Chile is not a country many people 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 the world’s driest non-polar desert, in the vineyard-lined Elqui Valley, lies a new golf resort that’s an oasis of modern comforts in the otherwise wild environs.
By Mark Johanson
Casa Molle Villa & Golf opened its gates this past September on a scenic patch of land 30 minutes east of the coastal metropolis of La Serena – the most historic of Chile’s northerly cities – and just 40 minutes by flight from the capital of Santiago.
The villa is spread around an attractive courtyard replete with an infinity pool, hot tub and spa. There is also a bocce ball court for lazy afternoons, horse stables for gaucho-inspired adventures and trails for early morning treks up into the arid hills above.
Of course, most come to this all-inclusive property for exclusive access to the 9-hole, 18-tee golf course, which spills out across the valley floor along the edge of the rambling Elqui River.
“You can find resorts with golf courses all over the world, but there will rarely be less than 300 rooms and all of them will share the course,” owner Karim Daire tells me as we play a round on my first day at Casa Molle. “Here, we have just 12 rooms for up to 30 guests who are the only people allowed on the greens.”
A flock of green burrowing parrots flies over the course’s tranquil lagoon and its glass-encased clubhouse as we round out hole 9 and switch directions for hole 10. Aside from the squawking birds, we are the only living creatures on the course.
That’s the beauty of Casa Molle; there is no scheduling and no waiting here. You can golf however you want, whenever you want.
Par Three Course
Daire admits that when he tells people it’s a Par 3 course they don’t have too many expectations. “They assume that it will be very small and very easy,” he says, “but when they play here they find that it’s actually quite challenging.”
Not only are there holes of up to 190 yards, but there are also constant winds. In the early morning they blow out from the Andes Mountains towards the sea, but in the prime golfing hours of the afternoon they howl inland from the Pacific Ocean.
Because you play the course in all directions, you must be prepared to deal with backwinds, front winds and any number of crosswinds. Hole 12 proves particularly challenging for me: it’s 187 yards with menacing front winds.
The winds may blow strong, but the conditions here really could not be more ideal. The Elqui Valley has more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Rain is virtually non-existent. Daytime highs in the summer hover around 27-degrees Celsius, while daytime lows in the winter bottom out at about 17-degrees. You’d struggle to find a bad day to golf.
Over a late lunch by the glistening infinity pool, Daire tells me that this golf course has been a 20-year-long passion project. He 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, built a lagoon and carved out bunkers. Only then did his dream start to look like a reality.
A Touch of Class
Casa Molle is the Elqui Valley’s first luxury resort and a true sybarite’s oasis with landscaped cactus gardens, submerged fire pits and plush outdoor loungers. Intricate Andean textiles lie atop its 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 result is a place that brings a touch of class to a long overlooked region of Chile, which is right at the cusp of finally realizing its tourism potential.
In July 2019, this isolated valley will bask in the global spotlight as one of the only places in the world to witness a rare total solar eclipse. The location of the eclipse could not be more ideal, passing as it will over a corner of earth that’s already rightfully famous for its stellar stargazing.
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.
Casa Molle can arrange stargazing tours at its own outdoor amphitheatre, however I’m content to gaze at the inky black sky from the comfort of a secluded hot tub with a glass of bubbly in hand.
The Elqui Valley is, itself, as otherworldly as the stars above, so the following morning I decide to set off into its Martian-like landscapes to explore the myriad attractions. First up is a sunrise paddle on the nearby Puclaro Reservoir, an emerald green lagoon formed in 2000 by the damming of the Elqui River.
Mario Gonzalez of Windsurfing Chile sets me up with a stand-up paddleboard and a wetsuit and we’re off for a two-hour expedition across the lagoon. The sun-bleached hills above fold into the haze of the desert sky, while below the surface lies a forest of flooded cacti and the remains of three abandoned villages.
A half-hour further into the Andes, near the adobe village of Pisco Elqui, Daire and I stop for some drinks at Cavas del Valle. As we pull into the tasting room (a 200-year-old casona) he tells me that Cavas del Valle is one of a growing number of wineries making high-quality vino in the Elqui Valley, Chile’s northernmost wine region.
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, icing sugar and ice – is a Chilean staple (and Casa Molle makes an exceptional version of it with tart quince juice!).
Vineyards may paint the desert green in the Elqui Valley, but the vast majority of grapes here go into the production of pisco. Cavas del Valle is part of a new breed of grape-growers focusing instead on wine. On a tour of the family-owned vineyard I discover that its limited production Gran Reserve Syrah is a silky standout that spends 12 months in French oak and is 100% organic.
Deeper into the valley we stop at Viñedos de Alcohuaz, a groundbreaking winery producing rare-in-Chile grapes like Garnacha and Petite Sirah at between 1800- and 2200-meters in altitude. That makes these some of the highest-grown grapes in the world.
The grapes in Viñedos de Alcohuaz’s signature GRUS blend of Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Malbec are stomped by foot in the traditional method and aged in non-traditional concrete eggs. The result is a wine that’s truly out of this world.
With such a great selection to choose from, Casa Molle only serves wines that are made in the Elqui or nearby Limarí Valleys. Each is thoughtfully paired with the three-course meals prepared by chef Pierre Badinella for lunch and dinner.
Over a dinner of seafood risotto back at the resort that evening, Daire tells me how the experience of staying at Casa Molle is meant to be more like chartering a yacht than staying at a traditional hotel. “It’s highly personalized right down to what comes out of the kitchen each night,” he explains.
During my two-night stay, the meals from chef Badinella run the gamut from seared tuna over micro greens to steak and heirloom potatoes in a creamy blue cheese sauce. He also sends waiters looking for me between meals (by the pool, on the golf course) with aperitivos such as walnut biscuits, mini beef empanadas or smoked salmon canapés. Badinella knows exactly what I like because I completed a survey before I arrived.
Nearly every fruit or vegetable that reaches my mouth can be traced right back to the gardens and orchards that surround the 17-hectare property. Indeed, from the golf course, I spot rows upon rows of trees that, depending on the season, might be bursting with figs, walnuts or cherimoya (a local custard apple).
To cap off my visit at Casa Molle I book a bio-energetic message with Mireya Gil, the artist-in-residence who doubles as a message therapist. She uses an Amazonian oil to energize my body, which has gone soft with all the food and wine.
As I slink back out into the desert sun thereafter, I realize that golfing here has become almost secondary to everything else. The chance to putt in such a wild and beguiling part of the world may have been the initial draw, but if my trip has taught me anything, it’s that the Elqui Valley is the real shining star.