To the Bottom of the World: A Humble Subaru Conquers Patagonia

Being the backpacking and fishing mecca that Patagonia is, it probably hasn’t been brought to your attention that the way to see it is actually by car. Okay—full disclosure—you’ll have a heck of a time at the border crossings, but you’re reading a magazine called Tread. When was the last time you associated cruises, tour guides and commercial airlines with adventure?

If we’re being honest, we’re kind of cheating, anyway: We’re here courtesy of Subaru of America, having taken a 3.5-hour flight into El Calafate, Argentina, from the capital city of Buenos Aires. Waiting for us on landing is a somewhat haphazardly chosen fleet of somewhat current Chilean-spec Subaru product – a couple of Outbacks, a couple of Foresters, and a couple of Crosstreks. A nervous quick peek confirms suspicion that they’re all on box-stock all-season tires. Still, we’re determined to get to the bottom of the continent and report back on some of the can’t-miss sights from a journey through one of the most fascinating landscapes on the planet.

El Calafate

Our Patagonian adventure kicked off, like it does for so many others, here in El Calafate. A tourist hotspot, El Calafate hosts legions of bikers, trail walkers and climbers on their way into or out of the region. Just beyond the city is the Los Glaciares National Park, home of the nearly 100 square-mile Perito Moreno glacier. The roads are among the easiest you’ll find in this part of the world, with unending views of the impossibly turquoise Lake Argentino and the massive glacier everywhere you turn. The glacier’s size is deceptive, even when you finally hike right up to its crest. That is, until you realize the speedboat you were following with your eyes is a medium-sized cruise ship. When blocks of ice break off, they chip and crash into the lake as if in slow motion, the sound hitting your senses well after you’ve beheld the sight. You could do worse than to take an “easy” vacation around El Calafate for a few days.

Torres del Paine National Park and Puerto Natales

 But not us. We’re hitting the road to make Torres del Paine in time for dinner. The paved roads head south from El Calafate on our way into Chile, but they don’t last for long. A shortcut through the first true dirt roads of the trip gives us our first taste of how these daily-driver Subarus stand up to uneven surfaces of loose stones. Spoiler alert for those of us who like to build the most extreme off-road capable vehicles possible: they handle it very well. It’s worth mentioning, though, that much of our confidence has to do with the Hilux-full of tires closing the gap behind our posse. Nevermind the reason for our speed, though. Our fleet moves as swiftly as possible, kicking up tails of dirt and stone dozens of feet behind. It’s as if a group of puppies collectively decided to spaz out. It’s stupidly entertaining and probably just as stupidly advised based on the quickly changing road surfaces, but it’s fun as hell, and a great showcase for Subaru’s all-wheel drive system. Torres del Paine is another location where, even though we only had a couple days, you could spend huge chunks of time exploring.

There are places to camp along the lake that are easily accessible when the water level is low and can be found off some spur trails near the shore when the level is high.

Giant glaciers, quickly moving rivers, bright blue lakes, the jagged and imposing Cordillera del Paine Mountains—the diversity of landscapes is overwhelming. The roads aren’t terribly wild but being paved in a slightly more consistent manner than those of neighboring Argentina, they’re a lot of fun—at speed they require driving skill and a capable vehicle if you want to make better time than an old wagon train would. Luckily, we had at least one of those covered.

The canyon closes in with larger trees but is easy to follow. In most cases, a vehicle with 32 to 33-inch tires can tackle the trail. That, of course, depends on the latest condition of the trail and how wet it is at the time.

We head farther south, into Puerto Consuelo for a bite of lunch, then through Puerto Natales. What El Calafate is to Los Glaciares National Park, so is Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine. As a gateway to one of Patagonia’s national parks, Puerto Natales caters to travelers of all kinds and offers as touristy or local an experience as you desire.

