This article is from the November 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.
by David Simmonds
About twenty years ago there was story going around about this golf course located in a Pacific coast town in Mexico. It seems that unsuspecting golfers were being held up by banditos on the back nine. They would be lining up their putts when these guys would come out the jungle and relieve them of their cash and their beer. You didn’t dare chase them back into the swamp because of the venomous snakes and knee-deep muck. Ah – those were the days. If you were to hear that story today, someone would be pulling your leg. Golf in Mexico is becoming big business and the Mexican Government is intent on overtaking Hawaii as the number one golf destination in the world for U.S. and Canadian travelers. You might still lose some money playing a round today, but it will be to the smooth swinging hustler who is banging the ball 300 yards in your foursome, not by some guy jumping out of the bushes. Last year over 600,000 rounds were played by U.S. golfers in Mexico and this year there will be more. Golf Sur has arrived in a big way with many new venues under construction or in the planning stage.The question is not “Why Mexico?” Rather, why did it take so long? Golfers love green fairways that hug the beach (checked the green fees at Pebble Beach lately?) and Mexico has nearly 6,000 miles of coastline. Fortunately, only a small fraction of those miles have been turned into concrete and, frankly, I would prefer to see a 6,000 yard vegetated, lake filled golf course than another 20 story high-rise hotel that never seems to fill its rooms. Golfers generally have money, a fact that is not lost on those who are planning Mexico’s tourism future. We probably won’t see any more concrete Cancúns rising from the coastal plains, but more likely, smaller resorts that complement nature’s neighborhood, many featuring a golf course designed by a world-renown architect. Two prototypes already thrive in the form of the Four Season’s Punta Mita Resort just north of Puerto Vallarta and the Isla Navidad Resort Grand Bay adjacent to Barra de Navidad near Manzanillo. You won’t find any finer golf resort properties anywhere in the world, and although not inexpensive, they are cheaper than most similar worldwide properties and certainly easier to get to for most of the United States. Also of note is that there are 28 million golfers in the U.S., some of whom can actually hit the ball straight on a regular basis (it’s a tough game, in case you haven’t tried it). That is a huge potential market that Mexico intends to grab like Tiger grabs his driver. What will be more of a challenge is to make golf a participation sport for the Mexican population, something that will sustain the sport for decades to come. More public courses will need to be built that are affordable and the young people will need to be taught the game.
Not surprisingly, many affluent golf travelers are also well-educated. They often want more out of a golf junket than teeing up and lying about their game at the 19th hole. This makes Mexico, with its fascinating history, interesting culture, scenic landscape and “amigo” attitude a natural fit. Throw in the fantastic shopping, flavorful cuisine, resort and boutique hotels, and the south-of-the-border mystique – and it becomes obvious that this golf idea can’t miss. I guess you can always go to Scottsdale or Myrtle Beach for your golf sojourn, but do they really compare to Puerto Vallarta or Los Cabos? Not for my money. Besides, those other places don’t have street taco carts serving two-dollar meals.
Where to Slice and Hook
Los Cabos, comprising the 30 mile corridor around San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, until now has had the market pretty much to themselves for the golfing dollar. They have built some stunning courses in the last decade along the incomparable Sea of Cortez – and when it’s not in the swelter of summer heat, they fill the fairways to full capacity, even at a green fee of $150-$225. Jack Nicklaus is the designer of the Eldorado course, Palmilla Golf Club and Cabo del Sol, all world-class layouts. Cabo Real, designed by Robert Trent Jones, is another favorite. And if you blow all your money drinking tequila brain slammers at The Giggling Marlin, there is always the old course in San Jose del Cabo where you can play their nine-hole venue for about $20-30, depending on the day.
Cabo San Lucas is the place you go to party, while San Jose is where you sleep off the hangover. San Jose, dating back to the 1700’s, is more reminiscent of mainland Mexico, with its downtown centered around the church and zócalo, conducive to strolling and dining in outdoor cafes. With no marina or malecon you scarcely know you are on the coast. Cabo, on the other hand, was a small fishing village that decided to become Newport Beach. But, despite the lack of culture (table dancing doesn’t qualify) and history, the incomparable stunning beauty of the land will provide you with an experience you will never forget. San Jose is for long-time lovers; Cabo is for one-time lovers. Neither should be missed.
There are other diversions in Baja Sur when you’re not chasing a ball. The small town of Todos Santos is a 45 minute, beautiful drive along the Pacific, where you will find a peace and tranquility far removed from the party crowd in Cabo. The town has evolved into a legitimate artist’s center and is an interesting place to spend an afternoon or longer. Or, drive north of San Jose along the Sea of Cortez and the East Cape beaches. The coastal road (not paved Highway 1) is slowly being improved, but you will need a few hours to explore the magical beaches and coves and maybe do a little snorkeling in the aquarium-like Sea. And, of course, the area has some of the world’s finest sportsfishing. However, over-fishing by commercial interests needs to be addressed before it’s too late.
Between the Finistierra Hotel at the land’s end arches and the Hotel Palmilla resort near San Jose, you will find numerous five-star resorts. The Hotel Las Ventanas al Paraiso is internationally renowned for luxury and is visited by Hollywood glitterati. Casa del Mar, Playa Costa Azul, Twin Dolphins, and the Melia Los Cabos are just a few of the high-end properties that cater to the golfer. For more Los Cabos information refer to www.allaboutcabo.com.
