EL CALAFATE – Patagonia, Argentina – Three things you need to know about driving in this rugged but insanely beautiful corner of South America: (1) The mountainous Patagonia region, which spreads into both Argentina and Chile, is nearly the size of Texas yet contains fewer than 2 million inhabitants—so outside of a few urban areas the odds of finding a gas station are about as good as seeing a “Vote Hillary!” sticker on Ted Nugent’s Armalite, (2) Patagonia may be largely devoid of civilization and cars, but there’s still a good chance you’ll have an accident, thanks to narrow, often massively rutted dirt roads and abundant wild guanacos—a sort of ill-mannered llama with a natural instinct for darting right into the path of onrushing Japanese crossovers, (3) when you stop for lunch at the only estancia (ranch) around for hundreds of miles, you may well eat the best grilled lamb you’ve ever had in your life—along with a slice of goat cheese that tastes exactly like a goat’s pen.
It was Subaru’s ambitious idea to gather up a bunch of Foresters, Crosstreks, and Outbacks and invite a motley crew of journalists (I know, that’s redundant) down to South America to drive them through the wilds of Patagonia to Ushuaia, the southernmost city on Earth. Events like this are a good idea for several reasons: They generate publicity for the automaker, they give auto scribes a chance to sample a maker’s iron in unusual conditions, and it’s fun to watch journalists gag on rank Chilean goat cheese. Not knowing any better, I jumped at the offer.
A day after flying south from Buenos Aires into El Calafate—a lively outpost of about 20,000 on the shores of Lake Argentino featuring the usual mix of eateries, tacky souvenir shops, and, on the day of our visit, one very dead horse—our merry band straps into our Subies, guns them south to begin our journey, and almost immediately runs straight into a giant wall of ice. The Perito Moreno glacier towers 250 feet above the waterline of Lake Argentino, covers roughly 100 square miles, and is said to be the world’s third-largest reserve of fresh water (after, I believe, Lake Superior and the sultan of Brunei’s private stockpile of bathing Perrier). It’s an awesome sight to behold: a seemingly endless mass of craggy, blue-tinted ice that and creaks and pops, rumbles like thunder, and, every few minutes or so, sheds another huge chunk of itself into the frigid water below (to much applause and cheering from the onlookers gathered at water’s edge). Roughly every four years, a massive dam of ice that forms across one arm of the lake ruptures in spectacular fashion—and on the day of our visit we’re on “any moment now” status. Alas, despite attempting to bomb it by yelling “bazooka!” and “dynamite!” and “Battlefield Earth!” as loud as we can, today the ice dam stands firm. (Less than three weeks later, it finally explodes onto evening newscasts around the globe.)
Later that same afternoon, still on a narrow dirt two-lane, we arrive at the high-security gate arm that sort of blocks our entrance into Chile. Inside the nearby border control shack, we produce the requested travel documents and the customs agent makes an impressive show of scrutinizing them for capital offenses before slamming down several official-looking rubber stamps. Then with everything inked and approved, we stand around outside for an hour or so until another agent with brightly colored epaulettes on his sweater proudly emerges to raise the bar and wave us into Chile. I wonder what sort of seniority is required to become commandant major, Border Defenses & Gate Lifting.
The Forester I’m driving at the moment is taking a beating on this stretch, thanks to a road surface that resembles what a Brillo pad looks like under a microscope. But it doesn’t complain (having 8.7 inches of ground clearance helps, too). My co-driver and I even manage to converse (on everything from politics to favorite Richard Pryor routines) without incident or our brains being pummeled into jelly. But another team isn’t so fortunate: Driving far too fast for the road conditions, they blow a tire. As we get closer, their Crosstrek is already up on its jack, the gashed tire lying dead in the road. Seeing our colleagues in trouble, of course we stop. To take a picture.
Several hours later, we arrive at a sight that momentarily has me blinking my eyes in disbelief. Amid a sprawling field—nothing else around except a stunning lake, distant mountains, and more suicidal guanacos—stands a wildly modernist building partly buried into the rolling ground and looking for all the world like it was stolen from the set of a James Bond movie. This is the Tierra Patagonia Hotel, a wood and glass monolith housing an indoor pool, an award-winning restaurant, and, importantly for weary journalists such as ourselves, a bar. I have no idea how this isolated garrison some 3,600 miles below the equator manages to stock up on Jack Daniel’s (I’m guessing specially trained ferry guanacos), but Tennessee’s Old No. 7 Brand sour mash is here in splendid supply. Better take another sip to make sure I’m not dreaming.
The next day we take a brief respite from the wheel to do a little hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park. First we board a ferry boat for a short ride across a glacial lake so ridiculously turquoise it looks Photoshopped (makes sense: “paine” means “blue” in the local native language). Then we hike for several hours through the rolling steppes toward the French Valley, in the distance the snow-capped eastern spur of the Andes mountains soaring high against a cobalt sky. It’s an epic view in every direction, yet even after six years there’s abundant evidence of the forest fire—started by a careless backpacker—that swept through the area in early 2012. Fortunately, most of the landscape has rebounded, and the area’s renowned dark-blue calafate berries are back and thriving. Our guide informs me that, according to tradition, if you eat one, you’ll come back to Patagonia. Well then, I’ll have several.
