The Snowy Oasis in the Andes
One of the hardest working — and most fun having — crews in the game paid Portillo a visit last season. As luck would have it, Mother Nature paid a visit right at the same time with her snow machine in high gear. Amie Engerbretson, Hadley Hammer, Sven Brunso, along with photographer Liam Doran, put on a ski-trip clinic when it came to getting shots, having fun, and writing about their adventure. They didn’t leave any stone unturned in Portillo when it came to what the resort has to offer, both on the mountain and off. This month, Aka Skior Magazine out of Sweden published an article about their adventures. Amie wrote it, Liam shot it, and Hadley and Sven starred. We translated the piece for our English audience. Enjoy!
Picture an oasis. Now find the inverse of that image. While not a sparkling pool of water in the desert but a beaming ray of light in a dramatic winter mountain range. This is Portillo.
Ski Portillo, South America’s oldest ski resort, is a famed getaway nestled in the rugged Andes Mountains at the shores of the beautiful Laguna del Inca. The bright and iconic yellow Hotel Portillo sits perfectly overlooking the glacial lake surrounded by peaks that rise 5,000 meters into the sky. Directly across the lake from the sunshine palace lies Tres Hermanos, a tri-tipped mountain that reflects boldly on the still waters and beams pink in afternoon alpenglow. With mountains and views so grand, you might initially miss seeing the paradise of ski terrain tucked into every nook and cranny of the snow-covered landscape.
Many liken Portillo to a cruise ship — the great cruise ship of the Andes Mountains. In so many ways this is true, although it is a cruise ship that is parked at the base of some of the most glorious mountains and adventure terrain on the planet. It is a true oasis and paradise for those who love mountain culture, adventure, family, romance, and fantastic ambiance. The slopes offer something for all, from beginners all the way up to the most fearless mountain climbers. The warm walls of the hotel offer the comfortable feeling of home while encouraging guests to indulge in the fineries of Chilean culture, all while enjoying themselves around friends — new and old.
The first skiers to cross the slopes of modern-day Portillo were two Norwegian engineers who in the winters of 1887 and 1888 were doing research to build a trans-Andes railway. Portillo, which means “little pass” in Spanish, became one of Chile’s first ski clubs in the 1930’s with one Poma lift and a small hut, named Hotel Portillo, then only accessible by rail. In 1961, North Americans Bob Purcell and Dick Aldrich purchased the ski resort and set their sights on creating a legendary gem in the world of destination skiing. Bob’s nephew, Henry Purcell became General Manager and was integral in making Ski Portillo the paradise it is today. Eventually, Henry purchased the resort from his uncle, and is still the owner of the resort today, with his son, Miguel Purcell, as the current General Manager. With countless accomplishments and initiatives to put Portillo on the map of great ski destinations, Henry even brought events to Portillo like the 1966 World Championships where Jean Claude Killy famously beat Karl Schranz and the World Speed Skiing Trials where numerous speed skiing records have been set. Purcell had the vision to hire Olympic gold medalist Othmar Schneider to be the first director of skiing at the resort, and the storied history of the resort in ski racing stays alive today as the resort is where many international ski teams to come and train in the South American winter.
Through all the dreams and growth of Ski Portillo, a special mountain culture unlike any other has grown and prevailed. Today, Purcell continues to place value on tradition and heritage over expansion and has worked most of his life to make Portillo a unique and magical experience for guests. The resort hosts a maximum of 450 guests at any given time keeping slopes un-crowded, lift lines non-existent, and the vibe intimate and special. The season is broken up into “ski weeks” from Saturday to Saturday during the season. These are put into packages where mountain travelers come to Portillo to enjoy themselves and take a reprieve from the busy, sprawling world. Of course, many resorts are open for a day on the slopes, but Portillo is much too special for a day, it takes a week at the very least to fully experience all the wonder the place has to offer.
Landing in Santiago, Chile’s capital and a sprawling city of over 5 million people, it is hard to imagine a place like Portillo could be so close. A mere 160km northeast of the city and a simple two-hour drive, the road rockets out of the bustling city and desert landscape, curving sharply before opening up to a majestic mountain scene with a bright cheery yellow building begging you to come in and feel at home. Once you check in, it feels as if time stands still and not a thing in the world matters outside of those warm walls. Portillo prides itself on impeccable service and every face you meet seems to have the brightest smile you have ever seen. The hotel itself offers an old world, simplistic European style, without lacking any comfort or amenity.
