By Timothy Scott
With palm trees and sea birds, views of ocean and mountains, the golf courses of Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Nayarit provide more than a week's worth of options up and down the coast of Pacific Mexico.
The swing felt just right and my ball went sailing through the air, over the crashing waves, and dropping onto the green at infamous hole 3B—the world’s only natural ocean island green. Sure, I took a double mulligan before making this happen (golf balls made out of fish food would be nice), but I still got a great feeling of satisfaction as I rode the amphibious golf cart through the water to the hole.
Then at another course right by the Puerto Vallarta Marina, I was a short hop from several oceanfront hotels and less than 10 minutes away from the airport. When I returned on another trip, I played up in the mountains instead, on another Jack Nicklaus course, seeing the ocean in the far distance. These are just a few of the options. There are plenty of golf courses to choose from between Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Nayarit region of Mexico.
Golf at Punta Mita
The Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course at Punta Mita has been winning praise since the beginning of this century, frequently topping polls as the best course in Mexico and occasionally showing up near the top for all of North America. A second—and very different—course also designed by Nicklaus opened here in 2009, It's certainly hard for any pair of courses to match the stunning panoramic scenery that's the backdrop of many holes here, especially in the winter when whales are migrating past. I missed whale watching season, but I blamed my triple–bogey on hole 15 of the Bahia course on being distracted by the surfers catching big waves just offshore.
The 7,104–yard, par–72 Pacifico course features eight ocean–side holes, plus the signature Tail of the Whale island hole, which is 199 yards from the coastal tee box. The second Bahia course opened in November of 2009 with a more challenging set of undulating greens. Here five holes run along the ocean and two more have ocean views. This 7,035 yard, par–72 course is closer to the St. Regis resort and straddles several newer housing developments.
The Punta Mita Golf Club feels like a best–of–the–best exclusive country club: only Punta Mita homeowners, villa renters, and guests of either the Four Seasons or St. Regis are allowed to play. From arrival at the well–equipped locker rooms to a drink afterwards at the course–side restaurant, everything is first class. Attendants provide cool scented towels, water, and practice balls and a refreshment cart continuously circles the course. At the 9th hole on each course, an attendant comes to the cart with a cold mango drink, restrooms are air-conditioned, and you can order a hot snack or a beer.
As you would expect at the premier course in such a popular region for golf, everything is impeccably maintained. This doesn’t mean nature takes a back seat, however. Native vegetation is allowed to thrive in areas between the fairways and moisture management sensors keep course watering at only the minimum level needed. Acknowledging the importance of the extensive local wildlife, Punta Mita uses environmentally safe organic fertilizers and uses only biodegradable insecticides on greens bordering the ocean.
I was fortunate enough to play with the resident golf pro when I visited and have knocked a few strokes off my game heeding his advice. He is available for customized lessons to work on specific areas of improvement. Mexico's #1-rated male and female pro golfers are also based here, providing workshops when in town. For more information on facilities, greens fees, and rentals, see the Punta Mita Club de Golf page at the Four Seasons site.
Marina Vallarta Golf Course
As I finished up the ninth hole at the Marina Vallarta course, I was wishing I had played this one first instead of second since the comparison to Punta Mita was not pretty. At 4:30 the clubhouse and bar were already closed, the drink cart had returned to the garage, and I had to hop a fence to a nearby coffee shop to buy something to keep me from dehydrating. Better book a morning tee time!
This course, near the Puerto Vallarta Marina and next to the lovely Casa Velas Hotel, has a reputation as being a nature–lover’s golf course and on that note it did not disappoint. I was only three holes in when I had spotted a baby crocodile, egrets, herons, a huge iguana, and ducks. With “crocodile habitat” signs next to all the ponds, this is not a course where you want to fish around for your lost ball.
Only one hole here has a clear view of Banderas Bay, however, and that is over a rocky seawall with barbed wire. Players come here for the convenient location, exceptionally challenging holes, and bird watching. It's also a short hop from a Marriott, a Westin, and the excellent adult all-inclusive boutique resort Casa Velas, which faces the golf course.
