TahoeBackcountry.net Home
Up to featured trips main page
About Us

Legal Stuff/Terms of Use


Logo_Surfer2_100x100

Backcountry ski and snowboard gear, camping


Tele-Turning and Partying in Portillo, Chile -- September, 2002

All text and images by David Zeke Rosenberg

Click on any thumbnail for a full size image

Rob contemplates dropping the Gargantia Chute in Portillo, Chile

Spectacular scenery.
 

Wine, powder, and discotecas also made for a magnificent month-long ski and travel adventure in South America.

 

But was powder in September the start or the end of the ski season?! 

 

 


Departing from California

Temperatures were peaking above 100 degrees F as I packed my ski bags in Davis, CA.  August in the Central Valley had brought a month of hot sun, clear skies, and the start of fig and grape season. September promised the same. I had last carved tele-turns in June on Mount Shasta. I didn't expect more North American skiing until November or December. So, the only way to satiate a still tingling telemark sensation was to fly south, south, south all the way to America del Sur.

My friends Jeanette and Rob had talked about taking a Chile ski-week vacation for over two years. I first heard wind of the idea in April. Skiing in September seemed extravagant, far off, but intriguing. A week later I learned that  I had a cousin living in Santiago and that my longtime friend Emmanuelle from undergraduate days also wanted to extend the trip to visit her friends in Nicaragua where she had served as a Peace Corps volunteer. With these multiple motives for a month of travel, I Immediately pitched in my $$ to reserve a bed for a week-long say at the Octogon lodge in Portillo, Chile. Rob and Jeanette's current housemate Armon and former housemate Mike would also round out our 6-pack crew. Throughout the rest of the summer, I kept wondering what to expect for my first journey south of the Mexican Border.

Chile, as I would soon discover, affords extravagant and rustic southern hemispheric improvements to California themes: a diverse, skinny land stretched north and south with fertile valleys and mountains sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and eastern deserts, Spanish spoken as the first language, first rate wine that is cheap, and humongous--and I mean 20,000 ft. towering--mountains that are devoid of people and covered with metres and meters of snow. These factors all combine to make Chile an ideal international ski and travel destination.

From Davis, I drove into San Francisco and met up with Emmanuelle. Around midnight, her roommate dropped us at SFO. We were booked on the cheapest flight between the Americas: Groupo Taca Airlines.

Exactly twenty-four hours, three Central American airports,  and four deli sandwich bags later, we arrived in Santiago, Chile. We napped a few hours on the airport couches, and then met Rob, Jeanette, and Armon the next morning as they arrived on the nonstop Lan Chile flight direct from Los Angles. Thirty minutes later, Mike also showed up with his snowboard bag on the Lan Chile flight from New York via Miami.

4 Days partying from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina, and back to Portillo, Chile

The six of us piled into the microbus that Emmanuelle had rented online. We drove downtown.   Smog and haze obscured the Andes and any glimpses of snow, but no worries because we had our first four days set on sightseeing and partying.

Smog in Santiago, Chile obscures the west face of the Andes

We checked into the Hotel Orly in the Providencia district, brunched, napped, and awoke in the late afternoon to venture onto the street. For dinner, we walked into the restaurant district, feasted on Chilean sea bass, shrimp, and chicken, and downed our first round of Pisco Sours (a sweet, frothy concoction of fermented pisco grapes, egg white, sugar, and lemon that is the national drink of Chile, goes down super easy, and gets you super f*cked up as you ask for seconds).

Our waiter was more than willing to oblige our other party requests:

"Puedimos comprar molta (can we buy drugs?)," Rob asked.
"Of course," our waiter smiled. "You want the good stuff?"
"Si!" we said enthusiastically.
"Primo o primero-supremo cocaine?"
"Perdon," Rob asked, "No tienes ganga (Don't you have Marijuana)?"
"That will be harder," he replied. "You sure you don't want cocaine?"

Well after midnight, our waiter returned with two small packets of ganga, we left a few extra $$ on the tip, and found our way next door to a discoteca for live music and dancing. It was easy to grind with any man or woman already on the dance floor.

 

The microbus makes it way up the west side of the Andes towards the Paso Libertadores

Mike and Armon straggled back to the hotel at 5 or 6 AM. Emmanuelle didn't return at all. The next morning, still drunk and starting to feel a hangover, I ventured out for a walk and found the Parque de Virgin which afforded my first brief view of the Andes. But, by the time I returned to the hotel to get my camera and rouse the others, the view had smogged over.