The experience is inclusive in every way. Meals are social events — hosted late, in Chilean tradition — featuring delicious gourmet dining options peppered with unique specialties from the regioLongtimeime Maître’d, Juan, has welcomed diners for countless years and orchestrates a beautiful dance of service and deliciousness, all with the warmest smile south of the equator. As you leave dinner feeling satisfied and happy, the band in the bar is playing tunes and the smiles of your new found friends beg you to come in for drinks and dancing, which at some point in the evening will undoubtly elevate to table dancing. A few pisco sours — a delicious alcoholic Chilean treat — and you may even be tempted into a late night of dancing down at the Discotheque with locals and guests a like. Eventually you make your way to your cozy accommodations and sleep knowing tomorrow, more fun waits.
Portillo isn’t a place where people rush around. Mornings are enjoyed and the late nights of celebration are respected with delicious breakfasts served overlooking the lake and mountains. A quick snuggle with the resident Saint Bernard and a fun visit to the equipment storage area where smiling staff have all your gear waiting and ready, you suit up and are off for a day in the crisp Andes Mountain air. Lunch may bring you back to the hotel where more first class service awaits, or it may take you to mountain-top hot spot, Tio Bobs, where food, great drinks, incredible views and un-paralleled fun is always had. More skiing in the afternoon takes you to tea-time, a Portillo tradition, and opens up your evening to leisurely swims in the lake-side pool and spa, maybe a yoga class and of course a little après. Then, it’s dinner and the whirlwind of pleasure starts again.
Portillo is all about ambiance, experience, and state of mind, but we cannot forget the number-one highlight: The skiing. Ski Portillo is a skier’s paradise! A system of 14 lifts access over 1,200 acres of skiable terrain with a lift-accessed vertical rise of 762 meters. There is terrain for every skier. Beginners, families, intermediate skiers, and experts alike find plenty of space for fun and exploration. A highlight of the skiing experience is the backcountry access of the resort. Lifts take you a good way up the mountains leading you to great long runs, like the Lake Run, with sweet turns all the way down to the shores of Laguna del Inca. But if you have a mind for adventure, look above the lifts and see boot packs and skin tracks that lead to some of the most exciting skiing in the southern hemisphere. Couloirs, powder fields, and technical lines all await to be climbed and skied. The crown jewel of the backcountry at Portillo is the Super C couloir. Unloading the Roca Jack – an intense five-person Poma lift ride up one of the resorts steepest runs — you strap your skis to you back and settle into the boot-pack up to the slope above. A mere 900 meters of vertical and you are at the top of a picturesque couloir, with steep granite walls lining a perfectly pitched 2,000 meter run to the valley below. The Super C can be elusive to accomplish due to conditions but not to worry because there are plenty of other amazing backcountry options and you always need a reason to come back…
The novelty of skiing in the summer, combined with the inviting Chilean culture and the unmatched hospitality of Portillo makes it a destination that is more than just a post card on the wall or a dot on a map. Portillo is a special place that lives in the heart of its visitors and just as owner Henry Purcell and his wife Ellen intend, everyone who comes to Portillo becomes family. Balancing a star-studded history with an amazing family atmospheres, the resort offers fun themed weeks ranging from wine and food, to friends week, to the Superstars of Portillo camp where you can ski along side professionals like Chris Davenport, Ingrid Backstrom, and more. It may seem crazy to travel from summer in the Northern Hemisphere to winter in the exotic Andes of South America to come to a place where you will forever feel at home, but when it comes to Portillo, you have to ski it to believe it.
- Be sure to plan a few days in Santiago on your way to or from Portillo! The heart of the city is beautiful and welcoming to travelers with great hotels, restaurants, shopping, museums, and dancing. Don’t miss a stroll through the Bellavista neighborhood where you can see some of the most beautiful and unique street art on the planet! Another favorite is the Castillo Hidalgo Park with great views from the top and amazing restaurants in the surrounding area.
- Yes, a trip to Portillo is a ski trip, but do not forget to pack so you can dress to impress. Be prepared to get pretty warm on the dance floor as well!
- Skiing is key in Portillo but always make time for an après dip in the amazing pool and spa. The view for sunset and alpenglow is a complete must.
- Best time of year? Late July through early September. Perfect for you mid-summer ski fix.
- Never skip Tea Time. Dinner is late and the skiing is intense so the afternoon snack is not only delightful but necessary!