journey to the end of the world
Torres del Paine Reflection. 2005.
Leaving Buenos Aires:
The mission was simple; we wanted to travel to the end of the world. Ushuaia is a small town at the very bottom of the American continent, and for some reason, we felt compelled to travel there. But after doing just a little bit of research, it turns out that Ushuaia is a long distance. Taking a series of long distances buses wasn’t very appealing. We had already been traveling four months in South America and 12-hour buses were the norm. This would be much, much worse.
Ushuaia is the Argentinian town at the bottom of Tierra del Fuego, and it is the furthest south point of the American continent that you can drive to. Between it and Buenos Aires is Patagonia, the 7th largest desert in the world. The desert stretches from Tierra del Fuego to La Pampas (the fertile plains south of Buenos Aires) and from the Atlantic to the Andes.
We had spent two weeks in Buenos Aires. I wouldn’t have been able to direct you to many of the attractions in the city, but I could tell you what the best nightclub to go to any night of the week. On one of the many nights we spent drinking at our hostel in Buenos Aires we came up with an alternative plan; rent a car and drive it to the bottom of the world. We had about two weeks and wanted to see as much as possible. We would have multiple drivers and the mobility of a rented car. We were going to drive this car to the bottom of the world and back again.
Patagonia a massive place, and our plan was to drive across it in only 2 weeks. We knew it would be a pretty epic road trip. We would drive through the night if we had to. We could take turns sleeping in the car. We knew it would be difficult, but it was something we knew we could accomplish.
Originally we had wanted to drive the car one way and take a ferry from Tierra del Fuego to southern Chile on the Pacific, but driving a car one way to Patagonia is prohibitively expensive. This is where the idea for a two week round trip idea was born. This epic road trip would become one of the highlights of my trip to South America.
There were three of us who were planning this trip; Shaun, Stewart and myself. Stewart and I were friends from back home, and Shaun was a South African we had met while traveling. We did some research, found a few spots worth stopping at along the way and packed our bags. We were ready to go. The night before we left, we had a big going away party at the hostel. It was at this party that we convinced another traveler named Jeff – an American who was living in Buenos Aires for 6 weeks – to drop everything and come with us.
The next morning the 4 of us set out on one of the most epic road trips of all time. We rented our car in the Argentine Capital – a Suzuki Fun, a comically small two-door hatchback – and set off on the journey to the end of the world.
The Road South:
For some reason, we decided to let Shaun drive first. “Just to let you know, I’ve never driven standard on this side of the car before” he announced as he sat down in the driver’s seat. We all looked at him with disbelief. “I know how to drive standard, and I’ve driven on this side of the road before. Just never the two at the same time.”
South Africans drive on the left side of the road like in England. He had never driven a standard car while sitting in the left side seat. He was telling this to us while trying to navigate our way through the many side streets of Buenos Aires, trying to find the way out of town. Things only got worse once we pulled onto Avenida 18 de Julio – a 20 lane road that cuts across the city – in rush hour traffic. After some creative navigation, we eventually we found the highway, and soon we were on the Autopista heading south.
Route 3 winds its way parallel to the Atlantic coast, and travels from the top of Argentina to the bottom. Traffic eventually thinned out the further we drove from the city and the first 24 hours of driving was mostly uneventful. We took turns behind the wheel and only stopped a few times for food and gas. We were traveling in the off-peak season, seeing other travelers along the way was rare. Traffic on the roads was mostly transportation trucks. The lack of other travelers didn’t deter us; we ignored all the signs that continued to tell us “turn back while you still can”.
We definitely struck out a few times on the trip. We wanted to go to see a wildlife reserve on the coast near Puerto Madryn but we had missed the penguins and killer whales, and there was only a few elephant seals left on the peninsula. They wanted to charge us 30 pesos each to try and find them ourselves. We cut our losses, turned around, and kept driving south.
There wasn’t much else to see along the drive. We stopped at a few different towns on our journey south. There were several Welsh and other European settlements along the way. We were all very entertained by the big sign outside of the town of Gaiman. We even drove an hour out of our way to see what lonely planet described as the “world’s ugliest church”. In the north, we saw gauchos herding cows and horses. We saw the occasional pack of wild Llamas on the side of the road. Mostly it was large stretches of empty space.