Punta Arenas

It’s a good, long stretch of driving from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas. You learn things during drives like those. About the car, its quirks. What speeds it likes. About your co-driver, the same. About the land, lots. Here’s a good one for you trivia nerds: though we’re heading even farther south, Punta Arenas is actually at the southernmost point of the contiguous American continents. It’s not the most beautiful town in South America, but it’s hard to think of a case in which it wouldn’t feel like a welcome respite nonetheless. There’s a famous bar here that you should hit, a watering hole for more famous explorers and the starting point for more famous expeditions than you can count. But we’re not going to do all the work for you.

Once over the mountain saddle, the descent winds its way down to Bartlett Lake. Rainfall on this side sometimes floods across the trail, leaving off-camber and rutted paths.

More trivia instead: Punta Arenas was founded as a penal colony in the mid-19th century, meant by the Chilean government as a play for sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan—a play that worked, as the Strait was officially recognized as Chilean territory in the Boundary Treaty between Argentina in 1881. Today, Punta Arenas is an important access point for the Antarctic Peninsula, but we’re taking the ferry east to the Chilean side of the Tierra del Fuego.

The canyon offers a contrast between lush and arid climates. Tall trees grow from the moisture and shade at the canyon base, while plenty of desert cacti populate the drier, hotter spots above the canyon floor.

Our ferry is a leased affair, with enough room for maybe twice as many cars as we bring on. When the bow closes, the immediate thrill of adventure is rivaled only by the unease of what may lay ahead. A swift tailwind cuts what would be about a four-hour journey into a little over two hours. It’s just enough time to have a long moment of serious reverence about what you’re doing: You’re crossing a thing of legend, literally black with depth that sailors have written about for centuries and centuries. It’s named after the guy who found it—just after he named the Pacific Ocean. Its unpredictability has claimed countless lives, and though it’s sleepy now, it’s not hard to get a sense of how things might whip into something serious in a matter of seconds. Sponsored trip on modern metal ferry though this may be, there’s no escaping the feeling of expedition in the middle of the Strait; this is something that very, very few can claim they’ve done. For all of the stories of tragedy and shipwreck you hear about in the Strait of Magellan since it’s having opened in the 1500s, we luck into a beautiful day, complete with rainbow and just the slightest drizzle at the end. Killer whales chase our ferry as our pod of dirty, beaten Subaru wagons—sorry, CUVs—wait to be unleashed on the other side. It’s a different world.

As much of a tourist attraction as the Moreno glacier is, you’d be a fool to miss it. Even standing right at its feet, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the sheer size.

More specifically, it’s archipelagos from here until we finally wrap up at Ushuaia. By now we’ve learned something else about our faithful little Subarus:  “capability” is not “invincibility.” The Subaru convoy has held up amazingly well over fair to somewhat harsh terrain, but each vehicle has paid the price: windshield cracks are universal, and the side panel paint can only be described as battered thanks to the showers of stones kicked up along the journey. The group has managed to burn through all of the spare tires available to us, as well. Still, there’s no arguing with results; all three Subaru models have been more than up to the challenge of a bunch of automotive adventure writers looking to off-road at high speeds.


More trails, more driving, more speed, and we just want to turn around and do the whole thing in reverse. We’ve no doubt any of the Subarus in our group would be up for it. But all good things must come to an end, so we find ourselves back in Argentina, this time at the bottom, in Ushuaia. This is one of those places that can make a claim to being the “End of the World.” Beyond here there’s not much more land to be found among the archipelagos, and Antarctica is only 600 miles away.

Times when the water level is way down, there’s plenty of exposed lake bottom to explore and usually some sloppy stuff to play in.

Ushuaia is small and windy (the Martial Mountains are on one side; the Beagle Channel on the other), but there’s fun to be had. After a trip like ours, though, it’s not as if we’re starved for entertainment. Places like this are where we can find an Edge to look out from, and ponder the Void beyond. They’re places to reflect, to take in, to recount and reconcile. Those are always worth seeking out. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a drive.

When the dam outlet flow is reduced, it’s possible to follow the powerline road south and cross the Verde River below the dam in a wide, shallow spot. This way out will lead you back towards Carefree via Bartlett Dam Road.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2015 print issue of Tread Magazine.

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