Both courses are in an area of dry tropical forest (as opposed to rain forest), on rolling land with huge trees--perfect terrain for dramatic golf holes. Garra de León (which translates as "lion's paw") is part of the impressive hotel complex Meliá Playa Conchal. Designed like a self-contained village, the Meliá provides lavish oversize accommodations in small buildings laid out in a cluster set amid the two nines of the course. Shuttles continually ferry guests to the pro shop, the restaurants, the sprawling free-form swimming pool or Playa Conchal itself, a long, palm-shaded stretch of beach made of tiny crushed seashells.
But Costa Rica is lined with beautiful beaches, and the reason for coming here is resort golf in the classic style that Robert Trent Jones Jr. has perfected around the world--wide fairways, short rough and large greens for your average hacker, but plenty of risk and reward for the brave or the foolish.
"It was great fun to work in an ecological wonderland," Jones says. "The feeling is that you come into that valley, and you're in a sanctuary."
The Meliá is also a cultural sanctuary, with many guests never leaving the hotel property.
That's a mistake, for just beyond the Meliá's impressive entrance lies the real Costa Rica. The area's formal tours range from rain forest aerial trams to horseback riding on the beach. But there is more to explore, and when you do, you'll discover that Costa Ricans are perhaps the friendliest people in Latin America. I ventured late one evening to the town of Santa Cruz, about forty-five minutes away, where the local fiesta of the bulls was under way. What I found was a raucous party and bullfighting, Costa Rican style, in which brave and inebriated young men spring into the small ring and demonstrate their foolhardy machismo by touching the bull's horns or grabbing his tail. Although the bulls are never killed, the young men sometimes are, making this strictly a spectator event for tourists.
The next morning I was up at dawn and off to the Flamingo Marina, headquarters to Permit Sportfishing, one of the best companies of its kind in the country. My skipper for the day was Art James, who came here five years ago after raising his kids in Washington state. Like every other American expatriate I met on my trip, Art says he's in Costa Rica to stay.
As we motored into the deep blue waters of the Pacific, the ocean began to put on an impressive display. All around us, schools of small skipjack were feeding on the surface, manta rays were jumping completely out of the water and flying fish zipped fifty feet across the surface with amazing bursts of speed. Soon we were racing along with a vast school of spotted dolphin, stretching from our boat nearly to the horizon.