Fundo la Barrica, El Molle, Vicuña, Chile
This secluded riverside property offers an alluring alternative to the hotels of San Pedro de Atacama for a quintessential escape in Chile's arid north.
CasaMolle became the first hotel to inject some luxury into Chile's Elqui Valley when it opened in 2017 on a scenic stretch of land 30 minutes east of the nation's second-oldest city, La Serena.
The all-inclusive hideaway fans out around an attractive courtyard replete with an infinity pool, hot tub, and spa offering bio-energetic massages. There is also a yoga area for saluting the sun, a bocce court for playing ball, horse stables for gaucho-inspired adventures, and trails for early morning treks into the dusty hills above. Of course, most come for exclusive access to its golf course, which spills across the valley floor along the edge of the rambling Elqui River.
Chile is not a country many would associate with golf, nor is its Atacama Desert a place where one would expect to find attractive greens. Yet, on the southern edge of one of the world's driest deserts lies this verdant 9-hole course—the passion project of owner Karim Daire.
Daire had to truck in loads of soil from southern Chile just to convert the rocky riverbed into what are now fields of grass. Once the blades of green appeared, he planted trees, carved out bunkers, and punctuated the course with tranquil lagoons ripe for leisurely paddles in the waiting kayaks. Head to hole 9 for a serene glass-incased clubhouse that's a superb spot to hide away and answer some emails.
Visitors share the greens with a maximum of 30 other guests staying in the property's 12 rooms, all of which lie behind adobe walls and come with a desk, flat-screen TV, and modern amenities. Rooms are spacious and comfortable, though not nearly as memorable or photogenic as the lavish grounds on which they sit.
Designer Susana Aránguiz, known for her work at Hotel Wara and Awasi Atacama, added her unique touch to Casa Molle, creating a sybarite's haven within the wild environs. There are landscaped cactus gardens, submerged fire pits, and plush outdoor loungers. Intricate Andean textiles lie atop desert-chic furnishings, while the rooms boast ceramics that draw inspiration from the indigenous Molle people, who settled in this valley around 200 BC.
The International Dark-Skies Association named the Elqui Valley the world's first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015, and its gently rolling hills are now home to a collection of large telescopes and observatories. Some are just for the scientists, but many are open to everyday astro-tourists, including Observatorio del Pangue and Observatorio Mamalluca.
CasaMolle can also arrange stargazing tours at its own outdoor amphitheater. Alternatively, you can grab some champagne, bring it to the hot tub and zen out while observing the dark spots in the Milky Way.
Nearby area attractions include Montegrande, where Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral came of age, and the Puclaro Reservoir, an emerald green lagoon apt for paddleboarding and windsurfing. The hotel can also recommend visits to high-altitude wineries, solar-powered breweries, and artisan pisco distilleries.
The Elqui Valley has, for centuries, been synonymous with the production of pisco, the local brandy made from Muscat, Torontel, or Pedro Jimenez grapes. The pisco sour—a frothy blend of pisco, lime juice, powdered sugar and ice—is a Chilean staple. Casa Molle makes an exceptional version of it that adds tart quince juice. It also serves some excellent vino showcasing the valley's new push into high-end wines.
With such a great selection to choose from, CasaMolle only offers bottles that are produced in the Elqui or nearby Limarí Valleys. Each is thoughtfully paired with the three-course meals whipped up by chef Pierre Badinella. These run the gamut from seared tuna over micro greens to steak and heirloom potatoes in a creamy blue cheese sauce. Chef Badinella also sends waiters looking for you between meals (by the pool, on the golf course) with little bites such as walnut biscuits, mini beef empanadas, or smoked salmon canapés. Nearly every fruit or vegetable that reaches your mouth can be traced right back to the organic gardens and orchards that surround the 17-hectare property.
The end result is a place that brings a touch of class to a long-overlooked region of Chile, one right at the cusp of finally realizing its true potential. The Elqui Valley has been waiting for a hotel like this to kick its tourism industry into the next gear. Whether you come for nature or the nurturing, golf or stargazing, pisco or wine, this sumptuous desert oasis is sure to tick the right boxes.
Review and photos by Mark Johanson