The 6,500-yard, par 71 course was designed by Joe Finger and opened in 1989. It appears deceptively small until you start stepping onto the tee boxes. It doesn’t take long to realize you’ve got a lot of yardage to cover, most of it around bends, through tropical foliage, and over water hazards with steep banks. Slicing or hooking off the fairway here can set up some very difficult approach shots through thick–trunked mature trees and over rolling hills.
It’s hard to hurry on the Marina Vallarta course since there’s always something to look at out of the corner of your eye, like a beautiful crane with pink wings or two turtles ambling out of the water. The less pleasant side effect of all this marshy vegetation is that it’s heaven for mosquitoes; bring strong bug repellant.
This course is a short drive from the airport, so it’s a good place to get a last game in before flying home. Bring a towel and shampoo—neither is provided in the locker room—and you can shower off before heading out.
Many local hotels offer golf packages that include greens fees at Marina Vallarta. Otherwise, rates run $78 to $142 depending on the time of day, including a shared cart. Rental clubs and a driving range (balls included in the greens fees) are available. For more information, see the Marina Vallarta Golf official website.
Vista Vallarta Golf Club
Vista Vallarta is a favorite of local residents and returning tourists in the know. Built into the hills across 478 acres, the Vista Vallarta Club de Golf has two par–72 championship golf courses, both opened in 2001. One was designed by Jack Nicklaus, the other by Tom Weiskopf. The courses offer views of Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta city, and the Sierra Madre Mountains.
This course seldom gets as crowded as the ones that are closer to area hotels, so it's often the easiest one to get a last-minute tee time slot for a duo or foursome. This average golfer found it to be the perfect combination of challenge and fun, with some wide forgiving fairways and gorgeous scenery along the way. Rates at Vista Vallarta are $114 to $212 including a cart and range balls.
Nuevo Vallarta Golf Courses and Riviera Nayarit
El Tigre Golf & Country Club is the closest course to most of the Nuevo Vallarta all-inclusive hotels (including Grand Velas) and is a grand facility with a large restaurant, bar, and gym. With extra–wide fairways but lots of lakes, El Tigre is forgiving to beginning golfers playing conservatively but can challenge experienced players who are more aggressive.
This is technically a country club with membership dues, but El Tigre is open to outsiders and has package arrangements with many Nuevo Vallarta hotels. Greens fees range from $122 to $210 depending on the time of day and season, including a cart and range balls. See more information at the official website
Flamingos Golf is the oldest and most mature of the area’s courses, built in 1970 and still extremely popular today. With rolling hills, lush foliage, and a large concentration of different sea birds, this par–72 course near Bucarías is a favorite of vacationers staying in the many Nuevo Vallarta hotels. This is also one of the more reasonably priced courses in the area, running $49 to $113 (depending on time and season), including cart fees and a regular shuttle to area hotels.
It's right off the highway running between the northern beach areas, like Sayulita and Punta de Mita and the airport, so you could play a round on the way out here before a flight. There's a full locker room, restaurant, and bar.
If you're a fan of timeshares and you have membership in the gigantic Vidanta corporation's pool of fractional owners, you've got access to the newest golf course facilities in the region: Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta. Built on a flood plain along the river that separates Jalisco state from Nayarit, it would seem to be one climate change catastrophe away from disappearing, but there are two 18-hole courses and and par 3 course that have replaced the former corn stalks and vegetable fields.
One course is a par-70, 6,668-yard undulating beauty designed by Greg Norman, with lots of bunkers to challenge experienced golfers. The Nayer Course has the exact same stats and winds around 7 lakes. See more at their website here.
The Litubu Golf Course between Punta de Mita and Sayulita has been an on-again, off-again project for more than a decade and seemed to be off again when we stayed at the Conrad Punta de Mita right next to it in mid-2021. There's no website that we could find, nothing about the course on the Conrad's website, and staffers didn't seem to know when anyone could play on it. If it's back in action when you are nearby, it's an 18-hole, 7022-yard course designed by Greg Norman that has a couple of holes on the water.
More courses will surely pop up in the Riviera Nayarit region in the future, extending north from the Punta de Mita peninsula. We'll update this golf in Puerto Vallarta and Nayarit article when we see new developments welcome their first golfers.
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By Timothy Scott.
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