By early afternoon we had the microbus reloaded, carved multiple U-turns trying to navigate our way out of Santiago, made an impromptu stop at the Puma outlet store for new sneakers, and finally found our way onto the highway up into the Andes, towards the Paso Libertadores, and the road onto Argentina.

The east-side view of the Andes the next morning from Uspallata, Argentina

Darkness descended as we winded our way into the Andes. I had the distinct feeling that the giant ghosts of mountaintops surrounded us. Even at 12,000 ft, the spirits towered, still unseen, 10,000 ft higher above us as we drove into the Chilean customs building around 8 PM. The building was a huge, rambling mass of corrigated aluminum that covered an entire parking lot and was designed to shed snow. It was also cold. Fortunately, the microbus' papers were in order, and we crossed the border with minimum fuss. Twenty kilometers further down the road, the Argentinean border officials also expediently ushered us through their snow-shed. We were the last vehicle to pass through for the night.

Mike, Rob, Jeanette, Zeke, and Emmanuelle (l->r) in Uspallata, Argentina

 

In pitch black, we drove the rest of the way down and out of the Andes and found our way to Uspallata, Argentina were we crashed at the first hostel we saw. With Emmanuelle acting as translator at the small pizza restaurant were we had dinner, we conversed for several hours with the waitress/owner. According to her, inflation, the expected devaluation, and Aregintian economic crisis made it better for her to work for wages rather than own her business. She gave several recommendations for nearby sites to visit and directions to discotecas in Mendoza. There were no prices posted on the menu, and we debated for a while in English about how much to leave her for the bill. Finally, we settled on (in all likelihood an extravagant, but) the equivalent sum as if we were at a Round Table pizzaria in the States.

Next, we hit the single town bar. There, we found two other patrons, and ordered some beers and a bottle of Smugglars! whiskey to take back to the hotel. In the morning, we awoke to a stunning view of the eastern side of the Andes (that far surpasses any vista of the Sierras one could cobble from Highway 395). We drove further east through high desert and a raring canyon, found our way onto an empty stretch of highway were the discotecas were supposed to be located, and make our way into Mendoza city center for a late lunch. The Andes still loomed 17,000 ft high above the valley.

The Andes still tower 17,000 ft above Mendoza, Argentina

After lunch, we drive out past the discotecas (again empty), search out some hot springs, decide against going in because it's past 9 PM and cold, return past the discotecas (still, no sign of life), and chance upon a nearby hotel that was a mansion and evoked sense of the Fall of the House of Usher. There were no other guests in evidence. Emmanuelle again asked the teenage bellboys about the discotecas and they also pointed us back in the direction of the empty road.

After unloading our gear, we were hungry, and drove off in the opposite direction towards the center of the small, quaint village where we were staying on the outskirts of Mendoza. We found a Lebanese Restaurant with attached winery. While we waited an hour to be seated, we tasted three excellent bottles of Malbac wines that were local to the area. With the poor currency exchange, each bottle was only $3-4 US. We finally sat down to a smorgasboard of fatoosh, hummos, pita, kibeh, and other assorted Arabic plates that reminded me of my Peace Corps stay in Jordan! Unfortunately, none of the Argentinean staff spoke Arabic. We tore through three more Malbec bottles and negotiated with the wine attendant to select a variety case of his better Malbacs, Cabernees, and Merlows for us to take back to Portillo for our ski-week. Well after 1 AM, we settled our bill for $50 - 80 US (including the case of wine!) and headed back to the hotel. Rob and Jeanette were tired and went to bed. Mike, Armon, Emmanuelle and I changed into our club clothes and set out to find the Mendoza discotecas everyone kept talking about.

It was now 2AM, and the road that we had passed 3 times previously during the day was swarmed with cars parked bumper to bumper. Packs of pre-teens, teenagers, 20-somethings, and early 30- somethings walked up and down the road. We drove to the end of the strip to a club marked Olympus, headed up the hill and inside. Cover was $1 US. This fee included a complementary drink. Additional beers were $0.50 US. I got lost in the maze inside the club, saw Mike, Armon, and other hot club-goers high-up on a balcony, but could not figure out how to navigate up to them. We danced, and danced, and danced. We flirted with a group of women, but lost interest after they told us their curfew time was only 6 AM!

We left the Olympus as the horizon turned blue for daybreak and drove further up the road to a second club. Here we danced with an older Mid- and Late-20-something crowd. Armon met the women of his dreams:

"Her name is Fernanda," he told us.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, she's a Ten!"

