When you enter the city limits of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico via car or the airport arrivals gate, the welcome signs display “Puerto Vallarta: La ciudad mas amigable del mundo.” In English, that translates to “The friendliest city in the world.”
Based on my recent experiences visiting this Mexican paradise, it is not only accurate, but almost an understatement.
While safety may be an issue for travelers in some areas of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta almost feels like your friendly neighborhood from back home. The lovely people who live and work in Puerto Vallarta are incredibly warm and kind, and they make Puerto Vallarta a can’t-miss destination to shake off the winter doldrums and play some spectacular golf.
Puerto Vallarta, located in the state of Jalisco, is situated on the southwestern coast of Mexico. The city itself sits at the fulcrum of the Bay of Banderas, and joins Punta Mita and Nuevo Vallarta as a popular vacation destination on Mexico’s Pacific coast. From Dallas, the approximate 1,000-mile journey is an absolute breeze as nonstop flights are available from DFW International Airport, and Southwest provides one-stop flights from Love Field.
On top of the readily available air travel, the accommodation choices in Puerto Vallarta are top notch. Many of the large, well-known resort chains have beachfront properties along the coast, but for this trip I had the pleasure of checking out the exclusive Owners Club, which is part of ClubCorp’s timeshare membership program.
Located only five minutes from the airport, the Owners Club at Marina Vallarta Club de Golf combines the high-quality hospitality that ClubCorp properties are known for with the exclusivity of a second home. There are currently four total Owners Club properties: Barton Creek in Austin, The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., Hilton Head, S.C. and Puerto Vallarta. Each property has a selection of two- and three-bedroom villas or homes that can house between six and 10 people, and are available for member use 27 days each year. The other bonus from this “vacation country club” is the reciprocal access to affiliated ClubCorp properties.
The Owners Club at Puerto Vallarta has a selection of two- and three-bedroom villas that are nicely furnished and much larger than your traditional hotel room (the villas range from 2,000 sq. ft. to 2,700 sq. ft.) A full kitchen and washer and dryer are also included, making this a true home away from home, while the personal jacuzzi and outdoor patio make it the home you wish you lived in permanently. The views of the Marina Vallarta golf course from your balcony don’t hurt, either.
Staying at the Owners Club means you are literally steps away from the Marina Vallarta course and clubhouse. The 6,700-yard course was designed by Joe Finger and opened in 1989. This track is the most urban of the three ClubCorp courses in Puerto Vallarta, as it is bordered by condos and single-family homes, but the lagoons and towering coconut palms keep you in a blissful, tropical state of mind.
Take the signature hole as a perfect example of the coastal serenity: the No. 13 is a straightaway par 3 with the beach as the out-of-bounds border on the left. It has such an incredible view of the Pacific waters that you almost don’t mind the ocean breeze that can occasionally make this 206-yard hole play into the wind. But who cares about clubbing up when you’ve got the opportunity to take a postcard-worthy photo and send it to your golf buddies back home?
You might even catch a glance at some of the exotic wildlife that calls Marina Vallarta home. The birds aplenty are common to U.S. courses, and crocodiles are seen more in the marshy southern courses, but I was shocked to read in the Visitor’s Guide about the small population of peacocks roaming around the property.
Wanting to know if peacocks are native to Mexico, I asked Homero Hernández, the club’s general manger, “Are they wild peacocks?”
“No,” he said. “They like people. They are not wild.”
Hernández then took me around to CasaVelas, a neighboring resort property, in search of a certain resident peacock who is known to enjoy the pool area as much as the guests. When our stroll around the outdoor pavilions left us without a peacock sighting, Hernández apologized because if he “had been there 20 times, the peacock was outside for 19 of them.” Hopefully the course’s most colorful resident will be on display for you when you visit.
Visitors who are looking to spend the majority of their vacation on the golf course will be thrilled to know that Marina Vallarta is only one of the three courses that is managed by ClubCorp in Puerto Vallarta.
Vista Vallarta, the other ClubCorp property and home to two championship 18-hole courses, is tucked farther into the swales of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Although it’s only a 15-minute drive from Marina Vallarta and the Owners Club, the surrounding jungle and dense vegetation make Vista Vallarta an incredible oasis. Golfweek voted Vista Vallarta as one of the top courses in Latin America in 2014 and it’s easy to see why. The native landscape is covered in beautiful shades of deep green hues and sprinkled with the occasional pop of fuchsia from the draping bougainvillea and other local flowers. The vegetation on the 478 acres was so thick prior to construction that designers Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf had to view their canvas by ATV and wield machetes to occasionally cut their way through the brush.
