If you want to efficaciously beat the hell out of your vehicle, and you have a wide-open week to execute the process, drive the machine to the “End of the world” — Patagonia, the furthest navigable tip of the vast South American continent.
Gravel roads laden with knife-edged rocks, unexpected foot-deep potholes, incessant high winds, and about 500,000 wild Guanacos — each eagerly determined to jump in the path of a moving vehicle — make the journey unquestionably treacherous, even if it is one of the most visually stunning treks on the planet.
So why has Subaru flown us all the way to distant Patagonia — the southernmost reaches of Argentina and Chile — to drive its crossovers? It’s simply because the Japanese automaker has a wondrous sense of world adventure backed by an extraordinary level of confidence in its products.
Shipping a fleet of U.S.-spec cars to the Southern Hemisphere is no easy task — the paperwork alone would fill the bed of a BRAT — so Subaru wisely secured six crossovers from the Chilean fleet pool that our group from the States would rendezvous with in El Calafate, Argentina. While the vehicles would not be configured identically to North American models (most notably lacking many of our standard creature comforts and some safety equipment), the powertrains and driving dynamics are virtually identical.
The six cars that were lassoed into in the ring comprised a mix of the automaker’s crossovers:
Subaru Crosstrek XV — The smallest and least powerful in the group is fitted with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder boxer engine rated at 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mated to Subaru’s Lineartronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), bolted to a permanent all-wheel-drive system. With a curb weight of 3,109 pounds, it earns EPA fuel economy ratings of 26 city/34 highway.
Subaru Forester XT — The middleweight in the group is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder boxer engine rated at 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The engine is bolted to a Lineartronic CVT, with manual shift modes and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, that sends the power to Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system. With a curb weight of 3,366 pounds, it earns EPA fuel economy ratings of 23 city/28 highway.
Subaru Outback 3.6R — The heavyweight is fitted with a 3.6-liter six-cylinder boxer engine rated at 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. Like its siblings, its gearbox is a Lineartronic CVT that sends power to a Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system. With a curb weight of 3,814 pounds, it earns EPA fuel economy ratings of 20 city/27 highway.
Every automaker appears to be offering crossovers these days, but Subaru walks a unique gait. As mentioned in the above specifications, all of its vehicles are fitted with boxer engines, meaning the cylinders are horizontally opposed (just like in a Porsche 911). This cylinder arrangement helps lower the center of gravity to improve handling. It is also important to note that each of Subaru’s crossovers boast 8.7 inches of ground clearance (that’s the same as the Jeep Cherokee optioned with the Trailhawk off-road package). Even though none are fitted with low-range transfer cases, which multiply the gear ratios for extreme off-road duty, the Forester and Outback offer an “X-Mode” that optimizes the all-wheel-drive system when the going gets really rough.
In addition to the five Subarus, we are joined by a Toyota Hilux SW4, which is tasked with carrying everyone’s luggage (so we have room for spare tires in our trunks), and a Toyota Hilux pickup, which carries more spare tires and a 55-gallon drum of unleaded gasoline in its bed. This Hilux will always play sweeper, being the last in our caravan.
Day One — Los Angeles to El Calafate
There is no direct flight to El Calafate, Argentina, from Southern California, so I make the trek in three legs: Los Angeles to Houston, Houston to Buenos Aires, and Buenos Aires to El Calafate. All told, it’s about 18 long hours in the air, which makes breaking up the trip with an overnight stay in Argentina’s cosmopolitan capital of Buenos Aires a very wise idea. Finally, after two days of travel, I arrive at hotel EOLO. The hotel literally stands alone, in the middle of a vast mountain-rimmed plain about 17 miles from downtown El Calafate (population 22,000). It is early afternoon, and technically summer in the Southern Hemisphere, but we are so far south on the globe that the outside temperature is in the mid 50s.
El Calafate is on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and I am eager to explore, so I grab the keys to an available Outback 3.6R and go for a drive. Nearby Lake Argentino dominates the scenery, and for good reason. It is the largest freshwater lago in Argentina, fed by glacial meltwater, and its mineral-laden turquoise blue depths contrast in spectacular fashion against the fresh wild daisies coloring the vast grasslands.
The all-wheel-drive Subaru is unchallenged by the smooth asphalt roads or by the well-groomed dirt roads, although its clean black paint is now hidden beneath a thin layer of dust — a taste of what’s to come. I drive about an hour in a haphazard direction before deciding I’ve got plenty of pictures. Typically, I’d use the vehicle’s built-in navigation unit to get back to the hotel, but my hosts had warned that it lacked the regional database. Instead, each vehicle has prudently been outfitted with a portable Garmin GPS — I’ve got the hotel’s coordinates saved in its favorites, so returning to my point of origin takes but 30 minutes.
