Regular readers of Truck Camper Adventure may recall an article I wrote back in October, 2019 reviewing our 2015 GMC Sierra-Outfitter Caribou Lite 6.5 combination. At that time we were in Baja, Mexico, just five months into an overland journey on the Pan American Highway—from the top of North America (Deadhorse, Alaska) to the bottom of South America (Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina or Fuerte Bulnes in Chile—depending on how you define the bottom).
In December, 2021, just before Christmas and over 25,000 miles after starting, we completed our journey to the “bottom of the world.” While the trip started in May, 2019 we were, like everyone else, impacted by the pandemic and had to take an 18-month hiatus (returning to Canada) between April 2020 and October 2021. We had gotten as far as Santiago, Chile before returning to Canada. Fortunately, in early November, 2021 Chile “re-opened” and we flew back to Santiago to be reunited with our rig and continued on. What follows are some highlights of the journey and some particular points of interest to those contemplating such a journey, like us, in a truck camper.
So, who does this? Actually, not that many North Americans it seems. Pan American vehicle-based overland travelers are, by far, mostly European. We crossed paths with more French, German, and Swiss overlanders than any other group. There were really only a smattering of other Europeans, and (in our experience anyway) only a handful of American, Canadian, British and Australians—combined. We were really surprised by this given that “The America’s” is our hemisphere, we are connected to much of the route by land (the Europeans are a long way from home with a hefty shipping bill just to get started), and US influence in the region is pervasive. A shame because this highway trip really is one of the great road journeys of the world.
Common questions that were asked of us on the road were pretty consistent but three in particular came up most often so I think a brief response to these would be most relevant to any truck camping enthusiasts contemplating tackling this adventure.
Top of the list was “Isn’t it dangerous?” It’s our sense that this perception, more than any other reason (cost, language, distance etc) is what stops most North Americans and the often negative media coverage of Latin America simply compounds that. Tales of drug wars, migrant convoys, illegal immigrants crossing borders, you name it—some of it anyway is on your TV screen at some point. And that was all before COVID got added to the mix! We are mindful of all those things and work consciously to keep ourselves out of harms way—we don’t drive at night ever, we stay on well known and well traveled roads when in risky areas, we follow local advice (and ask for it often) and we always speak to other travelers we meet on the way—those coming north while we were headed south were our best source of reliable and current information. Where possible we drove around (rather than through) cities considered more dangerous (Tegucigalpa in Honduras and Managua in Nicaragua for example). Everyone knows the dangerous parts of their city, so we always asked and simply followed good local advice. So far it has served us well. Frankly, hitting a poorly marked speed bump in Mexico (they can be very hazardous) or a nasty pothole on a bad road and blowing a tire were the kinds of things we worried more about and, frankly were more likely to happen. For an entertaining, but eminently practical guide to the risks of overlanding in Latin America this book, available on Amazon is one of the best.
Probably the next most common question was about language—basically, how good was our Spanish? Not very good at all to be perfectly honest. Numbers, pleasantries, common phrases, directions—not much beyond that. Neither of us have any formal Spanish language training. The simple truth is that knowledge of a local language absolutely helps and always enhances one’s experience in a foreign country; but with very little effort and a bit of focus anyone can learn some basic Spanish—your efforts will always be appreciated. Translation apps these days have made life so much easier than ever before—you can photograph Spanish text and get it instantly translated to English, you can speak English to an app and have it repeat back in Spanish and just about everything online can be translated with Google Translate in seconds. Most tourist areas and tourist sites, campgrounds and info centers have English speaking staff on hand or nearby. The bottom line is this—you can capably get by with very little Spanish these days but there is great value (and joy) in learning as much as you can and most travelers simply do it along the way. This book is simply one of the best.
The third matter that we are asked about most often is cost and here’s the good news—North Americans will find Latin America in general (Chile being a slight exception) very inexpensive and living costs just about everywhere in Latin America are far, far lower than the US/Canada. For those interested in specifics, www.expatistan.com offers price comparisons for cities in different countries all over the world in just about every category and is pretty reliable. You won’t believe the low cost of a steak dinner, or bottle of red wine in Argentina, the cost of a gallon of gas in Ecuador or a cold beer just about anywhere. The website www.globalpetrolprices.com shows fuel costs everywhere and that was always our biggest regular expense. Vehicle shipping is usually the other significant bill. Crossing the Darien Gap (a dense jungle area between Panama and Colombia) and the ONLY part of the Pan American not connected by road, cost us $2,200 (or $1,100 USD each) in a 40-foot shipping container we shared with an American lady in a VW Westfalia. It will likely cost us more to ship home (a MUCH longer journey; and no, we are NOT driving back!)—we may not be able to share, but it looks like $4,000 to $5,000 USD should cover that trip based on a recent estimate from Buenos Aires to Galveston. We will drive to Canada from there.
