. Another hour and a half later, we arrived at the ski resort and got off the van only to realize that it was already 10am and we were at the bottom of the resort where the day trippers go, not the top where our apartment was. Trying not to stress too much, we trudged up some stairs, glared at the literally hundreds of people in line for the gondola, exchanged our Ikon Passes for resort lift tickets, and looked around desperately for salvation.

We eventually found the courtesy shuttle we knew had to exist to take us up to the hotels, then a different courtesy shuttle to take us partway back down the hill to our apartments. We were far too early to check in, so we changed in the lobby, left all our belongings tucked away behind a couch, got back in the shuttle, and headed out onto the snow.

Days 3–7: Ski, Après-Ski, Repeat

After we got our feet wet on our first day on the mountain, we went out the following days to shoot the moon, shoot the scenery, and generally enjoy the slopes.

On our final day on the mountain, we woke to a total whiteout: nearly eight inches of snow had fallen and was, sadly, still falling. We went out anyway, because we weren't about to lose a day of skiing, but we nearly lost ourselves and called it in early.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of travel: down the hill to the lower resort; down the mountain to the van stop; Uber across the city to the airport; another red-eye, this time to Dallas; and the final jump back to San Antonio, where we got in our car, went home for a quick shower, and headed into work.