Day Two — El Calafate to Torres del Paine National Park
Temperatures plummet overnight due to a brief rainstorm, which delivers an unanticipated light dusting of powder-white snow on the tall mountains surrounding the hotel. I give up the keys to the six-cylinder Outback and lose some displacement in favor of selecting a turbocharged Forester XT from the hotel’s dirt parking lot. The coordinates of our next destination are entered, and a few minutes later my driving partner and I are heading due west toward one of the Argentina’s biggest tourist draws.
Located inside Glacier National Park is Perito Moreno Glacier. Measuring an impressive 19 miles in length and with a three-mile-wide terminus (the scientific term for the end of a glacier), the sheet of broken ice towers a colossal 250 feet above Lake Argentino. We park the Subaru a few miles from the end of the road and take a short bus ride to the visitor center — well, what’s left of it after a fire had consumed the entire structure the previous night. The views of the glacier are breathtaking (the sheer size of the icepack is nearly incomprehensible). Our 90 minutes at the overlook are far too short, but we are fortunate to witness a massive chunk of ice — about the size of a football field — break off the glacier and plummet into the frigid water. The shattering ice booms and echoes through the valley, and the resulting waves ripple across the lake for miles.
Comfortably back in the Forester, and out of the frigid wind, we retrace our steps southeast on lightly traveled paved roads until we hit El Cerrito, which marks our turnoff to a 42-mile dirt road. We have driven far enough east that we are now in the middle of the South American Plain — the surrounded landscape is flat, startlingly arid, and nearly desolate. In a bit of forewarning, the road’s entrance is marked by a menacing scarecrow that appears designed to dissuade humans, not birds!
The shortcut is nothing more than a bulldozed path across the plain, and it is anything but smooth sailing. Its washboard surface is laden with serrated rocks, more often than not a couple inches in diameter. We find it best to drive about 60 mph, which is effortless with the gutsy turbocharged engine, as that seems to smooth the ride. The suspension on the Forester sucks up the dips and potholes with ease, but its 18-inch all-season tires are finding the going a bit tougher. After 35 miles of abuse, the left rear tire takes a sharp rock in its sidewall and blows out. There is no tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), but the failure of the tire is felt immediately from the cabin. My co-driver and I easily change the tire, swapping it for the full-size spare in our trunk, in less than 10 minutes using the stock jack and tools. Nobody stops to offer help, because there is nobody on the road.
We arrive at the Cancha Carrera Argentina-Chile border shortly thereafter, and with the help of some hired local truck drivers (who don’t speak a word of English), we cross into Chile uneventfully. Off to our west, the jagged picturesque peaks of Patagonia beckon. It will take us another 90 minutes to get to the isolated Tierra Patagonia hotel, which sits on a bluff where the South American Plain meets Lake Sarmiento. Its turquoise water provides a stunning backdrop for photography.
Day Three — Torres del Paine National Park
The Subaru Crosstrek XV feels quite underpowered compared to the turbocharged Forester and the Outback from the previous days, but that is the payoff for its improved fuel efficiency. Of course, high horsepower isn’t needed in Torres del Paine National Park, as excessive speed on the dirt and gravel roads only increases the danger. Flat tires are a big concern, which has us constantly checking our sidewalls, but so are the wild Guanacos. The four-legged animals, which are dead ringers for the llamas at your local zoo, are as plentiful (and stupid) as deer in the Northeast. They are also nervous and extremely jumpy — we had to make a full-ABS panic stop after one leapt blindly in front of our moving vehicle.
Our dusty caravan eventually reaches the dock at Refugio Pudeto, where we meet a chartered powered catamaran to take us across Lake Pehoé for a phenomenal six-mile day hike into the wilderness.
Exhausted after the walk, but still very interested in exploring, we drive the Crosstrek through the park and come upon Lake Amarga — the freshwater lake has a large sand beach that beckons our Subaru. The all-season tires sink to the rims in the soft wet sand, but the small crossover doesn’t falter (we never come close to getting stuck). After a few through-the-water driving shots, some others in our team arrive in a Forester and do the same splashing in spectacular fashion. Of course, only after the water dries do we realize that we had just glazed each Subaru in a crusty layer of minerals and sand — an effective, and very gritty, Shake ’N Bake coating.
