Featured Photo: Liam Doran | Skier: Sven Brunso | Location: Portillo, Chile
I have been traveling to Portillo for nearly twenty years, but as I make my way from the airport shuttle to the hotel’s front door, I’m anxious. After an extended absence due to border closures and the world generally being thrown off-axis the last three seasons, I have no idea what I will find as I cross the threshold of the fabled yellow building that lodges its guests.
The moment I enter the hotel lobby, the feeling disappears; it feels like the years of lockdowns and travel bans have been vaporized. I see the friendly faces I have come to know and love over the previous two decades: I am embraced by Felipe Lopez, the legendary guest relations manager, shaking hands with Portillo owners Henry and Miguel Purcell (yes, the proprietors really do still greet their guests, just as they have for decades) and exchanging fist-bumps with skiers Chris Davenport and Kim Reichhelm, who have been visiting Portillo this same week each season for even longer than I have made the trek.
I am here with photographer Liam Doran and fellow pro skiers Amie Engerbretson and Madison Rose Ostergren. Liam, Amie and I have made this trip together multiple times, but Madison is a Portillo rookie, and it’s a privilege to watch her experience its grandeur and novelty for the first time.
Today is changeover day in Portillo, and 400 guests are leaving at the same time that the new wave is arriving. This ritual of controlled chaos is part of what makes Portillo unique. We stow our bags in the gear room, rummage through our luggage, cobble together our kits and make our way to the snow to spin a few laps before enjoying a late lunch. Upon entering the brilliant sunshine, we are greeted by the deep blue waters of the Laguna del Inca, the towering Andes mountains and a pair of massive condors circling above.
As the chairlift ascends to a distant snowy perch, I feel giddy, like a little kid. It’s the first cold mountain air my lungs have inhaled in months. The majestic peaks surrounding Portillo are buried beneath a healthy mantle of white. At the top of the chair, we stop to buckle our boots, shake off summer—back in Colorado it is August, after all—and begin our dance with the mountain. I am quickly reminded of the thrill that comes with boarding a plane in one season and exiting in another.
While much feels the same as in years past, there is something palpably different today. It isn’t until I have unpacked and am savoring the tart pleasure of my first Pisco Sour that it hits me. The incredible energy flowing in Portillo is not because we are about to enjoy a week of the best snow the Andes have seen in a decade. It’s because this assemblage of skiers from around the world forms a community unto itself—a subculture within the subculture that is our sport. Yes, Portillo is a magical place to ski, but the reason it’s become my summer sanctuary is the people it attracts. It feels like we have somehow managed to put the band back together and are about to embark on a reunion tour.
Every aspect of Portillo is designed around social interaction. The Hotel Portillo was built in the 1940s, and has always been managed to encourage guests to be present with each other. There are no TVs. Though WiFi is available, you quickly realize that what’s important is what is happening right in front of you. It’s one of those places that brings everything back to basics, back to reality.
After skiing, we enter the grand dining room and are greeted by Juan Beiza, the maître d’ of Portillo, in his 53rd year running this dining room. He shakes our hands and shows us to the table we will occupy four times a day for the next week.
We soon fall into a glorious version of Groundhog Day, where we meet for breakfast each morning, ski hard for hours, then slide into slippers and regroup for a massive lunch. We head back out for the afternoon, mixing in steep powder lines and groomers until our legs are cooked. Nearly every afternoon ends with a high traverse to a seemingly endless powder lap down the classic Lake Run. We ski back to the hotel and hand off our skis and boots before meeting in the dining room for tea and pastries. Now caffeinated, we move to the planet’s best hot tub to watch the Tres Hermanos Peaks take an evening bath in alpenglow before the Milky Way comes to life, signaling time to hit the shower and grab a Pisco Sour before dinner.
Each night post-feast, we make our way to the bar, where live music fires up at 10:30 and the unparalleled energy of Latin America’s nightlife takes center stage. Madison and Amie are tearing up the dance floor; Liam and I, fifty-something dads, do our best to keep up. Within minutes ski legends Ingrid Backstrom and Daron Rahlves join the mix as the band rolls into covers of “Sweet Child of Mine” and “Paradise City.” The ills of the last few years have faded. The only thing that matters is that we are here, fully immersed in our community.
Frankly, the location isn’t what’s most important. It is having a ski community wherever you are, whether that be an annual trip with family and friends or gathering at the local hill each weekend to slide on snow and share smiles.
