Early Fall 2001
Portillo, Chile,
secret ski capital of the Andes
Portillo, Chile, ski resort, hotel, hidden valley high in the Chilean Andes, an island lost in a sea of peaks, frozen waves of snow and rock,an island in the mountains, not just an island of warmth and comfort in the middle of a snowbound Andean winter, but of tradition and charm in 21st-Century ski scene that’s rapidly being overrun by mass merchandising, supermarket lift tickets, and got-here yesterday development schemes, condo bondage and bad overpriced cafeteria food for lunch, crowded slopes and frustrating lift lines even in this age of high-speed ski lifts. Not Portillo, Portillo is different in the right direction, in the right way. Portillo is the real thing, a ski destination as romantic and improbable and satisfying as the sport it’s all about.

This is the way skiing used to be, you tell yourself after a couple of days at Portillo and you know it isn’t true—it was never this good, only the memories were.

Portillo is a medium sized ski area that skis like a great big ski area in the middle of even bigger mountains. But snow is snow, and mountains are mountains. What makes Portillo so unexpectedly wonderful is the way it functions as a resort. Resort, ski area and Grand Hotel, all wrapped up in a perfect package, in which the scale of every part complements every other part, Because Portillo the resort is only a hotel, one hotel, and what a hotel: a hotel that works like a village--450 guest (maximum) and 400 employees, a level of service that American skiers, even Vail and Aspen regulars, have never even seen. This hotel is neither chalet nor chateau, but it’s closer to a chateau. A curving rock-cement-and-wood, four-to-six-story structure painted an eye-opening yellow and a deep skyblue the hotel seems to have dropped out of the sky onto the shore of frozen lake, surrounded by a ring of high peaks. In this treeless white setting, the Hotel Portillo makes me think of classic Italian mountain architecture from the mid 20th century, and why not? it was built in the 40s, and since then has been modernized only gently and respectfully.


The Hotel Portillo viewed from the Lake side, like a giant cruise ship, safely anchored in a remote Andean valley.
All Portillo photos © Linde Waidhofer

Yes there’s a cyber-cafe on the second floor to check your email from the states, but the dinning room is an oldworld stage set of white linen tablecloths beneath leather paneled walls (!) filled with smiling discreet waiters, dominated by insanely beautiful views of the frozen lake, the Lago del Inca, that dominates Portillo’s white valley. A dining room right out of a novel, filled four-times daily with parade of gourmet treats--four meals a day? Indeed, Chilean skiers like to fortify themselves with a 5:00 PM tea after the lifts close, because the first seating for dinner is not until 8, and the second seating begins at 9:30 which is still almost early by South American custom.

But we came to ski didn’t we? And so do some of the best skiers in the world. Portillo is an off-season training mecca for the top World-Cup ski teams. The week I visited, the Austrian team arrived with a zillion perfectly prepared pairs of skis (laid out on the snow in front of the hotel with geometric precision) and the determination to remain the dominant Alpine skiing power by training all day and partying all night.


Skiing down below the Roca Jack lift, looking down the valley, below the hotel. At the far left are the last of thirty road switchbacks leading up to Portillo.

But instead of gawking at our ski heroes running gates, we had turns to make, two sides of the valley to explore and plenty of new snow to track. Portillo skiing can get as adventurous as you want, from the gargantitas, or little throats, small twisty couloirs dropping through the cliffs below Tio Bob’s mid mountain restaurant, to the steep powder pitches beside Roca Jack. You can scare yourself if you want to, or at least take your breath away, but your don’t have to. It’s just as easy to ski Portillo purely for its views, cruising with your eyes wide like saucers, drinking it all in: the panorama across the lake, Los Tres Hermanos, the Three Brothers, three rocky peaks holding court at the head of the valley, the amazing towering cliff faces rising above the ski slopes east and west of the lake, east and west of the hotel. It took me two days to ski most of it, and then the real exploration began. Portillo is a ski mountain of deceptively obvious topography, until you look closer. In fact it looked kind of small the first couple of days, it wasn’t. There is always a traverse at hand, leading around the corner onto another face, into another bowl, another quebrada, another chute or couloir or untracked or only semi-tracked pitch to track up.


Instructor Chino Mendez and Lito, enjoying sping snow on the vast white apron of the aptly named, Primavera run, at Portillo, Portillo

On either side of the valley, the highest lift is an almost indescribable Poma-lift contraption, a platter-pull lift without towers designed to survive big avalanches that would have ripped towers right off the slope. Called “va et vient” lifts (“come and go” in French), the Roca Jack and Condor lifts are metal bars suspended from long high cables with five little poma platters attached to each bar. Five skiers ride up the slope, shoulder to shoulder, at a remarkably fast clip while the second bar comes down from above. An adventure in itself. And the Roca Jack alone gives you another 1200 vertical feet, with the possibility of traversing miles across the mountain if you simply have to find new snow every run. We found more than our share.

And in August, just making a couple of turns feels like one is getting more than one’s share. But I don’t think summer ski withdrawal contributed anything to my appraisal, and appreciation, of Portillo. A week at Portillo is simply one of the best ski experiences you can have, on any continent, in any season.

For more infomation, visit the Ski Portillo web site at:
>>  www.skiportillo,com

 Early Fall 2001
Photo at top:
The view from the Hotel, out across the frozen lake. Skiers can descend slopes on both sides, and skate back across the lake to the lifts.
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.