Everett Potter, 05.21.12, 6:00 PM ET
The Hotel Portillo lies on the shores of the Lake of the Incas in the treeless Chilean Andes, 9,000-plus feet above sea level and a two-hour drive from Santiago. It is painted a jolting Crayola yellow and blue, possibly to catch your eye during a whiteout. It is the centerpiece of a remote and raw landscape of rock and snow, overseen by condors with 11-foot wingspans who slalom the thermals around 19,000-foot peaks.
There is no town, no boutique scene and nowhere to walk to except La Posada, a truckers’ brothel turned bar. Yet it is the social hub of Southern Hemisphere skiers. It attracts the hard-charging national ski teams of the U.S., Canada and Austria for training weeks. There are supermodels on photo shoots and trustafarians on holiday, along with well-heeled families from Buenos Aires and São Paulo. There are Germans and English, as well as Manhattan brokers on buddy trips, flying ten hours from JFK for a week of powder and a chance for international mingling.
This will seem even odder when you see the rooms, which predate minimalist and verge on the monastic. They lack TVs or radios, and have small windows with a view of the cobalt blue sky and blinding white terrain. That, of course, is why all social roads lead to the cavernous living room of the 450-guest hotel, which at times seems like the game board for a nonlethal game of Clue.
Portillo is indeed a cross between a club and a house party, where the buff and sometimes famed members of the ski teams (yes, that is Lindsey Vonn using her iPad in the lobby) hang out with average folk, assuming your definition of average folk includes Oxford-accented skiers and doe-eyed young women from upper-class Chilean homes.
“I come up every weekend from Santiago,” says Mario Lobo, the director of the Rothschild-owned winery Los Vascos, who laughs like Peter Lorre at the pleasurable thought.
But Portillo is also about family. There are kids underfoot--sometimes a lot of them, most of them well-behaved in a way that we’ve largely forgotten how to teach in North America. Once they’ve made friends, which should take all of half an hour, they roam around the 63-year-old property, exploring the subterranean basketball court, the movie theater and games room.
Ultimately, everyone is here for world-class skiing that requires hiking and nerves of steel on the Roca Jack lift, which shoots you up the mountain like a 1930s carnival ride. In a good snow year--remember, that’s June through October down here--there are three-day storms that leave 6 feet of snow. There are no lift lines--honest--because there are only 450 guests.
You’re assigned a table and a waiter for the week, by a staff that is professional and has likely worked at Portillo for decades. If your parents brought you here 40 years ago, the current bartender and maître d’ would have pinched your cheeks back then. Every night the Purcell family, the Americans who have owned the place since 1962, can be found at the second banquette on the right, friendly and approachable. The food is good in that simple Chilean way--think grilled meats and fish--and the wine list blessedly heavy on the country’s top vineyards.
You make generalizations at Portillo because they seem to be true. Brazilians tend to sleep in and are invariably the best dressed at any time of the day, Argentineans never lunch before 1 p.m., and Peruvians are the most formal guests of all. Since the disco closes at 3 or 4 or 5 a.m., “first tracks” means 10:30 a.m. or maybe 11.
Lunch is on the terrace at the rustic Tío Bob’s, with more grilled meats the rule. It has a panoramic view of the mountains and the cartoon-colored hotel below.
Après-ski you go for the babble of conversation in the large outdoor pool and the alfresco hot tub. Or a little afternoon tea. Or maybe a massage from Carmen Bequearelli, who may well have learned her trade from working on both local truckers and Lycra-clad athletes.
The first seating for dinner isn’t until 8, the second at 9:45. That gives you plenty of time for a Pisco sour in the bar, which was designed in 1965 by Patricio Guzman from Desilu Studios. You might not see Ricky and Lucy, but you will see a former ambassador chatting with a Swiss ski instructor, or perhaps an Argentinean winemaker talking with young Canadian skiers or Irish snowboarders. It feels classless, even if it is not. But it is truly as close to a genuinely international hotel as you’ll find anywhere in the world today.