Golf in Costa Rica – “Pura Vida”

The Hacienda Pinella Club de Golf In Costa Rica - All Images Credit Michael Cunningham

By Michael Cunningham

Brilliant rays of red and orange disperse across the darkening sky as our aircraft gently touches down on the runway at San Jose’s Juan Santamaria airport.

"Pura vida, welcome to Costa Rica”! Is a recurring expression of warmth that I will encounter throughout my visit here, genuine wishes for a “good life and happiness”.

I have arrived in Costa Rica to experience the emergence of golf in this county. My host is Fabio Solano, owner of Tee Times Costa Rica and the unheralded ambassador for the promotion of the sport in his country.

It’s a short ride to our first night residence the Costa Rica Marriott San Jose Hotel. Recently awarded as Costa Rica's "Best Hotel" by World Travel Awards, its located on the grounds of a former coffee plantation with sweet aromas of exotic flowers still lingering in the evening air.

The hacienda-style architecture features open-air passageways, outdoor patios and an overall air of relaxation. The warm and refreshing tropical air is rejuvenating following my journey. A short relaxing walk before dinner takes me through the beautifully landscaped gardens of this four-star property past their onsite driving range and stylish Kuo Spa.

Fabio and I meet for a late dinner. Over a gourmet pizza and an ice cold Cerveza in the Hotel’s Bar10, we review our upcoming adventure. For eight days we will travel interior roads and venture west towards the Pacific Ocean experiencing the natural beauty of this country, which has become internationally recognized as a golf mecca.

Large in stature with a smile to match, Fabio’s enthusiasm is infectious as he describes his country and the growth of golf. In the early 70's there was one eighteen-hole layout, today the state offers eleven championship designs, crafted by some of the world’s best course architects.

Recognized for its export of fine Arabica coffee, pineapples and bananas, Costa Rica’s tourism has now become the largest economic driver for the country.

Nestled between the warm waters of the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans, the county offers a biodiversity unlike any other, a land of volcanoes, rainforests, endless private beaches and exotic wildlife there is so much for me to explore.

Cariari Country Club

For our first day of golf Fabio and I travel a short distance to Cariari Country Club in Puerto Limon. Former PGA professional, George Fazio and his nephew, Tom, designed and completed the course in 1973. At the time of opening, Cariari was Central America’s first eighteen-hole golf course and for twenty years it remained Costa Rica’s only championship course.

I am fortunate to play here as the only way to experience it is through a member’s invitation or Fabio’s company. A caddy is a requirement as this is a “players course”. The ability to read a green and properly manage my club selection created a memorable day of golf.

The caddies are very knowledgeable and friendly here at Cariari. It has become “a stepping stone” for many of them who are now golf professionals and Directors of Golf at courses throughout Central America.

The course features four sets of tees to suit all levels of player. At par 71 it plays 6579 yards. It may not seem long for many players today, but for my foursome, it became a test. The course features tree-lined fairways, uphill par fives and a par four finishing hole. All downhill with trees lining each side my caddy advised, "Shoot down the middle".

My second shot required I carry a water-filled, deep ravine from a downhill lie to reach the small, bunker-protected green. My caddy correctly selected my club and provided accurate yardage. It was my execution that had me walking off with a bogey. This golf course would be a pleasure to play again. It is good that I know someone who can make those arrangements.

Valle del Sol Golf Course

The following day we travel to the Valle del Sol Golf Course situated in the exclusive community of Parque Valle del Sol. The only public course in the central valley twenty minutes from San Jose. This Audubon-designated championship course has achieved a reputation for consistent upkeep and playability. Three ancient volcanoes provide the backdrop on this picturesque and vibrantly vegetated course. My driver seldom came out of my bag, as many of the fairways are narrow.

The eighteenth is an exception, playing to 632 yards. This par five required I aim towards the right side of the fairway so as to avoid the out of bounds on the left. With an accurate second shot, my approach finds the second tier of the green. Perfectly satisfied with a par I walk towards the clubhouse, energized and ready for what the rest of my tour can do to match these first two days.

