Golf in Costa Rica

February 16, 2007

Recipe for a golfer’s paradise: Start with volcanoes, rain forests, waterfalls and miles of perfect beaches. Add exotic animals, spice with adventures like surfing, fishing and white-water rafting, then top off with five fine golf courses, including Arnold Palmer’s stunning, new Peninsula Papagayo. Thousands of years in the making, your feast is now ready; it’s time for the first course.

Most trips to Costa Rica start in the Central American nation’s capital, San Jose. Perched at 4,000 feet, the city boasts wonderfully cool weather year-round and is a surprisingly easy three-hour flight from Houston or Miami. Five minutes from the airport you’ll find the Melia Cariari Conference Center & Golf Resort, whose course was designed by George Fazio and built in 1974 by his now-famous nephew, Tom Cariari is a 6,590-yard alpine track with tight fairways lined by towering pines. The downhill, downwind 149-yard 4th hole over water is testy — a little local knowledge helps, so hire a caddie.

Cariari is normally limited to hotel guests, but U.S. ex-pat Mike Bresnan can arrange tee times for guests of his intimate lodge, the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn, which boasts gorgeous Japanese-style cottages and a nature trail that leads to a 300-foot waterfall.

Bresnan came to Costa Rica with the Peace Corps in the 1960s and stuck around. He and I teed it up at the Tracy May-designed Valle del Sol Golf Course, a splendid 6,913-yard layout in the shadow of the surrounding mountains. As we wound our way past the course’s creeks and ponds, he waxed passionate about the nation’s dedication to “the pure life,” as evinced by Costa Ricans’ favorite salutation, “Pura vida!”

On the back nine, the rumbling of thunderheads began to build above the Irazu, Barva and Poas volcanoes overlooking the course, and by the time our last putts dropped at the purely lengthy 691-yard 18th hole, sweet mountain rain had washed in all around us — the perfect end to a perfect round.

The rapidly developing heart of Costa Rican golf is in the province of Guanacaste. Many golfers take a half-hour commuter flight from San Jose, but driving is often the most enthralling part of the trip, despite roads that can be charitably described as bumpy. (A four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must, and driving at night is a must-not. Beyond that, safety need not be a pressing concern for tourists.)

Motoring along with my wife and 8- and 12-year-old daughters a few miles from the beach town of Tamarindo, I skidded to a halt beneath an entwined canopy of huge trees full of howler monkeys. Scrambling for a better view, we watched them swing from limb to limb. As my wife raised her camera to snap a picture, a baby monkey ran down a drooping limb and reached curiously for the lens, thereby redefining our idea of a Kodak moment.

On my first journey to Costa Rica four years ago, I stayed at the Paradisus Playa Conchal Beach & Golf Resort, an all-suite, all-inclusive resort with a fine beach and Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s lush Garra de Leon Golf Course. Winding in two big loops from hilltop to seashore and back, this 7,080-yard track is as green as any course in Ireland, made all the more colorful by a veritable rainbow of birds and iguanas. The 420-yard, par-4 12th is a gem, dropping 100 feet from tee to fairway, then doglegging right and climbing to an elevated green.

This time, I opted to set up the family in Tamarindo, one of the world’s great surf spots. At the serene Cala Luna Hotel & Villas, our two-bedroom villa with full kitchen and a private pool cost $237 per night, and our surfing instructor had the lot of us vertical within an hour. Best of all, Tamarindo is about 20 minutes from the Hacienda Pinilla golf course, a 7,274-yard Mike Young design. Built on a former cattle ranch, the layout calls to mind an African savannah. Surrounded by mountains and ocean, the course is dotted with huge matapalo trees. Two of the trees resemble lovers, their trunks growing together into one and reaching to the sky. Creatures that call Hacienda Pinilla home — toucans, iguanas, deer, monkeys and the occasional black panther — are less menacing than Hacienda Pinilla’s chest-high rough. My favorite hole here was the 353-yard, par-4 10th, a dogleg left to a steeply banked, three-tiered green in the shape of a crescent moon. The course was far from crowded the day I was there, so, with a flock of parrots chattering noisily, seemingly egging me on, I fired up a Cuban Monte Cristo cigar (a legal purchase in Costa Rica and available in the pro shop) and played till dark.

Life should always be this good.

Quick Facts: Costa Rica
Melia Cariari Conference Center & Golf Resort
Greens fee: $70

Valle del Sol Golf COURSE
Greens fees: $50-$70 (includes cart)

Garra de Leon Golf Course (at the Paradisus Playa Conchal Beach & Golf Resort)
Greens fee: $140 (includes cart, range and beverages)

Hacienda Pinilla
Greens fees: $105-$120

Four Seasons Golf Club Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo
Greens fee: $180 (includes cart) Rooms and suites from $395

Vista del Valle Plantation Inn
Rooms and villas from $90

Cala Luna Hotel & Villas
Rooms and villas from $193

Hotel Punta Islita
Rooms and villas from $198 Peninsula Papagayo boasts ocean views from 14 of 18 holes, including the 6th

And it will get even better in Costa Rica in February with the opening of the Four Seasons Golf Club Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo and Palmer’s $25 million Peninsula Papagayo Golf Club. This gorgeous, oceanside track will play approximately 6,800 yards, with views of the Pacific Ocean from 14 holes. Elevation changes will include a 20-story drop from the tee on the 446-yard, par-4 6th hole. The ensuing approach to a cliffside green perched at ocean’s edge is equally dramatic. The sparkling hotel and breathtaking setting above and between two pristine beaches may well make Papagayo one of the upscale hotel chain’s finest resorts.

Continuing our driving adventure, we set our course to my favorite Costa Rican destination, the Hotel Punta Islita, an intimate resort with a dynamite restaurant and an infinity-edge swimming pool, all on a steep hillside overlooking a wide, curved beach. Getting there is half the fun. It’s a five-hour trek from San Jose, including a half-hour ferry ride across the Tempisque River and a heart-pounding hour of four-wheeling over a mountaintop. There is a shorter route across a knee-deep river about a lob wedge wide. Either way, it’s cheap thrills in my book.

Once at Punta Islita, we spent our days lounging in hammocks, as the grown-ups sipped pina coladas and everyone noshed on grilled shrimp. We explored tide pools and boogie-boarded for hours on end. As for the golf, well, the hotel’s driving range is the only golf at Punta Islita. I fully intended to hit buckets of balls but found myself sidetracked — deeply ensconced in, and thoroughly enchanted by, la pura vida.

While You’re There…

Tour Player

Call Costa Rica Golf Adventures and talk to tour operator Landy Blank, another transplanted Yank (; 877-258-2688). The company books everything from soup to nuts. Prices in Costa Rica are reasonable compared to many exchange-rate impervious resort destinations (ice-cold happy-hour beers for a buck are always a good thing), and Blank’s connections will get you where you want to go.

In the Treetops

Gliding through the top of the jungle is one of Costa Rica’s most popular thrills. The Chiclets Tree Canopy Tour in the beach town of Playa Hermosa has a series of 13 suspended plat-forms connected by steel cables (011-506-643-1879; [email protected]). Strap into a harness and step out into space for a quick zip to the next platform. If you think making birdie is fun, try zooming 400 feet above a jungle canyon.

Look out Above

In the mountains above San Jose, Waterfall Gardens offers a taste of Costa Rica’s natural wonders (; 011-506-482-2720). A domed garden houses butterflies, including dazzling, giant Blue Morphos. Inside the hummingbird area, hundreds of more than 16 species buzz around. The Trail of Falls follows sturdy catwalks and suspension bridges down a canyon with views of several waterfalls more than 100 feet high.