Written By Hayden Carlyon
Also published at www.austintoargentina.travellerspoint.com
In late 2007 my friend and I drove from Austin Texas to Argentina. We were on the road from October 21st 2007 to March the 15th 2008, during which time we drove through most of the countries in Central and South America.
The following is a general information blog for those of you who are considering taking the plunge and driving from North America to South America..
We were both really nervous before we left but we found that preparation and good information is the key to making the most of the trip and keeping yourself safe. There are loads of great websites on the internet, so do the research before you leave home and have a basic plan mapped out of the places you want to visit and the things you want to do. A good website to get you started is www.drivemeloco.com, it has a lot of detailed information for the drive through Mexico and Central America.
Overall the trip was a lot easier than we imagined it would be. Obviously it is important that you like driving and that you don’t mind spending the whole day on the road if you have to. But ultimately it is your trip so you can create your own schedule and take as much time as you want. In general the roads are fine throughout Central and South America ( especially the primary/main roads), any regular car that is in good shape should have no problem making the trip. Obviously, the further you go off the beaten track the worse the roads get, so take that into consideration when choosing your car. Regular unleaded gasoline was readily available in all 15 countries that we drove through and there were also plenty of ATMs. We managed to get by without any problems relying solely on our ATM cards and we didn't run out of gas once.
Pros and Cons of traveling by car:
Freedom and comfort:
You will be in the comfort of your own car and have the freedom to come and go as you please, to make your own schedule and have the flexibility to change your plans when ever and where ever you feel the need. If you want to stay where you are for another day, stay. Whether you choose to hit the road at 6am or 1pm it is entirely up to you. You can also fill your car with all the comforts of home, food, music, pillows, etc and be driving around in your own little oasis.
You can pull over where ever you want, for a swim, take some photos, to buy food, use the bathroom or a bush if you have too. And if you don’t like the town that you are in, get in the car and drive to the next one.
Apart from your license plates you will be just like a local and you will get to see and experience life as it is outside the cites and the main tourist spots. You can drive as fast or as slow as you want and take the time to really experience the country that you are in.
When you are traveling time is money. During the trip we saved at least 1-2 hours a day by not having to wait for buses, trains, taxis, planes etc. Over the space of the trip that’s literally hundreds of hours, and hundreds of dollars. Traveling by car is usually a lot faster than traveling by bus or train and you will be able to fit so much more into your day.
Safety and convenience:
The only time you will be carrying around your luggage will be when you are checking into your hotel. For the most part we either left our stuff in the trunk of the car or in our hotel, either way we almost never had any valuables with us when we were walking around.
Your car is your life blood on the trip so you need to look after it and make sure it is running well, by checking the fluids etc almost on a daily basis. Also, you can’t park the car in the street, it needs to be locked in a private or public garage. Most hotels we stayed at had garages, if not there was always a private parking lot close by.
Obstacles on the road:
You will encounter everything on the road during the trip; dogs, cows, people, potholes, speed bumps, rocks, maniac drivers, corrupt police and every possible weather condition you can think of. You always need to be on alert when you are driving, so it can be quite tiring.
At the border crossings in Central America you will be swimming in paperwork, forms and bureaucratic red tape. Always allow 2 hours to complete a border crossing. We usually spent the night near the border and crossed it early the next day. Also keep in mind that most borders close for 1 hour at lunch time and there are often time changes between countries. Although they seem complicated at first, there is almost a method to the madness. Once you get through your first border crossing it will get easier as they all seem to follow a similar procedure. The further south you go the easier the border crossings get. In South America most of the border crossings took less that 30min.
Road blocks and the police:
There are usually check points or military road blocks a few miles after each border crossing but as long as your papers are in order you will be fine. We always kept our car permits and important documents in the same place so that they were easy to find when we needed them. If you get stopped by the police for no reason, it’s the same deal, just smile and show them your documents. As long as everything is in order they will usually let you go. If you see the police on the side of the road try to hide behind a truck if you can, so they cant see your license plates.
Shipping the car across the Darien Gap:
This is the only part of the trip that is a hassle. It is a logistical and paper work nightmare that will take at least a week to organize and a minimum of 1-2 days of filling out forms etc, and loading and unloading on either side. See the shipping section below for the details of our shipping experience.
Before you leave:
1. Documents for the car: Make sure you have at least 10 photocopies of the title and the vehicle owner’s passport and driver’s license for the border crossings. We were never asked for the vehicle registration but take it just in case. I suggest you photocopy the car owner’s passport and driver’s license on one piece of paper and keep all the documents in a folder under the seat. Keep the original documents separate in a safe place e.g. in a money belt.
2. Make sure you have auto insurance. The only company we found that offered universal auto insurance for most of Central and South America was AIU but the policy must be purchased through Sanborn's insurance, contact them at www.sanbornsinsurance.com. Print out the insurance document when you get it and always have a copy on hand. Also bare in mind that the AIU insurance policy takes at least 3 weeks to process.
