Portillo is truly spectacular. Superlatives are just not enough. Terrain to drool over, snow to die for, views to kill, and that beautiful pool. Then there’s the funky va-et-vient avalanche proof drag lifts and the four (yes, 4!) included meals. But pictures can’t convey the unique intimate character, nor that you’re-all-part-of-the-family feeling, which extends to staff, guests and owners alike. Hands down, Portillo is a perfect 10 ski resort. Right now if you are quick it’s on sale at 20% off regular rates for the first week of July, or in August get a free deluxe night at Santiago’s Ritz Carlton Hotel and free return transfers – see details below. Feature by Owain Price.
Of course that’s not to say conditions at any given moment are always 10/10 awesome, but our arrival in early July was typical enough, a nice 20 – 30cm of fresh, dry powder clearing out to bluebird days. Knowing the forecast was no more snow during our 4 night stay I grabbed some local talent on arrival (very talented talent as it turned out), American snowboard instructor Seth Johns, who was more than happy to leave early season intermediate lessons duty for busting chutes off the Roca Jack lift.
There was no need to panic though, competition wasn’t fierce for fresh lines as the early season clientele tend to be cruisier clients from around South America, especially Brazil, rather than August’s influx of North Americans keen to tear things up with the likes of Chris Davenport on a variety of special weeks.
After a minor delay organising rental boots which had missed our connection in Sydney, (du-oh, should know by now to always take them as hand luggage!), just 40 minutes after arrival we were go.
Which was good, because froth levels really kick in as the shuttle bus winds up the big hairpins on the last section of the access road. First you see the tracks on the steep Roca Jack side, then pass under the Juncalillo run a couple of times in snow shed tunnels, before reaching the famous yellow hotel, just a kilometre short of Chilean customs and the tunnel into Argentina.
The road is the major artery between them so you often share it with (and then get to ski over) lots of big semi-trailers. Big dumps can close the pass for days at a time, with some lower sections very avalanche prone. Look across from the road and you see the line of the old rack-railway that used to be the main access here, and remains as a tribute to some remarkable early 20th century engineering skills.
On our previous visit back in 2005 we had to heli in as the road was blocked after a metre plus dump, and that was in June. But last time it was all good for a fast run up from Santiago. It’s just 2½ hours from downtown when the road is clear.
Skipping the warm up lap we headed straight for Roca Jack. If you’ve seen a few Warren Miller movies likely you’ve seen this lift, Portillo was the ski movie legend’s favourite southern hemisphere ski resort by far. The unique lifts consist of a swinging bar with 5 poma buttons attached that you pull down with a rope to load, then skim up on at least twice the speed of a normal drag lift, before hopping off in sequence, leaving the middle rider to let go the rope. Getting little airs as you scoot up the choppy track is a novel experience, and the 40° off-load spot best treated with due caution, especially if it’s icy.
They’ve added a couple more in past few years, on either side of the valley, but Roca Jack remains the longest and steepest, giving direct access to a mouth-watering selection of chutes. Hike higher and legendary runs like the C-spot couloir beckon the fit.
The early season dump was enough for some great stashes, but we had to be wary of rocks underneath. There was almost no one else skiing it – the few tracks I had seen from the road must have belonged to patrol and the odd instructor before work took them back to the easier groomed slopes.
Seth proved a willing guide and model, slashing line after line on the Roca Jack side as we lapped it competition free.
The whole point of the va-et-vient lifts is to be avalanche proof, anchored to the rocks above with no towers to be taken out by slides. Every decent storm cycle brings a slide or slough out at least, which fills in the runs, so it’s a symbiotic little system that works perfectly for Portillo’s situation at the head of a glacial lake with steep mountain walls on either side.
Through the middle are the groomed runs, not a huge variety, but long and fun enough to keep cruisers happy and provide excellent progression. Consistent re-investment has kept the lift capacity way ahead of the maximum number of guests, so lift lines are virtually non-existent.
Next day the word went out that the opposite Lake Run side was stable enough to open, and snowaction got the nod to be first in when they dropped the rope. Seth volunteered again, backed up by ski instructor André Dimet. Any instructors out there reading this could do worse than get a season gig here – the peak period is short, essentially July to early September, so it’s not a huge work window, but you’ll have great time. Competition is tough for spots though.
