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Here's Some Things You Should Know About Driving the Pan-American Highway

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Let’s face it: you never know when you might find a magic tangelo under some litter on the street, bite heartily into it, and find yourself transported to behind the wheel of a car hurtling down the Pan-American Highway. I’d like to help you prepare for such a situation, so it’s quite fortunate that I’m just recently back from a trip driving a new Mini Countryman Hybrid on the Pan-American Highway, from Santiago, Chile to South America’s coccyx in Tierra del Fuego.

(Full Disclosure: Mini flew me down to South America for this road trip, and paid for my food, lodging—which sometimes included a bidet—and booze. More dispatches coming.)

Mini has been driving a trio of Hybrid Mini Countrymans (Countryfolk?) all the way from Texas, and jamming various journalists in the car along the route so that we can let you, our dewy, languid readers, get some idea of what this trip is like.

I actually like the Mini Countryman, and it did a very credible job here on a very long and grueling journey. Plus, they’ve outfitted them with serious-looking roof racks and some powerful driving lamps, which are excellent at obscuring the new Mini’s very sour-looking face.

At first I was confused why Mini selected the plug-in hybrid model to use for this trip, since nobody is going to be recharging those batteries, ever. The reason was explained to me, though, and it’s the same reason insecure, homely people get so into things like student governments at school: a little bit of power.

Really, though, the hybrid’s electric motor adds more than a little bit of power boost to the inline-three combustion engine’s usual 130-something horsepower, bringing it up to a respectable 224 HP. Also, the extra power from the electric motor is being sent to the rear wheels, giving the car all-wheel drive, even if that drive is coming from different sources.

Overall, the Countryman proved an engaging car for this grueling trip, with a good ride and handling even over some quite iffy road surfaces and a certain taut, agile feel that we’ve come to associate with Minis. It’s that rare sort of modern car that actually manages to have a bit of character, and I found that I did like my (considerable) time in the car, despite some issues I had, which I may as well tell you about now.

I think the most significant complaint relates to this: while I appreciate the all new fuel gauge they’ve made for the car (the old one confused too many people who thought it was a graphic equalizer or a moon-phase indicator, I guess), I did find it a bit annoying just how often I had to check that fuel gauge.

There’s a reason, of course: in order to make room for the Mini Countryman Hybrid’s batteries, the fuel tank is a hilariously tiny 9.3 gallons. My freaking ‘73 Beetle has a 10.6 gallon tank! That’s a small-ass gas tank.

Doing the sort of high-speed highway driving we were doing means that the fuel-economy benefits of the hybrid system were not being used to their fullest, so we were only averaging around 25 to 28 mpg, likely low because the cars were heavily loaded and had big roof racks full of defiantly un-aerodynamic tires and whatnot. The result was a lot of gas stops.

That’s not really terrible, since I have a woefully undersized bladder (seriously, if I could get bladder-enlargement surgery, I’d do it) but the range on these cars for road trips just isn’t great.

That’s sort of a shame, because they actually are quite good to drive on the road; they handle well, the electric motor gives them good overtaking ability, the instruments are novel and fun to look at even after you’ve been staring at them for hours, and it’s a car with enough style and character that you’re not ashamed to be seen in it.

While I generally like the novel interior design and materials used in the Mini, it does feel like a small car made of big-car parts, and the interior—even without all the crap we had loaded up in ours, feels a bit more cramped than it should.

We did manage to pack a lot in the cars, and there were three of us in our car—me, a noted dipshit, Jan, a Czech motor journalist who told filthy jokes, and Moritz, the guy who owns that electric-converted classic Mini my boss Patrick George drove a while back. (Everyone called “Morris” because he worked for Mini, which was once sold as a Morris.)

The front seats were roomy and comfortable enough, and the one slot in the back became a sort of cargo-walled sleeping nest that I actually found quite cozy and pleasant to be crammed into.

Enough about the car itself! Here’s the essential bits you need to know about driving the Pan-American Highway (at least the part from Santiago, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina) so you can make people think you’ve done it at the next party you go to:

1. It’s fascinating and boring all at the same time

The Pan-American Highway is a triumph of infrastructure, and it’s amazing to think that I could, hypothetically, drive from my home in North Carolina to the very tip of South America if I really, really wanted to. Plus, if you’re interested in weird cars, like I sure am, there’s opportunities to see all sorts of interesting things—there will be posts about just that coming soon.

The highway stretches some 19,000 miles across the top of Alaska, through Canada (though not officially) and the United States, into Mexico and then Central and South America, before terminating at Tierra del Fuego National Park in Ushuaia, Argentina. All told it serves about 20 countries in the Western Hemisphere, which given the diversity of land, culture, language and politics, is an amazing thing to think about.

But fundamentally the Pan-American Highway is just a really, really long highway. Much of it is very flat and straight and seemingly unending, with hours and hours of almost indistinguishable countryside whizzing past your windows in a nearly hypnotic blur of horizontal bands of blue, gray, brown and more gray.

It’s a long, long highway trip, with all of the mundanity and tedium that implies.

Of course, that mostly applies to when the road conditions are good, which is a pretty substantial percentage, but by no means all. Often, the highway looks more like this:

A rocky, dusty, potholed mess. Some of those potholes can get deep enough that they could be Smurf strip-mines or something, and they can cause real damage to the cars. So, in addition to long, straight, fast, boring stretches of road, you also have long, straight, slow, shitty sections of road that require a lot of focus and concentration to not plant your differential right smack dab in the bottom of an asphalt road-Sarlacc pit.

