PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico -- Just a few hours after I arrived in Puerto Vallarta, a local -- perhaps noticing I was in severe need of a sun-tan -- grinned and offered, "Welcome to the jungle."
And he didn't even know I was traveling with golf gear.
This tourist hot spot on Mexico's Pacific Coast might be best known as a beach destination, but Vista Vallarta Golf Club -- where Jack Nicklaus designed one championship-calibre course and Tom Weiskopf mapped out another -- is proof the intrigue doesn't end at the shoreline.
"These are the only mountain courses in town. They're the only two courses in the jungle, period," said KC Crandall, the general manager of the 36-hole setup at the base of the Sierra Madre mountain range.
"We have a totally different experience up here. You can see all the big mountains. If you turn and look the other way, you can see the water. It's just a very cool experience."
A unique experience, too.
Vista Vallarta Golf Club: The courses
Chances are, your home course doesn't look anything like this. There are four other courses within a reasonably short taxi ride of Puerto Vallarta's tourist corridor, and they don't look anything like this, either.
With tricky multi-tiered greens and deep bunkers, the Nicklaus Course at Vista Vallarta gets most of the hype. The 7,073-yard track was the site of the 2002 WGC World Cup -- members are still buzzing about Phil Mickelson's course-record 62 on the third day of the two-man team competition, although Team Japan took home the trophy -- and the Champions Tour's Blue Agave Golf Classic in 2006.
Vista Vallarta's Weiskopf Course is more intimidating off the tee, with thick brush on both sides of several fairways and little room for galleries. Although the 6,976-yard layout has never been the site of a tour event, it's arguably more popular among the members.
Spread across 500 acres of jungle about 20 minutes from Puerto Vallarta's international airport, Vista Vallarta is the only 36-hole facility on the local golf map. However, Crandall maintains, a clubhouse and practice facility are about all the Nicklaus Course and Weiskopf Course have in common. Originally from San Diego, Crandall has been on staff since even before the earth-movers arrived in 2000 and says it became apparent during the design phase the two tracks at Vista Vallarta would have their own distinct feel.
"They're both signature golf courses, so they're both very well designed and very playable for all different levels of golfers. But if you play one, you have to play the other, because they're not similar at all," Crandall said. "We moved heaven and earth to build the Nicklaus Course, and when we built Weiskopf, very little dirt was moved. We built it right into the lower end of the jungle.
"Weiskopf, in particular, wanted to maintain the integrity of the jungle, with all the higher-up trees and that stuff that you see up there. On the Nicklaus Course, he left a few of the large trees, but he went in there and basically leveled everything and created the experience. So these two golf courses are just night-and-day, as far as the golf."
Vista Vallarta and Marina Vallarta Golf Club -- which is operated by the same company and located just minutes from the airport -- offer stay-and-play packages with several resorts in the area.
Vista Vallarta Golf Club: The verdict
When you take your golf clubs to a spot known for sun and sand, it's usually with illusions of cliff-top challenges and Pebble Beach-esque vistas.
You won't find that at Vista Vallarta. You'll get an occasional long-distance look at the ocean from either course, but don't expect to be bashing your Titleist over any salt-water hazards.
That doesn't mean it's not worth the trip. Whether you book a tee-time on the Nicklaus Course or Weiskopf Course (or both), you'll be surrounded by thick and tangled vegetation, the side of this sun-spot that most of the tourists never see.
Puerto Vallarta is fortunate to have miles of sandy shoreline, but you can find beauty in the jungle, too. It's just not easy to find stray golf balls in it, so maybe bring a couple of extras along if you occasionally pack your hook or slice on your vacation.