Empty Road. 2005.
It was the end of fall in the Southern Hemisphere, and the winter weather was already taking over the land. The wind ripped across the plains sometimes shaking the car as we drove. It was still warm during the day, but extremely cold at night. We had driven about 1000 km south of Buenos Aires, and we hadn’t seen much so far. Despite how barren and flat it was, it had a strange and unexplainable beauty to it.
We were 300 km from the nearest anything, surrounded by desert in all directions. The nights were much colder, even after only one day of driving. Late on our second night, we pulled into a gas station, in need of a refuel and a chance to stretch our legs. It was the first sign of life we had seen in hours. We were met there by a teenager, a bored and lonely attendant who came out to pump our gas. We were probably the first humans he had seen in hours. What made this stop interesting was the resident Llama, which wandered around the car while we waited to fill. Much like the kid pumping our gas, it acted as it was stoned, its curiosity piqued by the strangers. We realized the Llama likely lived at the gas station, inhaling fumes and drinking oil off the pavement.
After leaving the gas station and driving for about 20 minutes, Stewart commented: “I don’t really like this song, the music has this irritating noise.” We all noticed the same noise. A few minutes later the car came to a sputtering stop. We pulled over to the side of the road. Something was wrong.
It had just past midnight and we were even more in the middle of nowhere than we were before. We had driven at least 3-4 kilometers from the gas station. The wind was blowing and the temperature was sitting below zero. Under these circumstances, we decided against trying to walk back at night and wait until morning. We instead tried to fall asleep, shivering in the car, bundled up wearing as much clothing as we could, wrapped in our sleeping bags and body warmth to keep us alive.
The next morning we drew straws, and the two losers had to walk back to the gas station to find someone to tow us for repairs. I was lucky enough to remain in the car, waiting until the truck arrived. The mechanic got out of the car, checked a few things under the hood and eventually came to the conclusion that there was diesel in the tank of our gasoline car. It was their fault, so we would not be charged. We had lunch at the restaurant while they emptied and again filled our tank with actual gasoline. The Llama from the night before was still hanging around.
Llama vs Stewart. 2005.
We were back on the road just after lunch and headed back onto the road south, where we knocked off another 500 km of driving before the next crossroads.
When we rented our car, the agency informed us that in order to take the car across the border into Chile we would need “el poder” which translated from Spanish directly as “the power”. Basically, it was a permit to travel across international borders with a rented car . Of course, they told us this the morning that we rented our car, and they couldn’t get it sent for a couple days. Since we didn’t want to wait another 2-3 days in Buenos Aires before we left, we had them ship this piece of paper to one of their offices in the south, which we would pick up along the day. We left Buenos Aires without “The Power”.
So before we could go to Ushuaia and the bottom of the world, we first had make a detour to El Calafate to get “the Power”. We preferred to think of “the power” as our first quest; like an important side mission in a video game. We treated this quest as it was the most important thing we had been given to do in our lives up to that point. It gave our road trip a more Lord of the Rings vibe. We had an element of magic and mystery added onto what was really just a long drive. It was an ongoing joke for us during the hours and hours of endless driving.
Had we waited for this document in Buenos Aires, it would have been smooth sailing along route 3; we could have driven more or less directly to Ushuaia. Instead, we first needed to head west. Fortunately, while reading the map, we discovered a short cut. We realized we could shave off over 300 km and several hours of driving if we took a smaller highway that cut east west, being able to avoid driving to Rio Gallegos and turn back and to go north-west and back again.
We eventually arrived at this fork in the road and turned right, leaving behind the comforts of the nicely paved highways and onto a rarely used dirt road. The road was wild and unpaved and we were stuck with a nearly constant sound of the underbelly of our car scraping along the gravel road below us. We watched the sunset in the distance. We saw the odd car pass us as the night went on, but we were traveling on this road practically by ourselves.
Dirt Road. 2005.
Things were going great until about 2 in the morning, shortly after we had just switched drivers. Our car hit one of the many dips and bumps in the road and the bottom of the car once again crashed against the ground. We had gotten used to the sound of our car scraping against the bottom of the ground, but this time it was different. A few seconds after the loud crashing sound, our car sputtered and came to a dead stop once again. This time we were really in the middle of nowhere.