Fabio has played the course numerous times and I certainly benefited from his knowledge and it would be my recommendation that you employ the services of a courses friendly and knowledgeable caddy.

It is now day three, and we are on the road again, driving the two-way highway towards Playa Herradura. Passing open fields, small villages and rich rainforests our trip seems to take little time as we reminisce over our golfing exploits. For the next three days, my residence will be in a spacious villa at one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful destinations, Los Suenos Resort and Marina, located on the country's Central Pacific Coast less than 100 km’s from San Jose.

La Iguana Golf Course

Los Suenos is a premier luxury development in the province of Puntarenas. Adjacent waters to the Pacific and recognized as the marlin fishing capital of the world attracting visitors and luxury yachts to this outdoor mecca. The property features the stunning Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort. Winner of the 2018 “Sustainability Award”, by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, [IAGTO], for the properties outstanding reforestation and naturalization projects.

Though I would love to take advantage of the world-class fishing and walk the trails of the resorts 600-acre rainforest it is golf that I am here to experience. I look forward to my return visit.

La Iguana golf course, located on Marriott's property was named by Travel and Leisure as one of the "World's Best." IAGTO recognized this beautiful Ted Robinson design as their "Golf Destination of the Year" in 2017.

This course is pure nature. Iguanas leisurely sun themselves as sounds of Macaws and Howler Monkeys reverberate through the rainforest canopy. It is another perfect day, another exciting golf course. From the first tee to the final four holes that overlook Herradura Bay, the course provides glorious vistas from every tee box. One of my favourites was the 150-yard 16th. Requiring a full carry over water to an elevated green proved to be a challenge. As white ibis and herons waded in the shallow water, the splash from my wayward shot did not distract them which makes me believe they’ve seen this many times before.

Reserva Conchal Golf Course

We are on the road again to the all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort & Spa at Playa Conchal. Nestled on the shores of Costa Rica's North Pacific Riviera this secluded getaway is less than an hour from our final destination of Liberia. The property covers 2,400 acres and features a two-mile beach along the turquoise waters of Brasilito Bay. From my large room, I look out at the myriad of pools and outdoor cabanas on this bright blue-sky day.

Our host course for today is Reserva Conchal Golf Course, home for 2018's PGA's Latin America Tour. This Robert Trent Jones II design plays to 7021 yards and features two distinct nines, each hole demonstrating individuality requiring me to utilize every club in my bag.

The course is in excellent shape and epitomizes biodiversity, wildlife and vegetation, which abound throughout the property. One very picturesque hole is the 7th. A par 5, 446 yards from the white tees, this is a dogleg left with thirteen bunkers. Undulating fairways minimize the possibility of a flat lie and with water providing protection to this narrow green I play it safe, happily recording a par.

My final day of golf will be at the Hacienda Pinilla Golf Club. The course has experienced a shortage of rain over the past month setting up links-style fairways, with the ball rolling further with “hard to hold” greens. When the moisture returns it will revert back to a verdant and beautiful experience. From the “tips” it exceeds 7200 yards and with recurrent ocean winds in February and March the course becomes a real test for one’s game.

Another incredibly scenic hole I experienced on this weeklong journey is the par 3-15th. The backdrop for this “all-carry” 180-yard hole is the azure water of the Pacific Ocean. As foam drenched waves crash on the sandy shore, it’s my camera that I reach for, as my putt for birdie seems irrelevant at this moment.

This lasting scene typified my experience of Costa Rica and the golf courses that it offers. I wish I had more words to describe the beauty of the country and its people. Perhaps it is simply “pura vida” - good life and happiness. 

Michael Cunningham is a Contributing Writer for Inside Golf. Former host for the nationally syndicated show, Golf Radio he is the editor and senior writer of two best-selling books on golf and travel.