Designed by George Fazio and constructed by his nephew Tom Fazio in the early 1970s, Cariari Country Club was the first 18-hole course to be built in Costa Rica – indeed, it was the only championship layout in Central America for nearly twenty years.Once a large coffee plantation in the middle of the Central Valley, close to the city centre of San Jose, Cariari has now matured into an impressive parkland layout with tree-lined, rolling fairways that, unfortunately, are off-limits to most visiting golfers as the course can only be played by members and their guests.
Cariari is the most challenging of Costa Rica’s six major golf courses. Well-maintained, tight fairways with large mature trees lining them require accuracy off the tee. Greens are fair, but in the summer can run super quick. Last time I played in April 2019, they had a couple of bridges out due to bad storms, so the logistics of playing were a bit awkward (they had carts shuttling you around to get to your next hole on two occasions), but I’m pretty sure they’ve got the bridges rebuilt by now.
While I prefer the Papagayo course at the Four Seasons up in Guanacaste for just the views and course conditions, and Valle del Sol for the more relaxed round it offers—if you’re up for a challenge and enjoy grinding golf, Cariari is the place for you! By far the most difficult course in Costa Rica.
There are only a few courses in Costa Rica so by default this is one of the best around. It’s 15 minutes’ drive from the airport with plenty of hotels nearby so if you have an overnight stay in San Jose I say go for it. What better way to utilise a jet-lagged, early wake-up call than a round of golf?
If so, it’s best to email and book in advance as it is a country club. Your hotel should have the contact details, there are plenty within walking distance. I rented clubs, I’m not sure if golf shoes are 100% necessary but I figured they’d also be handy in jungle later on. One bugbear – tee times started from 6am but the pro shop was only open at 7. So I did have a wait before being able to play.
It’s certainly a pristine venue and the clubhouse gives great views. Green fees are so-so, not cheap but a buggy was included. The course was quiet and I was able to get around in 2 hours, 25 minutes. The staff seemed shocked by my quick return so I guess play is often slower. It would have been faster if it wasn’t for all the trees!
Yes, trees. Lots of trees. Cariari is not a driver course, I hit irons off all tees. There is occasionally a little room for error but it does get claustrophobic and repetitive in places. I didn’t have time to warm up but if you do I’d recommend some time on punch-outs. Shots gained punching out is an underrated stat.
There are some scenic holes. The par 3 4th plays down a slope, over a pond and has mountains in the background. The course is reasonably hilly, not terribly so but it would be a long walk on hot days. Much of the front nine is a bit understated and uninspiring but I was happy enough enjoying the novelty of a Central American course and finding stuff like leaf-cutter ants in the rough. The downhill 9th is a cool par 4, it plays down to the deep stream and ravine which runs past the clubhouse. It’s definitely worth a photo or two.
I found the back nine harder. The 10th is impossibly tight, I was going well until losing two balls there. Then my lack of punch-out practice came back to haunt me. 14 is a semi-blind par 5 with all sorts of trouble – that’s what makes Cariari hard, some holes give you no bail out. The par 3 13th was memorable, on its own it’d be a nothing hole but on site it runs along a large river with I guess you could say cheap housing on the other side. It’s not a view or drop you’d have on many courses.
15 and 16 are long par 4s when you can only hit irons, the 18th is downhill to the stream, very pretty and really tight. It also has a devilish green, do not leave your ball behind the hole. I finished my mini adventure with a trademark three-putt. The course was in excellent condition with greenkeepers everywhere, it was a tad boggy in places but it was Costa Rica in the rainy season so that’s not a complaint.
In all, I’m very happy I played there and it is really convenient if you stay local – lots of hotels are a short walk away, some with spas and pools if you have trouble persuading a loved one that you need to stay near a golf course. Maybe mention the spa part first and later ‘discover’ there’s a golf course nearby. Staying near Cariari rather than in central San Jose also means easier transfers on to Manuel Antonio, Monteverde or wherever you’re heading.
Cariara Country Club is a George Fazio design that when completed in 1973 became the first 18-hole golf course ever to be built in Costa Rica or Central America for that matter. This is a private course open to members and their guests, but visitors can play if you book through www.teetimescostarica.com.
Local knowledge is a huge factor here so the mandatory US$25 per cart caddy fee is well worth the cost.
Our guide nicknamed ‘Raffi’ was a 3-handicap and his compadre Christian was a 6 so they obviously know their golf and this course. Our host Fabio Solano told me that “All the club pros in Costa Rica started as caddies here”, so you know you are in good hands. As well he mentioned, the Costa Rica National Team train here and all major championships are played at this club, so you will certainly be in for a challenge.
Last year a huge storm washed away three of their wooded bridges and are still waiting for government approval to re-build them. Unfortunately, you must navigate your way around to detour the river.
Every hole is a test, specially the second hole where it is common to have a 180 to 200-yard approach shot to an elevated green with out of bounds on the right and multiple trees blocking your shot. You will need to play a slight draw to get it close to the hole or you be looking for another ball to hit. Once you are done with this test, the short third hole is no push over. Drive it over a creek onto a tilted landing area and then hit a blind approach shot to a green that you don't want to miss.
The 4th hole is a spectacular downhill par-3 over water but my favorite hole is the par-5 fourteenth hole. An elevated tee shot is followed by a blind second shot that requires you hit a draw and land about 40 yards short of the green, so you can play a precise lob wedge over a giant sand trap. The fifteenth hole is the hardest hole on the course (and that’s saying a lot) and the 18th is a beautiful finishing hole where you have to layup to the river to attack this an amphitheatre green.
Cariara is a mature parkland layout with very tight tree-lined fairways. Plus, there are plenty of low over-hanging branches, so you will need to have a ‘punch shot’ in your arsenal to succeed here. I’d call it “target golf on steroids” having played some of the toughest par-4s you will find anywhere. The Bermuda greens are fast with lots of movement and grain direction will be a major factor. Unfortunately, the bunker sand is very shallow and needs to be replaced. Bring your ‘A’ game and listen to your caddy or be prepared to be humbled.