With only one flashlight, we inspected the Suzuki Fun for damage. We could see a liquid dripping from under the car. None of us were mechanics, but we figured that we had ruptured something in the fuel line. We tried a few things to try and seal the hole. First with electrical tape and a garbage bag, but the pressure of the fuel was too much no matter what we did. We hadn’t seen any cars or houses for hours. In the far distance we could see the light of a single house on the horizon. We gave the owners of this house the nickname of “the hacksaws” figuring anyone who lives this far away from civilization was a murderer or a strange Patagonian Cult. They were definitely going to kill us and at the very least, turn us away.
We resigned ourselves to another night sleeping in the car, waiting out the intense cold and waiting for sunrise. Fortunately this time we had 2 bottles of Malbec from Mendoza and a small bag of weed we needed to finish before we crossed the border. We passed the two bottles around the car and eventually fell asleep, with a warm feeling that would keep us worm throughout the night. We all drifted off into sleep.
Less than an hour after we had passed out, someone woke up and saw lights approaching from the road behind us. As the lights got brighter, we realized we had been discovered on the side of the road. The truck parked in front of us we sent our best two Spanish speakers – Jeff and Shaun – to got out to try and ask for help. Shaun returned to the car a few minutes later.
“We think these two guys are illegal poachers. They have two rifles inside the cab and a bunch of dead animals in the back.”
Half asleep and still half drunk, the only response i could come up with was “Do you think they are going to kill us?” to which Shaun responded “No I don’t think so”. At this point, stranded in the middle of nowhere, our options were pretty limited.
With our limited Spanish we tried to explain to them the problem, but with no success. They didn’t understand. They tried to give us a jump start. They played with a few things under the hood. We tried to show them the gaping hole in our fuel line. Eventually they decided just to tow us to the nearest town. Inside the back of the truck with all the dead animals, they pulled out a 6 meter long rope and tied the back of their truck to the front of our car. They told us to turn the headlights off, but leave the blinking hazard lights on so they could still see us.
From inside the car all we could see was the back of the truck. The blinking red light from our hazard lights was mesmerizing, and the two people in the front seat were riding the breaks as we were dragged through Patagonia behind this pickup truck. Still drunk and stoned from the night before, and sitting in the back seat, i was in a trance. We were probably going to crash into the back of this pickup truck. They were driving faster than we had when we had control of the car. It was terrifying.
We were pleasantly surprised when less than 30 minutes into this terrifying drive, we once again found pavement. Another hour of being towed, this time on a real road, and we arrived at a gas station. The two hunters asked for us to fill their gas tank as a thank you for saving us from the Patagonian desert, which was an offer we could not refuse. We left our car outside of the Mechanic and found ourselves a hostel to crash for the night. At the hostel we were awarded with good news; we had arrived in El Calafate.
The next morning we discovered that we had destroyed our fuel pump, with a serious crack from the impact of the road. The mechanic had a replacement part at his junkyard, and by the time we finished breakfast, the car was ready to go. We were able to track down the location of “the power”, an nondescript residential house on the outside of town that acted as a local post office. Since I spoke the least Spanish, they sent me up to ask for the power. We knocked on the door and a girzzled old man with a moustache answered the door.
“Yo necesito el Poder!!” I declared, using the line that i had been taught in the car. My Spanish was terrible, and i was proud of myself for remembering.
“YO necesito… el Poder”.
The man gave me a blank look and asked me again why i was standing at his front door. Not understanding enough Spanish to continue the conversation, i looked towards Jeff, who took over and explained our situation; we were sent here from Buenos Aires to retrieve the power so that we could go to Chile. It took him a moment to figure out what “the power” was, but eventually walked into his house and left us standing at the door for a minute or two. He soon returned with an official looking large sized envelope. We finally had the missing piece to our journey and could once again return to the road south.
El calafate was a town worth spending some time in. The natural setting was spectacular, the air was fresh and smelled of trees; the were people friendly and welcoming. We discovered a small restaurant that served the world’s greatest Steak Sandwich in the world, the Super Lomo. This isn’t hyperbole, this was actually one of the best things i’ve ever eaten. The sandwich was so good; the next morning before leaving town, we bought two more each for the long drive. We hadn’t spent a night in a bed since we had left Buenos Aires, so we decided to spend a second night in town. Our bodies needed a day of rest. With our newly repaired car we drove that afternoon to one of the most impressive sights, and largest glaciers in the world, The Perito Moreno Glacier.
