The Ski Channel’s Top Summer Ski Spots: PORTILLO, CHILE

Posted By: Zeke Piestrup on May 4, 2009 3:34 pm

This is the end, my beautiful friend, the end of the ski season.  Or is it?  By simply flipping the equator switch and reversing the water flow down the sink, summer means winter and the ski season is just about to start!  Ah, the beauty of a perspective shift. 

Perhaps you’ve heard rumblings or bits of stories about skiing south of the equator.  Well, this is the year to make it happen and in Portillo, Chile the tracks you lay down will be twice as nice, more than the ideal take-off spot for a summer ski vacation.  Pop a couple Tylenol PMs and hop a flight down to Santiago.

Portillo has been in the memory creating business since the early 1930s.  Its history is richer than creme brulee, but it’s the here-and-now that draw thousands each year to “Little Pass”, that’s “Portillo” translated for us Gringos.

Portillo’s introduction to the world almost wasn’t.  Portillo successfully lobbied for the 1966 Alpine World Championships.  It was a historic win for the upstart Chilean resort.  But, the ’65 season saw Mother Nature attempt to destroy what would be the first and only world championships in Latin America.  A typhoon-infused storm begat a series of massive avalanches, destroying all but two of the resort’s ski lifts.  The future of the World Championships, and that of Portillo, were precarious, at best.

Enter a young Polish engineer named Janek Kunzynski.  The Poma lift factory engineer, who would later create his chairlift masterpiece at Mammoth Mountain, rebuilt the Portillo lifts on-site.  Avalanche experts reshaped the resort and the Chilean army entered the business of avalanche mitigation.

As a result of their collective efforts, Portillo did host the Alpine World Championships in 1966; and by way of introduction, that was the same year one of ski racing’s most famous, Jean-Claude Killy, won his first world championship races.  Hello Portillo and hello Mr. Killy.

Today, a trip to Portillo ensures both breath-taking nature ‘scapes and the adventure of meeting new friends from different cultures.  Its setting in the Andes Mountain range is a slap of instant Zen to the forehead.  But, the part of Portillo that is just-so-cool! is meeting world class athletes on a ski vacation.  Portillo is the preferred training ground for the U.S., Austrian, and Canadian Ski Teams.  And because of Portillos’ isolation, meeting those world class athletes over dinner is inevitable.  There is no town and only one hotel, the famous yellow Portillo Hotel.

“Portillo feels like a cruise ship, stuck on this island,” says U.S. Ski Team member Byron Friedman.  Although just to make sure the correct sentiment of “stuck” is inferred in his statement, Friedman adds, “I’d like to go there for a vacation, rather than always being there for training camp.  It’s just a really fantastic place to relax.  It’s super fun and incredibly breathtaking, visually.”

There are two seatings nightly in the main dining room.  Master chef Rafael Figueroa has earned a reputation for creating dishes that not only satiate an enormous after-ski appetite, but also please the palate with the best flavors that side of the equator.  The five course meals are legendary.  “When the Ostrich shows up on the menu, don’t turn it down,” says Stacey Cook, another U.S. Ski Team member.  “The ‘tres leches’ ice cream is awesome, and get to know your waiter.  They will totally hook you up with whatever you want.”  And one last bit of indispensable knowledge from Miss Cook,  “Oh, and the word for avocado in Spanish is Palta!”

Enough with the food, what about the skiing?  “The skiing there is just incredible.  You can go so many places,” says Friedman.  “There’s really nice pitches, cool traverses off piste, something for everyone.”  Thankfully, everyone is not there.  You’ll never find a lift line at Portillo.

And, of course, it’s indisputable skiing dogma that a great afternoon sun deck is essential to the perfect ski experience.  Tio Bob’s has few peers when it comes to its location.  Perched high above Lake Inca, the afternoon lunch scene at Tio Bob’s is a wide smile and a good vibes.  When the rare day-off comes for U.S. Ski Team members, Tio Bob’s is where you’ll find them relaxing.

As for the apres-ski drink of choice, it’s called the Pisco Sour.  Good stuff, no doubt, but Friedman advises, “It’ll put the hurt on you if you have a few too many, especially at 10,000 feet.”

There it is, all the necessary knowledge to finally make a summer ski vacation south of the equator an incredible reality.  Portillo, the Little Pass, is making big memories.  Just go easy on the Pisco Sours…

Zeke Piestrup ( More Posts)

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