Ushuaia is a weird town to call the capitol of Tierra del Fuego – the stunning Argentine province-cum-geographic footer for all of South America. Typical of a port city, it impresses instantly as a little damp and dirty; vaguely uncouth and almost certainly naughty if you take a moment to look around corners and behind doors. It smells like fryer oil and burning diesel and fish, all held in stew with low clouds and grotty sea air. There are cruise ships, but they seem anxious to be elsewhere.
The southernmost city on the planet is a hilarious anticlimax, in other words, to the sweep and scope of continent that I’ve just driven over and through. A beer-soaked period on a thousand-mile, impossibly landscaped journey across a rugged Eden.
Standing on the streets of Ushuaia, the view at sea level isn’t nearly so impressive as the view of the town on a map, where it dangles like a dare. Nor is it quite so formidable as the layer of grime on the Subaru Forester I’ve just stepped out of. It’s been a long trip.
How I Got Here
The idea was as straightforward as the reality was lunatic: A handful of motoring journalists would essentially commandeer the Chilean Subaru press fleet and drive it across a breathtaking stretch of Patagonia. In my case, that meant a 13-hour hop from Detroit, to Atlanta, to Buenos Aires – half a day exploring the sidewalks and Thai restaurants of that city – followed by another haul to the trekkers paradise of El Calafate. From there, forgiving a few-hour boat ride across the Straights of Magellan, it’s all driving.
Subarus have a reputation for unassuming ruggedness and capability. The drive from El Calafate to Ushuaia should put that to the test.
Driving that will take place in cars I am well familiar with. Unlike most far flung automaker junkets, Subaru has a different agenda than launching a new product here in Patagonia. We’re six-cars strong (not counting support vehicles): two examples each of the Crosstrek, Forester, and Outback. All of the vehicles are veterans of these roads, with thousands of kilometers on their clocks to date; one of the Crosstreks is even a pre-facelift 2014 model. The point isn’t displaying the new, but application of the existing; evaluating the suite of all-wheel-drive ability and overall functionality, in one of the world’s most appealing and changeable destinations.
At least here in the U.S., Subaru vehicles carry a reputation for unassuming ruggedness and capability. The drive from El Calafate to Ushuaia, with no excuses able to be offered for “pre-production” vehicles, should put that reputation to the test.
The Finest Subarus In Chile
El Calafate is a staging point, not just for me and my compatriots, but for any number of hikers, bikers, yuppies, and hippies. The downtown of this portal to Patagonia is littered with activewear stores – of course there’s a Patagonia shop – and places to eat and drink. It reminds me of a Spanish-speaking version of resort / skiing towns I’ve seen in Northern Michigan, Colorado, Maine, etc. There are stray dogs everywhere, but also a casino and places to buy expensive coffee. The waypoint for view-thirsty travelers, no matter what their budget and conveyance.
The reason for the town’s booming streets is its relative proximity to the Perito Moreno Glacier, and the surrounding Los Glaciares National Park. The driving portion of the trip begins in ernest here: a 75-mile round trip from my hotel, to the face of glacier, and back to downtown El Calafate.
As stopovers on driving programs go the glacier is immediately on my list of favorites, despite the lack of snacks.
After the hijinks of leaving a hotel ‘driveway’ that could double as a rally stage, this is also the most civilized section of roadway I’ll see for the next three days. Route 11 is a well surfaced paved road that winds along the chalky blue waters of Lake Argentino, flanked by mountains, and west towards the park.
This first stretch of road is remarkable for the number of places I want to stop and take pictures. Like a college freshman, housed on Miller Lite and taking his introductory trip to the strip club, I barely know where to look first. Every roadside is awash in liquid light, with some combination mountain peak / magnificent cloud formation / rolling hill / grassy expanse composing impossible backgrounds.
The glacier covers nearly 100 square miles and has a face that’s over 200 feet high. As stopovers on driving programs go it’s immediately on my list of favorites, despite the lack of snacks. I spend about 60 minutes more than our schedule allows: climbing the walkways of the hills opposite the sheet ice, taking pictures, inhaling lungfuls of ancient-seeming air, and marking how even bussed-in tourists seem quieter out here.
I grew up in western Michigan, on the lakeshore. A place flattened and scooped by glaciers, and lovely, but not really dramatic for the ancient incursion, so much as softened and cleared. The Moreno Glacier makes plain what Earth science classes have been telling me for years: the ice is a ragged knife culling chunks of our planet into mountains and gouged valleys. I recommend El Calafate as a field trip for your fifth graders.
Hit The Dirt
I’m here to drive, not hike. And our little class trip drives south in a pattern that will repeat itself for the next four days: see something mind blowing, take a hundred pictures, get back in the car and start charging.
The roads soar into the mountains as we head south, and they’re paved and well looked after for the first hours of driving. But as we draw closer to the Chilean border we’re asked to turn off the highway for a 40-mile shortcut on a wide, wavy dirt road. That stretch of gravel is useful beyond cutting a great deal of distance off between our lunch and our eventual destination near the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile; it also sets the expectation for the most of the rest of the trip.
Using rough numbers, I figured I logged 1,000 miles as a Subaru driver or passenger during my week in South America, and can safely guess that 60 percent of that total was racked up on dirt roads.
As soon as we hit the dirt the car’s undercarriage is alive with the sounds of bombardment.
