ANTIGUA, Guatemala - With the recent opening of the Fuego Maya Golf Course at La Reunion Resort, Guatemala's golf quotient has probably, at minimum, quadrupled.
While the number of courses have increased by only one (up to a half dozen now), this is the first golf resort in this country of 13 million people, and the owners spared no expense. The $50 million project includes a stunning design by Pete Dye and son Perry, the first course the Dyes have done in Central America.
The golf course is matched by a large open-air clubhouse with expansive spa facilities in the locker rooms, an Italian-Argentinean fusion gourmet restaurant, bar, poolside restaurant and clear views of the four volcanoes that surround the property.
There are also 26 casitas with each suite built using materials and decorations reminiscent of nearby colonial Antigua. Each features a small pool, outdoor Jacuzzi and terrace, offering course and mountain views. On a clear day, you can even see the Pacific Ocean some 50 miles away.
Pete Dye is hoping Fuego Maya and La Reunion can do for Guatemala what his Casa de Campo Teeth of the Dog did for the Dominican Republic. That is, put Guatemala on the golf map.
"The course looks amazing, and is in wonderful shape," said Dye upon his arrival for the recent official grand opening of LA Reunion and Fuego Maya. "Both Perry and the superintendent have done a fantastic job. We are thrilled to see how many jobs we have brought to Antigua because of this project, and we can't wait to work in Guatemala again."
Indeed, the new resort, covering 1,384 acres, has provided work as well as the hope that tourism in this beautiful country will increase. The maintenance crew alone is double what it is at most high-end courses in the United States, partially because the 7,300-yard, par-72 course isn't easy to maintain being on the side of a volcano. Labor is also cheap, and there are plenty of people looking for work here.
Roberto Roesch wasn't really a golfer himself when he and his other nine partners decided to build La Reunion. They knew, however, what golf had done for countries like Costa Rica and Panama and figured an all-inclusive luxury golf resort would draw affluent tourists to the country.
Once there, visitors would most likely discover the other parts of the country, which has several different microclimates, some of the best sailfishing in the world and the famous Mayan ruins in the North.
Perhaps that's why the grand opening at the end of March was such an event, attended by local dignitaries, including the country's vice president, Dr. Rafael Espada, and the country's director of tourism, Roberto Robles, as well as VIPs from other countries. The festivities also included a charity tournament that raised thousands of dollars for a local school.
The property is about 16 miles from the city of Antigua, which hundreds of years ago served as the capital of Central America as well as Guatemala. A volcanic eruption that flooded the city with water in 1773 saw the capital move to Guatemala City, now home to more than 3 million people. Guatemala City, about an hour from La Reunion, recently built a new airport.
Today, Antigua is a cultural hotbed of church ruins, luxury hotels, Internet cafes, coffee shops and restaurants. The city is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, which factored into the site selection for the resort, Roesch said. La Reunion also partners with several high-end hotels in Antigua for stay-and-play packages.
"We searched the outskirts of the colonial town of Antigua and found an old coffee plantation that offered excellent topography and a majestic view of four volcanoes (Fuego, Acatenango, Agua and Pacaya)," Roesch said.
The verdict on Fuego Maya Golf Course
Fuego Maya may be one of the Dyes' most scenic and challenging creations yet. Everywhere you look, there are views of the volcanoes, in particular Fuego, which is still active.
Even more impressive are how the holes meander up and down Fuego, providing an interesting array of blind tee shots and approaches as well as holes that are framed by water hazards and wildflowers.
The golf course also features bentgrass greens and fairways, uncommon in this part of the world. And with the greens being new, they are a bit firm and tricky. And while the course offers several sets of tees, it's not your typical resort layout. No matter where you play from, you'll have to hit a few shots to get through the holes.
Plans call for another golf course nearby, although a timetable hasn't been set yet. It would be on a flatter piece of land and probably be a little more resort friendly than Fuego Maya.
There are also plans to build more casitas, up to 44 more, in the near future with different configurations that would allow large groups to share the same buildings. A larger hotel, which was part of the original vision, is on hold for now as developers wait out the bad economy.
"Our main contribution to Guatemala is that of creating jobs, and in doing so, our focus is on training and giving support to the personnel hired with the view to developing a highly qualified staff to service discriminating customers from around the world," Roesch said. "We are also fostering a sense of social responsibility, and La Reunion is playing a very important role in contributing to improve the life of the local population.