Hotels We Love: El Cosmico Hotel in Marfa, Texas
By Jacqueline Leahy / Published by Dwell
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Offering herbal workshops, and playing host to the Trans-Pecos festival, El Cosmico is a hotel that's engaged with the community. Guests stay close to the land, experiencing it in their teepees, tents or trailers, a theater, a caravan, a campground, and a hotel. Bunkhouse Communications Director Isadora McKeon, who works for El Cosmico and several other Texas hotels, was happy to describe the genesis of this hotel and its unique attitude and design.

Who thought up El Cosmico? How long has it been open?

Here, one of El Cosmico's three teepees is a lantern for desert travelers.

Here, one of El Cosmico's three teepees is a lantern for desert travelers.

Isadora McKeon: The hotel has been open since late 2009. It was constructed incredibly organically over the course of several years, and it's constantly evolving and growing. We added a new tepee last year. This year we're just waiting for the weather to warm up to build our Mongolian yurt. El Cosmico is owned by Liz Lambert, a hotelier who owns several other properties in Texas (Hotel San Jose and Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin and Hotel Havana in San Antonio), and is run by her company Bunkhouse. 

By reducing the bedroom to its essentials and filling it with windows, the El Cosmico staff has made this small space as expansive as the desert beyond.

By reducing the bedroom to its essentials and filling it with windows, the El Cosmico staff has made this small space as expansive as the desert beyond.

What is the hotel’s capacity? 

This interior shot of one of El Cosmico's teepees pairs life on the road with the American dream.

This interior shot of one of El Cosmico's teepees pairs life on the road with the American dream.

IM: Well, if you count guests who bring their own tents, we have kind of infinite capacity. The property is 18 acres. In terms of accommodations you can rent, we have seven trailers, three tepees, eight safari tents and we have about 30 tents we can have all set up for you when you arrive if you want to camp but don't have a tent. 

A sky-blue vintage trailer blends in with the sky.

A sky-blue vintage trailer blends in with the sky.

What inspired El Cosmico’s current design?

An innovative splash of color carries this trailer into compatibility with the pink clouds striating the horizon.

An innovative splash of color carries this trailer into compatibility with the pink clouds striating the horizon.

IM: The hotel's aesthetic is more inspired by nomadic cultures than it is modern. There's a strong influence from places like Mexico and India, which speaks to the spirit of the wanderer or intrepid traveler. Marfa, Texas, naturally inspires that feeling of slowing down and spending time looking at the beautiful expanse all around you. We built El Cosmico around that natural response to the landscape.

Brightly colored sheets and a central pendant lamp show this tent to its best advantage.

Brightly colored sheets and a central pendant lamp show this tent to its best advantage.

 What makes El Cosmico relaxing?

With the residents awake inside, this trailer's burnished glow reflects the sunset.

With the residents awake inside, this trailer's burnished glow reflects the sunset.

IM: The ingredients for real relaxation are pretty simple—a beautiful setting, no distractions, a hammock or two. This wasn't part of a master plan; it really just came naturally from the pace of life in Marfa. It's a one-stoplight town, and things just feel less urgent there. 

Night settles in around the wanderers sheltered in El Cosmico's teepees and trailers. As El Cosmico shows, understanding a small space involves understanding the infinitude of the world beyond them.

Night settles in around the wanderers sheltered in El Cosmico's teepees and trailers. As El Cosmico shows, understanding a small space involves understanding the infinitude of the world beyond them.

How did you select and outfit the vintage trailers for El Cosmico?

IM: Our trailers are Spartans and Vagabonds mainly, vintage trailers with beautiful birch interiors that we varnish with yacht oil. They have a beautiful warm glow like a ship's cabin inside. Outside they look like ships on a desert sea. We have used vintage trailers and tents and tepees from the beginning because it didn't cost too much to acquire them, and because we weren't sure what form El Cosmico would take. It's been a process—an evolution—seeing how we wanted to use the land, what people were responding to, and what we needed as we've grown.

There’s something so American about living life on the road. How does El Cosmico’s design intersect with and optimize this cultural vision?

IM: Yes—there's something pretty universally inspiring about the great American road trip, it seems. It's in our collective unconsciousness to want that freedom. Most people at some time or another have a fantasy about quitting their day job and hitting the road for who knows where. We just happen to be somewhere along that road. 

How does El Cosmico manage to unite a wide variety of visitors?

Most people who come to Marfa are there for similar reasons and guests seem to find each other around the campfire or in the communal kitchen. We also offer a lot of workshops on camp cooking, design build, and other self-empowerment topics and people naturally create communities within those classes. I still see design build campers from three years ago staying in touch on Facebook. There's no TV, so in the end you are left with a night sky full of stars and some other campers to talk to—and good things tend to ensue. 

Does El Cosmico have regulars? What do they say about coming back year after year?

IM: We have a ton of regulars. In fact, I'd say a large percentage of our guests are regulars. We aren't so much the place you stumble upon—you have to really want to get to Marfa to end up there. There's something very special about it, and the freedom and beauty are pretty addictive. So people come back often. In fact, our Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love that takes place every fall is sort of a giant reunion of regulars. It's a really good time.

Who determined the hotel’s location? 

IM: Liz Lambert, the owner, has a strong connection to Marfa—she grew up on her family's ranches there. It felt like a place where we all wanted to stay, so we imagined others would want to as well. We tend to build things in places where we want to spend time. Marfa's pretty special.

What types of people do you typically host at El Cosmico?

IM: I would say that El Cosmico isn't for everyone—it's for people who love an adventure, who love the outdoors, who are looking for something different than they are used to, and who are comfortable being away from the pace of big city life. So I would encourage anyone who likes adventure, freedom and escape to head out to Marfa.  

How does the El Cosmico experience differ if you rent a tent, teepee or trailer? 

IM: Obviously a trailer is going to be a bit more like a hotel experience, with a kitchen and air conditioning. The safari tents and tepees have lighting and furniture but no bathrooms; we have a communal bathhouse and communal kitchen for those accommodations to share. So you may get more interaction with other guests if you stay in a teepee or safari tent. With the trailers, we offer outdoor showers at each trailer, so you still get to have a connection with the outdoors, even if you are staying inside—it’s so important to enjoy the majesty of the nature out there. 

How does El Cosmico incorporate sustainability in its day-to-day operations? 

This stylized vintage trailer is the image of small-scale luxury.

This stylized vintage trailer is the image of small-scale luxury.

IM: We believe in being respectful in all things, and environmental efficiency is among those things. It's not always easy to be super green in rural communities. We had to wait a few years for a recycling company to open before we could recycle most items. At the same time, some of the most innovative reuse and efficiency comes out of isolated ranching communities – there just isn't access to as many materials to waste, so they get thrown on the cowboy junk pile and reused. We're pretty good at finding second lives for our materials.  

How does someone visit El Cosmico?

IM: We have a website where people can make reservations—that's a relatively new technological advancement for us. Folks can call us too, and we usually pick up the phone. elcosmico.com, 432-729-1950.

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