It was 90-plus outside, another sweltering August day in Washington, and all I could think about, of course, was the snow on the slopes and the number of layers I would need. Why? Because while my neighbors were either mowing lawns or chilling by the A/C, my mind was about 5,000 miles south, in the Chilean Andes, where it was the middle of winter.
Spring skiing? Done it, love it, but ready for something else. It was time to try summer skiing.
In a few days, I was bound for Portillo, a reputed little jewel of a resort favored by die-hard skiers the world over. Some go there, I’d been told, simply because they can’t wait for the next season in the Northern Hemisphere to start. Some just want a different type of summer vacation. And others — who are paid to ski — go there to train.
Portillo had been on my bucket list of resorts for a long time. Last summer, I was finally able to cross it off. It may not be for everybody, but for someone like me, who’d love to be on a pair of skis no matter what time of year and who has a weakness for special places, Portillo was probably inevitable.
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As I stepped into the cold morning air outside the Santiago airport after an overnight flight from New York’s JFK, having gone to sleep when it was August and woken up to what seemed like January felt peculiarly normal. I loaded into the van headed to Portillo and settled back for the two-hour ride north.
The skies were beautifully clear and calm, but after about an hour, the winds picked up, and they would only get worse, the driver said. As if on cue, we were stopped at an impromptu checkpoint; the police were holding traffic because of stronger winds ahead. The driver said not to worry — the police realize Portillo drivers know how to deal with winds, and we’ll be let through shortly.
He was right. The police waved us through while still holding all other traffic — which, I admit, briefly gave me mixed feelings as the van rocked slightly from side to side. We were heading straight into the upper strata of the fabled Andes. My ears were popping.
Trees, bushes and grass gradually disappeared as craggy rock formations grew bigger. The winds eased up, but the snowpack got thicker. The wall of plowed snow by the highway edge was easily six or seven feet deep.
We rolled on until slowing to enter something that signals the homestretch to Portillo: a series of 29 switchbacks that wend you up the final mile or so to the resort. They’re even numbered, presumably for those who can’t believe what they’re seeing.
It was just the first of several sights that might defy belief.
Portillo itself consists largely of one main building: a neon-yellow hotel rising six stories at the high end and spanning roughly the length of a football field. It sits just off the edge of the Laguna del Inca (Lake of the Inca), which, under the cloudless afternoon skies that welcomed us, looked like a blue mirror reflecting sunshine everywhere. Surrounding everything were towering sheer rocks under blankets of white streaked in places with ski trails.
To me, the Rockies, the Grand Tetons and the Alps are beautiful and intimidating each in their own way. I found the Andes, at 19,000 feet above sea level, incomparably glorious and plain fearsome in their austerity. Even at 9,400 feet of elevation, where the hotel’s front doors stand, you’re already well above the tree line.
There’s no greenery to soften the stark and stunning view, which includes a jagged crest of peaks aptly known as the Devil’s Spine and the occasional massive condor riding the updrafts.
There’s no village or town, which explains why the hotel includes not only a restaurant and bar but also a disco, movie theater, exercise room and gym (with a full-size basketball court), along with a sizable outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi overlooking the lake. All that, plus the fact that most visitors come for a full week, made it clear to me why people have likened the Portillo experience to being on a cruise ship. The hotel really is the only sign of civilization.
Even counting the handful of private chalets and some group housing nearby, the hotel’s capacity of 450 meant I wasn’t likely to be waiting in any lift lines. And because the week-long package includes not only the room but also all meals and lift tickets, I wasn’t going to be tied up in any lift-ticket lines, either. All I had to do was suit up, mosey out, lock into my skis and head to one of the lifts.
I knew from friends who’d been here that the resort wasn’t particularly large — 35 runs on 1,250 acres — but Portillo, they said, was more about quality than quantity. The terrain can be world-class challenging, especially the extensive off-piste areas. The tops of some of the expert runs can’t even be served by chairlifts; you ride what’s called a “va-et-vient slingshot,” which hauls you up on a pulley, and when you get as high as you want, you just let go. As I learned, there’s quite an art to knowing just when and how to let go so that you don’t start skiing backwards.
The Austrian national ski team’s downhill and super-G racers —including Matthias Mayer, the reigning Olympic men’s downhill champion — happened to be in Portillo for training. The U.S., Canadian and Norwegian ski teams, I learned, are regulars, too.
