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BY John Polga-Hecimovich

 

 

Patagonia is as much a real land as it is a myth. It captured the imagination of its explorers and wanderers, from Ferdinand Magellan and Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa to Sir Francis Drake and Charles Darwin, despite, or perhaps because of, its unforgiving weather and hostile geography. It remains a wild and untamed land to this day. The enormous region is generally considered to begin south of the RĂ­o Colorado in Argentina and extend to Tierra del Fuego, comprising roughly a third of the country (as well as parts of Chile), although only 5% of Argentines call it home. The best way to experience Patagonia is on the road, eating its meat, drinking its wine, and living its solitude.

 

 

Ruta Nacional 3 traces the eastern border of the region, beginning in Buenos Aires, winding its way down through the Pampas and terminating just west of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. It is the primary artery of terrestrial traffic through Patagonia, and unlike Route 40, its western counterpart, the majority of Route 3 fails to offer mountain views, skiing lodges, cave paintings or glaciers. It does, however, offer a raw view of Patagonia, capturing the essence of its people, its towns, and its open spaces. Seemingly endless stretches of barbed wire scar the rugged landscape, punctuating man’s presence in an otherwise wild land. Against its sheer size and seemingly endless expanse of land, Texas would pale in comparison. The road cuts through small towns and large cities, past the wild, windy monotony of sheep ranches and oil pumps, and into the heart of the lonely desert that stretches from Viedma to Río Gallegos, near the Strait of Magellan.

 

 

Aside from the remoteness of the cities it links, the most astounding aspect of this road is the uninterrupted vastness and flatness of the terrain it bisects. The endless steppe is in places nearly featureless, and the tedium of the roadside topography is broken only by scattered sheep, guanaco, rhea, cows, and, incredibly, the flaming pink of the occasional flock of flamingos. At dusk, the vast sea of earth fades into the horizon until the blues and pinks and purples turn to a firm black, and the stars finally come out. Most towns fail to offer any particularly unique views, landscape, or sights; just basic food and lodging, and the ubiquitous little Argentine children playing soccer in the wind.

 

 

Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, if you don’t count the small naval base of Puerto Williams, Chile (Argentines don’t). The town lies on the shimmering turquoise waters of the Beagle Channel, protected on three sides by hulking snow-capped peaks. Besides its breathtaking views, the town provides a point of departure for expeditions to Cape Horn, the Drake Passage and Antarctica. It is here in Lapataia Bay, after 3,062 kilometers, that Route 3 finally draws to a halt. A road sign with a map of Tierra del Fuego indicates—with little pomp—that the traveler has reached the end of the road, here in Argentina’s 24th district. The pavement, beginning in one of the world’s largest cities, now ends here, so abruptly, that one truly feels they have reached the end of the earth.

 

 

Of course, it is the journey, and not the destination, that counts. A plane flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia might be easier, or even cheaper, but it certainly doesn’t have the character of dusty Route 3, with its solitary towns and wild landscapes, infused with the rich flavor of the real Patagonia.



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