On day 3, after no new snow but with the remains of the previous fall getting drier in the shadier chutes as the high altitude air sucked even more moisture out, we were back for another set of chute sessions off the Roca Jack lift.
Usually if you don’t get lucky with a dump or two during a week here the sun will come out more often than not and soften the snow as it arcs over from one side to the other, so you just move around in tandem, often nailing perfect corn snow in the process.
Setting, snow, lifts and terrain are of course key parts of the equation.
But if I had to pick one word to sum up everything else that makes Portillo special it’s family.
The Purcell family has been running Portillo for 70 years, and 3 generations of them can be seen skiing around the slopes, or dining with the guests.
Many of the staff are inter-generational too. The Maitre’d has been there for longer than we have been skiing there (since 1989) for example – apparently, and sadly, after 40 years he’s retiring.
Accommodation options at Portillo
As for the guests, something keeps drawing them back whenever time and budgets permit, so before you know it you feel part of the family too, welcomed by and welcoming your old friends among the staff and fellow guests. It feels more like a large club lodge than a hotel, and you feel more like a member of the extended Portillo family then just another paying guest.
Sure, staying in the main hotel has never been cheap, and for 4-5 star prices the rooms are small by modern standards, so nitpickers be warned this is no Deer Valley luxury experience.
But considering all you get – the meals, the convenience, the character – it’s still good value, from $USD 2,350 a week per person in a 2 share room, or less in their lakefront chalets.
If that’s a bit too much the Inca Lodge backpacker option gets you a bunk, cafeteria meals and a lift pass from $USD 164 daily. If you’re on a backpacker budget there’s a funky little staff/locals watering hole across the road as well, where the cervezas are cheap and the mix of Chileans and instructors a lot of fun.
The main hotel pub offers regular entertainment, there’s a disco, and South Americans love to party, so if you’ve got energy left you can too.
New for 2015 the 3 & 4 night mini-weeks (outside peak season) apart from the traditional Sat – Sat ski weeks proved popular. Or with even just one spare day in Santiago do yourself a favour and grab a day trip package (hotel receptions will book these the day before) to at least ski and see Portillo for a few hours, because it’s definitely one for the all time bucket list, a 10/10 to be precise.
Getting to Portillo
Portillo is only 160km north of Santiago, @ 2½ hours in good conditions. Portillo’s airport shuttle twice daily each way Saturdays is the cheapest way to get there
From Australia Qantas direct flights Sydney to Santiago are perfect, while LATAM started direct Melbourne – Santiago flights in October 2017 to complement their existing Sydney – Auckland – Santiago flights, so it’s never been easier to get to.
Portillo specials and package deals
With 2018 Early Bird special including 20% off Portillo Hotel packages start from $USD 1880 pp 2 share for week 30 June – 07 July; or backpacker package $1150 per week; also lake front Chalets from $USD 5650 for 4 people; 3 or 4 night mini-week options from $USD 1007pp 2 share in hotel (all packages include meals & lifts).
For Hotel ski weeks from 28 July – 01 September get a FREE night the night before or night after your ski week at the sumptous Ritz Carlton Santiago and bonus return coach transfers to/from Portillo.
Kid’s promotion 1 or 2 kids ski FREE weeks of June 23 – Jul 14 & Aug 25 – Oct 06 (2 kids free 7-14 Jul & 22 Sep – 06 Oct)
Ski Week & Mini Week programs include:
• 7 nights lodging (Ski Week: Saturday to Saturday).
• 3 or 4 nights lodging (Mini Week: Wednesday to Saturday (3 nights) or Saturday to Wednesday (4 nights).
• Unlimited access to ski lifts.
• Four meals per day (breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner).
• Complimentary use of heated pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, ﬁtness center, full court gymnasium, aerobics and yoga classes, cinema, game room with rock climbing wall, children’s activities, disco, piano bar, ski check, boot check and timed race cour ses.
• Day care for children ages 4 to 7 years old.
For more Chile powder options check our features on the Patagonian volcanoes, Osorno and Antillanca.