Why you should ski Portillo, Chile this winter
When discussion turns to which ski resort you’ll visit this southern hemisphere winter the arguments will invariably be of the Noah’s Ark variety.
That is, depending on where you live and your peccadilloes, it will be in a two-by-two format.
Australia vs New Zealand. Victoria vs NSW. Perisher vs Thredbo. Hotham/Falls v Mt Buller.
But for a host of reasons I’d like to throw a third animal into the mix: Portillo, Chile.
I visited the South American giant in August last year and, while far from perfect, it’s a place every skier should head to at least once in their life.
Christ on a bike these mountains are impressive.
Standing on the deck of the Hotel Portillo (aka Yellow Hotel) with a Bloody Mary instead of a Pisco Sour, it’s hard not to be completely in stupor over the Andes.
At 2880 metres I’m already well higher than the top of Kosciuszko and the peak of any resort in New Zealand.
What is hard to get your head around is just how much bigger these mighty massifs get. From my viewpoint over the gorgeous Inca Lake (Luguna del Incas), the Andes rise like a bunch of steroidal shark teeth to the 6,962 metre peak of Aconcagua in Argentina.
It’s the highest mountain outside the Himalayas. It’s 15km as the condor flies. It’s effing incredible.
Given its latitude (much the same as Newcastle in NSW), they need to be big.
They’re also steep with seemingly limitless riding potential. Totally ignore the 14 lifts and 500 hectares mentioned that you’ll see on any official map. The terrain goes on for ever.
As such it’s not a great place for beginners. Intermediates are reasonably well catered for with some long groomers but it’s the advanced to expert terrain where Portillo shines from the beauty of the Lake Run to the steeps off the Roca Jack and legendary hikes to places like The Super C.
You also get to ride the infamous sling shot lifts, a multi-person high-speed poma if you will. In truth they are probably easier to get your head around than the nutcracker system in the Kiwi club fields. Hang around long enough and you’ll invariably see some great spills though, particularly upon exiting the lift.
All inclusive ski weeks
The set-up at Portillo is, shall we say, a little different. Day trippers are few – the next decent-sized town, Los Andes, is around 60km and a bit of a bastard quite frankly to come to and from every day. The flipside is there’s typically no more than 500 people on the mountain on any given day and sometimes a lot less.
There is essentially one hotel – Hotel Portillo and two offshoots, Octagon Lodge and Inca Backpackers Lodge. They operate on a sliding scale in terms of price and and facilities.
There is no village and shops so you are locked into deals with the hotel that include meals. At the top end the Hotel Portillo has four-star waiter-served dining with four excellent meals a day to go with it. You won’t go hungry.
A bonus here is legendary maitre d, the impeccably attired and mannered Juan Beiza. He’ll make you learn some Spanish and did I mention he also nearly got shot outside the hotel once when he tried to return Fidel Castro his gun?
At the backpacker end you’ll get self-serve cafeteria style offerings. Meals, accommodation and lift tickets are all included in the various price offerings.
The net result is Portillo can feel a little like the Love Boat on snow. You can build a cosy rapport with your fellow riders over the week, invariably dining with them and hanging out with them at the bar. Hook-ups that go wrong could prove problematic, as there are very few places to hide …
Much closer than you think
One thing that struck me about Portillo was that most of the Americans who visit the resort took longer to get there than someone from Sydney would.
To almost a person (and I asked quite a few) they were typically taking at least 14 hours to get to Santiago. With Miami, Atlanta and Dallas the key hubs most were having to take at least two flights to get there. For some reason I thought they’d all be getting there in under 10 hours.
Qantas (code sharing with LAN) has four direct flights a week from Sydney taking less than 13 hours. Price-wise I’ve seen significant variations – from sale fares as cheap as $980 return to around $1600.
When the weather is good, it’s then a pretty straightforward two hour drive from Santiago Aiport via a direct transfer. When it’s not I believe it can rather sketchy (you are rising almost 2,000 metres so that should come as little surprise).
Which brings me to the snow.
During our week, the last in August we didn’t get one of those storms that Portillo is famous for. There was one top up of around 5cm, which did actually make a substantial difference to the snowpack but that was it.
Those big storms that I speak of – sometimes six, 10 or even 15 feet can be both a blessing and a curse. That kind of snow on that kind of terrain either means delays getting, delays getting out and/or delays with bombing or safely accessing terrain.
Get it right though and this may just be the greatest ski experience of your life.
What I like:
- Big mountain terrain
- At its best, better and deeper snow than Australia and New Zealand
- A great cultural experience
- Stunning views
- A unique week at the Hotel Portillo
- Legendary lunch and beers in the sun at Tio Bob’s
- Ski camps with Chris Davenport
- Heli-skiing option
What wasn’t so good:
- Limited accommodation options and variations with ski-week packages. They aren’t bad value for what you get but it’s not for the Aussie self-caterer looking to save a few bucks, that’s for sure
- Variable snowpack (feast or famine)
- Riding is all above tree line
- Not great for snowboarders