Across South America, many of the most fascinating, beautiful, and out-of-this-world locations are also the most remote, and in order to explore them fully, you need to drive. The roads may not always be on a par with the smooth lanes to be found in the United States, but there are some real adventures to be had on the road in South America.
A road trip through South America is a serious undertaking, so be sure you are adequately prepared before you set off. These roads are mostly paved highways, but several of them include sections in rural areas or rugged landscapes that may be just dirt roads, so you may need a vehicle that is capable of driving in all terrains. Because these long road trips also drive through many sparsely populated areas, it's wise to fill up with gas whenever you have the opportunity, lest you get stuck in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank.
The Southern Pan American Highway
Driving the entire Pan American Highway is truly the ultimate road trip, stretching from Alaska to some of the southern-most points of South America in over 19,000 miles (30,000 kilometers). The highway is actually split into two sections: the northern part covering North and Central America and the southern part completely in South America, since a 66-mile (106-kilometer) stretch between Panama and Colombia known as the Darién Gap is unnavigable by car.
The northern terminus of the South American section begins in the Colombian town of Turbo, which then snakes down the western coast of the continent until reaching Valparaíso, Chile. From here, the rest of the journey depends on the driver. The official route cuts east to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and ends there. But if you have the time, money, and desire to traverse the entire continent, you could continue down from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Other travelers skip Argentina completely and continue traveling south in Chile from Valparaíso. To do the trip justice, you would need several weeks to complete it, if not a few months.
It's a long, difficult, expensive, and sometimes dangerous drive. If you were to start in Turbo, Colombia, and finish in Buenos Aires, the trip would be nearly 5,000 miles (over 8,000 kilometers). Add roughly an additional 2,000 miles to that total if you continue down to the southern tip.
But the ultimate South America road trip isn't meant to be easy; it's meant to be rewarding. You'll go through five different countries—Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina—and experience each place in a way you'd never be able to if you were just flying to big cities. Factor in enough time to spend a few days at each stop; not only will you get a more intimate encounter with the local cultures, but you'll also need time to recharge after so much driving. Outside of major cities, you'll also see some of the region's best beaches, the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert, and the breathtaking beauty of Patagonia.
Carretera Austral, Chile
Located in the Patagonian area of Chile, this rural route is impressive simply for providing access to such an inhospitable area and takes drivers through some of the world's most spectacular scenery. The Carretera Austral, or "Southern Route," is synonymous with the CH-7 highway. It was originally built to connect the sparsely populated towns in southern Chile with the rest of the country and amazingly only about 100,000 residents live along the 770-mile route.
The northern terminus of the route starts in the Lake District town of Puerto Montt, 11 hours south of the capital Santiago by car and not far from the popular travel island of Chiloé. From there, it continues south through the picturesque landscapes of Patagonia including fjords, glaciers, and forests for 770 miles (1,240 kilometers) until reaching Villa O'Higgins.
The natural landmarks you'll encounter on these isolated roads are too many to list, but just a few of the highlights include ferrying the vehicle through the fjords of Patagonia, the hanging glacier in Queulat Park, and the marbled caves of Lake General Carrera.
When the highway opened in 1988 it was almost entirely unpaved. The government has been adding asphalt to the road since then, but it's a colossal project and—as of June 2020—large parts of the southern half are still unpaved. It's under construction and slowly moving along, but you'll need a vehicle with four-wheel drive to complete the last section. Most rental companies in southern Chile know that clients drive this route and have the appropriate vehicles available.
Ruta 40, Argentina
Argentina's most iconic road trip is along Route 40, known locally as just La Cuarenta. The longest highway in Argentina—and one of the longest in the world—it stretches for over 3,200 miles (nearly 5,200 kilometers) from the northern border with Bolivia almost all the way down to the southern tip of the country. To put that into perspective, driving across the U.S. from Los Angeles to New York is 400 miles shorter than Argentina's Route 40.
Route 40 has ancient roots, as the modern-day highway follows many of the bygone Inca Trails which connected the vast Inca Empire to its capital in Cusco, Peru. Driving along Route 40 isn't just naturally beautiful with its mountainous landscapes, scenic lakes, vineyards, volcanoes, and more, but also historically and culturally significant. The highway passes right through multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites, national monuments, ancient ruins, Los Glaciares National Park, and much more.
Because the terminus points of La Quiaca in the north and Rio Gallegos in the south are so remote themselves and would require a significant road trip just to reach them, many travelers start in the biggest city that's on the route, Mendoza. It's a short flight of a couple of hours from either Buenos Aires or Santiago, Chile. Alternatively, you could drive to Mendoza from Buenos Aires (13 hours) or Santiago (6 hours).
While a four-wheel-drive vehicle is not absolutely necessary, on some of the rougher portions of the road it can make the journey more comfortable, especially if you hit inclement weather. The majority of the road is paved, although some stretches in the south have yet to be done.
Jericoacoara To Salvador, Brazil
The northeast coast of Brazil is one of the most beautiful portions of the country and boasts some of the most impressive beaches in all of South America. If you're just trying to travel from Jericoacoara to Salvador as quickly as possible, you could take inland highways and cut off about seven hours of travel time. However, this route is all about the coastal views, driving around the eastern hump that juts off of Brazil into the Atlantic Ocean.
This road trip isn't following a specific highway or route like others, and you'll be changing over onto a variety of different motorways. Just make sure you're staying near the water, passing through the cities of Fortaleza, Natal, and Recife until you curve back down toward the charming city of Salvador. It may look like a short distance on the map relative to the rest of Brazil, but the journey is nearly 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers).
This route is ideal for anyone who wants to explore some of the most pristine beaches in a country with a seemingly endless coastline. Pretty much the entire journey will be one spectacular beach after another, so you really can't go wrong. But if you want to narrow down your options, keep an eye out for the beaches Praia do Forte, Praia dos Carneiros, and Praia da Pipa. Whether you're here to relax, surf, experience the local culture, or a combination of the three, this will be a trip to remember.