The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Portillo, one of Chile’s best-known ski resorts, was the hotel’s Saint Bernard curled up outside the front door, comfortably snoozing. Since then, I see her every day, flopped out in one part of the hotel or another, occasionally asking for a belly rub and even less occasionally, standing up.
She has her Portillo rhythm.
Radka, the hotel's St. Bernard. Photo: Cindy Hirschfeld
I’ve spent the last few days trying to find mine. Portillo differs from the typical North American ski resort. It’s at once all about the skiing, and not about the skiing. The resort only accommodates up to 400 overnight guests, who stay among three properties. Most are in the grand old hotel, a sprawling, six-story building opened in 1949; others stay in bunkrooms in the low-slung hostel or in the Octagon (named for its shape). Almost everyone eats in the hotel’s main dining room.
The late nights dictate the following day’s pace. I’ve been eating dinner at 9:45 p.m. The hotel bar has a band playing every night until midnight and pours a mean pisco sour. The basement disco doesn’t even ramp up until after midnight. I haven’t made it there yet, but my first night, a Moulin Rouge-themed party apparently had some people rocking out until 6 a.m.
Needless to say, the only people getting out the door early to ski are members of the Austrian men’s ski team, here for pre-season training. Breakfast starts at 8 a.m., and skiers start heading to the slopes around 10 a.m. The hotel serves a three-course lunch starting at 1:30 p.m., and afternoon ski school classes, for example, don’t meet until after 3 p.m. Some of the lifts stay open until 5 p.m.
Portillo doesn’t attract its guests with the ancillary entertainment so many North American skiers have come to expect — like shopping, galleries, dog sledding, ice skating, a multitude of bars and restaurants, etc. You come here to ski. But with a daylong slate of activities ranging from fitness classes to backgammon tournaments to movies to wine tastings, you could also conceivably keep busy and never hit the slopes. At all times of day, people socialise in the hotel’s large living room, with dozens of chairs and couches, a large fireplace, and huge windows framing the stunning view of Lake Inca and the surrounding peaks. The hotel has a basketball court, climbing wall, large game room, outdoor pool, hot tubs and fitness area.
In the past few days, I’ve watched a presentation by Chris Davenport on his climb of Everest, seen a film about the 1966 World Ski Championships in Portillo, gone to stretching and yoga classes, attended an on-mountain wine-tasting dinner, soaked in the hot tub, hung out in the living room, and had way too many pisco sours at the bar. Oh, and I skied some memorable powder runs last Friday.
In addition to 1,200 acres and 2,500 vertical feet of lift-served skiing, Portillo is riddled with dozens of hike-to couloirs, traverse-to powder fields and other tempting terrain that requires a bit of work and local knowledge to access. But my normal ski partner, my husband, is not here with me, and I didn’t feel comfortable venturing into these by myself. The Portillo rhythm I had been experiencing was undeniably a great one, but it wasn’t necessarily my rhythm.
The author on a run called Garganta. Photo: Cindy Hirschfeld
Yesterday, after a couple of days without it, I got my ski mojo back. I headed out with two new friends, a photographer from Jackson Hole and a ski-area rep from Canada, both of whom know Portillo much better than me. We boot-packed for about 45 minutes up a steep slope, referred to here as a cone, into the rock bands of the Espinazo del Diablo. As we regrouped at the top, two condors circled above us against an impossibly blue ski. I clicked in and started setting tracks down the windblown powder, the slope spilling out into a wide apron above the ski runs of the Plateau. I had found my own Portillo rhythm.
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