Our antics have done more than soil our Subaru. A compulsory glance at the tires reveals that we have a problem — we are losing air pressure in our front right tire. It’s another flat, thanks to gravel lodged in the bead. We hobble back to our base, and the team repairs the tire in the hotel parking lot.
Day Four — Torres del Paine National Park to Punta Arenas
We leave Torres del Paine behind the wheel of an Outback 3.6R — our preferred choice. Its smooth-running flat-6 has won us over with its power and efficiency, it is impressively stable on the unpaved sections, and its roomy cabin gives us plenty of wiggle space. We zoom along the gravel roads in a widely spaced caravan, to avoid each other’s dust and flying rocks, before finding pavement again. The two-lane roads are smooth, but the Chilean highway department apparently has something against paint as much of the asphalt and concrete is not striped. Oncoming cars simply move to the right side of the road and hope for the best (there were an alarming number of impromptu memorials on the roadside for those who apparently misjudged). To someone used to driving on well-marked road with raised reflectors, it’s more than a bit terrifying.
Lunch is a stop at Estancia Puerto Consuelo, which is on the Última Esperanza Sound (despite its on-the-water location, it is still about 100 miles of treacherous navigation to the open Pacific Ocean to its west). While exiting the vehicle, we again hear the unmistakable hiss of air. An inspection of all four tires reveals yet another puncture. Once more, the support crew swaps out our flat for a replacement full-size spare.
The quaint restaurant is located outside of Puerto Natales, which is the city where most tourists arrive when heading to Torres del Paine. The eatery serves us some of the finest fresh salmon that I have ever tasted — there is so much fish on my plate that I barely make a dent. My stomach is registering full, but the Subaru’s fuel gauge reads empty, so we detour to a local gas station, which is the one and only time we take gasoline from an electric pump on the entire trip!
After again checking the tires, we settle-in for a long drive southward to Punta Arenas, which is one of the largest cities in the region and located on the famed Strait of Magellan. There is plenty of infrastructure near the city, the traffic is very light. The four-lane divided highway that leads into the metro area is a relief from the dirt roads, so despite very gusty winds (which seem to increase the further south we drive), our average speed is about 90 mph.
We settle at Hotel Rey don Felipe for the night. For once, we don’t need any new tires.
Day Five — Punta Arenas to Ushuaia
The Strait of Magellan is a navigable sea route that separates South America from Tierra del Fuego on the north and south, and the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean on the east and west. Discovered in the 1500s by Ferdinand Magellan, the passage allowed shipping traffic to avoid rounding Cape Horn — a notorious graveyard for sailors. While the Panama Canal shortcut has all but stopped regular commercial shipping traffic from navigating through the area today, a handful of ferries shuttle passengers, vehicles, and cargo across the waterway daily. And it remains a challenging passage due to its currents, unpredictable winds, and narrow channels.
Rather than go old-school and put us on three-mast sailing vessels, Subaru charters a 270-foot diesel ferry to carry us from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, which is 20-mile journey across the channel. We drive the Outback 3.6R onto the ship’s ramp and park on board with the rest of the convoy — the crossovers look awkwardly small on the huge steel deck. The two-hour trip is relatively smooth (I spot killer whales — orcas — and penguins from the ship), despite a threatening squall that chases us across the channel.
After docking in Porvenir, we check our tires (all good, so far) and continue our trek east around Inútil Bay. The roads are rough, mostly gravel over dirt, and the rolling hills make visibility around each new corner challenging — focus is paramount. We are traveling about 100 feet behind the Subaru in front of us, which is causing issues as its tire treads are picking up rocks and flinging them wildly. Within seconds there are a couple of sharp impacts on the front glass, and we notice two fresh starbursts. Lifting off the throttle doesn’t come soon enough, as a third loud crack signals our front side quarter glass shattering — a perfectly placed rock had ricocheted off the side mirror!
We immediately slow, simply to preserve the remaining glass, and the Subaru in front of us (which we had been trailing) disappears into the distance. Once they are a good mile away, we increase our velocity on the loose surface and tackle it rally-style. The Outback has enough torque to pitch its tail out, although its all-wheel-drive system always keeps the upper hand — nevertheless, it is entertaining. There are a series of natural barriers, both mountains and lakes, blocking our direct path south, so the endless dirt roads turn eastward towards Argentina — another border crossing is about an hour away.