Our website outlines the route taken but essentially we hugged the west coasts of North and South America with diversions off that route for major points of interest. People make all kinds of diversions and no one we met took exactly the same route – in fact, there are multiple iterations of what, exactly, constitutes the Pan American highway. While there appears to be unanimity on its northern extremity (Deadhorse, Alaska) there is debate on whether Ushuaia, Argentina represents the southern end or Fuerte Bulnes, south of Punta Arenas, Chile does. The former is slightly further south but is on an island, thus not connected to the continent of South America, the latter a tad further north but still part of continental South America ! Just one thing Chileans and Argentines argue about!
Highlights of a journey like this are simply too numerous to mention but when it comes to road journeys within the PanAm, we especially loved the remote Dalton Highway in Alaska, and the Carretera Austral in Chile. Among natural sights, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador and the Moreno Glacier in Argentina were definite showstoppers. Cartagena in Colombia was one of our favorite cities. Alas, I could go on. And on, on and on ! Below are some of our favorite pictures from those places.
Most vehicles here are smaller than North American ones—the fact that our truck was a “Vocho” (V8) was a very impressive thing to most Latino men. More than once during fill ups the gas station attendants (it’s rare to fill yourself) just wanted to take a look at it. And sometimes hear it! We were always happy to oblige. Truck campers not being that popular in Latin America, folks often wanted to peek inside and were always amazed by the space and functionality. We did see them, but not too often.
Typically narrow street, this one in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico and the reason we did not want to take a bigger rig. In many cities it was like this.
The whole “camping scene” is a bit different in Latin America—in parts it resembles what we see in Canada and the US but much more of it seems tailored to tenters since recreational vehicles of all kinds as we know them are simply less common here. Campgrounds are usually smaller and/or may be attached to someone’s house or often a hostel. More than once we found ourselves in the driveway of a house, hostel or small hotel all of which worked just fine ! Fine of course as long as your rig is reasonably compact—big rigs of any kind find it more difficult due to height and width limitations. It was only an issue for us on a few occasions and we always found a solution.
Two things that we also noticed that any North America truck camper owner needs to be mindful of in Latin America—certainly South America. We did not notice too many dump stations, very few in fact. It’s a non issue for us as we have a cassette toilet, so we dumped it in regular toilets. Europeans all use these so not an issue for them either. A bigger North American truck camper with a conventional black tank would find “dumping” more problematic. The other issue is propane—or rather propane fittings. The region uses propane widely but fittings vary in each country making filling a challenge. When not being used to heat the camper we could get two to three months from a standard 20-pound tank and took a few 1-pound tanks as back up. We managed but always filled whenever we came across one of the few propane depots that would fill a US tank. Most couldn’t, others could but wouldn’t (“rules”, they said) but our indispensable iOverlander app listed those that would fill and we always got propane as we needed it. Something to be mindful of though.
Speaking of apps (and Facebook) there are two indispensable tools that every traveler on the PanAm uses: iOverlander (multiple times, daily) which is an app, and (less frequently) the Pan American Travelers Association (a Facebook forum). Join/download both and their indispensable value will be immediately obvious. The former, particularly, we simply could not do without. In fact it’s fair to say that without it traveling the PanAmerican highway would have been incalculably more challenging—yes, it’s that useful !
For the most part in most places it’s much like home with gasoline and diesel widely available (and we did see DEF in places so it’s available), supermarkets everywhere and credit cards accepted widely. Cash withdrawals at ATM’s are easy, if a little pricey in some places. Wifi is everywhere and the standard strategy is to get a new SIM card in each country you visit (usually for a dollar or two) which makes local and long distance calling easy and one has constant data—at a fraction of the price back home.
We thoroughly enjoyed the Pan American experience and while that part of our trip is complete we still have several months down here working our way up the east side—we expect to ship home sometime in April or May, all going well.