Driving to Patagonia from the U.S.
By Charles Ragsdale
During a seven-month period, the author drove nearly 25,000 miles in a 1988 Toyota 4Runner from Connecticut all the way to the southernmost city in the world – Ushuaia, Argentina, passing through some of the world’s most beautiful scenery on some of the world’s worst maintained and most dangerous roads.
He ended his twelve-country odyssey in Paraguay where he sold his car and flew home to the U.S., forever changed by his life on the road during what was a truly remarkable undertaking. Replicate his journey by renting a car to travel through Argentina.
While a full recounting of his journey would require many volumes, the author has agreed to provide us with glimpses and insight into what he experienced.
Driving to Ushuaia
A cold, gray late afternoon wind whipped across the Strait of Magellan and turned my face a deep red as I glanced out at the dramatic scenery from the top of the ferry that was carrying my trusty 4Runner over the last physical barrier between Connecticut and Ushuaia, Argentina.
I elected to remain outside for a while, alone with my thoughts. A couple of dolphins swam alongside us for a short while, darting back and forth amid the boat’s wake and providing some welcome color and distraction.
The ferry, a modern vessel capable of carrying a couple of dozen cars or a lesser number of commercial trucks, plodded along while passengers sat bundled in the cabin area, shying away from the windows.
Time passes quickly in such moments, and the efficient crew got us on time to Tierra del Fuego, where Ben and I disembarked on the northern part, which belongs to Chile. In short order, we found ourselves at the Argentinean border, where for the second time on the trip I was extended the courtesy of giving a ride to an armed border patrolman who wanted a ride back to Ushuaia (refusing would have been rather unwise).
The patrolman though, was professional and even jovial, in stark contrast to my experience with police in Central America, who, as often as not, appeared to be little more than bandits with badges.
Despite the advancing hour (it was about 6:30 pm ), the sun still shone brightly due to the extreme southern latitude. As we set off south on the continuation of Argentina ’s National Route Three, which now was nothing more than a poorly graded gravel road, I caught my first glimpse of snow-covered mountains in the distance.
I shivered and was suddenly struck by the enormous distance that now lay between me and the sweltering jungles of Brazil and Central America, where not all that long ago I had been baking in 100 degree plus temperatures.
Rocks and Clouds of Dust
I drove on, gamely avoiding the rocks and clouds of thick dust thrown up whenever another car passed. I had one eye on the road and another on the scenery, for I wished both to observe the full beauty of Tierra del Fuego and to avoid the awful fate of an accident so close to the end, a real possibility given the hazardous driving conditions. The battering on the truck was taking a toll; already one shock had broken in half and the mount for the fog lights was torn off its base.
With less than 50 miles to go, as I was ascending a hill I caught sight of a perfect azure blue lake to my right, ringed by mountains and seems to beckon me to stop and stay awhile. As though hypnotized I stared at it for what could only have been a couple of seconds, though it seemed much longer.
My brief reverie was broken by the harsh landscape of the deep deep south: Ushuaia, the glare of an oncoming car flashing its brights and the sharp words of the Argentinean Patrolman and Ben, who had both noticed that I was a couple of feet closer to the edge of the road than was prudent.
Without further incident, we reached Ushuaia at 8:40 pm and dropped the Argentinean Patrolman off at his home. Our trip was not over yet. Though Ushuaia is indeed the southernmost city in the world, Argentinean National Route Three continues on in rough fashion a further eleven miles, where it ends at Bahia Lapatia. By now, even the sun over Tierra del Fuego was low in the sky, and we hurried on.
Finally, after a confusing route that led us through a park area of trails, at 9:30 pm on Nov. 17th, 2002, we reached a clearing and the final endpoint of the southernmost road in the world. After a struggle, triumph, highs, and lows, there was quite simply a new reality to come to terms with – there was no more road. After 20, 182 miles, I had done it.
I thought back to something I had said in a tape recorder months earlier when I had gotten on the highway in Connecticut, after saying goodbye to my family – “I’m on the road now, have no idea what is going to happen, but I’m here, I’m ready, and whatever it is, I’ll find it.”
In reality, I had found it, but I didn’t realize what it was or where it was until I arrived at the clearing in Bahia Lapatia. The It, the end of which I spoke, had not really been there at that physical point that marked the end of my journey as I had thought it would be for so long.
The it had been and would always be the trip itself – the people who had helped or hindered me along the way, the natural beauty that came in a thousand different forms, and the pure unadulterated joy of driving, of being the master of one’s own fate, of being on a quest with a definite purpose.
Outwardly, I was joyous – Ben and I exchanged high fives and let loose some celebratory yells before posing for photographs. Soon we were back in Ushuaia, and once ensconced in my soft hotel bed, I quickly fell asleep.
Learning the Laws
The next couple of days were spent taking in the tourist attractions and making plans for the trip back to the U.S., before which all I had to do was sell my car and buy a plane ticket. This, however, did not prove to be easy and set the stage for one final, crazy bout of endurance driving that was to push both Ben and me to our limits.
The problem was as follows – there are not only special importation and tariff laws for Tierra del Fuego on the books, they are actually enforced. After talking to several locals and car dealers, I had heard the same story repeatedly – that no one would buy the car from me there because they would not be able to legalize it.
My list of options was growing short, and I was briefly entertaining the thought of taking the plates off of my car and dumping it in a ditch when one morning a helpful official at the port of Ushuaia advised me to travel north to Paraguay, notorious for its shadow economy, where in his words “I could buy or sell anything at all that I wanted.”
Inspired by his helpful advice, and seized by a desire to finish the mission, Ben and I took off fully loaded and packed less than two hours later at 11:30 in the morning – our destination drawing us north like a beacon – Paraguay, the mythical land of contraband where we hoped some enterprising soul would hand us a wad of cash for my car, no questions asked.