I predict that the west coast from Vallarta down to Manzanillo will sooner or later eclipse Los Cabos as the golf capital of Mexico. If Los Cabos reminds one of Arizona golf, Puerto Vallarta more resembles Hawaii. For years PV had just one course, Los Flamingos. And not many people went there to play golf. I remember not that many years ago playing a round there for about $15 and having the course to myself. Now it costs $75 – $100 and the layout is first rate. There are now seven courses in the PV area and the golfing world is taking notice. The new Vista Vallarta courses will be the site of the EMC World Cup to be played December 10 – 15, 2002, with TV coverage by the Golf Channel. The adjacent courses, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf, are at the base of the tropical Sierra Madre with vistas to the ocean. Weiskopf says “This is one of the most dramatic inland properties I’ve seen anywhere in the world….” And Nicklaus proclaims, “Not only do I think that people will enjoy the golf course, but it is a beautiful setting with magnificent vistas.” This is a good time to golf in this area because the rates are still far less than at the more well known Cabo courses. Vista Vallarta is currently at $120-130, including tax, cart and range balls. The better Los Cabos courses are about $100 more.
The Four Seasons at Punta Mita course receives rave reviews from everyone I talk to. I have played Vista Vallarta, but not yet Punta Mita. The resort is very secluded on Punta Mita, the northern point of Banderas Bay, about a 35 minute drive from downtown PV. I tried to preview the property on a recent trip, but was turned away at the gate because I hadn’t pre-arranged my arrival (that’s a first for me). Punta Mita has long been a favorite for surfers, panga fishermen and for Mexican families who go there on weekends for family outings. The resort now consumes much of the point, although the design is very unobtrusive and sensitive to the environment. Time marches on.
Two other new courses are in Nuevo Vallarta, a newer enclave just over the state line in Nayarit. The El Tigre course at Paradise Village Resort is a 7,000-plus-yard monster designed by the Texas-based Robert von Hagge group, which has designed more Mexican courses than anyone. It is a beautiful and tough course but designed with various placed tees on each hole to accommodate all levels of golfer. Right next door is the Mayan Palace resort with a challenging 18-hole venue. And there is the second oldest course in the area, Marina Vallarta, centrally located and a little less expensive than most of the others. The Quinta Real resort, surrounded by the course, is a beautiful 67-suites resort, most of which have their own pool.
Puerto Vallarta is loaded with hotels in all categories with many wonderful things to do and see in and around town. PV has always been my favorite town in Mexico, and has been labeled the “world’s friendliest city” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Now, with the new golf courses, it is even better. For a good overview of PV go to my friend Bernie Santos’ website at www.pvconnect.com.
Most people, when they think of Acapulco, envision pink jeeps, cliff divers, yachts and Elvis, the singing pool boy. Now you can add golf to the list. The in-town nine-hole course, Club de Golf Acapulco, was built in 1957 and doesn’t present much of a challenge for most golfers, but it is cheap to play. But south of town, along Playa Revolcadero and beyond, there are now four more courses that make Acapulco an up and coming golf center in Mexico. Fairmont Hotels (they own the Plaza in NYC) operates the Acapulco Princess and the contiguous Pierre Marquez, each with its own golf course. The Princess course opened in 1971 and, although not very long, is bordered by water on twelve holes and demands good shot-making. Remodeled by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., in 1982, the next-door Marques Golf Club hosted the 1982 World Cup Championship and is a difficult layout. Both of these courses are in the $100 range in high season.
The best known golf course in Acapulco is Tres Vidas, located just five minutes from the airport. Many people consider this to be Mexico’s finest course, although you would get an argument from Punta Mita, Vista Vallarta and the Los Cabos courses. It was host to the PGA Chrysler Cup Tournament in 1997, making it a difficult layout with the Pacific Ocean coming into play on several holes. The compound has a swimming pool, restaurant, a sandy beach and a beautiful club house.
The Mayan Palace Golf Club is a lush and challenging course surrounded by Mayan reproduction architecture with a deluxe hotel and condominium rentals. All of these courses are in the $90-100 range, with the exception of TresVidas, which is closer to $150.
The other tourist golf centers in Mexico are Cancún, Mazatlan, Costa Alegre (Manzanillo area) and Ixtapa. Each of these locales has supreme golf courses, especially Costa Alegre. Some of the more spectacular courses hard by the Pacific are Las Hadas, El Tamarindo and Isla Navidad. You can expect many new projects to be built in the next ten years as Mexico fulfills its dream of becoming a major golf destination for golfers worldwide.
The are currently 145 golf courses in Mexico, but 67 of them are private. Many of the courses still offer caddies, a custom fast disappearing in the U.S.. Mexico City, Guadalajara and Cuernavaca courses are examples of the Old-World traditions and offer a unique golf experience in comparison with the fast-rising resort courses. The private courses can often be played just merely by requesting, and are often much less expensive than the resorts. For a very good hard copy guide to Mexico golf call Best’s Golf Guide To Mexico at (949) 494-8561. Or you can download for free a 30-page Mexico Golf ebook at www.worldgolf.com.
There are some people who look at golf courses as unnecessary and detrimental to the environment. I, as a long time environmentalist, have done my homework on this subject, and I am convinced that the requirements that are now in place concerning golf course construction have sufficiently addressed the concerns. Sure, it would be nice if nature were never altered and man never encroached where lizards and snakes live – but that’s just not reality. Mexico’s goal to create more eco-friendly, smaller properties is a good and forward thinking plan. Most golf courses have lakes and streams (I know – my ball finds them all) that serve as nesting grounds for local and migratory birds, and harmful pesticides have been eliminated in most cases. Tourism is very important to Mexico. It feeds many, many families and golf is going to help them far more than any harm it might do. So, the next time you head south, grab your sticks and try out one of their fabulous new courses. It beats sitting by the pool day after day and it will take you to places you would not otherwise see – probably searching for your ball.