The next morning, we set off once again on the way to the end of the world.
Tierra del Fuego:
We had just seen our first glimpse of the Andes, but as we started our drive south we were back onto the barren flatlands of Patagonia. The flat desert had a certain charm to it. Every so often we would descend into a massive valley. Patagonia is mesmerizingly flat and desolate, yet for some reason it was one of the most impressive landscapes you could imagine. It’s hard to explain how so much nothing can be something.
Tierra del Fuego. 2005.
Soon enough we were back on the coast, and heading south along route 3, and we were once again on track. We reached the Straights of Magellan and had to catch a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. On the short crossing we watched as a pod of dolphins swam next to our boat. It was one of the most exciting moments of the trip so far. We knew we were almost there.
The terrain remained flat, there was still no sign of the mountains as we drove across the island of Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire. This landmass was given this ominous name by the sailor of which the straight was named after, Magellan. Apparently when he sailed passed this point, the locals on the island had set massive fires, and it was this image that stuck with him later when he told the story of this passage. The name stuck.
The island is divided into two countries, and too drive to the bottom of the Island, we would have to cross the Chilean part before going back into Argentina to reach our final destination. It was getting late and we had traveled a long distance to get here. Unfortunately the two countries are in different time zones. While we were quickly able to cross the Chilean customs post, when we arrived to the Chilean side, it had already closed for the day.
This of course meant we would have to spend yet another night sleeping in our car in no man’s land. At one point a border patrol guard came up to the window of our car and tried to question us. We explained our situation to him, and after trying to explain to him in broken Spanish why were were sleeping in our car in between two countries, he left us to sleep in peace. We woke up with the sun the next morning and were able to continue our journey south. It took us 7 hours to drive through Chile and the next afternoon we were back in Argentina on the road to Ushuaia.
We continued through the barren landscapes until slowly we could see the view of the southern mountains appearing in the distance. The road entered into the mountains, and we made our way passed the final hurdle of our trip. Around midnight, after endless hours of driving, we rounded the last pass and we could see the lights of the town glowing in the distance. We had finally arrived in our destination – Ushuaia – at the bottom of the world.
This was the end of the world if you are in a car. The furthest south city in South America, and the world. While not the farthest inhabited place in the world – there was a few settlements to the south in Chile – separated by the Beagle Channel. These islands would dispute the claim that we had arrived at the bottom. As a tourist, this was about as far as you could go. It felt like such a grand accomplishment, especially after everything we had been through to get here. We had driven over 3500km to get here. We had slept in the car. Driven day and night. And now we had arrived. We had competed the first stage of our journey. Now it was time to turn around and go back.
Torres del Paine:
Of course the journey was only half over. We spent a day exploring Ushuaia. We went for a swim in the Beagle Channel while a light snow fell. We met some travelers who were about to drive a Volkswagen Van to Alaska. But we did have to leave. We still had to take the car back to Buenos Aires. The route back north we would be driving along the edge of the Andes. We had seen a bit of the mountains in El Calafate.
We still had to once again cross Tierra del Fuego. We left Ushuaia early, knowing that we would once again have to deal with the border. We drove all day and arrived at the border crossing at 9:30 pm, shortly before they closed. The Chilean guards let us know that the last ferry to the mainland would be leaving soon, and if we wanted to make it we would have to drive fast. We were told that the only way we could make the ferry back was if we hurried. The road was a gravel road, and maintaining an average speed of 70 km/h was difficult, but we made it to the ferry with about 7 minutes to spare.
Once we were back on the mainland, we went in a different direction. Instead of heading north, directly back to Argentina we went west, through Chile to Puerto Natales. We drove through the night, stopping only for gas and some food and by mid morning we had arrived at one of the most impressive National Parks in all of south America, Torres del Paine. This was a bit of a detour from our trip back to Argentina, but the views of this mountain range were well worth the trip. This place is popular with outdoor enthusiasts, mountain lovers are trekkers. We saw herds of wild
Suzuki Fun. 2005.