For the indoctrinating stretch I’m in the plushest vehicle in our fleet: the Outback 3.6R. The big, handsome wagon has a quiet, almost plush ride when piloted on pavement, but the gravel is a different story. As soon as we hit the dirt, surfaced with varying depths and gauges of loose stone, the car’s undercarriage is alive with the sounds of bombardment. Each vehicle in our convoy – pushed by our collective desire to drive as fast as possible always, and by the fact that our lead car is a Toyota Hilux wearing Pirelli Scorpions – expels a 20-foot rooster tail of dust and scree.
Before crossing that back road from Argentina to Chile, the sum total of my life experience driving on gravel over 50 miles per hour probably amounted to less than an hour in duration. But making time on loose surfaces is a way of life down here, and I’m forced to get comfortable. The Outback, like all of our Subarus, is on all-season street tires. Over about 55 mph it feels like its sliding over the ground, rather than gripping it. On more than one occasion – hell, on a hundred occasions over the next days – I can feel the car pulled into a low spot on the road, or a deeper bit of fresh gravel, then right itself as I power through, the all-wheel-drive system kind of casually doing its bit to keep me pointed straight at the horizon ahead.
After crossing into Chile, the next two days are spent exploring Torres del Paine and the surrounding area. The roads in and around the park probably seem utilitarian to most tourists to this place, but they’re like a playground to me, having successfully cut my teeth in the gravel.
I grabbed a Forester for a solo drive through the park on my first day (then later a Crosstrek), and GoPro’d as much of the experience as I could, as you can see in the fast-motion video here.
Arguably Subaru’s nerdiest crossover, the Forester was hands down my favorite vehicle for the rest of the trip, and for this driving style. The added bit of ride height not only allowed me the confidence to pull onto the strangely shaped road shoulders I encountered, but it also cut back on the racket from stones on the underbody. The softer, more compliant suspension setup works well for the dips and swales of back roads, too, soaking up those surfaces while keeping me reasonably flat behind the wheel.
The net effect, on park roads that wind, and climb, and dive, was some pretty thrilling driving: powering over rises and connecting up corners with the adrenaline-tingling looseness under me at all times. Not bad for a Mom-mobile.
The whole lineup has a casual confidence that Subaru owners should appreciate, even if their driving is more Pittsburgh than Patagonia.
This is country rife with old Land Cruisers and pickups, where I run into German tourists in Earth Roamers and where the landscape can get extreme enough for the toughest 4x4s to earn their way. The Subaru Forester doesn’t fit with that group, to be sure, but it does fit in down here. The whole lineup I drove, in fact, has a casual confidence that Subaru owners should appreciate, even if their driving is more Pittsburgh than Patagonia. Get in and go. The genius of these Subaru CUVs, is that they won’t leave you worrying about getting out, getting stuck, or getting dirty.
South – always south – from Torres del Paine and to Puerto Natales, and then a long haul to Punta Arenas which borders the Straits of Magellan. We load our dusty convoy onto a creaking ferry, and I watch unbelieving as penguins and dolphins cross our path across the seaway. We land on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, and follow the rolling coast for a stretch before turning inland for Argentina.
Eventually our path becomes more conventional and paved as we wind our way down to Ushuaia, but not before hundreds of clicks of rough roads, and a litany of minor tragedies to our cars. (Sorry, again, motoring journalists of Chile.)
We’ve managed to use our full allotment of spare tires.
Before we hit pavement, one of our final side trips is to a remote and hardly marked shipwreck of a vessel named Desdemona. (Quick aside: if this thing were in the States there’d be a $15 entrance fee and t-shirts to buy; here you take one wrong turn down the sandy two-tracks and suddenly you’re on a legitimate ghost beach.) It’s here, topping up the gas tanks from the 50-gallon drum of fuel we’ve strapped to the bed of one of the Hilux, that I do a short survey of the fleet.
There isn’t a windshield in the group that is completely whole; at some point or another every driver among us crept too close to the car in front, earning a hail of stones and chipped glass as a reward. One of the Outbacks has a spiderwebbed quarter light window from a larger, and weirdly angled piece of flying debris. There’s a foglight that stopped working at some point, though it isn’t cracked. We’ve managed to use our full allotment of spare tires, too, though no catastrophic blowouts took place at speed. Every interior is muddy, and crumby, and smells fully like unwashed dude. But the worst damage is to the painted body panels, which are pocked and crossed with hairline scratches.
That said, the cars are functionally whole and healthy, if cosmetically altered. Should all flights out of Ushuaia have been cancelled, I’ve no doubt we could have driven the thousand miles back without a big issue. Like a good raincoat or your grandpa’s pocket knife, these are cars that feel better when they’re a little used, and welcome the work.
Subaru has been toiling away for decades, building machines that are placid and confident in 90-percent situations, but with just enough ability to deal with 95th-percentile near-emergencies. Deep snow, steep grades, slippery backroads, flooded driveways; your average Outback might not make an appearance on the Rubicon, but it’ll get you home safely in most realistic scenarios. It’s no different at the end of the world, where competency is the price of admission.
The furthest south I made it, in the final analysis, was a disco on the waterfront in Ushuaia. A long night of celebration led me there on unsure steps, and the ‘night’ ended with a surprise cascade of morning light over the slick, shimmering harbor. Six hundred miles from Antarctica, and a day removed from the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen, I flew out heartsick for leaving, and hungover. It was a good trip; a dusty diamond of a memory; a filmstrip of roads and miles that I hope to close my eyes and recall when I’m long past my own days of driving.