But Armon was faced with multiple dilemmas. First, Fernanda was not likewise attracted to him. Second, Armon did not speak any Spanish. And third, she did not speak English.

"How do I express my love for her?" Armon beseeched us.
"Tell her: 'Me llamo Armon. Me gusta tu,'" Emmanuelle coached.
"Me gusta tu, me gusta tu..." Armond repeated again.

Me gustas tu was also the catchy Manu Choa song we had heard in the car on the radio for the first time earlier in the day. A few minutes later, Armon returned and Emmanuelle fed him some more pickup lines. Armon shuttled back and forth until Fernanda and her friend lost interest.

By 8 or 9 AM, the crowd was dispersing, and we also left. It was Saturday morning and the start of our Portillo ski week. We returned to the Usher hotel, woke Rob and Jeanette up as we clamored into our room, napped for two hours, showered, had breakfast, repacked the microbus, drove back through Uspallata and up towards the Paso Libertadores against a backdrop of clear blue skies.   Past Argentinian customs, we stopped and admired a brief view of the Aconcuaga (22,617 ft, the highest peak in the Americas). Surprisingly, we found the Portillo ski area, three km West of the Chilean customs house. It was nearly 3 PM.

Only 12,000 more vertical feet to the top of the Aconcagua (22,617 ft)

In my excitement to hit the slopes before the lifts closed at 4 PM, I scrapped and bent the casing holding the spare wheel of an SUV while repositioning the microbus in the parking lot in front of the lodge. It was bent so badly that the owners could not close the casing and latch the spare back to their vehicle. We told the guy that we had just come from Mendoza. While we were unloading more gear, he spied the Smugglars! and case of wine. "Ooh, Malbacs!" he oogled. He picked out two bottles of wine, gave me his business card, and we finished the exchange with a handshake and laugh. Fifteen minutes later, I pulled on my telemark gear, skied out from the lodge, and caught 3 afternoon runs before the lifts closed.

7 Days Skiing in Portillo, Chile

Portillo is a mountain resort dream situated at the bend in the road just west of the Paso Liberadores. Several chairlifts, pistas (runs), and a single, 4-star hotel are encircled by a crown of towering mountains. From the hotel, several pistas drop 1500 vertical feet down to meet the highway again below a bazillion switchbacks.

 
Portillo Ski Valley. Lodge, road, switchbacks, custom's house, lifts, and an amphethetre of peaks towering 3,000 - 4,000 ft above the top of the lifts
 

From the lodge, two chairlifts also rise another 1500 feet up. Here the snow ends in rock walls that continue another 3000 feet higher still. It's a unique ski experience because nearly 3/4 of the terrain is only fit for admiration.

We quickly settled into the resort routine. Wakeup in our 4-person, dorm-style octogon lodge. Trek outside across 20 metres of snow to a three-course breakfast served at 7:30 AM in the dinning room of the main, yellow lodge building. Walk downstairs to the ski and boot room to pick up our gear. Head outside, click in, and ski nonstop until lunchtime. Return to the lodge, consume our four-course lunch at our pre-assigned table, and again hit the slopes for afternoons of uninhibited hoots and bliss. After the lifts closed at 4 PM, catch afternoon tea and cookies back in the dining room; followed with a bottle of wine in the heated, outdoor pool; watch the sun set crimson behind the Los Tres Hermanos; shower, dress and return to the living room for board games until dinner time at 9 PM.

Rob holds edge on Roca Jack

From our previous 4 days of partying, we had become a-cultured to a late South American dinner time. There was always a hearty soup, fresh baked bread, desert, salad, and a choice of a meat, fish, or vegetarian entree. After dinner, we learned that it was best to retire to the living room for of social interaction. We conversed with the scattering of other Americans, French and Italians; and watched upper-crust Chilenas from the Coast flirt with Argentino chicks from Buenos Aires. A Brazilian from Rio was less suave. We created a cast of character names to catalogue our compatriate hotel guests and keep track of their doings. Hippie Chick spent nights smoking at the bar and drinking downstairs in the smallish hotel discoteca to escape her pre-teen brother and doting mother. An arrogant Georgio wooed an Argentina prima dona in the livingroom, the bar, or later down in the discoteca--even while her mother stood by. Georgio's younger brother was nicer and a much better dancer. Mike managed to score the names of the entire female bar staff (Mary, Nellie, and Candace), dance, or make out with them on each of successively later nights as the Smugglars! bottle went dry. Sadly, none of the other hotel guests managed to rate higher than a 6 or 7 on the Fernanda scale.

