I wanted to ski in Rio de Janeiro but I wasn't sure I could. On the last day of a vacation in Brazil, I was standing by the feet of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city. That's when I saw it far below on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas: spray, then another spray, then another spray. “They're skiing!” I thought. I scrambled to get all the way back down to the lagoon. Yes, there was the slalom course I had hoped for. But my time was up.
That was 19 years ago. My travels have since taken me from ski sites in Europe to lakes throughout the United States, but never again to Brazil — until this past March. I was looking for a new place to ski in the winter, and Brazil in summer seemed like the right ski site at the right time.
Bragança Paulista Reservoir
This is the good life. Jose is a lawyer in Sao Paulo, but when he wants to slalom, he gets a lift to this reservoir near the city of Bragança Paulista from his ski partner, Luciano, who happens to have his own helicopter. Both have huge country homes on the lake, with “Master Boat” brand ski boats that look like 10-year-old MasterCrafts, and their pick of four slalom courses. I trick-skied alongside Jose's 7-year-old daughter for a 20-minute ride to an amazing waterfall. And I slipped into a lakefront edgeless pool one afternoon, only to have a servant walk up to me with a cold Caipirinha (a lethal Brazilian drink). Because there are no U.S.-style ski clubs in Brazil, you usually have to have your own boat to ski, which means you must have money.
Skiing is a weekend thing in Brazil, so we were surprised to find three boats waiting to ski Wednesday on a slalom course in this big reservoir on the south side of Sao Paulo. Mario “Marito” Manzolli, owner of a small ski and wakeboard shop, served as a terrific guide and took me out. He hadn't been to this part of the lake in six years because the water had been so low, so I was really lucky to see it full again. Brazil's national slalom champion, Nicholaas Fuldauer, joined us. His personal best is 4 at 39, and I swear he looks and skis just like pro skier Doug Ross. He has his own business in the city — there's no such thing as professional water skiing in Brazil.
In the heart of this nature refuge west of Sao Paolo, owner Fabio de Albuquerque says, “The lake here is one of the few approved lakes in Brazil for international tournaments.” This day, I got to see the Neves brothers, a family skiing dynasty. The youngest, 14-year-old Felipe, is Brazil's best up-and-coming slalom skier. Caio finished third in slalom at the Brazilian Championships the week before. Fernando, the oldest, who wasn't able to join us, finished second to Fuldauer. I climbed through a friggin' jungle and up a tree so I could step onto a 20-foot-high rock to get a photo of the whole lake.
Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas
Rio is just crazy. The airline pilots have to slam on the brakes because the runway is too short. You feel safe because you landed in one piece, but the traffic and the way people drive is a whole separate issue — it's nuts. My friend Jörgen and I skied with a super nice but stressed local skier who drove his “Master Boat” so fast that he had to hurl it in reverse before it smashed into a concrete dock. He still cracked the boat's nose. Two ski schools run boats on the slalom course, which has brackish water that seems to make skis go faster. I couldn't believe I was finally here after spotting that skier on Lagoa so many years ago. Again, Rio was my last stop in Brazil, so I took in everything I could. I had plates of fresh exotic fruits after morning sets, hiked the coastal mountains and walked along Ipanema Beach, all just blocks from where we skied. Will I wait another 19 years between visits? No way.