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A Good Run – Portillo, Chile

For non-joiners like myself, this forced com­muning may sound like some kind of fresh hell on paper. But the hotel and its rituals, not to mention the 500-plus people working and liv­ing here throughout the season, have a way of making the institutional socializing feel unforced. Take tea, which is always held in the formal din­ing room and always at 5 p.m., right after the lifts close. Everyone, still in their ski clothes, arrives unprompted (there are no cruise ship cowbells or PA announcements) to snack on fresh-baked rolls, sweet jams, palm honey, and cheese and sip mate de coca, an herbal tea made from coca leaves native to Chile. The whole expe­rience is restorative in a way that pounding microbrews one after another is not, and it is the land of foreign custom that makes you question your American reflexes. As a Brazilian twenty something I rode a chairlift with told me early in the week, after I admitted to slapping this Portillo après tradition, “You must do tea. Everybody does tea.”

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Spectacular views from the Portillo Hotel

Unlike new-build gingerbread ski lodges that can seem to measure char­acter in the number of mounted antlers hanging on the wall, Portillo reads authentically Old World, with its wood-paneled great room, scuffed booths that look like they were carved out of prehistoric tree trunks, and framed portraits of South American ski royalty dating back to the ’50s. It’s an intan­gible soul that owner Henry Purcell has largely kept intact since moving here from New York to run the resort in 1961. His uncle Bob Purcell had purchased Portillo in an auction from the Chilean government (turns out he and his business partner were the only ones who put in a bid) and fig­ured his 26-year-old nephew, a graduate of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and an executive at Hilton, should run it, despite the fact that he didn’t know how to ski and spoke very little Spanish. “When I walked into this place, I almost turned around and went home,” Purcell tells me over tea and chocolate-covered alfajores. “The only person here was the caretaker, who slept in the living room in front of the fireplace. But he also had his sheep with him. It was filthy.” The plan was, he tells me, to stay for two years, then head back to Hilton to work for its international arm. “But I signed up for another two years. Then another. I guess I was stubborn.” Purcell, now 82, an avid skier and a fluent Spanish speaker, bought the resort in 1980, and today his son Miguel, a former Chilean Olympic skier who was raised at Portillo, is the general manager. Much like his hotel, Purcell is from another era, always speaking softly and slowly, in a tone that inti­mates he doesn’t think running a ski resort in a country that’s been ruled by both a Socialist regime and a military dictatorship is worth going on and on about. Let’s just say that Purcell has seen some stuff unrelated to ski lore. Castro came to visit once, during the summer of 1972. Henry took him on a tour of the grounds to get a better view of the Andes. Castro insisted that his mountains in Cuba were higher than Purcell’s and that he could climb Cerro Inca {which tops out at 13,780 feet) after lunch. “I told him, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” Purcell says. They were separated by their minders pretty quickly after that In 1977, a group of models – including a young Jerry Hall – came to shoot a Neiman Marcus fur catalog but were snowed in for close to a week. With nowhere to go but the hotel’s disco, the models reportedly went on a bit of a bender with a different land of white powder. “I remember how nice everybody was,” says Purcell. “The group was friendly and got along well with the other guests.” Apparently, there’s a screenplay in the works.portillo-chile-3

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