On our last day, we ski hard until two, pack our bags and meet on the sundeck for one final look at Portillo’s incredible setting. As I drain the last few drops of my tart farewell cocktail, I smile at Liam and say, “This Pisco might be sour but life in Portillo is pretty damn sweet.”
It isn’t until we are back in the shuttle, heading down the countless switchbacks toward Santiago, that the trip’s true meaning hits us. It’s hard to leave the people of Portillo, but equally reassuring to know they’ll be there whenever we return.
How to Get There
Most major airlines have one flight a day from the US to Santiago, Chile (SCL). Most connections will go through Houston (United), Miami (American) or Atlanta (Delta). Build in lots of extra time between connections. Weather in Miami, Houston and Atlanta can be rough in late summer so delays are very normal. The best way to get from Santiago Airport to Portillo is with the Portillo Travel Shuttle—driving the windy road to Portillo is best left to the professionals.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Portillo is the crown jewel of the Portillo experience. It is a throwback to the classic hotels of the 1900s and has arguably the world’s most spectacular view. The Hotel Portillo has double rooms and larger family-size rooms. Portillo also offers a handful of private chalets, and the Octagon Lodge has rooms with bunk beds. The chalets and Octagon include meals in the Hotel Portillo dining room. For those on a budget the Inca Lodge, just steps away from the Hotel Portillo, offers hostel-style accommodations with access to the Hotel Portillo cafeteria.
Staying in Santiago for one night is quintessential to your Portillo experience. The bustling city of seven million people is loaded with culture, art and food. In 2023, August and September ski weeks booked directly through Portillo will also include a complimentary night at the Ritz-Carlton Santiago. And let me tell you: There is something special about skiing until 3PM on departure day, then eating tapas on a rooftop terrace, overlooking the city, before enjoying a full day in Santiago prior to flying back to the States. While you’re romping around the city, don’t miss a walk around the Bellavista neighborhood and a cog railway ride up San Cristobál Hill.
Elevation: Base elevation 8,360’ Hotel elevation 9,450’
Summit: Lift top 10,860’ Hike-able terrain 13,000’+
Vertical Drop: Lift-served 2,500’ Hike-able 4,500’+
Avg. Annual Snowfall: 300”
Longest Run: 1.5 miles (groomed)
Insider Tips From the Pros
Tip #1: Packing for Portillo is not like packing for your average ski trip. Meals are served in a traditional dining room complete with white linens. Other guests and Portillo staff appreciate people dressing for the occasion. Also don’t forget these other essentials: sandals for the hot tub; tanks or short sleeves for dancing; and loungewear for the lodge and breakfast. Non-ski outdoor wear is barely needed. Basically, the only time you leave the building you are skiing!
Tip #2: Bring radios—this will help you connect with your crew while you’re on the mountain away from the hotel’s WiFi service. Don’t forget a power adapter for charging your devices—check online to see if yours is compatible in Chile.
Tip #3: Staying hydrated is key—don’t skimp on electrolytes. The elevation at Portillo is high; the hotel is around 9,000 feet and it is a sweat-fest between all the hiking and dancing.
Tip #1: If you plan to bootpack (and you should), bring comfortable ski boots and lighter skis than you would usually ride at your home resort. You won’t spend a lot of time on groomers so you can leave your carving skis at home.
Tip #2: Bring a good camera. Sure an iPhone works, but for a bucket list trip you should capture the moments in style. Sony cameras and Sigma Lenses are my personal go-to.
Tip #3: Don’t forget your swimsuit or you will miss the world’s best après-ski soak, a massive, heated pool in the shadow of the Andes, looking over Laguna del Inca.
Tip #1: Pack a portable massage gun, if you have one. Your calves and quads will be shot from boot-packing, so post-ski massages and a soak in the hot tub are mission-critical.
Tip #2: Bring plenty of sunscreen—and apply it frequently! The lack of trees at Portillo’s altitude and the Laguna del Inca make the ski area a giant reflector, so make sure to take precautions from the sun’s blistering rays.
Tip #3: Be prepared if you plan to get adventurous. Bring a backpack, beacon, shovel and probe if you plan to ski off-piste. Portillo is rugged and even though the patrol does a great job, you can easily access terrain above and adjacent to the lifts that have significant consequences.