3. We only got asked once for our international drivers licenses but to avoid hassle its worth taking one, they are $15 at any AAA.
4. Buy a map for Mexico, a general map for Central America and one for South America. You don’t need one for each country unless you plan on spending a lot of time there. Check out www.maps.com.
6. Have your car checked out by a mechanic.
7. Find out if you need a visa for any of the countries you are about to visit. Americans need a visa for Brazil. 8. Have a spare key made for the car and keep it in your wallet.
Choosing a Car:
We purchased an automatic Honda Accord 1995 with 113,000 miles on the clock. 2wd vs 4wd: There is absolutely no need to buy a 4WD unless you intend on driving well off the beaten track. The only place during the whole trip that was inaccessible by regular car were the salt flats in Bolivia. We simply parked the car in a garage for around $2 a day and took a train, which was a nice change and offered some get views and tobe honest even with 4WD I still wouldn’t have driven on those roads.
Most of the main roads throughout the trip were in good condition but the secondary roads varied greatly. Ask the local people either at your hotel or a gas station what the condition of the secondary roads are like before you drive on them. Automatic vs. Manual Transmission: Manuals are easier and cheaper to repair and they get better gas mileage but Automatics are a lot easier to drive. Remember 20,000 miles will require a lot of gear changes. Cruise control is also a nice option to have. Which car to buy: I would suggest buying a Honda or Toyota with around 100,000 miles or less. Japanese cars are the most reliable and Toyota's and Honda's are reasonably common throughout Central and South America.
A car with decent ground clearance is also important. That was the only complaint that we had with our car. It was so low to the ground that it would scrape on the speed bumps. You will drive over 1000's of speed bumps during the trip so suspension and ground clearance are really important.
When you are looking for a car make sure it has:
• Comfortable seats • Cruise control • Good ground clearance
• Good tires
• Plenty of leg room
• Trunk space for all your luggage
• Good suspension and brakes
• A stereo
Have the car thoroughly checked out before you leave:
Pay the extra $50 and get it checked out by a mechanic before you buy it or before you leave, it’s worth it. Make sure the water pump and the timing belt have been changed and that the tires, brakes and suspension are in good condition. We changed the wires and spark plugs, the air filter and the oil just before we left.
This is also another really important thing to consider. The gasoline prices in the countries you will visit will usually be higher than they are in the US ( Bolivia, Ecuador Venezuela and Argentina being the exceptions). While you are looking for a car check out its MPG rating at www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/findacar.htm. Most Honda’s and Toyota’s will give you around 30+mpg. Also a vehicle with a Manual transmission will give you better gas mileage.
Shopping list for the car:
• Spare tire and a can of fix a flat
• Some spare oil filters, when you change oil they may not have the right filter for your car. •Padded steering wheel cover
• Cereal bars and some emergency drinking water just in case you get stranded somewhere
• A gas can that doesn’t leak. The change in temperatures and altitude meant that our cheap Wal-Mart gas can was forever leaking in the trunk of the car.
• A small can of Pepper-spray for peace of mind. We never used ours but it was nice to know it was there if we needed it.
• A cushion or two
• A medium tint for the windows; to keep the car cool and hide your Gringo face. Don’t make it too dark or you may get pulled over.
• Car alarm and steering wheel club • Road maps
• Wet hand towels/wipes • Rags to clean the windows, check the oil etc • Music for the trip
Some General Advice:
• Never leave anything in plain sight in the car, always lock everything and I mean everything in the trunk.
• Never drive at night, especially in Mexico and Central America, Costa Rica being the exception. South America isn’t as bad but use your own judgment on this one. Obviously it is safer to drive at night in Chile than it is in Bolivia. That being said it is still a lot harder to see holes, animals, people, etc at night time.
• Use brand name gas stations. Some gas stations especially in Brazil are famous for watering down their gas to make more money.
• Two sets of eyes are better than one. Even if you are in the passenger seat, it really does help to have 2 people watching the road and looking out for holes etc. The roads will vary greatly and you never know what is going to be around the next corner or over the next hill so take care.
• Take every piece of travel advice with a grain of salt, including mine. During our trip we were told by so many people the places to go and the places to avoid but they were almost never right. The places that were supposedly dangerous were often completely safe and the places that were meant to be great were often dumps. If your not sure get a second or third opinion or take the time to do some research on the internet.
• Don’t be afraid to pull over to ask for directions 10 times in a hour if you have to. It is better than ending up lost and wasting time back tracking. Be careful who you ask though, taxi drivers and police officers are usually your best bet.
• When crossing borders, check that all you paper work for the car is in order before you enter the new country. Make sure that the car VIN number and your names are correct on all the forms otherwise you may have problems exiting the country.
• You really do need to have some Spanish speaking ability, I’m sure you can get by with out it but it makes life a lot easier if you at least know some of the basics e.g. your numbers and how to ask for directions.
