Photo by Frank Shine/Ski Portillo
Find world-class skiing and old-world glamour at the Southern Hemisphere’s most iconic ski destination.
Even if you don’t click into a pair of ski bindings, the trip to Chile’s Ski Portillo resort would be well worth it for the view from the pool alone. The pool deck juts out from the front of the bright yellow, six-story hotel like a cocktail tray awaiting a round of Portillo’s signature pisco sours. The aquamarine Lake of the Incas sits just below, ringed with soaring, snow-covered peaks.
Portillo is the world’s best-known summer skiing destination partly because of the iconic hotel and its pisco cocktail recipe, and partly because its winter season kicks off during the Northern Hemisphere's summer—but mostly, it’s for the quality of the resort’s slopes. The sublime high-alpine valley is arrayed with 14 lifts and 1,235 skiable acres. The hotel’s capacity is 450 people, so that’s more than two acres of sun-splashed slope to slide around on for every person.
The all-inclusive, weeklong experience is a throwback to the sport’s most exclusive and glamorous era. (Although, in one concession to the modern, workaholic lifestyle of so many Americans, Portillo introduced a few four-day stays.) Unlike modern mega-resorts, with their myriad distractions crammed into a mazelike faux-Swiss village, virtually every nonskiing experience at Portillo is concentrated in the hotel’s spacious and elegant common areas, where you are sure to make new friends.
But despite the old-school appeal, Portillo also remains on the sport’s cutting edge—many of the world’s best pro skiers and ski teams spend a week training at the resort every summer. While there, such World Cup stars as Julia Mancuso, Bode Miller, and Lindsey Vonn attend the Sunday night welcome mixers with guests from across North and South America and take après-ski soaks in the communal hot tubs. I spent a week there last August, which happened to coincide with the Austrian men’s team’s stay. They are the sport’s most dominant team by far, and we spotted their superstar, Hannes Reichelt, playing a game of cards by the hotel’s great fireplace. In Europe he is the equivalent of football’s Tom Brady and would be mobbed by fans; here he just feels at home.
Steps away from the living room is the hotel’s leather-paneled dining room, where jacketed waiters serve three meals a day on linen tablecloths. Tea—complete with freshly baked rolls, cheese, and jam—is ready every day at five when the lifts close. Afternoon tea may sound stuffy, but with the curtains cast wide onto that brilliant view, it’s charming and nourishing—besides, if you are in the later of the two dinner seatings, you’ll need it. Also on a late schedule is the bar, where you can rock out to a cover band nightly. When the bar closes at midnight, many keep the party going in the disco downstairs, which stays open until the wee hours.
Although you could spend your stay rotating among Portillo’s pool, living room, and disco, you probably ought to go skiing—after all, the slopes are world famous. Start at the ski boot check on the bottom floor. Hand your shoes to the attendant and he’ll exchange them for your ski boots without a word—he remembers your face and which cubby he stashed your boots in the afternoon before. Boot up, grab your skis, and head outside into the bright sunlight (or knee-deep powder if you’re lucky).
While the sun softens the snow, start your day on the long, south-facing intermediate slopes like Juncalillo and Descensco (unless the Austrian team has them fenced off for training). Advanced skiers can try their luck on the steep black diamond Roca Jack, which is serviced by one of Portillo’s unique va a vients lifts. The four-person slingshot lift, a combo of a T-bar, a Poma lift, and a winch, was invented specially for Portillo because avalanches from the precipitous peaks above would destroy (and have destroyed) traditional lift towers.
After lunch, relax in the dining room with a glass of carménère, then follow the sun to the opposite side of the valley and plunge runs like the steep but wide-open Plateau and cruiseable Las Lomas. Stop at the top of the Plateau lift for a beer on the patio of midmountain Tio Bob’s and take in the views of the lake below. Thus fortified, expert skiers can ride the topmost lift, the Condor, to the start of the Lake Run, which drops 2,000 feet to the lakeshore. In the right conditions—in fresh powder, or on a warm, sunny afternoon—it’s one of the most stunning and adventurous runs in the world. On my last day, we caught it with perfect spring snow to carve, skied it in shirtsleeves and sunglasses in the afternoon, and celebrated with a skinny-dip in the lake.
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