A Drive to the Bottom of the World in a Subaru
Trekking across the Andes
I may never wear an Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch on the moon, but this isn't bad: I'm wearing a Patagonia shirt in Patagonia.
It was Subaru's ambitious notion to assemble a bunch of Foresters, Crosstreks, and Outbacks in South America and invite a motley crew of rogues such as myself to drive them from Argentina south into Chile and finally back into Argentina to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. And so here I am, hurtling across a sketchy gravel road through the desolate steppes of the Andes mountains—not a village or a gas stop or even so much as another human in sight—and praying my GPS knows where I'm going. Because otherwise I'm going to have to hunt down a guanaco (a sort of ill-mannered llama) and, with my bare hands, somehow persuade it to make me a tuna sandwich.
Patagonia isn't defined by strict borders; instead, it's a vast expanse of southern Chile and Argentina whose boundaries mostly depend on who's doing the talking. Much of it is inexpressibly beautiful—indigo skies, pristine glacial lakes, jagged snow-capped peaks, plains that spill into forever. But that's partly because it's all but untouched by civilization. Getting around, therefore, means planning your fuel burn as carefully as an airplane pilot and essentially leaping from village to distant village like a frog traveling by lily pads. In our case, Subaru eased the range anxiety with a couple of support trucks loaded with dinosaur wine. Yet even with backup, I came within a few miles of running dry and having to hitch a ride on the back of Che Guevara's motorcycle.
South of El Calafate, Argentina, if you do see a sign of humanity, it's usually an estancia (ranch), many of which are hundreds of square miles in size. The landowners are smart; knowing they've got a virtual monopoly on hungry motorists, many estancias feature dining rooms open to the public. At one, I ate the most delicious grilled lamb I've had in my life (not surprising given that more of the same was grazing right outside the door). At another I enjoyed a superb roast chicken. At still another I nearly choked on a chunk of goat cheese so malodorous that it tasted like a goat's pen.
The border crossing into Chile required much scrutiny of various documents, lots of official rubber-stamping, and at least an hour standing around doing nothing until somebody in an incredibly impressive uniform finally came outside the customs hut and raised the lone bar blocking the dirt road. But the wait was worth it, for soon the two-lane was winding into the Torres del Paine National Park—and mountain vistas straight out of a Patagonia catalog. I could barely suppress the urge to purchase a fleece jacket.
Another day's drive led to an evening stopover in Punta Arenas—home to the renowned Shackleton Bar. Named for famed 20th-century polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, the historic, dark-paneled room, with Antarctic photos covering the walls, is a favorite gathering spot for scientists and adventurers headed to the South Pole. You get a good feeling the place is never going to run out of ice.
The road stops suddenly at Punta Arenas. If you want to reach the bottom of the continent, you need to get wet. Or, as we did, drive your Subaru onto a landing craft for a two-hour crossing of the Strait of Magellan. Barely 10 minutes out, an orca surfaced on our port side. A hour later, mid-strait, penguins bobbed and dived. Nearing land, the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, a pod of Commerson's dolphins splashed alongside the bow, seemingly to welcome our flotilla of Subarus. Charles Darwin witnessed these same sights when he plied these waters nearly 200 years ago. But he brought along a Mitsubishi Evolution.
Another long day's drive and—despite a week's worth of rugged running, a few blown tires, and one shattered window—every Subaru in our caravan safely pulled into Ushuaia, the southern end of South America. It's a hard-working port town, function over form, packed with docked research and cruise ships, a few high-end sporting goods stores, and, from the looks of it, about 8,000 pubs. But, hey, we'd driven as low as you can go. Now the only option was to go bottoms up.