An impressive grouping of mountains and glaciers, several lakes and waterfalls awaited us upon arrival. We managed to take some amazing photographs and explore the views, but by the time we made it to the front gates of the park, they were closed for the day. After taking some pictures and we turned around. We didn’t have time to explore this place fully, but it still stands out as one of the best places i have ever been. Disappointed that we couldn’t see more, we decided to cut our losses and try to make it back to the Argentina border instead.
We did make the border crossing, and we were soon back on our way to El Calafate. We decided to spend another night here before making the long journey north. This of course meant we got to enjoy another Super Lomo sandwich the next morning. The highway that runs the length of the Argentinian Andes is Route 40, a long and mostly unpaved route that holds the same sort of lore that Route 66 does in the United States.
Road Sign along Route 40. 2005.
The weather along the mountains was cloudy and stormy for the first day, which unfortunately meant that we had to skip the impressive town of El Chalten. We drove uncountable hours north, taking turns driving and sleeping. For two days we continued like this, driving in and out of stormy blizzards which covered the road in snow. We had to drive most of the time along the shoulder of the road because the low clearance of our tiny hatchback couldn’t handle the endless km’s of the road underneath. During this stretch, I personally drove for 20 hours straight – wanting to test my own endurance and set a personal record – with only stops for gas and dinner.
Despite the endless hours of driving, the views were spectacular. We passed by mountains, lakes, and rivers. Snowy landscapes and small towns. One of the highlights of this drive through the mountains was the small town of El Bolson. We were told this place was a lot like Berkley, California. We spent a few hours here admiring the amazing scenery – and local produce – before making the last leg of our journey along route 40, a 2-hour drive to Bariloche.
Bariloche is a beautiful city which sits on the shore of a massive lake in the mountains of the Andes. It would be our final stop along route 40. The town was full of young people, a thriving nightclub scene and had a ski-resort vibe. The largest ski resort in South America – Cerro Catedral – is only 30 minutes away. It was the start of winter, and the resort had yet to open up for the season. We arrived on Thursday night and decided to spend the weekend here before heading back to Buenos Aires. We had to have the car back by Monday.
Winter Sunshine. 2005.
We partied here for two nights and were prepared to leave on Sunday morning, only to find out our car had been broken into. Jeff had a camera stolen, and myself a sleeping bag, amongst a couple small items that had been in the car. Fortunately, the car rental agency had an office in town; they gave us a loaner car for 24 hours and a free day of rental while they fixed the smashed window. Thankfully we had got the insurance before we left Buenos Aires.
This, of course, meant we got to spend one last day in town, and of course meant going out for drinks one last time. Bariloche became one of our favorite places on the continent. It was the type of place you could see yourself spending an entire winter snowboard season. Sadly, this would be the last stop on our two week trip. We left Route 40 behind us and began the journey east back to Buenos Aires.
The road back to Buenos Aires:
The way back to the city was a long drive, and we ended up driving for over 24 hours to make the journey in time. We took turns behind the wheel, making the long drive possible.As the sun rose on our 15th day on the road, we had to make a direct shot back to Buenos Aires. We had to have the car back by 4pm, and my last turn behind the wheel was the 100km before the city. The problem was, we had an hour and a half to make it and it was rush hour traffic.
Suzuki Fun. 2005.
Driving in South America can be difficult at times, the customs of the road are different than they are back home, and driving in one of the biggest cities in South America was not something to be taken lightly. Somehow i managed to weave my way through traffic, avoiding the other crazy drivers on the Autopista. As we arrived on Avenida 18 de Julio, we knew we were getting close. But we were now on the world’s widest road with only a few minutes left to spare. We made it just in time, and had the car back at the rental agency in time. Over the 15 days we averaged almost 600 km a day, driving a grand total of just over 8700km. This included a few days where we were stopped, with no driving at all.
We spent another 2 weeks in Buenos Aires, waiting for a football match – a highly anticipated World Cup Qualifier – between Argentina and Brazil. Our time in Argentina was coming to a close, and we had to continue our journey along the backpacker trail en route to Peru. Nothing would compare to the 15 days spent on the road. We forged friendships that would last a lifetime. We accomplished distances we probably shouldn’t have in such a short time. We drove to the end of the world and back again. Mission accomplished.