Red-shirted Italians toss personalized luggage into the back of a van, while mangy-looking dogs scavenge for food on the sidewalk. Restaurateurs, hoteliers and shopkeepers peer out from modest buildings as the tourists fiddle with their cameras. All around there is a feeling of excitement. It's not every day that San Pedro de Atacama plays host to Ferrari.

Enrico Goldoni hands me a radio and ushers me into the blue 599 Fiorano. I insert my butt, dial up more support from the carbon fiber chairs and ogle the fighter pilot's emblem that has become so famous across the world. Even here, in a desolate corner of northern Chile, the name Ferrari has resonance. For the next four days, this car will be my friend and companion as I tack northwest across Chile and into Bolivia. If all goes well, we should reach La Paz by Friday.

"This will be one of the toughest legs of the tour," says Goldoni as he quietly shuts the door. In the real world, Goldoni has the enviable job of organizing Ferrari's test team, but he's taken three months out to lead a brace of 599s across some of the world's most dangerous terrain. The Ferrari Panamerican 20,000 began in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on August 24 and isn't scheduled to finish until the cars reach New York on November 17. "It is," he reckons, "a crazy thing to do."

There's a crackle on the radio and we're away. In a formation that will become familiar over the next few days, Goldoni leads the way in his Fiat. I follow with the second, red, Ferrari behind. To the rear are more support vehicles, seven in total, hosting eighteen staff. There are mechanics from Maranello, a local guide, PR staff and even a surgeon, just in case it all goes wrong. It might sound like overkill, but it's mighty reassuring in a continent that's home to some of the world's most dangerous roads.

Today's stage is relatively short, so we indulge ourselves with a visit to the Valle La Luna. Millennia of flood and wind have created a scene that, as its name suggests, resembles the surface of the moon. It would be surreal enough without the presence of two Ferraris and, if you were a conspiracy theorist, you really could imagine Neil Armstrong taking "one small step for man" in this dusty desert. Eventually, we drag ourselves away and head north to the copper mining town of Calama. The Ferraris have been modified for the trip, but only slightly. Their ground clearances have been raised by 25mm (one inch) and their underbodies wear protective aluminum cladding to cope with the tricky terrain. For this leg of the journey, the cars are also wearing specially developed Pirelli rally-spec tires, which offer increased traction in the sand and dust.

The rest of the 599 is standard, including the 6.0-liter V12. Global warming worriers might balk at its carbon emissions, but cold-hearted enthusiasts will revel in its 620 bhp, 448 lb-ft of torque and erotic soundtrack. There is something bizarre about driving a 205-mph supercar across such desolate terrain. The luxurious ambience inside the leather-lined cabin seems to bear no relation to the view beyond the bonnet. I've been in IMAX cinemas that have felt more real.

We go to bed early in Calama, in anticipation of a long day ahead. We're to drive 244 miles across the Bolivian border to the town of Uyuni and it's not long before the paved highways give place to dirt roads. At speeds of just 30 to 40 mph, we plod on, guzzling the dust of the car in front. We're at an altitude of over 13,000 feet and both the 599 and I are struggling for breath. The surgeon monitors my progress, while the mechanics keep a wary eye on the car. The rolling landscape, interspersed with the occasional lake or salt flat, is remarkable. For two hours we drive without seeing anybody else, and then we arrive at a police checkpoint at Ascotan. At least a hundred miles from any notable civilization, it's occupied by a solitary official, a dog and an old railway carriage.

The facilities are basic and the climate can be cruel-a giant icicle dangles precariously from a water faucet. Our host seems underwhelmed by our entourage as he checks our paperwork, raises the gate and ushers us on our way. Two hours later, I'm at the wheel of the first Ferrari ever to enter Bolivia. In contrast to Chile, which has recovered well since its brutal dictator, General Pinochet, left office in 1989, Bolivia is still desperately poor. "We have all the resources of a rich country, but we've been let down by poor administration," says our guide, Dante. The incumbent president, Evo Morales, is openly courting Castro, which has not pleased the country's entrepreneurs, or Seor George W. Bush.

It's already dark by the time we reach Uyuni and we've been driving for over fourteen hours. A hasty dinner is followed by a night of deep sleep. In the morning I wake to discover dusty streets filled with elderly, dilapidated people. The poverty is self-evident and it's quite a culture shock after the relative affluence of Chile. Uyuni probably wouldn't exist were it not for the extraordinary Salar De Uyuni. Around 120 miles long, it's the world's largest salt flat and makes Bonneville look like a children's playground. There's even a hotel-the Playa Blanca-made entirely of salt. I spend a few naughty minutes sliding the Ferrari on the low-grip surface.

It's late afternoon by the time we leave Uyuni, which proves to be a mistake. The journey to Potos is little more than 124 miles but it takes us nine hours. On rutted dirt roads, we crawl along at 15 mph with the 599's steering wheel shaking violently in my sweaty palms. The closest most Ferrari owners will come to such terrain is a sandy drive in Malibu. There are moments when the dust clears and I catch sight of the vertical drops and sheer cliff faces that line the route. From time to time, we also creep through tiny communities, their residents no doubt bemused by the sight of two supercars kicking up dust. Do they really know what they're seeing?