What follows is a partial transcription of a tape I recorded on at intervals while driving north from Tierra del Fuego to Paraguay, a trip which should have been a leisurely cap to a great journey, but one which for reasons I cannot fully explain turned into a non-stop full-speed gonzo-style rush for the border. The tape, while raw, provides a partial window into the experience and emotion of such driving:
“…now it’s 10:12 pm, we’ve been on the road for eleven hours. We have gone a total of 512 miles, and just passed Piedra Buena, where we got gas and had something to eat. The road is long and hard. I did about a 360-mile turn, and now Ben is driving.
We should be to Puerto San Julian pretty soon and then it’s a long stretch without gas to some village. I don’t know what town comes after that, might be Comodoro already. I’ll check the map… we’re making good progress Ben, maybe we should just say —- it and go all the way to Paraguay…”
The 16th Hour Behind the Wheel
“It’s hour 16 of the road journey, it’s 3:25 in the morning. We’ve done 838.9 miles. We just gassed up and now Ben’s behind the wheel. I’m pretty tired and am going to get some sleep now. Good luck Ben driving. Please don’t kill us.”
“Well, it’s Nov. 23rd. We are just hitting the 20th hour of the road trip to Paraguay. We’ve done 1086.5 miles; Ben’s been driving for a while. We just hit a bird and I woke up about half an hour ago after a couple of hours of sleep. Nice and sunny out. We’re closing in on Puerto Madrin. Paraguay awaits, and we’ve made a good bit of progress. It’s 7:01 am .”
“We’ve been driving for more than 26.5 hours…we’ve gone 1,459 miles so far. We just stopped to eat at some little place in the middle of nowhere at the junction of 251 and 22. It was only 4 bucks for the two of us. Now we’re on the road to Bahia Blanca, it’s about 60 miles away. From there we have to take a left-hand turn go up north on…. Route 31 is it? Or 33, then 11. So far, so good, we’ll see if we can make it to Paraguay. ”
“We’re at hour number 32, we’re cruising on our way to Rosario through northern Argentina. Lots of green plains and ponds and birds and cows and roadkill, and all that —-. Lots of bugs on the windshield, getting more difficult to see. The car seems to be holding up all right, as are we. We have done 1,796 miles so far… uh… I don’t know six, seven, eight hundred more to – who knows? And lots of cows, I am looking at a big herd right now. It’s 7:14 pm .”
“Nov. 24th, it’s 7 o’clock in the morning. Hour number 44 of driving. We’ve done 2,433.5 miles. I’m starting off my driving turn after Ben drove through the sunset, it should be about… sunrise rather, it should be about three more hours to Asuncion.
I drove for a while last night, pretty tired, there were lots and lots and lots of bugs – so many that it sounded like a heavy downpour hitting the windshield and made it nearly impossible to see. We have no cleaner and the entire front of the car is covered in a quarter-inch of sludgy insect guts… It was otherwise uneventful, and now it’s time to get to Asuncion.”
No Cash, No ATMs
“Well, we made it to Paraguay, and are now screwed. It’s been 50 hours since we left Ushuaia, and we covered 2,705 miles. We have no cash because the Paraguayan border guards extorted it all from us. Not surprisingly we cannot find a working ATM that will accept either of our cards. I am feeling giddy and think it’s been way too long since I slept… What do we have to eat? Oh great, f—ing Kit Kat Bars, peanut butter, and some water. Where the hell are we going to park anyway?”
The recording ends there, but the story has a happy ending. Just when all seemed lost, inspiration struck me – what sort of hotel would let someone sign in without paying? A luxury hotel I reasoned! Ben was skeptical of my plan, but we quickly located one of Paraguay ’s finest hotels, right in the center of Asuncion, and boldly drove my filthy, US licensed car right up to the front entrance, parking it for all to see.
As I swaggered toward the front desk I noticed that in addition to the mass of bugs and mud plastered over my truck, there was a good-sized bird sticking out of the radiator.
Fortunately, my bluff worked, and the hotel manager, convinced that we were some odd breed of deranged and wealthy foreign adventurers rather than a couple of nuts on the verge of collapse, without further questioning showed us to a luxury suite that was one of the nicest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in.
Our initial efforts to fall asleep failed, as we were too tired, too on edge. A call to room service, a steak meal and a bottle of wine each, and we both passed out into a deep sleep and didn’t awake until the following day.
The Argentinean customs official had been right. On my first day of looking in Asuncion, I found a chop shop willing to pay me $800 in cash for my car and all its parts. I told them I’d come back later – I thought their offer was low, and I couldn’t bear the idea of my beloved 4Runner being torn apart.
Fortunately, there was a home for my car. On the second day of my search, while walking around a Japanese used car store, I ran into a middle-aged Paraguayan man who by chance was also a Toyota fanatic.
Once I learned that he owned a ranch outside of on which he had built a 6-mile off-road course, I knew I was in luck. Less than an hour later we had finished negotiating, and that same evening he handed me an envelope of cash, and then in what was a climactic moment, I handed him my keys, marking the true end of my adventure, and the last time I ever saw the 1988 4Runner.
The next day I flew back to the United States, covering in less than a day a distance that had taken me so many months and miles to do by land. I followed the plane’s progress on the monitor in front of my seat, astonished at how quickly each country went by.
As the faces and places passed without feeling or context from my metal skinned perch 35,000 feet in the sky I was reminded of why I had thought up such a trip in the first place, of why I had wanted to see the land and everything in between rather than being whisked from one world to another.
Sighing, I gripped a shell I had found on a beach in Costa Rica as the stewardess announced our descent into JFK airport in New York.
This article originally appeared in Escape from America Magazine. We thank our friends there for permission to reprint this story.
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