A Rainbow Every Day, Guaranteed
Reflections on driving in a terrifyingly beautiful place.
I wasn't expecting Chile to be the most stressful place on the planet that I've ever driven. But it was, and that's coming from a dude who has piloted exotic sports cars through New York City traffic, dodged manic tour buses in Tenerife on a Ducati, and spent multiple days motoring around Rome in an Alfa. In Chile, when you're not dodging wheel-ending potholes, you're navigating suspension-chewing washboard gravel, squinting through torrential rains, worried about territorial stray dogs jumping from between parked cars, and slaloming cape hares that seemingly want nothing more than to throw themselves in front of you at the last moment, jumping out of the brush and into your headlights with a sort of suicidal glee.
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I had to make a half-dozen panic stops to avoid them on a single cruise into town one morning, also swerving around a massive, charging dog whose black hair made for perfect camouflage in the predawn darkness, a shaggy phantom who quickly returned to the gloom.
When the sun finally came up I could again admire the wonderful scenery, which is perhaps the biggest risk of all: Spend a moment too long ogling some tectonic feature or another and you're bound to literally hit trouble.
And yet it was driving that brought me to Chile. Though I extended my stay for vacation, I came there initially to sample a car. In this case, a Porsche Panamera, the company's long, low limousine. This is not a rare car -- Porsche sold 34,000 of the things last year alone -- and the one I drove was completely unmodified. So why spend 30-plus hours in transit to go drive one there, then? Because of what's in the tank.
This Porsche was burning e-fuels, synthetic gasoline that's pulled from Patagonia's prodigious winds, extracted from a mixture of renewable energy and harvested carbon-dioxide, creating a brew that's chemically identical to gasoline. Porsche hopes it'll be the salvation of its classic collectables. You can read more about the project at Road & Track, where I tried to talk as much about the societal and political implications as the technology and the drive.
I only spent a day and change piloting that Porsche around. The rest was spent in a rental Toyota Corolla Cross like the one I reviewed earlier this year for Yanko Design, a compact SUV that is as capable as it is unexciting. However, with its generous sidewalls and adequate ground clearance, I must say it was better suited for driving through this wild place.
There's a reason why Patagonia is on the bucket list of most serious hikers out there. It's one of the most gorgeous locales on the planet. Everywhere you look there's something striking that you've never seen before -- a layer cake of timeless strata pushed thousands of feet into the air by some ancient geologic strife, impossible spires of granite somehow left standing by glaciers that still carve their way into the valleys, broad plains dotted by wildlife that's sometimes familiar but often not quite -- all bathed in light that would make a California film director green with envy.
There are some advantages to driving here, though. I mistakenly parked in the wrong spot in Punta Arenas one day, returning to find a traffic ticket on my windshield. While I pondered whether and how to pay it, an orange municipal parking attendant in an orange vest came running to collect the fee. With a groan I looked at the damage: $3,600. After the momentary panic I did the conversion in my head: about $4 American. Not so bad.
I wrote this while on my way home from getting my first taste of Patagonia, spending a week and change in Puerto Natales, much of that bumming around the Torres del Paine national park. This is very definitely a global hotspot for adventure and, as I'd learn, a rainbow-hunter's paradise. You'll see at least one every day, more likely two or more, sometimes stacked on top of each other as foretold in classic memes of yore.
They're beautiful, but those bows come after rain, and that's another challenge of the place. I've been to Iceland and Norway and Milford Sound in New Zealand, places renowned for their awful weather. I've heard various locals in various places say all the various cliches about four seasons in one day and just waiting five minutes if you don't like the weather. Yet I have never experienced such unholy meteorological fury as swept across this vestigial tail of South America. The trees grow sideways from the wind and the birds are just as often seen hopping from place to place as they are flying.
We did a fair bit of hopping ourselves, staggering up trails, leaning into one gust after the next, and saying blessings for modern weatherproof clothing. Our biggest hike was up to the Gray Glacier, or Glacier Gray as many call it out of respect for the local order of things, a 25-kilometer trail that carved through a craggy valley pockmarked by gnarled, burnt-out lenga trees, charred remains of a massive fire a little over a decade ago. That fire was caused not by lightning or anything natural, but by a careless camper.
I had a lot of time to ponder this as I trudged between the charred remains of those trees, destroyed by the careless momentary lapse of an otherwise well-intentioned nature lover, fanned by Chile's prodigious winds into something fierce, the scars still fresh 12 years later. My mind kept falling back to what had brought me there in the first place, Porsche's prototype factory that has similarly good intentions and is likewise wind-driven. What kind of scars will it leave? And will it ever deliver on its promise?
There's plenty of reason for skepticism about projects like this, harvesting energy from beautiful, undisturbed nations, bottling it up, and shipping it off to places already swimming in infrastructure. Can e-fuels tap into that same resource to tamp out the gas flares burning at countless oil refineries around the globe, to provide an environmentally neutral replacement for the cheap oil that's left so many scars elsewhere? I genuinely don't know, but I'm staying optimistic, even though that seems to get harder every day.