The next day’s drive down to Punta Arenas, on the north shore of the Strait of Magellan, is a long, dirt-road slog through the Magallanes Region—mountains, glaciers, lakes, and a few villages, one of which we stop in for a lunch of excellent roast chicken and more horrific goat cheese. Further on, we pass through an area where remains of the long-extinct giant ground sloth have been discovered. Sure enough, at the entrance to a nearby town a huge statue of the prehistoric sloth materializes to welcome us with open claws. Later, after yet another guanaco near-miss (the crazy beast charged right at our Forester, clearly an attempt at insurance fraud), we safely pull into Punta Arenas. After days in the endless emptiness, driving through a city so bustling (population: around 110,000) feels like leaping into a mosh pit.
Founded in 1848, Punta Arenas is a busy Chilean shipping port and a popular hangout for visitors headed to the area’s numerous nearby penguin colonies. It’s also where, in 1916, after a death-defying journey via lifeboat, famed British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton arrived seeking aid in rescuing the men from his latest expedition, most of whom were marooned on an Antarctic island after their ship, Endurance, had become trapped in the ice before finally sinking. He found the help he needed at the magnificent downtown mansion of José Nogueira, one of the “pioneers of Patagonia” and, in terms of business success, the Warren Buffett of his time. Nogueira helped arrange the borrowing of the Chilean naval vessel Yelcho, which successfully rescued Shackleton’s entire crew (the men had been stranded on the ice for two years). Today, the mansion has been transformed into the José Nogueira Hotel, and within it lies the handsome, wood-paneled Shackleton Bar, a favorite hangout for scientists and adventurers headed to Antarctica. The walls are adorned with paintings and memorabilia honoring Shackleton, the leather chairs are big and inviting. The best part: There isn’t one damned guanaco around for miles.
Our final day is the Big Push, roughly 400 miles—much of it still unpaved—all the way down to the southernmost city on Earth, Ushuaia. Thing is, from Punta Arenas you can’t just drive there: First you have to get to the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, which lies on the other side of the Strait of Magellan. Thus, early in the morning our Subaru convoy boards a gargantuan landing craft for a two-hour trip across the water. We’re barely 10 minutes out of the harbor when an orca appears off our port side. An hour later, we spot Magellanic penguins bobbing and diving off our bow. Finally, as we approach the dock on Tierra del Fuego, a pod of Commerson’s dolphins completes the welcome wagon by splashing alongside. It’s all very National Geographic.
The northwestern corner of Tierra del Fuego might even be more remote than the Patagonia interior. There’s more to look at in a nudist’s closet. True, for much of the drive the Strait of Magellan sparkles off to one side, but the land itself is drab and featureless—just miles and miles of colorless scrub brush under an overcast sky. Right now I’d almost welcome a few lunatic guanacos just to spice things up a bit.
For this leg my co-driver and I have snagged an Outback 3.6R, and it’s proving a shrewd choice. It’s big and comfy, the 256-hp flat-six powers us along with relaxed ease, and the all-wheel-drive chassis is fortified with everything from active torque vectoring, X-Mode traction assist, and Vehicle Dynamics Control. On this rutted road, you can actually feel the systems working to keep us on the straight and narrow. The few other travelers we encounter seem to prefer bicycles.
In a place this unpeopled, you don’t have “range anxiety.” You have “range dread.” No way are you going to find a gas station out here. You’ve got a better chance of bumping into a live taping of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Fortunately, Subaru has planned ahead; spaced out in our convoy are a couple of support trucks loaded with dinosaur wine. Yet until we finally, miraculously cross paths with our gas angel, my co-driver and I come within a few miles of running dry and having to hitch a ride on the back of Che Guevara’s motorcycle.
After yet another interminable border crossing—this time back into Argentina—my partner and I agree that it’s time to put the hammer down. Ushuaia by nightfall—or bust. At last, we come upon a major, paved highway, so the miles roll on quickly. Near Cabo San Pablo, we make one detour to check out the massive rusting hulk of the Desdemona, a cargo ship that, after an engine failure during a 1985 storm, was deliberately beached to save its cargo (normally you’d say “precious cargo,” but the ship was loaded with cement). Unfortunately, before the engine could be repaired a fire broke out, and the ship was permanently abandoned. At low tide you can drive right up to it.
After a few camera snaps we’re back on the asphalt and gunning for the end of the world. And soon enough, we get there: a pair of spire-topped stone columns on either side of the road welcome us into Ushuaia. Short of setting out for a research encampment on Antarctica, this is as low as you can go—and, for sure, this is the southernmost point on the planet at which you can (a) buy a Patagonia fleece jacket, (b) sleep in a hotel with a front desk and Wi-Fi, and (c) hit a nightclub packed with partiers and booming with trance music. Despite a few blown tires and one shattered window, every Subaru in our convoy has completed the voyage to the bottom, passengers intact and happy.
Ushuaia is a hard-working sailors’ town, its various structures built for function over beauty, its streets lined with adventure outfitters, shipping services, and plentiful pubs for the thirsty seagoers now back on land. At the docks, cruise ships, cargo carriers, and scientific vessels lie ready for their next voyages. You get the sense that many of the people here are on their way to somewhere else.
Yet even in this roughed-edge place, we find an absolutely exquisite little hole-in-the-wall for our farewell dinner. I’m bantering with my colleagues when the chef approaches our table. “How do you like your meal, señor?” he asks.
Having worked in a restaurant in college, I’m always straight when servers or chefs query about how I like their food. “It’s amazing,” I reply. “But my beef … it seems a little tougher than I expected.”
“But of course, señor,” says the chef, “that is not beefsteak.”
“Oh?” I reply, eyebrows raised. “What is it?”
Opening his arms, the chef smiles proudly. “Guanaco!”