I was more interested in the intermediate-friendly pistes, a number of which roll on at length, with one stretching 1 1/2 miles. For my first outing, I opted for a few of the blues off the Las Lomas lift, which was nearly empty. They weren’t among the longer runs but were perfect for an initial shakeout, and the views along the way made me stop frequently to take in the postcard-like scenes of the lake and mountains, which eventually slipped into shadows.
I headed in for tea, which is part of the Portillo regimen every day at 5 p.m. With the first dinner seating not until 8 p.m. and the second at 10:30 - this is Latin America, remember — tea comes with lots of freshly baked cookies and cakes. I found it a nice alternative to the usual after-ski relaxer, though alcohol was certainly available if you wanted.
My room was pretty compact: twin beds, an armchair, a desk that doubled as a dresser, and a smallish bathroom. Contemporary decor and a window onto the lake gave everything a new, cozy feel. But no TV, or even a clock. The telephone was really the only nod to post-industrial technology. And that was no accident, as I would find out.
I made a significant discovery before dinner, in the bar: the pisco sour, claimed equally by Peru and Chile as a native drink. It seemed like a salt-less second cousin to the margarita, a sweet-and-sour lime concoction that appears to involve great skill and care to make and that goes down way too easily.
Dinner was a social affair. Everyone is assigned a table and waiter for the week for every meal (that cruise ship thing). I sat with people I’d ridden with in the van from the airport, all of whom were American. In fact, there were lots of Americans, judging from overheard conversations at nearby tables. My severely limited Spanish was never put to the test.
Afterward, it was back to the bar to catch one of the bands that the hotel brings in every night. American ’80s pop seemed to be all the rage in the Andes, and my new friends and I eased back to listen to covers of tunes by the Police, Eddie Money and others while sipping a pisco sour. The bar closed at 1 a.m., I think (don’t know, was in bed by then), but the party continued for anyone wanting to move to the disco, which I believe was then just getting ready to open.
A lot of people must have hit the dance floor. I had my choice of nearly empty runs at 10 a.m. and so headed to the Conejo and La Laguna lifts, which took me to the longer intermediate runs. Even though I skied everything available within a couple of hours, I fell in love with these long, loping groomers. And again, the views were so breathtaking in places that it was a pleasure just to stop and gawk.
Occasionally, I caught sight of the Austrian downhillers, whose pistes were roped off. It’s one thing to watch these amazing athletes on television, but to see them right in front of you whooshing by with such extraordinary grace and power —and irritatingly perfect form — was truly a highlight.
Lunch was at To Bob’s, a bistro perched right off the El Plateau lift, which sports a vertical drop of more than 1,000 feet and overlooks the lake. Sitting outside in the gorgeous sunshine, I had broiled salmon and green salad along with a glass (well, maybe two) of regional white wine. Then came more skiing until teatime.
That was pretty much my itinerary for the week, except for a couple of afternoons either lounging in the pool or reading in the living room, as the big open space off the dining room is called. Low-slung sofas and deep-backed armchairs are everywhere, none of them looking particularly new. This wasn’t five-star luxury. But everywhere I sat felt comfortable, even homey.
In the living room, chatting with others about how no TV, radio or clocks — and only middling WiFi — were kind of growing on us, I really started to understand what this place was about: a chance to unplug from the world to focus on something you love, at an unusual time of year, amid like-minded people who even include Olympians, in the relaxing atmosphere of a far-flung aerie.
As the Austrian ski team doctor told me one evening, “Even the skies and the colors of the snow here are different.”
I’d call that a pretty good summer vacation.
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Triplett is a Washington-based writer.
If You Go
The Hotel Portillo, Renato Sanchez 4270, Las Condes, Santiago, Chile, 1-800-829-5325, skiportillo.com
Think of it like a ski cruise. The Hotel Portillo — the only sign of civilization — includes a large restaurant as well as a gym (with a regulation basketball court), fitness center, spa, sauna, outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi, piano bar, disco, movie theater, and climbing wall. Given how remote the resort is, the vast majority of visitors opt for one of the week-long packages, the price of which includes lodging, four meals a day (alcohol is extra), and all lift tickets for seven days and nights. Round-trip ground transfer from the Santiago airport is about $145. Hotel rates run from group rooms in low season (late June and then all of September) starting at $1,050 per person for the week all the way to $13,500 for a private chalet in high season (July). In regular season (August), double rooms start at $3,200 per person, singles at $4,350. The menu isn’t elaborate but offers plenty of hearty and healthy fare. Not a meat eater, I stuck with the seafood and salads, all of which were exceptional. Ditto the regional wines. And definitely try a pisco sour before dinner.