As we near Potos, we're also forced to dice with over-enthusiastic minibus and cab drivers, who have little interest in self-preservation. At a little after midnight, a 20-year-old Mercedes minibus comes roaring past and misses me by inches. It's a relief when, at 1 am, we arrive safely at our hotel. Potos is the world's highest city at 13,420 feet and, in the 18th century, silver mining made it the richest in Latin America. Back then, Bolivia was a Spanish colony and its architecture retains a classical, European beauty. It would have been nice to spend more time here, but we must push on to La Paz.

The road to Bolivia's commercial capital is quick and paved, to the relief of us all. The cars and their occupants have been taking a battering and the journey across the Altiplano has not been entirely trouble-free. A damaged wire has obliterated the dashboard electronics on my car and a tire was ripped near the Chilean border. The latter was fixed immediately and the dashboard will be repaired during tomorrow's rest day. Ferrari is carrying a van full of parts and should the worst happen, there's a spare car waiting in Italy. There can be no denying that the Ferraris have handled the terrain remarkably well. Gone are the days when the products of Maranello were no more than a weekend plaything for the rich and spoiled. The 599 is comfortable and practical enough to be used as an everyday tool, which has to be a good thing. If you owned this Ferrari, you'd want to use it.

On the final run to La Paz, the road opens up and I'm at last able to exploit its potential. In perfect conditions, this car will hit 60 mph from rest in just 3.9 seconds and even though the altitude has slaughtered some of the horses, it's still on the quick side of rapid. And it makes the most wonderful noise. Quiet enough at cruising speeds never to become an irritation, it responds to a determined prod of the throttle with a soulful howl. Time and again I find myself shifting down, just to hear its crescendo. The LA bling parade might lean towards the V8-engined F430, but a V12 Ferrari remains the purist's choice. The paddle-shift gearchange is also the best I've known. These systems were disappointingly crude even in their previous generation, but the software has now been developed to the point where I'd choose it over the stick-shift alternative. It seems to fit the 599's comfortable yet engaging character. At around $255,000, this Ferrari is undeniably expensive but it's difficult to think of a rival that offers such a potent mix of virtues.

We arrive in La Paz in the early evening to be met by that potent symbol of civilization, Burger King. After so many days on the road, it feels odd to be back in a jostling metropolis, fighting through traffic jams and dodgingpedestrians. An early evening beer offers the chance for reflection. There is no denying the Panamerican 20,000 is a PR stunt designed to generate exposure for a brand that doesn't advertise.

But it should be equally clear that cynical ambitions do not necessarily invalidate the challenge. After a rest day tomorrow, the cars roll on to Peru and I wish I were going with them. The past few days have been fascinating. I've driven a Ferrari 1000 miles across some of the world's highest and most dangerous roads, crossing terrain and seeing sights that don't feature in the guidebooks. Goldoni was right, this really was a crazy thing to do.

PanAm Express
Two Ferrari 599s, five chase vehicles, a party in Vegas, but no kissing
by Robert Hallstrom

By the time it was my turn to get behind the wheel of the most technologically advanced Ferrari road car ever, the 599s and their entourage had covered more than 8000 miles over some of the most rugged and barren terrain imaginable. Considering the relentless abuse from such roads (or lack of them), the cars look surprisingly intact. No dented rockers or cracked windshields, just a few undercarriage mementos.

I've been invited to drive the North American leg from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and it should be a breeze in comparison to Alistair's South American saga, on well-paved homeland highways with only a minor detour over a sandy washboard road through part of the Mojave National Preserve.

I take the keys to the Tour De France Blue car (the other is Rossa Corso Red), the same one Alistair drove just a few weeks earlier. In front of a crowd of onlookers, I push the 'engine start' button and goose the throttle for effect. The Enzo-derived V12 screams to a near-deafening roar at 8000 rpm. A cheer erupts and my American leg of this epic adventure is underway.

I wish I could say the next part is as thrilling, but we leave LA in early morning commuter traffic. It takes a while before I can revisit the higher rev range. The 599 is comfortable, at least: plenty of leg and headroom for my lanky frame-key ingredients for grand tourer. It's got a surprising amount of trunk, too, easily swallowing two large bags, camera gear and a tripod.

I'm particularly surprised by the suspension. Even though it's been raised for rough Third World roads, it still has a sharpness and precision. The open desert highway beckons, enticing me to blast toward the horizon, but the Ferrari support crew keeps a fairly tight rein on us. I can't really blame them. The company has a lot riding on this event; even a minor incident could have disastrous consequences. Having my right foot so near the 599's floor, but not being able to fully flex it, is like having your lips just a fraction of an inch from Angelina Jolie's, but not being able to kiss them. Frustration is an ingredient of lust.

Despite this, the trip is over all too soon as we arrive in Vegas, in time for a welcome party at the Penske Wynn Ferrari dealer at the Wynn Hotel. Although this has been just one brief leg of the 15-stage, three-month adventure, taking part is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I would never have dreamed of missing. While crossing terrain most people wouldn't consider driving a rental car over, let alone a Ferrari, the point of this long and grueling tour was not to set any speed records (that would be a cinch), but to introduce the world to a new state-of-the-art car, more stylish and capable than any previous Ferrari.

If you're as sold on the 599 GTB Fiorano as I am, get in line. There's already a four-year waiting list.

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