Mexico is no secret to golfers—the gleaming zonas turísticas that hug its Caribbean and Pacific coasts are some of the most popular vacation spots in North America. But there is, of course, more to Mexico, including vibrant inland regions imbued with rich history and culture. This is the Mexico that produced Lorena Ochoa, the brightest star of women’s golf. Ochoa’s hometown of Guadalajara might seem an unlikely destination for golfers, but a closer look reveals a city and surrounding region full of distinctive sights, culinary treasures and first-rate places to play.
“It is such a wonderful city,” Ochoa wrote in reply to a note I sent her while planning my trip. “There is so much to do in Guadalajara. You can’t miss the history—it’s everywhere around you.”
Set on a high plain in western Mexico and surrounded by the verdant, towering Sierra Madre, Guadalajara is the country’s second-largest city, home to 1.6 million tapatíos, as its residents call themselves. You will hear little English as you walk its vibrant streets, although most tourist literature is bilingual and many students are eager to try out their language skills. The Old World–style plazas and squares offer storybook scenes—families sharing picnics, children booting soccer balls—that seem almost too perfect.
In the city center, colonial architecture and a palpable European ambience meld with an indigenous heritage of art and music. Guadalajara is a stronghold of mariachi, and you can catch free performances at the bandstand in the Plaza de Armas or take in a concert at the exquisite Teatro Degollado. The main architectural symbol of the city, the Cathedral, rises to the north of the square and serves as a gateway to the Plaza Guadalajara, a gathering place for street vendors, tourists and locals. Grab a seat in an outdoor café for the simple pleasure of people-watching, or play a game of chess on the steps of the Municipal Palace.
One of the area’s finest courses, and the only one located in the city proper, is Guadalajara Country Club. Ochoa grew up in a house next door, and in November she is to host an invitational here for thirty-six of the LPGA Tour’s top players. The shortish, tree-lined course hugs a narrow valley floor. It was designed in 1953 by Texan John Bredemus, who laid out Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. Like Colonial, Guadalajara Country Club rewards precision, patience and a willingness to throttle back and play position golf. Although private, the club allows reciprocal play by members of other clubs, provided they make advance arrangements.
The same is true with Atlas Country Club, another strong course that has a loyal local membership and welcomes a limited number of unaccompanied guests. The layout, designed in 1969 by Joe Finger, has fairways framed by tall eucalyptus trees and greens that are fast and well sloped. Part of Atlas’s appeal, though, goes beyond the golf. Be sure to stop at the halfway house, Lulu’s, for a plate of savory tacos and perhaps a shot of tequila—an on-course experience you won’t forget. When you reach the tee of the par-three fourteenth, pause for a photograph of the lovely pond and bougainvillea. After you finish, stroll around the club’s hilltop pool and check out the view of the city below.
The newer El Cielo Country Club (Spanish for “The Sky”) hews to a mountain perch high above the city. Enjoy the panoramas but pay attention to the dramatic elevation changes, such as at the short par-four eighth, which plunges more than 150 feet from tee to landing area. By the time you complete the round, you’ll have earned a cold beer on the scenic patio next to the first tee.
A short drive from Guadalajara—along the well-traveled path to the town of Tequila —lies El Río Country Club, a Jack Nicklaus course that anchors a real estate community. Nicklaus’s design team took full advantage of the rugged foothills, fashioning broad fairways that traverse heaving swales and sidestep intimidating native areas. Ochoa is the club’s touring pro.
Just minutes outside the city center, Villa Ganz is a warm and welcoming nine-room inn in a converted mansion. Authentic furnishings, handcrafted accents and secluded gardens create the air of a country estate.
For a more bucolic setting, try the Hacienda El Carmen Hotel & Spa. This luxury resort occupies a former convent that dates back to the eighteenth century and retains its original colonial architecture. Its restaurant draws extensively from the private gardens and orchards that are located on the grounds.
Tasty local fare— including the torta ahogada, a beloved pork-and-bean sandwich often kicked up with picante sauce—can be found at one of the city’s many street carts or lunch counters, which are almost always just a few steps away. The choicest spot is Las Originales Hermanas Coraje, located near downtown.
Guadalajaran history comes alive during a dinner at La Fonda de San Miguel. If this building, another former convent, could talk, it would regale you with the legends of various occupants, including nuns, soldiers and students. Go with regional specialties such as the molcajete, a rich stew of fried chicken and vegetables served in a stone bowl.
On the recommendation of Ochoa, I also dined at El Abajeño, just off the circle at the Minerva statue. This casual courtyard restaurant is a gathering place for young people and features an excellent in-house mariachi band. Traditional Mexican fare, savored with tequila or sangria, is the order of the day.
The cutting edge of Guadalajara’s culinary scene can be found at I Latina, where the combined Asian and Mediterranean influences attract an eclectic clientele of hip locals and savvy travelers.
The Tequila Trail
You can’t leave without learning about the region’s most renowned export. Hire a driver or hop on the Tequila Express train and travel an hour and a half northwest to the agave-studded hillsides of the Tequila volcano. The town itself, a short bus ride from the end of the train line, was settled in the fifteenth century, and a frontier feel remains. For the most comprehensive look into the mystical appellation, visit Casa Herradura, with its courtyards, gardens and gleaming copper stills, and Mundo Cuervo, headquarters of José Cuervo. The adobe Cuervo distillery has graced the village square since 1795, and the tour of its works is a fascinating journey from field to bottle.
Guadalajara’s international airport is one of Mexico’s busiest transportation hubs. It’s served by numerous U.S. carriers.
Guadalajara Country Club (4 1/2 stars)
John Bredemus, 1953.
Atlas Country Club (4 stars)
Joe Finger, 1969.
El Río Country Club (4 stars)
Jack Nicklaus, 2007.
El Cielo Country Club (3 1/2 stars)
Victor Langham, 1997.
Hacienda El Carmen Hotel & Spa
Las Originales Hermanas Coraje
La Fonda de San Miguel
011-52/ 333-613-0809, lafondadesanmiguel.com. $$