I guess that makes it less boring?

2. The border crossings are by far the hardest, most ass-painiest part of the whole thing

In the U.S., you can drive for a week and stay in the same country, culture, economic system, with the only thing really changing are what the people call carbonated beverages and what kind of hot sauce they like to drown their food in.

Along the Pan-American Highway, this is not the case. At all.

While I was only on the trip for the relatively easy Chile-Argentina border crossings (you actually have to cross in and out of Chile and Argentina multiple times) I was told by the Mini team that border crossings were often long, tedious affairs, with the worst offender being Colombia, which held the cars up for two entire weeks.

The Panama Canal crossing is a big deal, as you can expect, but Colombia seems to take a special joy in making everything as slow and complicated and Kafkaesque as possible. It sounded long and bureaucratic and dull and if you’re planning on doing this drive, just be ready for it, because it’s not going to change any time soon.

3. All Chilean and Argentinian gas stations have dogs, and some have cats

You don’t really have gas station pets in the U.S., but every gas station we stopped at along the way had at least one big, friendly, hungry, filthy dog and often several.

All the dogs I met were really quite sweet, which makes sense, since dogs are no dummies and they know you’re a lot more likely to part with half the crunchy, salty contents of whatever you just bought at the gas station if the dog is charming.

The cats were pretty aloof, generally, but, you know, cats.

4. There’s some pretty yummy-looking food to be had at tollbooths

In the United States, tollbooths aren’t generally considered culinary hotspots. That’s not the case in Chile, where nearly every tollbooth had people selling some really great-looking and smelling homemade food. We didn’t get a chance to actually try any, but if I ever get to do this again, I’m going to be dining on some delicious-looking tollboth meals, that’s for damn sure.

5. Look out for rocks with magic-bullet like trajectories

While our Czech pal Jan was driving, we impacted some sort of very destructive and angry rock on the road. The rock took out both tires on the driver’s side, and Jan and the Mini both handled the situation quite well, considering, keeping the car straight and out of the guard rail and making a controlled stop at the side of the road.

I find it interesting Jan decided to forego my usual driving-crisis initial response of lavishly soiling himself, but I guess to each their own.

More importantly, look what that rock did to these wheels:

...that’s the exit wound from the front wheel. The rock (meteorite?) then continued to the rear wheel, where you can see where it burst out of the tire, baby-alien style:

That’s nuts, right? Beware of rocks.

6. Chilean cops are insane defiers of death

Just in case you were living your life thinking that Chilean traffic cops were not steely-eyed madpeople who laugh in the face of death, allow me to correct you: They are steely-eyed madpeople who laugh in the face of death.

That scene you see above there is our lead VW Transporter van, being given a warning for speeding by a Chilean highway patrol officer. What you can’t see there is what happened about 20 seconds before, when the cop stepped right out in front of the van that was going at least 60 mph.

I can’t think of a more terrifying or effective way to stop a car than just stepping out in front of it with the cool aplomb of an astronaut on cocaine, and that’s just what this cop did. He was very reasonable and just gave us a warning, but I still can’t get over that method for stopping cars. Is that really the best way to do this?

Now I know why they have brown uniforms.

What To Know if You Go

For our North American readers, I have to say that the Pan-American Highway is a very strange and wonderful thing, because, unlike so many faraway, exotic roads we read about and write about, this one is technically possible for you to actually just get in your car and drive without having to first travel halfway around the world.

You could be in, say, Nashville or Cincinnati or San Diego or wherever and get in your trusty old daily driver and set off on a journey by car that will take you through wildly different landscapes, cultures, languages, cuisines, governments, and more. A real, no-joke adventure.

It’s the sort of thing that European drivers take for granted—land travel that’s wildly varied, and something that we just don’t really here.

I’m not saying it’s easy to do—it’s not, by any means. The border crossings are non-trivial to understate it recklessly, there’s that whole canal thing to deal with (you’ll need to ship your car across it), often the road conditions are shitty, sometimes the drive is long and dull, and there’s certainly potential to do dumb things that can get you in a mess.

This is an epic roadtrip that’s possible to start from your driveway, but make no mistake—it would take time and money and planning, likely a lot of all three, plus a decent helping of luck (and bribes) to make it all go smoothly.

So, yes, it’s not easy to do, but some people do it—not many, really, but some, and maybe there should be more.

People who have made the run seem to like to make stickers about their achievement, which they stick on the windows at the border station back into Argentina as you enter Tierra del Fuego. Looking at them you see a huge variety of people and vehicles, from all over the world. A couple celebrating an anniversary by driving down in a Renault 4 from Brazil, a motorcycle club from Texas, some Canadian friends in a Jeep, a South Korean club, Ricardo and Heloisa in their Land Cruiser, and on and on. It seems to be a challenge people take with other people who are important to them, and clearly becomes a source of pride and a always-ready resource of stories to tell while drinking.

Maybe if you’re craving a real automotive adventure, it’s worth thinking about this long, winding rivulet of asphalt that drips down from Canada to almost Antarctica, and all the possibilities it offers. Even if it can sometimes be a huge ass-pain.

If you decide to try it, let me know, and I’ll try and remember where I saw that IES America so you can check it out.

DARIÉN GAP CLARIFICATION: Since many of you are asking, the Minis were shipped, by water, across the Panama Canal and past the Darién Gap, ending up in Colombia. This happened before I joined in Santiago, but that’s how they got past that famous gap.