Actually, the climate is much closer to perfect—as is the opportunity to play really good golf and have a really good time
The Ticos, as Costa Ricans fondly refer to themselves, have an expression they use 50 times a day: pura vida. It serves a variety of purposes. Sometimes it’s a way of offering a friendly hello or goodbye. Other times it’s meant to convey amazement or wonder. But it’s not just a pat phrase. It’s more like a philosophy of life.
“For me, it’s like ‘everything is going to be alright,’” says Fabio Solano, owner of Costa Rica Golf Vacations. “Everything is going to be okay.”
It’s Solano’s job to ensure that everything goes okay when he welcomes golf groups to his home country. Many of them “want to play until they drop,” he says. Others want to include off-course experiences in their itineraries. But one thing they’ll all have in common by the time they leave is an appreciation for pura vida.
This “don’t worry, be happy” approach to daily life is one of the reasons Costa Rica has become a hot destination for golfers and other vacationers. More than a million U.S. citizens visit this Central American paradise annually, and over 100,000 Americans own homes there. International Living last year pegged Costa Rica as the world’s number-one place to retire, citing its stable democratic government, low cost of living, and natural beauty. For golf enthusiasts, the land of rich coasts offers even more riches—in part because of the country’s longstanding focus on ecotourism.
Costa Rica’s beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, and government-protected conservation areas are home to the kind of ora and fauna that inspire one postcard moment after another. Nature provides large galleries on the golf course, too, in the form of monkeys, iguanas, tree frogs, sloths, and an endless aerial parade of colorful butterflies and birds—including the Resplendent Quetzal with its bright, long tail.
“If you play golf at Los Suenos, it’s not uncommon to see big flocks of macaws flying at four or five in the afternoon,” Solano says. “Or in the Guanacaste area, which is more rainforest, you get these animals called pizotes—in English they’re called coatis. It makes for a fun round because you’ll be playing and all of a sudden a group of 20 coatis will walk through the fairway.”
Guanacaste on Costa Rica’s northwest coast is the country’s driest area, and there are few places on earth with better weather for golf. You’ll find three of the nation’s best courses there, all resort-style tracks affiliated with major hotel chains or real estate developments. They’re seldom crowded, typically in excellent condition, and only a short drive from the small international airport in Liberia, which is served by many major airlines.
The northernmost of these is the Ocean Course at the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. It sits on a verdant hillside overlooking the Pacific and offers every creature comfort a fun-in-the-sun-seeking guest could want, from an extensive beach and luxury spa to gourmet cuisine that, like all Costa Rican fare, focuses on fresh local ingredients. The course is an Arnold Palmer design and playing there is like visiting a botanical garden and zoo at the same time. Exotic plants are noted with signs, and don’t be surprised if you have a troop of capuchin monkeys applauding your approach shots. Its 6,800 yards ask you to contend with frequent elevation changes, and because it’s sited on an ancient lava flow, level lies aren’t easy to come by. The sparkling waters of the Pacific and Culebra Bay are a constant backdrop, with 14 holes offering water views, none more spectacular than at the 17th, a short par three that calls for a tee shot over a ravine to a green guarded by five bunkers. Get there in the late afternoon if you can, as the view from this clifftop hole when the sun begins to set over the Pacific is dazzling.
Continuing south along the coast, the next must-play course is Reserva Conchal, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that tips out at 7,000 yards. Located at the large, all-inclusive Westin Reserva Conchal resort that overlooks the white-sand Playa Conchal, this is a shotmaker’s course that calls for equal parts brawn and brains. The holes thread their way up and down hills, through stretches of banyan trees that pinch the fairways, and around a series of ponds and lagoons that also guard many of the greens. Though you’re not far from the ocean, you only really see it from a few holes. But the views of the neighboring mountains more than make up for it. And at the 17th, a long par three over water, it’s not uncommon to be hitting over a large flock of flamingos who are in pura vida mode themselves.
In the lively coastal town of Tamarindo is the Hacienda Pinilla golf course, located in a large real estate community that was previously a cattle ranch. Homeowners and renters enjoy miles of private beach where horseback riding is popular and more miles of nature trails for hiking and mountain biking. The layout here is flatter and longer (7,300 yards from the back tees) but also a bit more open than the other area courses. The green at the 15th hole, a 180-yard par three, takes you right to the edge of the ocean, which is dotted with black volcanic rocks.
After your round, head straight to Pangas Beach Club and watch the surfers from the comfort of a driftwood beach chair while enjoying an ice-cold Imperial beer. When the sun dips into the Pacific, grab a table and sample the local seafood specialties, including fresh ceviche, wahoo carpaccio, and grilled octopus—all served with an order of fried plantains, or plantanitos.
Before leaving the Guanacaste region, try to squeeze in a day trip to the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. Or spend some time at the Hacienda Guachipelin ranch, where you can go horseback riding, river tubing on the Rio Colorado, ziplining, swim beneath a waterfall, explore the rainforest on a canopy tour, or just luxuriate in the volcanic mineral springs and mud baths. If you do nothing else, make sure to schedule a sunset cocktail catamaran cruise in the Gulf of Papagayo.
From Tamarindo, keep hugging the coast southward to the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort in the town of Playa Herradura. The course there is called La Iguana, but it could just as easily have been named after any of the other hundreds of species of creatures and birds you might encounter. Ted Robinson Jr. designed this layout, which starts by heading into a densely vegetated rainforest and finishes at the beach’s edge. Playing La Iguana is such an immersion in nature that the resort offers guided ecotours of the golf course for non-golfers. If time permits, take a day trip to Isla Tortuga, the turtle island, where snorkeling, rainforest tours, and lounging on the pristine beaches will make you forget that the modern world even exists.
Head inland to play two more courses, both in the capital region of San José. Cariari Country Club was Costa Rica’s first 18-hole course and today the club has a large membership, including many expats. Originally a George Fazio design, it was updated by his nephew Tom, and while it’s a private club, gaining access isn’t hard. Cariari is a very tight, tree-lined course (don’t even bother pulling your driver), with a bunch of strong and eminently fun holes.
The other top course is Parque Valle del Sol, located 15 minutes from downtown San José. The fairways are wider here, particularly on the back nine, but water comes into play on almost every hole. The par threes are particularly good—as is the finishing hole, a big, sweeping dogleg-right par five with water all along the right and a green hidden behind a tree just tall enough to wreck your round. The entire course is overlooked by the Cordillera Mountain range—and the Irazu, Poas, and Barva volcanoes—which make for great viewing while you’re playing.
Parque Valle del Sol is a golf community with a variety of real estate options, and many Americans have bought or built homes there and become official residents of Costa Rica—something that can easily be done.
“I have friends who’ve retired here on $1,800 a month, and they all play golf,” says Solano. “When you settle into the Costa Rican lifestyle, you can live very comfortably here.”
All it takes is an appreciation for pura vida.
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