Riding one of Portillo’s four va et vients – a baffling contraption that can only be described as a much faster tow rope you put between your legs and trust to God that the other three people on it don’t do something stupid as it shoots you up the mountain at 17 miles per hour – will make you nervous at first The point is to get those looking for added vertical up steep chutes, which, in the Andes, are prone to avalanches.
On our first day, I started out on the Cóndor, and for the first time in years felt genuinely awkward on snow. I made a few trips, up and down, up and down, and eventually riding the va et vient became almost as fun as making giant wide jump turns down the steep, narrow face. While I was waiting at the top, I turned around and saw men dressed in fatigues riding the slingshot up. I later learned that this was the High Mountain School of the Chilean Army, which has been training here since 1954, though some soldiers have never sided in their lives and are sometimes called “the green avalanche,” for obvious reasons. It was somewhat surreal, as was skiing through an abandoned train tunnel or taking a lesson with a group of strangers, some of whom spoke English, some of whom did not, including our instructor. Portillo seems to trade in these little oddities, revealing themselves slowly over the course of the week until you’re one of the initiated.
Of course, the ultimate initiation here may be tackling the Super C, a back- country couloir that experts come from all over the world to drop into. To do it, you start with a strenuous two-hour hike in the morning, followed by a narrow traverse that, when Googled, turns up a lot of stern warnings. I’ve heard from others that when you reach the top, you get a straight shot of Aconcagua – the largest mountain in the world outside of Asia. I’d like to think I’d train for this someday (which they suggest anyone living at sea level should do since you’ll be climbing to an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet) and come back to conquer it, if only to be one of those people privy to this secret handshake. I wouldn’t want to put it off too long.
“Chile took in the driest desert in the world, a glaciated archipelago of a thousand islands, and most of the things you can imagine in between,” writes Sara Wheeler in her excellent Travels in a Thin Country. Indeed, Chile – 2,600 miles long and no more than 115 miles wide – has some pretty mind-blowing landscape shifts, which is why I decided to tack the Atacama Desert onto my Portillo trip. You come here to see the Milky Way more clearly than anywhere else on earth, explore surreal rock formations like the Valle de la Luna, and head up 14,000 feet to experience some trippy natural geysers before dawn, all with incredibly informed guides arranged by most hotels here.
Stay at Tierra Atacama, Portillo’s sister hotel, which also has a great little hydrotherapy spa. Or opt for Portillo’s “mini week”; during certain times, you can book three or four days there and receive 20 percent off both hotels. Awasi, a Relais & Châteaux property, and Explora, which reopened in December, are also solid options. Fly IATAM from Santiago to Calama (about two hours) and have your hotel arrange for a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama.