The ultimate golfer's guide to Mexico: Best places to play, stay and eat

Monday February 27th, 2017
A view of the green on One&Only Palmilla's Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean course.
Courtesy One&Only

As the PGA Tour takes its World Golf Championship format to Mexico City for the first time, we offer an in-depth journey on where to play, stay and dine. 

With more than 160 courses, some that embrace mountain and jungle settings, others that take in ocean and desert backdrops, golf in Mexico is all about variety. The same goes for the nation’s lodging and dining options. Mexico City’s Club de Golf Chapultepec, home to this week’s WGC-Mexico event is private, as are some of the country’s top tracks in its most populated cities, but the bulk of the best south-of-the-border courses are situated in three main resort areas, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta (Nayarit/Jalisco) on the Pacific Coast and Cancun/Riviera Maya, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea.

An aerial view of Cabo Del Sol in Los Cabos, Baja, Mexico.
Getty Images

LOS CABOS 

In 25 short years, Los Cabos has morphed from a sleepy sportfishing town with one government-owned nine-hole course to a genuine, albeit pricey, golf mecca, with more than a dozen championship courses open for play and more on the books.  Comprised of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, cities connected by a 19-mile-long corridor at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, Los Cabos still beckons trophy anglers for its marlin, dorado and yellowfin tuna and welcomes partiers to late-night haunts such as the Giggling Marlin, Cabo Wabo and Squid Roe, but these days, golf is king. Here’s a Los Cabos snapshot.

Where to Play

Diamante’s two superb spreads, the Davis Love-designed Dunes, ranked Number 38 in the World and its younger sibling, the Tiger Woods-designed El Cardonal are both private, with limited exceptions, so feel free to make an inquiry, especially if you’re in the market for oceanside real estate. Also tucked behind locked gates are Jack Nicklaus’ El Dorado and two Tom Fazio tracks, Querencia and Chileno Bay. Fortunately, Cabo is brimming with gorgeous, desert-style, public-access layouts.

Cabo del Sol (Ocean)
Ranked in the world’s Top 100 practically since its 1994 debut, this spectacular Jack Nicklaus creation along the Sea of Cortez serves up the finest finish in Mexico, with two stunning par-4s sandwiching the unforgettable par-3 17th, a hole that demands an all-or-nothing shot over a sandy cove and rugged rock outcroppings. Not content to rest on its laurels, the Ocean boasts a recent redesign that moved the fifth, sixth and seventh holes closer to the water. $150-$375

Cabo del Sol (Desert)
Understandably overshadowed by its elder sibling, this strategic, 2001 Tom Weiskopf design would be the star almost anywhere else. The aptly named layout plunges in and out of canyons framed by cacti and boulders and while it lacks the in-your-face seaside interaction enjoyed by the Ocean course, the memorable long views of the Sea of Cortez occur early and often. $99-$235

Palmilla
Cabo’s original championship course turns 25 in 2017 and it’s aging beautifully, thanks to Troon Golf’s stewardship. Now in the best shape in years, Palmilla rolls out three Jack Nicklaus desert-tinged nines. Only the downhill par-4 third comes near the water on the Ocean nine, but the entire nine is a fun, varied romp among cactus-covered slopes and high-priced real estate. The other nines are equally strong. $90-$210

Puerto Los Cabos
It may be the world’s only Greg Norman/Jack Nicklaus course, but Puerto Los Cabos isn’t a Shark/Bear collaboration. Instead, they are separate nines—joined—until the other nines are finished. Jack has the head start; his new nine is could open later in 2017. For now, the best course near the historic town of San Jose del Cabo is worth the effort, if only to play Norman’s staggering drop-shot, par-3 sixth, its green 100 feet below the tee, with panoramas of 10 miles of beach. $140-$275 (includes all food and beverages)  

Club Campestre
Opened in 2007, this Gary Nicklaus/Nicklaus Design effort is the closest golf to the Los Cabos Airport, so it’s extremely convenient as a first or last vacation round. That said, it’s a good enough course to play during the middle of your stay as well. Desert accents, vast, shallow bunkers and handsome mountain and ocean vistas highlight play. Campestre isn’t the region’s must-play—unless you factor in value. $100-$190

Cabo Real
One of Cabo’s elder statesmen, dating to 1994, this schizophrenic Robert Trent Jones Jr. design sports a flattish outgoing nine that touches the Sea of Cortez in spectacular fashion at holes 5, 6 and 7, followed by a rugged, hilly incoming nine that winds through arroyos and mountain foothills. From January through March, whale-watching doesn’t get much better than midway through the front nine. $125-$240

Quivira
Jack Nicklaus’ edge-of-the-Pacific production opened in October 2014 and immediately established itself as one of earth’s most spectacular tracks. The cliff-top holes that straddle rock-encrusted dune ridges will leave you dizzy—and that’s just from the cart ride. Course critics debate the design merits of holes such as the par-4 fifth and the par-5 12th, but their wow factor is off the charts. The vertigo-inducing par-3 sixth and par-3 13th stagger the senses. $227-$370  

Where to Stay

One&Only Palmilla ($615-$5,000+)
For those willing to spend liberally, and get much in return, head to this venerable celebrity haven, which sports 27 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf, a sybaritic spa, a new Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant and superior beach access.

Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort ($237-$610+)
This superb beach-front property is centrally located within the Cabo Real development in the heart of the Los Cabos corridor. From the welcoming margarita (on the rocks, with salt) in the open-air lobby to the ocean-view guest rooms furnished with locally crafted art and furniture, plus its next-door access to the RTJ Jr. course at Cabo Real, the Hilton is a solid choice.

Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Golf & Spa Resort ($512-$911)
Your prime gateway to the adjacent amusement park thrill-ride known as Quivira, Pueblo Bonito Pacifica is one of three sister properties in the region. Each is excellent and distinctive in its own right, though the nod here is for its golf access. An adults-only property, it also features beachside pools and dining, a soothing spa and yes—spectacular sunsets. 

Where to Dine

El Farallon
A jaw-dropping cliff-side setting overlooking the Pacific at the Resort at Pedregal is only half the story at El Farallon. The remainder revolves around its outstanding cuisine, notably the locally caught seafood. Each fish is set atop mounds of ice, so that you can choose your own, and then weigh it on a scale.

The Office on the Beach
For a (delicious) taste of Old Cabo, don’t miss this longtime favorite of tourists and locals alike. The vibe is heavily laid-back, with tables and chairs set into the sand, live music and unpretentious fare such as black bean nachos and shredded beef burritos, but the fresh fish options are as good you’ll fine at fine dining emporiums.  

The Sea Grill at Las Ventanas
Located at one of Cabo’s premier hotels, Las Ventanas al Paraiso, this perfectly named dining spot serves up fresh catches and ceviches along with wood-grilled meats in an idyllic setting peering out at the Sea of Cortez.

The "Tail of the Whale," a par-3 hole on Jack Nicklaus' Pacifico course, which has the largest natural island green in the world.
Courtesy St. Regis

PUERTO VALLERTA (Nayarit/Jalisco)

Mexico’s Pacific Coast is renowned for its beaches, jungle settings and for its national beverage, Tequila, which by law can be produced only in the state of Jalisco. Yet, it was Hollywood scandal that put the region on the map. In 1963, English actor Richard Burton traveled here to make director John Huston’s movie, “Night of the Iguana,” and it was there he carried on an open affair with Elizabeth Taylor, both of them married to other people at the time. Whatever people thought of the couple, it was the area itself that was judged to be paradise. Today, Jalisco and its most famous resort region, Puerto Vallarta are world-class, while the state directly to the north, Nayarit, has established itself as a superb resort destination in its own right. Here’s what you need to know for an ideal golf vacation.

Where to Play

Punta Mita (Pacifico), Riviera Nayarit
The elder of the two Jack Nicklaus-designed siblings is justifiably famous for its alternate, island-green, par-3 third hole. Known as 3B, it’s called “Tail of the Whale” due to its distinctive shape. When the ocean surf rolls in, an amphibious vehicle ushers you to the green. Typical of a Nicklaus coastal course, the other holes are strong and scenic as well. $155-$255

Punta Mita (Bahia), Riviera Nayarit
Dating to 2009, the Punta Mita sequel dishes out bunkers, lava outcroppings and backdrops of the distant Sierra Madre Mountains, much like its older brother, the Pacifico. With six seaside holes, Bahia is the tougher challenge, notably the chaotically contoured greens. $155-$255

Vista Vallarta (Nicklaus), Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco
Phil Mickelson and David Toms teamed to lead the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup contested over this handsome Jack Nicklaus design, but were edged by Japan, despite Lefty’s third-round 62. The layout traverses high ground in the foothills of the Sierra Madres, and affords stirring views of Puerto Vallarta and the Bay of Banderas. $155-$209

Vista Vallarta (Weiskopf), Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco
The counterpart to Nicklaus’s stunning, but manufactured sibling is this almost minimalist design from Tom Weiskopf that features low-profile fairways framed by thick, jungle rough. Landing areas are wider than they look, though the tall trees will intimidate early and often. $155-$209

Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit
As resort courses go, Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta’s original par-70 Jack Nicklaus design is 6,668 yards of pure fun. However, it’s the resort’s new Greg Norman creation that will get the blood pumping, starting with a ride over golf’s longest golf cart suspension bridge.  Situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre Mountains, the Norman layout opened late in 2016, but an updated version, with seven new holes is slated for late 2017, featuring jungle-strewn tests that edge the Ameca River. $120-$240

Where to Stay

Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, Riviera Nayarit (from $1,125 per night)
Few resorts anywhere so successfully blend couples retreats with family fun as the Four Seasons Punta Mita. Hacienda-style lodging, a Lazy River pool for the kids, two adults pools for mom and dad, plus outstanding dining spas and beach access make this a Gold Medal winner in GOLF Magazine’s Premier Resorts Awards. 

St. Regis Punta Mita, Riviera Nayarit (from $840 per night)
One of two hotels that yields access to play Punta Mita’s golf courses (Four Seasons is the other), the St. Regis boasts three infinity pools, the therapeutic  Remede Spa and a host of ocean-oriented activities mere steps from your room. 

Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit (from $340 per night)
Newly minted as a Silver Medalist in GOLF Magazine’s 2016 Premier Resorts Awards, Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta actually houses five resort hotels, connected via miles of wooden pathways, plus more than 20 restaurants, 27 pools, spas, salons and beach activities. Most luxurious is the Grand Luxxe, a five Diamond-award winner. 

Where to Dine

Le Kliff, Puerto Vallarta
Spell-checking issues aside, it’s hard to beat this cliff-top, al fresco fine dining establishment 30 minutes south of town that merges superior ambiance with the freshest seafood.

Tacon de Marlin, Puerto Vallarta
For good, cheap local eats, Tacon de Marlin has few peers. It offers two locations, one conveniently near the airport, the other in north El Centro and while its smoked-marlin tacos are worthy of the trip, don’t miss the shrimp burritos. They’re without peer.

El Barracuda, Nuevo Vallarta
A short stroll from the Sea Garden hotel in Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta leads to excellent value at El Barracuda. The fried whole snapper in adobo sauce, octopus carpaccio and the fresh oysters will make up for any 18th-hole double-bogies.

Golfers on the third green at Riviera Maya Cancun at El Camaleon Golf Club.
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CANCUN and RIVIERA MAYA

Located on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula in the liltingly named Mexican state of Quintana Roo, the town of Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya are home to a heat-fueled mix of sand, surf and Mayan Jungle ruins, together with dozens of acclaimed, all-inclusive resorts. To the north, also in Quintana Roo, is the spring break—and now golfers--paradise of Cancun. In combination, they make for a terrific destination.

Where to Play

Puerto Cancun
Tom Weiskopf’s three-year-old design is the centerpiece of a massive burgeoning development, complete with residential homes and high-rises, retail shopping and dining and a handsome marina. The variety-filled layout ribbons through mangroves on the front nine and opens up on the breezier back nine. Perfectly groomed Paspalum fairways, beefy par-3s and the island green par-5 18th are highlights. Unforgettable is the drivable par-4 14th, the only hole along the Riviera Maya that features the Caribbean Sea from tee to green. $100-$190

Riviera Cancun
Unquestionably, the finest golf property in the region in terms of course quality, service and facilities is Riviera Cancun. The 2008 Jack Nicklaus Signature Design is core golf—no homes, or other distractions—just one pristine hole after the next, with only birds, iguanas and the occasional croc on hand as spectators. Sea views, lush landscaping and undulating greens are defining traits, but equally impressive is the mammoth clubhouse, complete with free lunch and American-style upscale service bells and whistles that include textbook cart staging, premier club rental and iced towels at the finish. $170-$220

Cancun Country Club
Known as the TPC Cancun until 2015, the Cancun Country Club’s El Tinto course, a four-year-old Nick Price design, stretches a Tour-worthy 7,435 yards from the Black tees and features enormous bunkers and Florida-style water hazards. A lack of rough helps to mitigate the difficulty. A superb practice facility awaits and a Tom Fazio-designed, 18-hole sibling is on the way. $70-$180

Mayakoba (El Camaleon), Riviera Maya
Home to the annual OHL Classic on the PGA Tour, where past champions include Fred Funk, Pat Perez and Graeme McDowell, this unique Greg Norman-designed layout 45 minutes south of the Cancun Airport wows with limestone-lined canals that bisect the fairways, jungle-like mangrove swamps, natural rock caverns and two-par-3s that edge the Caribbean Sea. $199-$299

Where to Stay

Hyatt Ziva Cancun (from $500)
In Janaury 2016, the Hyatt Ziva Cancun replaced the old Dreams Resort on this spot (and before that, the Camino Real) and the transformation is remarkable. Located on a peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean on the northern end of the Hotel Zone and just five miles the Puerto Cancun Golf Club, the all-inclusive, all-suite Hyatt Ziva serves up such memorable features as swim-up suites, a microbrewery and a 17-mile stretch of beach.

Fiesta Americana Condesa Cancun (from $350)
This all-inclusive, beachfront resort is seven miles from Cancun Country Club. The resort sports ten restaurants and four bars, including La Cevicheria, an open-air spot for cocktails and fresh seafood. I recommend the Fresh Fish Ceviche Progreso Style, with its habanero chile kick. 

Fairmont Mayakoba Resort (From $360)
The low-slung 5-Diamond Fairmont Mayakoba practically melts into its surrounds, which are replete with crystal clear canals that zigzag through limestone and mangroves, on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. Don’t miss the Willow Stream Spa—good for whatever is ailing you. 

Where to Dine

Brisas 
The signature restaurant at Fairmont Mayakoba is under the helm of award-winning, Mexico City-born Richard Sandoval so expect the food to be authentic. The Seafood Risotto and Yucatan Grilled Octopus are two memorable entrees.

Cenacolo
Italian in Cancun? Indeed, when the food and ambience are world-class—you have to do it. The Cheese Wheel Spaghetti—hand-made at your table, with the pasta placed in a Grana Padano cheese wheel, is sublime. 

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