• Speed bumps are something that you will have to contend with for the duration of the trip. They are usually sign posted but some aren't, so keep an eye out for them when you are entering and exiting small towns. Some countries have none, others like Mexico and Brazil have thousands.
• In the larger cites especially in Central America make sure you abide by the road rules (signal when changing lanes etc) especially if you see the police. If they see the US license plates they will pull you over for almost anything. If you are pulled over don’t offer them a bribe. They will threaten to take your driver's license and make you go to the police station to pay a fine. Tell them that you will go to the police station and pay the fine if necessary. As long as you stay calm and pretend that you have all the time in the world they will give up. All they want is money and if you go to the police station there is no money in it for them.
• If you have no choice but to pay a bribe, discreetly pass the officer a couple of $1us bills and tell him that is all you have. I always kept a few $1 notes in my pocket, separate from my other money, just in case. They will always ask for more but use what ever excuse you have to and tell them your sorry but that is all you have. During the whole trip we only had to pay 4 bribes and trust me as long as you stick to your guns $2-$3 will be enough.
Again this will vary. Some days we drove 100 miles other days we drove more than 500. We usually mapped out where we were going each day and had a few different options of towns we could stay in along the way. We rotated the driving on a daily basis and the person who wasn’t driving was navigating. We also tried to make sure that we arrived at our destination before sunset each day.
If your not sure about the conditions of a road you are about to take ask the local police, they usually a good source of knowledge and have up to date info on road conditions. During the rainy season this is particularly important. Try to keep the gas gauge above half way. Gas stations are every where but some times you can drive 200 miles without seeing one so its worth filling up whenever you get the chance. We found it really helpful and motivating to have dates and targets to work towards. We had to be in Panama City by the 10th of December to ship before Christmas, we had to make it to Brazil by February 4th for Carnival etc.
It is a huge trip, so unless you plan on being on the road for more than a year it's important to have a plan with some concrete dates to work towards. We spent around 1-2 weeks in each country and found that that gave us enough time to get a good taste of what was on offer. We also made sure to take a break from the driving for 3-4 days every so often and relax at a beach or in a big city. We changed the oil every 4-5000 miles and checked the fluids every other day. We also found the dirtier the car was the less attention we drew to it. Throughout the whole trip we averaged around 140 miles a day. 20,000 miles in 142 days = 140 miles per day.
My best advice is try to organize it before you leave or at least firm up some prices and dates while you are on the road. It will take anywhere from 4-8 weeks to drive from the US to Panama, so during that time try to give yourself as much of a head start as you can. You only have 2 choices when shipping your car: RORO ( roll on roll off) or Container.
We didn’t ship by container because it was a lot more expensive, a lot more paper work and twice the hassle. But we did research it and the basic costs for a container are as follows:
• 20ft container rental: $800-$1100us
• Transporting the container to the port is usually included in the $800+ fee. If not that’s around $150.
• Loading the car into the container inside the port: anywhere from $150- $400us: Note: You may be able to do this yourself for free if you can borrow a ramp from someone inside the port. There is about a 6inch lip in the doorway of the container so you will probably need to use a ramp to load your car.
• Chains and ropes to tie the car down: $30-$50
• Tying the car down inside the container $150us: they may also let you do this yourself.
• Sealing the container: $10
• Loading the car onto the ship and offloading it at the other end may also be extra • Paper processing fees etc: $50
• Sometimes there is also a $600 refundable deposit that you must pay for the container. Total cost: $1200 minimum. The average cost being closer to $1500us. You could also share the costs of a 40ft container if you are lucky enough to find someone else who is shipping at the same time you are.
Check out www.vwvagabonds.com/VehicleShipping.html for more details on container shipping. Or www.go-panamerican.com/road-tips.php#shipping If you are shipping from Panama check out this link for an up to date list of shipping agents. http://panamericanainfo.com/verschiffung-nordamerika-suedamerika/?lang=en
We chose RORO and shipped our car from Balboa in Panama to Manta in Ecuador. RORO is not as common as it use to be but it is still very available if you look. With RORO there are no issues with loading and unloading tying the car down etc that is all included and done for you. We used a shipping company call CCNI shipping. But we went through an agent in Panama City called Pancanel Shipping Agency www.pancaship.net. Phone: Panama: 269-6300 It wasn’t the cheapest option, as far as RORO is concerned but we didn’t have the time to shop around. We did get a quote for $650 for RORO but we would have to have waited for another 2 weeks. To ship the car cost $850 plus $50 in document fees and $6 in port fees in Balboa.
There is a mountain of paper work to do at either end so make sure you allow for 2 days in Panama and 1 day in Ecuador to sort that out. Its reasonably self explanatory but ask your shipping agent to point you in the right direction. Apart from the ridiculous amount of forms to be signed and filled out you pretty much drop the car off at the port in Panama and pick it up in Manta 4-5 days later. Also keep in mind with RORO you must take everything out of the car before you ship it.