The Snow Gauge

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Fidel Castro, the ski resort and his missing gun

Posted by on Dec 1, 2016 in South America | 0 comments

Fidel Castro

Fidel earned his turns – but this was in Russia. Pic: Alberto Korda

Juan Beiza is a legend of the Chilean Resort Portillo. I got to meet him three months ago and heard about how this one time he nearly got shot trying to give Fidel Castro back his gun. Happens I guess …

Juan Beiza is a man of substance, impeccable habits and has a penchant for making you speak Spanish.

The maitre d at Portillo’s yellow hotel has been there almost as long as the ubiquitous yellow establishment – more than 50 years.

There’d be plenty of tales to tell over that time but in the circumstances it’s timely to relay one and one only: that time he almost got shot by one of Fidel Castro’s henchmen.

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro at Portillo. Owner Henry Purcell is to his right.

It’s a story I was going to save for another time, perhaps when summer in South America starts to flicker and the bone dry lower ranges of the infinite Andes open themselves up to the possibility of some snow.

But the death of the Cuban dictator made me think about Beiza and his unlikely brush with the revolutionary and a bullet.

Fidel’s off-season visit in 1973 had otherwise been pleasant.

He’d spent much of a glorious summer day soaking up the gorgeous Andes and wandering around Lagunas del Incas (Inca Lake).

There were some chats with another Portillo institution, owner Henry Purcell.

Talk even turned to the expanse of the Andes with Castro maintaining that Cuba’s mountains were bigger and more impressive. The high point in Cuba is Pico Turquino at 1,974m – but Purcell was gracious (and smart) enough to let that one slide.

So after a fulsome meal  in the hotel’s opulent living room, it was time for Fidel and the gang to hit the road; Marxist ideology and anti-American sentiment doesn’t just happen on its own you know!

Anyway, so content and relaxed after a great Portillo lunch (another thing that hasn’t changed in five decades) Fidel decided to chillax for a short while.

Clearly he was fairly comfortable as he left his pistol on the chair – and promptly exited the hotel without it.

Here’s where Beiza stepped in. He did what any young waiter would do when attempting to impress one of the world’s key figures of the 20th century and a man that many many people wanted dead: rush outside to give him the gun back.

Juan Beiza

Juan more recently – no smoking gun …

Purcell takes up the story.

“As he saw the group getting into the cars, Juan raised the gun and was nearly shot along with all the other spectators when very nervous security people thought that he was trying to attack Castro.”

Some how Beiza dodged a bullet, presenting the pistol back after a few years were shaved off his life.

Then off Castro and coterie rolled, into the Andean afternoon in matching blue Fiats with heavily armed guards hanging out the car windows.

Well, all those years on Beiza is still around and now Fidel’s not. I wasn’t packing a gun when I was in in Portillo back in  August but I reckon if I was Juan would have had my back – revolutionary or not.

There’ll be some more stories on Portillo in the lead up to the Southern Hemisphere winter of 2017.

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  1. The Snow Gauge ⋆ Why you should ski Portillo, Chile this winter - […] A bonus here is legendary maitre d, the impeccably attired and mannered Juan Beiza. He’ll make you learn some…

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