In July of 2019, I swapped the keys of my Brooklyn apartment for a 1996 Toyota 4-Runner, fondly named Rocket, to drive from New York to Argentina with my partner. We were inspired by the Pan-American Highway, running from Alaska to the southernmost tip of Argentina, and lured by the freedom of the open road.
The best way to experience a country intimately is by car. Some of our favorite moments and most scenic drives sprung from an impulse to explore a long dusty road not visible on Google Maps, and the ability to visit a remote village difficult to access by public transportation.
While the itinerary of our adventure was driven by our curiosities, we needed a car that would be able to successfully navigate the rugged and diverse terrain across the Americas. We spent a significant amount of time considering the type of vehicle that would accompany us: RV, camper, or even something more unique like a renovated school bus or ambulance. Ultimately, the durability and cult following of the third generation Toyota 4-Runner won us over; its four-wheel-drive would support our journey, and the price wouldn’t break our budget.
We also spent significant time debating where and how we would sleep. Our options seemed endless: inside the vehicle, in a rooftop tent, camping, hotel, Airbnb, or hostels. During our USA and Canada leg, where the accommodations and cost of living were more expensive, we stuck to tent-camping in National Parks and the occasional hostel or hotel. Once we crossed the border into Mexico, and for the remainder of our trip, the cost of living was significantly cheaper and we enjoyed staying in hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs.
We’ve driven over 30,000 miles of terrain and traveled countless spectacular routes but here are seven of the most beautiful stretches across the America’s you can’t miss.
The Icefields Parkway, Canada
The Icefields Parkway, or Canada’s Highway 93, is one of the most scenic drives in the world with over 144 miles (232km) of adventure and overwhelming natural beauty between Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Winding through the Canadian Rockies, you’ll pass thundering waterfalls, brilliant turquoise lakes, and hundreds of ancient glaciers with the occasional “bear jam” pausing traffic. Keep your eyes on the road for a bighorn sheep, caribou, or even grizzly bears. Although this route can be driven in a day, give yourself a few days to experience the many viewpoints and hiking trails.
Highway 12, Utah
Southern Utah is teeming with breathtaking geography and some of America’s most incredible national parks; it’s hard to pick just one standout drive.
Connecting Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Highway 12 weaves through Dixie National Forest and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument providing countless opportunities to explore America’s Wild West. Watch the scenery dramatically change as the “All-American Road” extends across seemingly endless canyons, tunnels through mountains, and bends around towering red rock sandstone formations.
Highway 1, Baja California Sur, Mexico
A good road trip arouses a distinct and unforgettable sense of nostalgia. The smell of the ocean’s saltwater cutting through the dry desert air, the taste of fish tacos washed down with cold beer, the reflection of the oceans’ glistening turquoise pallet through an open window all encapsulate the longing of driving down Highway 1 in Baja California Sur.
Hugging the Sea of Cortez, this scenic stretch winds through Mexico’s barren desert landscape dotted by cactus gardens and white sand beaches. Exploring Baja by car provides the freedom to discover its secret beaches and camp in beachfront palapas (thatched beach shelters).
Carretera a Pastoruri, Peru
Nestled in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range of Peru’s Central Andes lies Huascarán National Park. It’s towering snowcapped mountains, glaciers, and brilliant lakes entice travelers from all over the world, but driving the Carretera a Pastoruri is one adventure in this region not to skip.
The Pastoruri Highway cuts directly across Huascarán National Park towards the rapidly melting Pastoruri Glacier. Just off Highway 3N, the long gravel road traverses the sprawling valley floor passing cattle farmers, soaring native fauna, and bubbling hot springs. The most remarkable stretch climbs 4800m across switchbacks to reach the glacier’s entrance.
*Due to COVID-19, we’ve been in lockdown in Peru’s Sacred Valley where Rocket’s wheels have been stopped. Through research and recommendations from the Pan-American Overlanding community, we’re eager to navigate the following drives when Rocket roams again.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
A list of the most striking drives across the America’s wouldn’t be complete without a trek across the world’s largest salt flat. In Southwestern Bolivia, seven hours from La Paz, over 6000 miles (10,000km) of an endless horizon of white salt transports travelers to another planet.
The remote and barren landscape of the Salar de Uyuni is both a photographer and adventurer’s dream. During the wet season (December to April), water accumulates on the surface transforming the vast plain into reflective glass, providing an incredible mirror effect. There’s so much to discover while exploring the flats: colored lagoons, hot springs, a cactus island, and even an abandoned train cemetery.
Route 23, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
After leaving Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, many overlanders continue their trip through Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. From one planet to another, the Chilean deserts’ martian landscape leaves many breathless (or perhaps that’s the altitude). Use Route 23 as a guide through the rocky and dusty desert filled with various geologic formations, colorful lagoons, volcanoes, hot springs, and smoking geysers. The region is home to a variety of unique wildlife.
Route 7, Patagonia, Chile
Chile’s Route 7 or Carretera Austral, packs the wild geographic diversity of a Patagonia adventure into a single-road itinerary. Between Puerto Montt in Northern Chile and Villa O’Higgins in Southern Chile, lies over 620 miles (1000km) of volcanoes, hanging glaciers, snowy mountains, thick forests, and fjords to explore across the “Southern Highway”.