FOOD & TRAVEL
The Sustainable Travel Edit: Hotel Desértica, Chile
By Rebecca Prunali
This rustic yet elegant eco-hideaway in the Chilean Atacama Desert is hospitable, welcoming and wonderfully comfortable – exactly what you want when visiting the driest place on earth.
The idea came from prominent Chilean actor, Jorge Zabaleta, who fell in love with the traditions and culture of the surrounding area in his youth and set about creating a springboard for exploring it. The resulting space is – forgive the cliche – an oasis of calm which, through a combination of local materials (think lots of wood, smooth stone and rich fabrics) and excellent storytelling, invites you to engage with the history of the place in a truly memorable way.
Just over an hour’s drive from El Loa Calama Airport is the small desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, at the end of whose main street is Hotel Desertica. Set on a high, arid plateau, the town itself comes with all the traditional restaurants, bars and shops you’d expect and is charming without being remarkable enough to visit on these merits alone.
The real splendour lies in its surroundings, which are utterly otherworldly, and include endless desert plains, salt flats, undulating wind-caved valleys, volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and distant mountains.
The hotel was built on the site of an ancient Atacameño huerta (vegetable garden) and farm, and remnants of this bucolic past can be seen in its design. Nearly the entire hotel is single-storey including the open-air communal spaces which are shaded by wooden stick roofs and filled with local huaso (cowboy) textiles, rough-hewn wooden tables, traditional pottery, copper fire pits, and woven lampshades. A few non-original luxuries include a multi-level pool, a well-stocked bar and the Cafe Desértica, which serves up a local breakfast of fresh produce each morning (but not much more, so be prepared to venture into town unless you’re planning a very lean trip!).
Rooms comprise of 12 yurt-like circular structures known as turis (meaning “house” in the local Kunza language), and are inspired by pre-Hispanic Atacameño buildings. They’re topped with thatched roofs and come with comfortable double beds, private bathrooms, fireplaces or heating, ceiling fans and organic bathroom amenities. We opted for a standard turi (although superior are also available), and were delighted to find it a snug cocoon filled with warm woods, colourful local textiles and plush woven rugs.
What enchanted us most, however, were the seating nooks dotted throughout the property, strung across with fairy lights and equipped with traditional wool blankets for cooler evenings.
The aim at Hotel Desértica is simple: to disconnect, decompress and forget the worries of everyday life. You can do this in the most typical sense – sipping cocktails in the shaded lounge with other guests on squishy leather poufs, swimming leisurely laps in the pool, and sampling local cuisine from the cafe – or via a more active experience, with hiking and biking through the Atacama desert’s lunar landscape.
Either way, you’ll feel a million miles away from whatever you left back home. And isn’t that the point of a holiday?
The hotel was constructed on the site of an old vegetable garden and it’s artfully managed to resurrect the old canal irrigation system that once watered its produce. Once a month, the land around the hotel is flooded to give new life to the orchard and surrounding flora, which are protected via raised walkways connecting the different parts of the hotel. Solar panels are used throughout the facility supplying LED lights with energy, whilst all personal care products like shampoos and soaps are organic and biodegradable.
Most important of all is the focus on local, which applies to the decoration, the staff employed at the hotel (who are charm personified) and the cuisine, with staple Chilean ingredients such as Chañar fruit, quinoa, goats’ cheese and wine all making regular appearances on the menu.
There’s no doubt that Jorge Zabaleta succeeded in his quest to create a space that paid homage to the Atacameñan culture with Hotel Desértica. It’s wonderfully rustic whilst simultaneously being elegant and refined, standing as a bubble of comfort in the middle of an otherwise pretty inhospitable environment. It’s free from pomp and doesn’t have that Instagram ‘wow’ factor that many other hotels strive for, which only adds to its wonderful, unpretentious charm.
Whilst it might not be worth a trip to Chile alone, it’s the perfect place to press ‘pause’ on a longer trip, offering the space and tranquility to soak up the rich history and culture that the country is renowned for.
By Rebecca Prunali
Rebecca is the Founder of Talia Collective. She began her career in philanthropy and fundraising for some of the UK’s biggest charities before moving into PR and Communications within the corporate sustainability sector.