The small Central America country of Costa Rica has made a name for itself as a natural paradise where visitors can experience nature in its most pristine state, enjoy adventure activities in a natural environment not available back home, or just relax on one of its many beaches. Not it has achieved another important milestone, receiving the 2014 Golf Destination of the Year Award for Latin America and the Caribbean from the prestigious Association of Golf Tour Operators.
With six 18-hole championship courses and some nice nine-hole layouts, Landy Blank of Costa Rica Golf Adventures, who started bringing tours there in 1996, believes that this is just the right amount of good golf to create a memorable golfing experience when combined with the year-round climate, the beauty of the country and some superior places for visitors to hang their hats at night.
The country offers two international airports, one near the capitol city of San Jose in the Central Valley, and the other on the Northwest Pacific Coast in the Guanacaste region. “Ideally, you arrange your itinerary to land in one and depart from the other in order to experience the amazing variety of activities that Costa Rica has to offer,” added Blank.
Arriving at the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia gives golfers the opportunities to play three of the best golf courses in the country, all recognized by Audubon International for their environmental friendly efforts, all within an hour’s drive.
Without a doubt, the Arnold Palmer design at the Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo is the crown jewel and the No. 1 course in Costa Rica. It sits atop one of the highest plateaus at Peninsula Papagayo, overlooking Bahia Culebra, and provides spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean on 14 of the 18 holes. Natural elevation changes create unforgettable holes, including a nice mix of long par 4s with short tricky ones. Perhaps the most dramatic hole has to be par 4 No. 6 with a 200-foot drop to a valley-shaped fairway, definitely the signature hole. The course plays 6,788 yards from the championship tees, but is accessible to golfers of all levels with four other tees, including the forward tees at only 4,880 yards. The course used to be open to hotel guests only, but new director of golf Randoll Viquez, now says it is open to others. The fees are a little pricey at $230, but as someone who has played many of the top 100 in the world, I guarantee it will be worth it. It’s not a course you can walk, but there are some interesting rides through the rainforest to the next tee that will be worth it.
About 40 minutes south is the Reserva Conchal Golf Club at the all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort & Spa. The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is one of my all-time favorites since I played it more than 500 times in the three years I spent there as the director of golf from 1998 to 2000. A few years back, the Robert Trent Jones Jr. course was reduced to a par 71 when some property next to the ocean was used for a beach club, resulting in the loss of the par 4 16th and the old tee box on the par 3 17th. A new par 3 was added, now the 15th, and a new routing for the last six holes resulted. You now play to the 17th green from new elevated tees on another side of the water. “It’s even better now,” added Blank. I agree it’s more challenging as my first shot didn’t make it over the water on a return visit recently. I did hit the green on my second try from the whites and caught the bunker on a third try from the blues. The 18th is one of the best risk/reward finishing holes I’ve ever played. Water comes into play down the entire left side. After a good drive from the whites, I took the risk with a 3-wood from 200 yards to get to the back of the green and just missed an eagle putt from 12 feet. There’s “mucho agua” to avoid in other places on the course, too, and a lot more elevation changes than you might expect, including a 100-foot drop from the 12th tee to a narrow fairway with woods and out of bounds on the left and a lateral hazard on the right. Director of golf Carlos Rojas points to the par-5 No.4 with views of the ocean as the signature hole. Fees range around $150 for 18 holes and lower for 9 holes or with twilight rates.
Just over 20 minutes away is Hacienda Pinilla, a Mike Young design built on an old cattle ranch amid a dry tropical forest. You have plenty of room off the tees with wide fairways, but the real test is getting your approach shots on the bunker-guarded greens, including some deep-faced and walled bunkers like the ones you might see in Scotland, and a few greens with false fronts. Director of golf Jason Bauer notes that the wind adds to the challenge, especially from January to March. A magnificent view of the ocean awaits from the tee on the par 3 15th hole. Fees for 18 holes are around $150. Your options for accommodations range from places on property like La Posada or the J.W. Marriott to the more active scene in the nearby town of Tamarindo Beach.
Most visitors still enter Costa Rica through the capital city of San Jose, actually the Juan Santamaria Airport in the nearby city of Alajuela, located at an elevation of 4,000 feet, with cooler conditions than those along the coast. There are two quality championship courses available, the Cariari Country Club and Valle del Sol, with green fees in the $100 range.
The private Cariari Country Club carried the banner as the best course in Costa Rica for many years after being built in 1975. George Fazio did the design and nephew Tom Fazio built it on an old coffee plantation. Short by today’s standards at 6,590 yards, it’s no pushover, especially when wet, with tall trees bordering most fairways, putting the premium on straight drives. Otherwise, chipping back to the fairway is sometimes your only option. Approach shots must be accurate from the whites, it can be challenging. One thing I always enjoy is that you can walk and have a caddy, who could be very helpful on the tricky greens. The mandatory caddies also go along with those riding carts. Some of the hotels can get guests on the course, but the best bet is to check with Blank, who also runs the golf shop here with his wife, Susan.
If time permits, don’t overlook Valle del Sol where architect Tracy May renovated an original nine holes and built another nine holes between 1997 and 2001. It can be stretched to 7,017 yards from the tips, but you have more room off the tees, allowing the big hitters to rip it and not worry about being in trouble. It’s player-friendly from the other tees where most visiting golfers play. You will have interesting water features and some great mountain views. “If you are suffering from winter rust, it’s a great place to work out the kinks,” added Blank.
Taking a scenic 90-minute drive, you arrive on the central Pacific Coast and the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort near the beach in Jaco. The centerpiece of this ocean-front resort is the La Iguana Golf Course, designed by Ted Robinson. The course rests between the ocean and a tropical rainforest and is landscaped with exotic native plants. Director of Golf Jose Quesada says this gives golfers a chance to view lots of native wildlife, getting close to Mother Nature. While it can be challenging from the back tees at 6,698 yards, it’s player friendly from the other tees, especially the whites at 5,896 where I played recently. Adding to the experience, each group is accompanied by a forecaddie, who also serves as a guide to identify what you are seeing and to help find your errant golf shots. One of the nice new additions is a GPS system on the golf carts that lets you know your yardages and gives tips on how to play each hole.
If visiting Tabor on the southern Nicoya Peninsula, the Los Delfines Golf & Country Club is a good 9-hole test that you might want to play.
To get around Costa Rica, my wife and I rented a car since we were visiting four other golf resorts outside San Jose, but Blank recommends to his clients to travel via transfers he arranges. “Enjoy your vacation, leave the driving to others who know the roads,” he said.
Costa Ricans or “Ticos” are likeable and pleasant hosts, wanting guests to enjoy the pure life or “Pura Vida” when they come down for an unforgettable holiday.