The idea for Casa Chicoma all started with a trip to Colombia in early 2019. Although it had been in the works for quite some time, evolving in the back of their minds, it was there in Colombia that Michele Abbaticchio and Alex Hopes found the spark of inspiration that brought the idea of opening a hostel-style Airbnb fully to life.
“I stayed at my first hostel when I was 19 and fell in love with the communal vibe of it all,” Abbaticchio says. “I just always had this kind of far out dream of doing that myself one day while also incorporating sustainability and some kind of dog aspect to raise money or awareness for local street dogs.”
Abbaticchio and Hopes are well known in the Austin community. Abbaticchio is the creative visual designer behind the illustrious Zeva Creative, having done work for the likes of NadaMoo! and continually helping brands find a consistent and authentic voice and branding style. Hopes is also a traveling dog photographer and the founder of ZilkerBark, an Austin-focused, dog photography business that raises money for local, animal-related nonprofits like Austin Pets Alive!.
Nevertheless, both Abbaticchio and Hopes were ready to take their lives to the next chapter and find a home fit for them and their three dogs—Zeva, Sid and Polly.
“We didn’t go to Colombia with the idea of looking for properties,” Hopes recalls. “But while we were there, we ended up searching and ultimately finding one that we thought was perfect.”
However, the idea of purchasing in Colombia quickly fell apart due to the complicated property buying and owning process, but that little taste of the dream kept them brainstorming even once they arrived back in Austin.
“Then, the Texas summer heat hit,” Hopes says. “We just thought, ‘There has to be an alternative to this,’ and that’s when Santa Fe popped into our heads.”
Having visited Santa Fe once before, the couple already knew it was a great place for an escape—and had the potential to be the place they were dreaming of. So, in September of 2019, the couple took the trip to New Mexico with high hopes.
Just as they thought, Santa Fe really did have everything they were searching for. Surrounded by mountains, the area has an endless amount of outdoor activities available such as hiking, mountain biking, snowboarding and skiing. While Abbaticchio and Hopes previously wanted to go abroad for the B&B, the city itself was full of a unique and authentic culture that made the decision easy.
“They call it ‘The City Different,’ and it really is different from anywhere else in the U.S.,” Abbaticchio says. “There are definitely parts of the city that, when you’re walking around, it feels almost like you’re in another country.”
The blend of cultures comes out through the food, as the Southwestern-style boasts a wide variety of dishes and cuisines that has in recent years made Santa Fe a foodie destination.
“I think food was another important aspect of choosing a place for us,” Hopes says. “We’re so spoiled in Austin to have such great food, so we wanted to find somewhere where that was the same. And the food here is, hands down, spectacular.”
The couple was also drawn to the idea of untouched nature—it was an important factor for them as they sought a property to build on. Originally, Hopes says, they were looking for five to ten acres to build on from the ground up with sustainably-running casitas and vegetation.
“But when we were in Santa Fe to look for properties,” Abbaticchio says, “we found this place on sale that just seemed like it had been made for us. It really was perfect.”
The 2.5-acre property that they found and ultimately purchased already had four rental units including three casitas and a refurbished 1948 Spartan Travel Trailer; a 120-tree micro forest; a 1,200-square-foot greenhouse with olive trees and grapevines; a geodome with mature fig trees; a natural, cold plunge swimming pool; and miles of hiking trails leading from the back of the property.
“The previous owner had been working on the land for 30 years,” Abbaticchio explains. “She had invested a lot into the property and had so much passion for what she was doing here.”
Needless to say, just 12 minutes away from the Santa Fe Plaza, they found their sustainable Airbnb dream at last—Casa Chicoma.
“We have a really unique property out here in Santa Fe, because it really has a lot of life,” Hopes says. “A lot of the area is pretty barren with only the native junipers and such, but here we have all sorts of trees, plants and flowers.”
The previous owner had regenerated the dried-out, New Mexican topsoil and created an oasis in the desert, all of which runs on sustainable, permaculture systems. Before she moved out, she spent a week with Hopes and Abbaticchio teaching them the ins and outs of the property.
“We learned a lot in that week, but it was really just skimming the surface,” Abbaticchio says. “There’s a learning curve for sure, but she’s on call for us and is always happy to help us out with any questions we have.”
Abbaticchio has experience working on several farms, both in Austin and growing up in rural Maryland, so she’s excited to be able to continue to cultivate the land and grow a plethora of produce. With all that they have on their plate right now, she’s started out small for the time being but has big plans for the future.
“There’s a ton of room for more gardening,” Abbaticchio says. “Hopefully one day we’ll be producing a majority of our food here and maybe even figure out a way to have it for the guests.”
Since they moved into the property in December of last year, the couple has planted 25 more trees in the micro forest, raised all sorts of fruits and vegetables and began building an additional rental unit and bathhouse in the open field—all of which will continue and add to the permaculture style of the property.
“We were getting ready to launch in April, and then COVID kicked our butts,” Hopes says. “It’s been slow, but it’s been good here. It’s given us a lot of time to just kind of learn more about the property and work on it and grow on a lot of the things that the previous owner had done.”
They’ve been hosting at about 50- to 60-percent capacity during the quarantine, and everything has run smoothly since every rental has its own entrance and space away from the other occupants, and the openness allows one to avoid any unwanted contact.
“I feel like guests here feel pretty safe since everyone has kind of their own space. You don’t have to interact with anyone if you don’t want to,” Abbaticchio says. “And the property itself is pretty isolated, so in my opinion, it’s really a great place to be at through this time.”
Some of the best times to visit, Hopes says, are in the summer’s monsoon season or in October and September. To learn more about each of the unique rental spaces and the property itself, check out Casa Chicoma’s website or get a tour from each of their three dogs on its Instagram page.
“It’s a great place for people who love dogs and care about the Earth,” Hopes says. “[It’s for] people who are interested in permaculture and care about making the most out of what you have.”