An Andean condor, one of the world’s largest flying birds, occasionally sails beneath the snowy peak of the Lanín volcano, swoops through a valley and over the fairway at El Desafío Mountain Resort in Patagonia’s northwest region.
Pumas, foxes and wild boars sometimes make their way near the course too, said Alfredo Bauer, who pauses his round of golf whenever he sees animals roaming. Mr. Bauer, 64, from Buenos Aires, built his vacation home at El Desafío, a private golf and polo community about 10 miles outside San Martín de los Andes, a city in Argentina’s Neuquén Province. “It’s still so pure here,” he said. “It’s my favorite place in the world.” El Desafío and the nearby Chapelco Golf & Resort are attracting international golfers seeking to connect with nature and play on courses with stunning views.
Designed by the Hall of Fame golfers Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, these courses have been integrated with the terrain and vegetation, taking a minimalist approach to highlight the pristine surroundings. Nongolfers have gravitated there too, building houses and working with landscape designers to preserve the native wildlife.
San Martín de los Andes is known as the gateway to Patagonia. It lies on the banks of Lago Lácar, one of the many glacial lakes in the district, and borders Lanín National Park, Chapelco Ski Resort and the Patagonian steppe, the largest desert in Argentina. With its many mountain rivers and streams, the region is also known for its fly-fishing.
Desafío executives said the city attracted tourists, mostly from Argentina, Brazil and Chile. They come for events like Tetra Chapelco, a tetrathlon, and the Fiesta Nacional del Montañés, a festival featuring competitive wood chopping.
Chapelco Golf & Resort, a residential and vacation development, hotel, and golfing community named after the nearby Chapelco mountain, opened for play in 2004. Jack Nicklaus and his son Jack Nicklaus II designed its 18-hole course, which was the first to bring the city major golf notoriety. This was the farthest south the PGA Tour Latinoamérica had ever traveled when it hosted the Neuquén Argentina Classic in 2018 and 2019, and it was selected because, according to the PGA, it’s “one of the most beautiful golf venues in Latin America.”
Across National Route 40 is El Desafío. Claudio Hirsch, its founding director, said he quit his Buenos Aires banking job in 1999 and began scouting land to buy in Patagonia. After founding Argentina’s National Parks Foundation in 2002, he came across an opportunity to purchase a 2,500-acre site on a tree-covered mountain four miles from San Martín de los Andes’ airport, which made it accessible despite its remote location. Its landscape could make “tears of joy fall from your face,” he said.
The ecological aspect was an important pillar of the development, maximizing natural areas to ensure the preservation of wildlife. “It was ambitious,” Mr. Hirsch said. “To build what we did on that mountain, it was an amazing thing.”
In 2008, the Dallas-based private equity firm Hicks Trans American Partners joined the project as developers. “We tried to develop a community that would have the best of Patagonia,” said Marcos Clutterbuck, director at El Desafío and partner at Hicks Trans American Partners. Its plans included a real estate development, a golf course, polo fields, equestrian facilities and a nature reserve.
The developers asked Mr. Norman, who had experience with mountain courses, to lead the golf course design team.
He said his vision was for every hole to have an open view of the mountains, volcano or steppe, with houses allowed on only one fairway side to not obstruct the view. Mr. Norman’s team incorporated the topography into the design and created wide corridors that all players could enjoy, but still challenging from the pro tees. “It’s worth the journey all the way to Patagonia,” Mr. Norman said of the course.
The partners said they believed in an eco-friendly approach, using organic liquids instead of chemical fertilizers to treat the greens. They built an irrigation system propelled by gravity, not pumps, that traveled from a reservoir at the mountaintop, to streams and then into pipes.
The first nine holes were completed in 2015, and executives hoped the final nine would be completed in five years.
Jorge Peralta of Patagonia Golf, who has organized golf tours in Argentina for 20 years, said that some of his clients returned to Patagonia to play golf because of the scenery, activities and climate. The golfing season, he said, runs through the Southern Hemisphere’s warmer months of November through March and peaks in January, when there is daylight from about 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. “Golfers are always chasing the sun,” he said.
The lots at El Desafío were placed so as to not disturb the natural habitat. While each buyer chose an architect, the houses are largely modern in design and built primarily with stone and wood siding. There are 240 lots, about two-thirds of which are sold, Mr. Clutterbuck said. Lots start at half an acre, from about $60,000 to $130,000, depending on size.
These Andes golfing communities do not appeal only to lovers of the sport.
“This place is paradise,” said Alicia Sujoy, an architect from Buenos Aires, who vacationed at Chapelco Golf in 2009. Captivated by the area’s wildness, she bought land at El Desafío in 2012. By 2013, she celebrated Christmas in her new home there.
“Here you can find solitude,” she said.
She spends winters and summers there in the 4,062-square-foot sustainable solar-power house she designed using local materials. It has floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the mountains, volcano and steppe. She does not play golf, but the course is her favorite walk, and she takes advantage of the private 1,500-acre reserve, which remains untouched from construction, and, executives said, is reachable only by foot, bike or horseback.
Ms. Sujoy spends most days in her garden, where, under the counsel of the landscape designer Karina Querejeta, she had hundreds of nonnative ponderosa pines removed and planted about 300 indigenous trees. Ms. Querejeta, who has lived in the region her whole life, has clients with houses at El Desafío and Chapelco Golf, and often favors rugged gardens that can support the stress of wind, sun and snow.
“We need strong plants: tough, rustic and resistant, but with color,” she said. “Perfect for Patagonia.”
In a recent phone interview from his Buenos Aires home, Mr. Bauer, who, like other Argentines, has been barred from travel by the government because of the coronavirus pandemic, said he was “absolutely desperate” to return to El Desafío and, more specifically, its fifth hole, which is tucked into the mountain. His house is directly above the green, an ideal space to work during the pandemic.
“The moment this travel ban is lifted, I’m getting in my car and driving to Patagonia,” he said.