The Paso Bella Vista border between Chile and Argentina is not a highly trafficked route. The roads are dirt for as far as the eyes can see, and only recently was a small bridge erected that allowed passenger cars to cross without fording a shallow river. There is a long wait at the border, for no apparent reason. Eventually, we make our way into the office (the guards are watching The Simpsons, dubbed in Spanish) and sign documents that specifically say we agree to not bring any contraband meat or dairy products into the country. Of course, only minutes later, we break out delicious deli platters (that we had smuggled across) for lunch in an adjoining building.
Our Garmin GPS is programmed to take us due east, eventually hitting the Atlantic Ocean at Cabo San Pablo. While there isn’t anything in terms of civilization there, it’s the location of the impressive Desdemona shipwreck. The freighter, laden with concrete, ran aground during a winter storm in the mid 1980s, and its massive hulk sits — rusting and splitting in two — on the shore.
There are no fences or dissuading signs on the beach, so we drive the Outback onto the sand and park a few yards from the ship’s hull so we can explore. After no more than five minutes, someone calls my name with a bit of alarm. I spin around and notice that the tide has advanced significantly — foamy salt water is lapping at the tires! I hurry back to the Subaru, engage X Mode, and throttle through the seawater and deep sand out of the way of the oncoming surf.
After checking the tires (yep, still holding air), we depart the beach and meet up with the Toyota Hilux a few miles away. Our support crew pumps some much-needed gasoline into our near-empty tanks (we park in the middle of the road for the fueling, indicating how little traffic is in the area). Turning inland, we follow the dirt road for another 20 minutes before again finding smooth pavement.
The two-lane asphalt road is flat, so our speed increases to a comfortable 95 mph for the trek down to Ushuaia. After passing Lake Fagnano, which appears out the right window, the road climbs into a beautiful mountain pass with nicely banked carved sections — I’m not going to lie, I would have preferred a Subaru WRX STI on this segment — before dropping into the city.
Ushuaia is a touristy little city that is crammed against the mountains, as the Beagle Channel blocks its growth to the south. The strait is a popular departure point for cruise ships packed with tourists, which line the docks, and for ships running supplies to the scientific bases in Antarctica. We eat an incredible meal in a local restaurant, and then spend the rest of the day and night — our last — enjoying the local bars and clubs.
Day Six — Ushuaia to Los Angeles
Our last morning starts early, as we have a few things to do before our 1:30 PM flight out.
We ritualistically check the tires and climb back into our same Outback (once we broke its side window, nobody wanted to trade keys with us). The plan is to take a quick jaunt over to Tierra del Fuego National Park — the so-called “End of the World”— which is just west of Ushuaia. The world’s southernmost national park boasts Patagonian lakes, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, and bountiful wildlife.
Our last two hours in Tierra del Fuego are spent taking group shots, hiking, and enjoying the 60-degree weather and warm sunshine. It is picture perfect.
Reality hits everyone at noon when it’s time to clock our last miles and head to the airport. There is no pomp and circumstance or even a small ceremony when handing over the keys. Each of the cars is filthy dirty, inside and out. In addition to a very deep cleaning, all will need new windshields (our Outback has large cracks on each side and more than a dozen deep starburst cracks scattered throughout), most will need some paint, and a few will invariably need new tires. Mechanically, however, each is unscathed — everything worked flawlessly. Our trusty Subarus never let us down.
I resist the overpowering urge to write, “Wash Me,” on the windows with my finger. Instead, I kick its tires, gather my bags, and head into the terminal.
Less than an hour later, I’m on an Aerolíneas Argentinas Airbus A330-200 climbing through 35,000 feet on a route north to Buenos Aires. The flight passes quickly, as does the trip in the United Airlines 787-9 that takes us back to the States. My brain is drained and my body physically exhausted — I sleep nearly seven hours on the last leg of the trip.
Months ago, when an e-mail titled, “To the ends of the Earth… in a Subaru” landed in my inbox, I conceptualized what to expect.
I envisioned the majestic snow-covered peaks of Patagonia, awe-inspiring glaciers, and herds of wild llamas — and each materialized as promised in my mind’s eye. Yet nothing prepared me for the vast wind-swept plains of South America, the endless dirt roads, the dryness of the air, and the sheer isolation from modern civilization. Tierra del Fuego fulfilled my pre-trip expectations — and then it astounded me.
Earlier today, I noticed a spotlessly clean Subaru Outback — occupied by a young mom and her son — in a grocery store parking lot. Blame my seared conscience, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t take a very close look at each of its tires!
Image credit ©2016 Subaru