We have a long day driving down the coast before turning inland to reach San Pedro de Atacama, a relaxed and interesting tourist town of adobe buildings. On the rest day it is possible to drive to the nearby salt flats, to visit salt water lakes with three species of flamingo, to take a dip in a saline lake or hot spring or take a long early morning trip to see the El Tatio geyser field.
We drive over the Jama Pass (4400m) into Argentina on a recently improved hard road to San Salvador de Jujuy, passing along part of the Humahuaca Gorge with its multi-coloured rocks. Our journey then travels past most of the main wine-growing areas to San Juan, and eventually through Mendoza. Argentine wines are grown in high, dry terrain and require considerable irrigation for successful production.
We take our last mountain pass (2900m) close to the highest peak in the Americas, Aconcagua (6962m), before returning to Chile and a rest day near Valparaiso, with its adjoining resort area of Vina del Mar, on the Pacific coast, From the port area in Valparaiso’s bay, row upon row of colourful houses rise steeply up the surrounding hills which can be accessed by the city’s fifteen funicular lifts.
The route reaches the beautiful lake district of Chile where excellent accommodation and food is available amongst the woods, lakes and snow-tipped volcanoes. We stay in an impressive timber-clad hotel on the shore of Lake Villarrica nestling under the volcano of the same name. Nearby Pucon is a small lake-side town offering visitors rafting, fishing, riding, climbing and visits to thermal spas. The vehicles then cross the border to take a spectacular drive through the Argentine Lake District to the popular resort of Bariloche for a rest day by the lake at the iconic Llao Llao Hotel.
Two days of very long distance on excellent roads have been planned to avoid a prolonged spell on typical Patagonian ripio roads. These are constructed of dirt and gravel with added large stones which help to prevent erosion in the constant winds. They can be excellent – but can also be washboarded, pot-holed, very dusty or muddy according to recent conditions. Our roundabout route leads to a rest day in the lively small town of el Calafate, the gateway to the Moreno Glacier, one of the few glaciers still advancing. You can watch the glacier calving off huge chunks of ice into the blue waters of the lake or take a stroll across it in crampons.
After leaving El Calafate, the road eventually becomes an unavoidable section of ripio as we track back into Chile to the famous Torres del Paine National Park. Our three day stay will be in a superb hotel with a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains, glaciers, lakes and deserted green valleys full of wild flowers. A large programme of hiking, horseriding or trips on the lake is available.
Heading South for a short time on ripio, we reach tarmac and then follow the Magellan Strait before crossing it by ferry on our way to the most Southerly city in the World. Ushuaia sits on the Beagle Channel set against a backdrop of mountains and is constantly blasted by the ferocious winds of Tierra del Fuego.
The flight home is via Buenos Aires where you may wish to stop off for a day or so.