A star-riddled sky and snarled grasses dwarf the rider on the steppe as his horse closes
the gap on the horizon. In South America’s southern frontier, nature, long left to its own
devices, grows wild, barren and beautiful. Spaces are large, as are the silences that fill them.
For those who come here, an encounter with such emptiness can be as awesome as the
sight of jagged peaks, pristine rivers and dusty backwater oases.
The paving of Ruta Nacional 40 (RN 40) is well under way, but it remains among the world’s
loneliest stretches, a spellbinding road to nowhere that has stirred affection in personalities as
disparate as Butch Cassidy and Bruce Chatwin. On the eastern seaboard, RN 3 shoots south, connecting oil boomtowns with the remains of ancient petrified forests, Welsh settlements
and the spectacular Península Valdés. The map will tell you that Patagonia is a very largeplace, but motoring its distant horizons offers a whole other level of insight.
Then there is the other, trendy Patagonia: the tourist hubs studded with Ray-Ban shops and
reggae bars, where you will meet a dozen other travelers before one local. El Calafate and El
Chaltén boast spectacular sights, but they remain a world apart from the mythical RN 40.
This chapter covers the region from its political start at the mouth of Río Negro, continu-
ing through Chubut and Santa Cruz provinces south to the Strait of Magellan. Chile’s Punta
Arenas, Puerto Natales and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine are also included.