Costa Rica: An uncut gem

By Dale Leatherman, Contributor

Costa Rica is a nugget of land about the size of West Virginia wedged between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America. Bound by the Caribbean on the east and the Pacific on the west, it is a naturalist's wonderland. In this small country, a dozen climactic zones range from lofty cloud forests to steamy rainforests and dry savannahs. You can drive through several in a day, along with a 20-degree temperature change. More than a quarter of the small country is devoted to national parks, providing sanctuaries for 850 species of birds, 1,200 species of orchids, and countless animals.

Reserva Conchal golf course
Reserva Conchal's greens are generous, but often tiered or sculpted into tricky fall lines.
Reserva Conchal golf courseLa Iguana Golf Course
If you go

Though its neighbors seem prone to violence and political unrest, Costa Ricans are peaceful, having ditched the idea of a national army years ago. Funds earmarked for military were channeled into education instead - and the country has a high standard of literacy to show for it.

Most Costa Ricans live simply, but they believe life is good. And they say so constantly: "Pura vida!" Though the Spanish expression literally means "pure life," Costa Ricans use it for everything that deserves a positive reaction. They share their joy with tourists and the visitors catch on quickly. After each hair-raising rapid on the world-class Pacuare River, rafters slap paddles with their guides and yell "pura vida" into the wilderness. Sliding along a cable high in the rainforest canopy, they howl "pura vida!" When a volcano spews fire into the night sky, witnesses gasp "pura vida!"

With miles of deserted beaches and acres of undeveloped land, Costa Rica is a plum ripe for the plucking - a fact not lost on Americans who have visited there. Investors have been pouring money into luxury resorts and planned communities for years. And many ex-pat Americans have embraced the "good life," Costa Rican style, such as Landy Blank and his wife Susan. The couple own and operate a golf shop in the Melia Cariari Resort, and supply clothing and equipment to golf shops all over the country.

"As a golf destination, Costa Rica is on the verge of a boom like Mexico has experienced," says Landy. Five new courses have opened in as many years, and more are in the works. "It's the next hot spot to watch. The combination of world-class courses, friendly people and the country's rare natural beauty is unbeatable. It's one of the few places in the world where you can play a golf course by a major architect in the mornng, swing through the canopy of a rainforest in the afternoon, and watch an active volcano erupt at night."

The best way to experience Costa Rican golf is on a road trip from resort to resort, so that you can see the country and meet the people. Be forewarned, driving is part of the adventure, because many roads are narrow and filled with potholes. But it's not an country you want to hurry through anyway. The roadsides are dotted with small, open-air restaurants where you can enjoy tasty fresh fish, locally harvested palm hearts and cold beer for $3-$4US. Carvings and other fine crafts found in shops and roadside stands in the countryside are much cheaper than at the resorts.

Melia Cariari Country Club, San Jose: Since most international flights land in the capital city of San Jose, this is the perfect place to start a golf/adventure trip. More than 25 years ago George and Tom Fazio transformed a portion of a former coffee plantation into what was considered the best course in Central America until the recent advent of new tracks. It is a beautifully landscaped loop of tight, tree-lined fairways that rise and fall dramatically and seldom offer a level lie. Letting the fairways take their natural toll, Tom Fazio saved his bunkering for near the greens, which are large but fast and often crowned. Cariari was the site of the 2002 Costa Rica Open, which drew competitors from all over the world and sent many home chagrined. The course is the centerpiece of a 220-room resort with a plethora of amenities, including several distinctive restaurants and a large casino.

Parque Valle del Sol: Located a short drive from San Jose, the "Valley of the Sun" course is a recent Tracy May redesign of a track started by an American in the 1970s. The revival of the golf course has revived the surrounding residential development, too, and there's a lot of housing construction going on. Fortunately, most of the windows are out of range, because strong, gusting winds can make playing here a game of chance for the first-time visitor. On windy days, the 13 water hazards become quite diabolical. The coup de grace comes on the final hole, a 630-yard uphill trek to a green blocked by a spreading tree. On the rare calm day, the course is a pussycat, and one can only hope that the foliage will quickly mature into windbreaks.

Reserva Conchal G.C. at Paradisus Playa Conchal Resort: This is Latin America's first Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, a fact that becomes abundantly clear early on as a zoo's allotment of colorful birds and animals dart, swoop, dash or simply sit and watch the passing procession of golfers. They have plenty of places to hide from errant shots, for the fairways are lined with dense, flowering foliage.

Through this delicate environment (and with careful oversight from the naturalists) Robert Trent Jones Jr. routed wide fairways studded with vast sand bunkers, reedy lagoons and several ravines choked with vegetation. The greens are generous, but often tiered or sculpted into tricky fall lines. The 7,080-yard track is located on high ground, with views of the Pacific Ocean, distant mountains and the red tile roofs of the resort.

The all-inclusive luxury resort is located on a beautiful 1.5-mile stretch of beach. The 300 guestrooms are mini-suites with elevated sleeping areas and private balconies. At the center of the sprawling complex is an enormous freeform pool with waterfalls, rock outcroppings and shady alcoves for lounging. Five open-air restaurants serve a variety of cuisines.

Hacienda Pinilla Beach Resort: Not far from Paradisus Playa Conchal, an upscale resort community is taking shape on a 5,000-acre beachfront cattle farm. A day-trip to this place is a must, to play the 7,500-yard course designed by Mike Young. The course is groomed to perfection for the handful of players from hotels in Tamarindo or Playa Conchal, so you'll have plenty of time to savor the experience and the marvelous Tif Eagle greens, the only ones in Central America.

The site is relatively flat, but Young created depth and challenge with invisible pot bunkers and tall stands of high grasses. The greens repel boarders, so the cautious run-up is a must. Like Valle del Sol, this course is blasted by 30 to 50mph winds, and is much meeker on the rare quiet day. Evening brings out the shadows and the promise of a beautiful sunset over the beach near the fourteenth hole.

La Iguana Golf Course at Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort: Here's a perfect example of American infatuation with Costa Rica - and the vision and funds to act on it. Six years ago, the scenario at Herradura Bay southwest of San Jose was much like Hacienda Pinella - a cattle farm and an American with a dream (Los Suenos is Spanish for dream). But California developer Bill Royster has established a luxurious golf resort and world-class marina, and completed three elegant residential communities - with more to come. The resort's 6,700-yard Ted Robinson Jr. design has a unique and often dramatic setting - a combination of a narrow river valley inhabited by howler monkeys and a pretty oceanside plain.

Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo: Scheduled to open in late 2003, this luxury resort occupies a sandy peninsula, with great private beaches on both sides and a panoramic view of two bays. The course is an Arnold Palmer design.

Traveling to Costa Rica

The best times to visit Costa Rica are December and February, the early part of the dry season. The rainy season lasts from May to November but mornings are usually sunny during this time.

The international airport in San Jose is about a 3-hour flight from Miami, Atlanta, Houston or Dallas. Continental's non-stop flight from Newark is 4 hours.

Dale LeathermanDale Leatherman, Contributor

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

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