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A $700-per-night stargazing resort is coming to San Luis Valley

Is there enough space – and demand – to support it and similar ventures?
Ranges near Blanca Peak and surrounding mountains are seen Sept. 9, 2023, northwest of Blanca in Alamosa County, where new developed camping options are popping up for visitors wanting to take in solitude and the stars. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America file)

Gamal Jadue Zalaquett was burned out by the tech world at an age when most people are just kicking their tech careers into gear. So in 2020, the then-29-year-old from Miami went on a pilgrimage to the San Luis Valley, where he fell in love with the land and the history.

“It was the Native American history, you know, then I got into the history of Crestone,” he said. “Then the Great Sand Dunes and how long it took to establish (the national park and preserve). And I was really mind blown by the pristine rural area.”

But when he learned a record 600,000 people visited Great Sand Dunes in 2021, and that friends had turned a house they bought for $90,000 into a short-term rental going for $200 a night, and that the national park had only two surrounding “resorts” as opposed to “Zion, Yellowstone and Joshua Tree that have so many,” he decided to start making investments.

On April 8, he broke ground on Kosmos Stargazing Resort just outside Alamosa, promising a “celestial retreat like no other” replete with pricey amenities for sky watchers – provided he can lure investors to help raise the estimated $15 million it will take to complete the resort.

Jadue Zalaquett envisions 22 glass-domed “stargazing” villas, each with a stargazing spa, constellation dome and observatory, commanding $700 to $1,200 per night. If guests were to tire of solo stargazing they could head to the cryotherapy spa, the greenhouse or planetarium for a “star party.”

He isn’t the only developer wanting to cash in on the new stargazing economy in the San Luis Valley. In 2022 through March 2023, 11 people applied for special use permits related to campgrounds, up from three in 2015, said Richard Hubler, Alamosa County’s land use and building director.

But it’s not totally clear how many more tourists are looking to camp, according to Kale Mortensen, executive director of Visit Alamosa. He only started tracking camper numbers in 2023 at the request of some campgrounds wanting data that “that truly reflects what that demand is,” so they wouldn’t become oversaturated.

Four campgrounds started reporting early last summer, “so I have figures for last year and a little bit for this year,” he said. But he “doesn’t have a great comparison.” Occupancy was 59.7%.

Jadue Zalaquett has traveled the globe, visiting six of the world’s seven continents. He has stayed at more than 100 hotels, many of them luxury. And his family comes from hospitality in Chile and Miami, where some now run The Zalaquett Group Real Estate Investment Consulting and Services, which has developed properties like the oceanside Eighty Seven Park in Miami with 70 villas and the Ritz Carlton Residences Miami Beach with a world-class marina, 24-hour lobbies and on-site private car with chauffeur.

But it was Jadue Zalaquett who saw the potential for the 40 acres of sagebrush- and shrub-covered ground 15 minutes from Alamosa and Great Sand Dunes National Park for $11,000. And he also bought 700 acres in Saguache County he’s selling for $50,000 per 40-acre plot.

A feasibility study of Kosmos resort compared it an Amangani luxury resort. Jadue Zalaquett realizes he “cannot charge $4,000 a night like they do,” but his rooms will out-price any in the county by hundreds of dollars. And based on the 2,000-plus people who’ve put down money to reserve a room in a resort not yet built, the market could be there – and be a boon for the San Luis Valley.

Jadue Zalaquett’s feasibility study also lists 2021 visitation rates at Great Sand Dunes National Park. But numbers have dipped over the past three years to 493,428 in 2022 and 512,029 in 2023, and monthly from 6,013 and 6,764 in January 2022 and 2023 to 4,485 this January.

Mortensen says the lull in park visitation does not mean fewer tourists came to Alamosa County, or that they spent less money there. In fact, visitor spending rose in 2022 compared with a year earlier, and average daily rates for hotels reached an all-time high in 2022 and 2023.

But Annette Ostrander-Fenske does see it as a problem. She owns Rustic Rook Resort, with glamping tents, glamper cabins and two of five grain bin glampers (made from old metal grain silos) planned for this summer on her 120-acre property one 40-acre lot away from the Kosmos building site.

“So 2021 was a big year, but we’ve never had that since and we may never have it again,” she said. “I mean, the numbers are still good, but Great Sand Dunes is a small national park.” And after she hosted her first guest, in June 2020, she said, “all of a sudden it was like people thought, oh, look what they’re doing. We can do that. It’s almost like they thought it was the new get-rich quick scheme or something.”

But, “it’s a lot of work. Your blood, sweat and tears,” she added. “I think people don’t really understand that it’s not all fun and games. It can be but you have to have a very specific skill set to make it work.”

Hubler has several examples of people who couldn’t make it work.

“We had a lot of interest from folks that didn’t really know what they were up to,” he said. “Like, they have this idea that everybody’s camping now and I can make some money off of it. But you know, they weren’t campers. They were business people. So we had some harebrained ideas.”

Chief among them was people wanting to let paying customers dry camp on their property (a la Hipcamp, the online marketplace for such things). “It was along the lines of, I want to be able to rent one acre of the 40 acres I live on for people to park their RV,” Hubler added, “but I don’t have any water for them. I don’t have any septic. I don’t have anything.”

So in 2020 and 2021 the county stopped taking special use permit applications until they could “figure our regulations out,” Hubler said. Those rolled out in 2022, “and they’re a lot more explicit. They said, basically, Alamosa County does not allow dry camping, so all you people that don’t want to provide anything and just want to make money, that’s not a viable legal approach.” Then came the 11 new applications of which the county approved seven. As of today, two of those seven are operating, Hubler said.

Ostrander-Fenske wrote in an email the newly approved campgrounds will more than double the camping inventory from 2020. She takes issue with the rate at which the county approved them. She said the closeness of Kosmos and Rustic Rook is a concern, and that “it would be better for both of our businesses if the location was elsewhere. We might decide to host a wedding group that ends up being noisy till later in the evening – his stargazers won’t appreciate that – or what if we put on an event with a band?”

She also believes the county acted too quickly when it approved “ALL the campgrounds and ALL the glampgrounds all at once before ANYONE was open or even building. That would be like Walmart, King Soopers and Safeway all approved to build new stores in Alamosa but none of them taking into consideration each other’s plans and only using the data from the existing Walmart and City Market in their research and decision to build. It could be bad. It could be fine. It’s a roll of the dice for everyone.”

Hubler says Kosmos was the last permit approved before the moratorium.

With groundbreaking on the septic system completed, Kosmos is “a little bit ahead of schedule” for constructing the first five villas, Jadue Zalaquett said. He hopes to have “system 1 finalized by May,” after which “we are looking to start the first villa foundation right away.”

If Kosmos becomes a reality, it could give Rustic Rook a run for its money. “But there are a lot of different ways people want to experience our valley, and a lot of different tourism styles,” Hubler said. When Ostrander-Fenske first presented her permit application, he added, “folks were like, wait, people are gonna come down here and stay in a canvas tent in the middle of the summer? And they’re gonna pay as much as they do at a hotel? What are they, crazy? But she’s been very successful.”

Hubler said the same could happen for Jadue Zalaquett with his high-priced rooms.

“If you spend $700 a night at your lodging and do everything there is to do at the resort, when you go into town, you’re probably not going to eat at McDonald’s,” Hubler said. “So I think there’s the potential for him to have a bigger, positive impact on the local businesses.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.