Each course brings its own unique challenge and beauty to your round. The Nicklaus Signature Course is the wider of the two, but it is also a little bit longer. Measuring 7,074 yards from the tips, this par-72 course welcomes your driver and long irons; and although it may be wider than its Weiskopf counterpart, there are creeks, valleys and bunkers abound that are waiting to scoop up an errant shot. Hole No. 6 is a perfect example: spanning 452 yards, this par 4 plays pretty straight, but two deep ravines divide this hole into thirds. From the back tees, a 200-yard drive will barely get you over the first jungle valley. If your tee shot strays a little left or right of the fairway, you’re in the weeds. It’s a fun combination that rewards distance and accuracy together; it’s definitely not a grip it and rip it game here.
However, not all of the holes on the Nicklaus course require swinging out of your shoelaces. Hole No. 13 is a par 4 that plays only 340 yards from the back tees. Hernández likes to point out that longer hitting pros (like Phil Mickelson) can actually pull out their driver and land their tee shot on the green. The dogleg to the left layout, the small thicket of trees situated on the left side of the fairway and the greenside creek don’t seem to pose the pros any problems, but I chose to take the more popular route and aimed for the middle of the fairway.
The courses’ location in the Sierra Madres provides an incredible backdrop for your round, and it also adds great dips and hills in the elevation. If you stand on the tee box on the fourth hole on the Nicklaus course, you can see all the way to the Bay of Banderas and the string of resorts lined up like dominos along the water. Conversely, on certain holes, the cart path dips down into a cool wooded gully before riding back up to the fairway. Even with temperatures in the mid-80s, it can get quite chilly in the shade of the giant palms.
Although both courses at Vista Vallarta are absolutely stunning, my favorite of the two is the Weiskopf Signature Course. While the Nicklaus track gives you sweeping views of the mountainous Mexican paradise, the Weiskopf course plays tighter and is more intimate with the surrounding jungle brush.
This course, which opened in 2001, is only a few yards shorter than the Nicklaus course at 6,993 yards from the back tees. As head professional David Quiroz said, it might be shorter but Weiskopf doesn’t let you off the hook.
“You can really see it in the par 3s here. They might not be long but they’re all protected,” Quiroz said. “He really makes you work for it.”
Such is the case with this course’s signature hole, the 190-yard, par-3 15th. The elevated tee gives you a spectacular look over the forested ravine and the plateaued green that is guarded by five bunkers. During construction of this hole, Hernández said it was the first time in his career that he saw saplings planted horizontally into the base of the hill that the green is perched atop of.
“Their roots grow into the hill and prevent erosion,” he said.
To play the signature hole, accuracy is the name of the game. There are really no safe zones for a miss-hit tee shot. If you ball takes a small hop any direction off the side of the green, there’s a good chance you’re in the sand or rocketing down the hill into the wilderness. This hole is fantastic because it not only showcases the natural beauty of the landscape, but it doesn’t let you rest on your laurels.
After seeing these courses in person, it’s easy to see why Vista Vallarta has been the site of numerous tournament events which include the 2001 NCAA Intercollegiate Ford Championship, the 2002 EMC World Club Championship and a Blue Agave Champions Tour Event in 2006. The staff takes great pride in keeping the conditions in near-tournament quality, and grin ear to ear when they rattle off some of the names of players who have visited before you.
But the fun doesn’t end when you finish a round at the golf course. There are countless ways to make the most of your trip to Puerto Vallarta. Instead of teeing one up in front of one the many ravines in the mountains, why not take a zip line across? Or perhaps take a day trip to Las Caletas, an island off the shore where you can snorkel, swim or simply relax on the beach? Sailing trips and whale watching are popular in the winter months. Hernández noted that humpback whales travel to the Bay of Banderas to have their calves (December through March) as they know there are no sharks or other predators there. The shark-less waters also gave two-legged visitors such as myself peace of mind as well.
One of the biggest perks of staying at The Owners Club is the gracious hospitality of the staff to arrange any activity and dining you prefer, but there is an additional sense of autonomy to explore Puerto Vallarta on your own. If you’re an adventurer who wants to truly immerse yourself in the culture of Mexico, The Owners Club is an excellent way to get an authentic experience. As Quiroz puts it, other popular vacation spots in Mexico lack the charm of Puerto Vallarta.
“I’ve lived everywhere around Mexico,” he said. “Cabo [San Lucas] is great, but it’s basically an extension of Newport Beach. There’s a great culture in Puerto Vallarta.”
The culture, the people, the great food and even better golf make this place an incredible option for your next golf getaway or family vacation. The warmth you’ll feel once you step off the plane isn’t just from the glittering equatorial sunshine – it’s from the local Puerto Vallartans that make you feel like part of their family.