CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico - It's a beautiful early-summer Friday in Cabo, and Federico Vaughan is in a rush. His Blackberry is jingling every few minutes; the knocks at his office door are as steady as an ocean wave. He has a flight to Las Vegas to catch; a room in the Bellagio and a weekend of fun await.
Vaughan works as "director division golf" (translation: a top honcho) for Grupo Questro, a prominent family-run real-estate/golf firm that's transforming both golf and commercial property in this Mexican resort peninsula. Grupo Questro is set to open three new golf courses in Cabo in the next year, boosting the area's total from seven to 10 in one building binge.
That the director division golf has a high-rolling weekend in Sin City on tap reflects the moving and shaking that is remaking an area that only a dozen years ago was miles and miles of undeveloped coastline.
"You could buy a one-acre lot of land down by the new marina for $10,000 four years ago," said local businessman Diego Vidal of Baja Wild, an adventure-tour company. "For almost nothing, right? Now that same acre will cost you $100,000.
"In only four years."
Golf has been no small factor in the swing. Grupo Questro is building a sprawling complex called Puerto Los Cabos in San Jose del Cabo that includes its own marina, luxury homes, high-end shopping and two 18-hole courses - a Jack Nicklaus Signature design and a Greg Norman Signature. The marina in the still largely quaint, real Mexican town of San Jose will somewhat resemble the commercialized, almost American shopping-center copy in party town Cabo San Lucas.
It's part of progress, as inevitable, apparently, as the tides.
Not that that's all bad. Hundreds of jobs will be created along with the latest high-end golf courses and sparkling modern condos (of the type you could find in Vegas).
"As you can see, almost everyone in Cabo is able to afford a car," Vidal said, looking around the sand-and-rock parking lot of a beach popular with locals. "It may be an old car, but it's transport for a family."
Grupo Questro's vision includes housing for much better-off families - the U.S. kind that can afford a second or third home and don't want to be left out of Cabo now that it's as trendy as a Manolo Blahnik heel in certain tax brackets.
A nice three- or four-bedroom home in Cabo runs $800,000 to $900,000 U.S., easy. Anything close to oceanfront climbs to at least $2 million.
"You have all these beautiful homes," said Martina Fahrmann, an Argentine transplant who's sales coordinator at Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Resort & Spa. "And they're only being used two, three weeks a year."
Fahrmann pointed out to the towering cliffside mansions up the huge hill from the resort.
"It's a shame, really," she said.
Grupo Questro aims to change that - the frequency of the homes' use, that is, not their prices. The Greg Norman Signature course that will be open exclusively to homeowners (the Nicklaus Signature will be available for vacationers as well), the idea being to put even more sizzle in regular Cabo retreats.
"We're only two hours from LA," Vaughan said, his three-buttons-undone purple-pink shirt making him seem more like an American playboy entrepreneur more than a two-decade Cabo mainstay. "And there are more and more direct flights. Cabo's become a place you can go for a quick weekend away. To refresh yourself."
Whether you consider Cabo's country-club push is refreshing or not probably depends on your golf point of view. And maybe your bank balance. But there's no doubt it marks a dramatic shift.
A few years ago, all of Cabo's famed courses were public. They were expensive resort courses - almost all with green fees of $250 U.S. and up - but public nonetheless. Now, there's a private Tom Fazio (Querencia). El Dorado - another popular Nicklaus Signature that was owned by Grupo Questro - closed to be remolded and reopened as a private course. The Norman course at Puerto Los Cabos and the Nicklaus course at Grupo Questro's new development Club Campestre San Jose will both be members-only within a few years.
Can fairway-side homes be far behind?
Still, from Diego Vidal's viewpoint - which, for this avid snorkeler and kayaker, is often directed inland from the water - there's room for even more growth.
"People drive the corridor [the 19 miles between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas], see all the construction vehicles and building and think it's all filled up," he said. "But when you look at it from the sea, you see how much land there is left,
"You can still make money buying land in Cabo. The sea tells you a different story."
From land or sea, Cabo is only moving forward. A three-iron logo might belong on the sides of those ever-present bulldozers.
"Golf put Cabo on the map for the world,'' said Fernando Ortiz, the professional at
Cabo del Sol Ocean Course, the famed waterfront Jack Nicklaus that opened in 1994. "It's been very good for Cabo."
Now golf is rearranging Cabo's map again. As fast as a jet-setter can escape to Las Vegas.
June 7, 2006