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August 21, 2013

On the Slopes at Ski Portillo

By Cindy Hirschfeld | Travel

On the Slopes at Ski Portillo
Courtesy of Ski Portillo

Tradition reigns at Ski Portillo in the Chilean Andes. The first lift went up in the early 1930s, making it South America’s oldest ski area. Located about a hundred miles from Santiago, the resort has been owned by Americans (the Purcell family) since 1961. Today guests who book annual all-inclusive ski weeks at Portillo’s rambling, sunshine-yellow hotel appreciate seeing old friends, the red-jacketed waiters who greet them by name in the restaurant and the morning light playing off Laguna del Inca at the base of the mountain. They also appreciate the stellar skiing. August is peak season—the slopes close October 5—and recent heavy snows have left the runs in prime condition.

That’s not to say things don’t change. The first phase of a four-year guest-room remodel debuted in June. Streamlined furniture and wall coverings made of native Chilean lenga wood mix with artisan-crafted wool blankets and rugs. Skiers can now rent several private, classic alpine chalets that sleep up to eight (from $4,950 for four people, including meals and lift tickets; $1,100 per additional guest). Snowshoe routes have been added. But the old-world charm remains: When the road between Santiago and Mendoza (the resort’s main access route) reopens after a snowstorm, a staffer walks through the hotel ringing a bell to announce it.

Ski Portillo lodges just 450 skiers and daytrippers are rare, giving it the feel of a private club. Despite only 35 named runs, the mountain seems much bigger, with above-treeline slopes that offer many ways to the bottom and a wealth of hike-to terrain. Helicopters take off daily (weather permitting) from the hotel, ferrying skiers to untracked slopes 15 minutes away. Après-ski ranges from soaks in the outdoor heated pool and wine tastings to movies, talks and late nights at the disco.

Another Ski Portillo tradition is that several national ski teams train here, including the U.S. men and women and the Austrian men. (Seeing Olympic champ Lindsey Vonn out on a run or recent World Cup winner Tina Maze of Slovenia at dinner isn’t out of the question.) And with the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, approaching, this might be one of the best places in the world to get a look at rising stars, both on and off the slopes. Seven-night stay starts at $1,950, including four meals and lift ticket; Renato Sanchez 4270; 56-2/2263-0606; skiportillo.com.

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