Millionaire lifestyle: La Zagaleta, Spain's most luxurious neighbourhood

Spain's most expensive and hard to enter gated community
-That's a soccer player villa.
-What player?
-If I told you, I'd have to kill you.

The joke reflects well the aura of mystery that surrounds La Zagaleta. The former hunting ground bought by Adnan Khashoggi in Benahavís(Málaga), just a few minutes from a Marbella that still remembers the disgraced Saudi tycoon's parties, is today a place for the world's biggest fortunes. Discretion is the rule: just as the deer that frequent the 900 hectares of the estate used to have to be approached with stealth, so today the caution of the community workers is necessary to continue attracting multimillionaires.
Panoramic view of the landscape in la Zagaleta
Panoramic view of the landscape in la Zagaleta
To be a neighbour on the exclusive estate you have to pay no less than a million euros for a plot. But the most expensive ones can fetch up to six million: direct access to one of the two 18-hole golf courses and views over the Mediterranean Sea to a glimpse of Africa are priced at a premium. If you prefer a ready-built property, the most expensive are around 50 million, although those currently for sale range in price from four million to 16 million.

These amounts make La Zagaleta the most exclusive neighbourhood in Spain. According to a recent ranking by Idealista, the average property in the Malaga advertised on this real estate portal is 6.7 million euros. This is almost a million more than the palaces and mansions for sale on Tibidabo in Barcelona, the second most expensive location. But, unlike Barcelona, it is not easy to enter La Zagaleta. EL PAÍS does so at the invitation of the community and in the company of its communications director.

We are not allowed to direct cameras at people. And the same confidentiality is demanded of the more than 100 employees who work in the community on a day-to-day basis. But there is more. The profile of media personalities does not quite fit in with the lifestyle of the residents. "The first group of residents was Swiss-German and that established the modus vivendi," explains Óscar Nieto, marketing director of La Zagaleta, who denies that Cristiano Ronaldo has a house there. The football star visited them for just a few days in the summer of 2018 with his wife, Georgina Rodríguez, who posted a photo on social media. That raised a commotion of the kind that is rare in this quiet Mediterranean place.

More businessmen than singers

 La Baraka, a hunting estate owned by Adnan Khashoggi
La Zagaleta started life as La Baraka, a hunting estate owned by Adnan Khashoggi
So who lives there? Along with the traditional profile of European managers, the neighbourhood is getting younger "thanks to people from Silicon Valley" because "people between 28 and 35 years old who have had good businesses or good start-ups are coming here". The entrepreneurial profile is well liked in La Zagaleta and those in charge tend to cite the same two names at the insistence of journalists: Hans Snook, founder of Orange, and Lord Stanley Fink, ex-treasurer of the British Conservative Party.

In the village of Benahavís, a 20-minute drive away, the mythology points at other legend: Julio Iglesias. "They say they didn't want him to live there because he was too much in the media," says Diego, a 56-year-old Benahavís resident. But the truth is that mentioning the singer, like Ronaldo or Russian president Vladimir Putin, is almost a game in the town of 8,000 residents. Many insist that the relationship with their well-to-do neighbours is rather nil. "They leave little money, they spend more in Marbella," says Paqui, who, at 65, runs a small butcher's shop to which customers come from other villas in the area, but not from La Zagaleta, as far as she knows.
Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi and his wife
Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi and his wife
Avoiding shopping is precisely one of those privileges offered by the luxurious neighbourhood. For this, an in-house company takes care of the concierge duties. "When they come, they give me the shopping list or whatever they want to find when they get home and we prepare it for them," explains Monica Manser, a Swiss with a Spanish mother who is the commercial director of La Zagaleta Service. The company has 50 direct employees and many others with whom it collaborates on a regular basis, as it deals with everything from one-off repairs to home maintenance. The comprehensive service, which even includes paperwork with the bank, starts at around 70,000 euros per year.

The history of the development began in 1989 when the estate of Khashoggi, who lost his fortune after being arrested in the United States for shady dealings, was auctioned off, although he was eventually acquitted. There was room for 4,000 houses, but its founders - a group of international investors led by the banker Enrique Pérez Flores - reduced the buildable area to 400 plots. It currently has 230 mansions built and 120 of them use La Zagaleta Service. "They don't ask for extravagant things," says Manser, "but they are difficult because Marbella in August is at its peak. His team organises everything from children's birthdays to private tours of the Alhambra or bookings at expensive restaurants. "We have good contacts to facilitate these accesses," he illustrates.

A private club

villa in la zagaleta terras view
Within the estate, the main meeting point is the country club. It is reserved for residents only, but not for everyone. Membership requires the approval of the members - there have been some refusals - and an entrance fee of 100,000 euros plus 11,000 euros per year. The second member of the family pays 3,500 euros per year, and for the following, 500 euros. The club membership fee includes a credit of 1,000 euros to spend in its restaurant, at the gates of which there is a small gourmet grocery store. The question of what is in demand is almost rhetorical: the shop assistant is busily slicing a ham while, behind her, a five-litre bottle of French champagne is cooling in a fridge.

Although the new owners have banned hunting, the estate is still in some ways a preserve. Security is an obsession and is one of the things on which no figures are given. Guards and cameras watch over the 50 kilometres of streets on the estate, protected from the outside with barriers and sentry boxes. The community fees of 7,000 to 12,000 euros per annum cover street cleaning, mail and rubbish, making it unnecessary for the municipal services to come in.
The mayor of Benahavís, José Antonio Mena, highlights "the perfect relationship" between the council and the community. The IBI tax that comes from there accounts for 80 per cent of the budget, according to socialist councillor Luis Feito, who points out that the obstacles to pass through some public roads do generate some discomfort in the town. But inside barriers are a vital issue: "One of the most important values is that you can't enter," says Jacobo Cestino, general manager of La Zagaleta.

The oldest resident and the most popular among children

villa in la zagaleta
Those responsible for La Zagaleta estimate that, except in summer, 30% of the mansions are usually occupied. "These are people who may have an average of two or three properties around the world," explains Óscar Nieto, the marketing director. Many, he explains, avoid spending the 183 days that would require them to be tax residents in Spain.

Those who don't move all year round are the 12 horses at the riding club and its director, Manuel de la Flor. A 56-year-old Jerez native, he has worked at the stables for 33 years (he arrived at the time of Khashoggi).

Seven of the horses he looks after belong to the club and are used for riding lessons. "They are simpler than many people might think," he says, noting that he has given lessons to clients who now take their children to him. The star of the stud is Elsa, a pony that all the kids want to ride. "Apparently she's a character in a film," says De la Flor, surprised.

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