 

Emmanuelle and Armon at the top of the El-Plateau lift

Armon rides the Gargantia (little throat) chute underneight the El-Plataeu lift

 

We practiced our Spanish and joked with the fabulous wait staff that consisted of our chief jokesters and servers Juan, Juan, and Sergio. Throughout the day, we would continually marveled at the beauty, elegance, and simplicity of the Portillo setup. As North Americans, we spent many a conversation debating whether our September ski week was the continuation of the past ski season or the start of the new one.

For the first four days, the snow was hard, fast, but solid packed powder. We explored the many chairlifts and two 4- or 5-person, highspeed poma lifts, Condor and Roca Jack. Throughout the world, these Pomas are unique to Portillo. They take skiers 500 to 1000 vertical feet higher up into the expert chutes that are too steep to service with regular tower constructed lifts. Skiers ride abreast on poma platter pulls that descend from a single metal cross-bar. The metal bar is attached with P-cord to the main cable. While one jack races up the hill dragging skiers along a very bumpy track, the other jack returns to the motor operator at the bottom. There are no lift towers; two small pulleys direct the cable back in a circle at the top of the chute. When the poma jack stops near the pully, all the riders struggle not to fall backwards down the slope while getting untangled. This skill was especially difficult for snowboarders to master--and Mike slid 300 feet back down the Roca Jack the first time we rode it.

 

Zeke drops a line looker's-right from the nose-cliffs on El-Plataeu

Our ski-season start/finale discussion was finally resolved on the Friday prior to our departure. The day before, 90 cm (3+ feet!) of light, Utah-quality powder fell. Visibility dropped to 20 feet, the road closed, and we felt our way through thigh deep powder on successively frustrating laps down the 200-ft beginner hill, which was the only lift open. I put on my skinny 3-pin touring boards and skied 3 km up the road to the desolate customs house. Friday morning, we woke early to Sierra-clear, crystal blue skies, and a soft and deep white blanket that became celebration as a sensational ski season finale.

Rob and Jeneatte find bouency in 90 cm of powder

 

There was an exciting buzz in the dining room that morning. At 9 AM, we caught the first chair-lift ride up and laid clean tracks through the Garganta (big throat) chute. The next ride, we moved over and laid tracks through the Gargantia (little throat) chute underneath the El-Plateau lift. We hit the Condor and Roca Jack pomas as they opened. Before lunch, Rob and I ventured off-piste from the Condor and skied 2,000 feet of untracked powder down to the Lago (lake) up the valley from the Hotel towards the Los Tres Hermones.

Zeke deep in powder

 From the bottom, we traversed 15 minutes across the frozen lake and back up to the hotel. After lunch, I repeated the run and trek again. Later in the afternoon, we hit the Garganga and Gargantia multiple times, stopping to admire the view of the valley and hotel before dropping in. For my last run of the day, I did a repeat on the Condor, powder-drop, lago trek loop.

Three more weeks before return to California

By Noontime Saturday, we had the microbus packed again infront of the Octogon lodge, and started West down the Andes back towards Santiago. Rob, Jeanette, Armon, and Mike had Lan Chile flights to catch at 8 PM and jobs to be back at by Monday in San Francisco. Emmanuelle and I dropped them at the Airport with our ski bags, drove back into Santiago to return the microbus, and had the rental office drop us off at
Packing up the microbus in front of Octogon Lodge
my cousin Alicia's house in Eastern Santiago near the foothills of the Andes. Still ahead of us were a three-night stay with Alicia, her husband Eugeno, and my cousins Leo and Thomas; a jet hop to San Jose, Costa Rica; a 12-hour adventure bus ride north to Managua, Nicaragua; a week-long village stay 4 hours north of Managua in Totogalpa with Emmanuelle's friends; a volcano climb; shopping; and a final day of detective work back in San Jose just before our plane left again for San Francisco after getting robbed.

Afterword

Unquestionably, the best parts of Portillo are the scenery, the food, the service, and the Chile travel experience. Yes, the powder is also sublime: because you only share the mountain with the 400-or-so other hotel guests, come 4 PM as the lifts closed, we still debated which virgin powder lines to debase for our last runs. We also ran more untracked lines Saturday morning before the 12 PM checkout time. And at $1,700/person (including microbus rental, alcohol, tips, 5 days of partying, airfare, the ski package, etc.), the price easily beats other high season, domestic Colorado or Utah ski vacations. Come next August when the temperatures and humidity peak out above 100F in the Northern hemisphere, I will, hopefully, round out my ski season again in the Andes.

Back to Feature Stories


Up to Top