Many truck camper owners dream of exploring Central and South America in their rigs, but for whatever reason never take the time to do it. Mike and Geneva Saint-Amour are making that dream a reality. Four years ago, the two educators from Prescott, Arizona decided to retire and live full-time in a Volkswagen Vanagon. The VW van was their home as they explored the USA, Canada, Baja, Mexico and more along with their three dogs. But an interesting turn of events landed them back at their hometown where they had the opportunity to rethink their needs before embarking on the next big leg of their journey—Central and South America. For the trip, a custom, chassis-mounted, flatbed truck camper was developed. Although they still own the old VW (their kids are using it) they are thrilled with the results of the upgrade as they travel through Central and South America via truck camper. This interview took place while the two were exploring Nicaragua. You can learn more about Mike and Geneva and follow their journey via Facebook and Instagram. This is part 2 of a two-part article. Part 1 can be found by clicking here.
It looks like you guys are having the time of your lives exploring south of the border. What challenges have you experienced on your trip thus far?
Mike and Geneva: We left Arizona in March 2017. Crossing into Mexico was simple and familiar to us. We spent the full six-month visa exploring that beautiful country. Then on to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. We’re headed all the way to South America and plan to explore as many of those countries as possible. We often joke that we bought all the stickers already, so we need to make it into all the countries!
Challenges on the road are as varied as the scenery we see along the way! Finding French Vanilla creamer for our coffee has been a struggle in some countries, gasp! Speaking Spanish and then learning the nuances of the local dialects continues to challenge us. Managing the widely varying climates can be tricky, be it extreme heat or extreme cold. But we’ve found our Northstar camper to be very comfortable in all temperatures.
One challenge we’ve encountered is with regards to the height of our rig. At 11 feet, 3 inches we are about as tall as most delivery trucks. But some villages don’t have room for delivery trucks. We drag power lines and tree branches occasionally. On our website is a funny/not funny story about taking down the town holiday lights as we made a wrong turn.
Have you had any problems passing through the borders?
Mike and Geneva: Borders haven’t been a problem for us. Having the truck title in two names has made things simpler. Carrying copies of all documents including title, registration, passport and drivers license is important. Having current paperwork on all pets is vital. Each border has a few variants, but in general it’s the same process: turn in the permission to enter from the country you are exiting, obtain permission to enter from the country you are entering. We do urge all travelers to review and abide by entry/exit dates and be aware of any special driving restrictions. There are resources out there to help travelers with this information.
Any challenges getting fuel and potable water?
Mike and Geneva: No. Fuel is widely available. And widely varying in price! We have paid as much as $5.50 per gallon and as little as $3.00 per gallon. The octane seems to be higher in most places (93 to 95). As mentioned above, we have two different water systems in the camper. Household water can often be filled at gas stations or campgrounds. We fill the potable water tank only with filtered water, which can be purchased literally everywhere. Everyone needs potable water and the availability of it is not restrictive in these countries.
Have you done any off-roading in these countries?
Mike and Geneva: When we first developed the sub frame and attachment system we took the rig off-roading to test the handling and strength. That helped us learn what to adjust back at the AT Overland shop. Since leaving the USA, many of the general roads would be considered off-roading. Huge potholes, unpaved sections, uneven pavement and need for high clearance are the norm while driving in Central America. In addition to these experiences on the main roads, we’ve been on many rough, rocky, steep and slippery dirt roads. The truck performs perfectly in these settings and the use of 4×4 is a great reassurance.
What’s the most worrisome or scariest moment you’ve experienced thus far?
Mike and Geneva: We haven’t been scared yet during our travels. But a tense moment occurred as we were seeking a museum in a crowded city in Mexico. We didn’t realize it was market day and we took a few wrong turns, landing us in the center of the market. Before long we were facing a narrow street lined with tarps, vendors and parked cars—imagine driving through a flea market with a huge truck camper! We pulled out of a side street to enter the flow of city traffic, and couldn’t turn tight enough to clear a vendor table and a parked truckload of vegetables. We couldn’t go in reverse because cars and taxis had piled in behind us. Suddenly gridlock occurred and we were in the center of it. Large city buses were stopped in both directions. Delivery trucks were being delayed and market shoppers were being inconvenienced. Horns were honking and people were shouting. It was extremely intense.
To get out of this tangled mess of buses, delivery trucks and impatient drivers, we had to get out of our truck and beg people to back up a little. After a few hand signals, muddled Spanish and pleading looks, a few cars edged back just slightly, then a few more. After a crazy game of inching forward and backwards, we were able to negotiate the turn and free up the chaos to resume the daily flow. We gave up the search for the museum!
Have you had any concerns for your safety south of the border?
Mike and Geneva: No. The villages, large cities and towns have been filled with people who showed us kindness and assistance whenever we needed. It has been incredible to learn just how wonderful these people can be. Much is written about the safety of these countries. But we’ve found that if you aren’t looking for trouble, then it doesn’t find you. We don’t stay out late, don’t drive at night, don’t use drugs, drink or seek to become involved with troublemakers of any type. Additionally, we’re clearly seen as tourists and have been waved through roadblocks by folks who realized that the local issues really had nothing to do with us. Tourist travelers like us are the “golden goose,” we bring money to a community with minimal impact and we mean no harm to local systems. Safety concerns haven’t been an issue at all.
We did have an incident where we had to follow our “gut instinct” and leave our camp location. We have an agreement that if either of us feels uncomfortable, we will trust that instinct and relocate ourselves. This incident occurred in a small village in Guatemala. We had driven to the area seeking a beautiful waterfall we read about. But when we arrived in the neighborhood, we learned that the road was under construction and access was only by hiking. It was late afternoon and we opted to park for the night and hike the rest of the way in the morning. We negotiated a price of $5.00 to park near a restaurant. Then we went into the camper for dinner. As we were cleaning up, a knock on the door presented us with the restaurant man and his brother. They wanted us to pay $20.00 to park there. We told them that we would agree to the original price or we would leave. After some discussion they returned to the original price and walked away.
Once we closed the camper door we began discussing the situation. Geneva felt uncomfortable with this. We weren’t in a familiar area. We weren’t familiar with the people. We were concerned that they may change their minds again and return in the night or morning, asking for more money or inflicting damage to the rig. We decided to leave the area, even though it was dark and required us to break another rule of the road, “Never drive at night.” We drove about 8 miles and located a fire station. We parked there overnight and had a wonderful experience with the local volunteer fire department. In the end, the experience worked out perfectly and we felt good about our decision. But it was a good reminder of the importance of setting boundaries and travel guidelines that both of us were comfortable with.
Tell us about some of your favorite places where you’ve visited so far?
Mike and Geneva: This is a difficult question to answer because we’ve seen many amazing places in the 8,800 miles we have traveled so far on this trip! Our favorite places tend to be those with comfortable temperatures and interesting features. The people have been amazing along the way and there are countless geographical, historical, and beautiful sights to see along the route. In Mexico, a few of our favorites were:
- Grutas Tolantango, a mile-long mineral water river with hot pools and caves.
- Teotihuacan, the amazing Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon pyramids, which are also located in a nice little city.
- Angahuen village in the mountains and the nearby Paracutin church, which was partially buried under volcanic lava.
- San Cristobal de las Casas, an eclectic mountain town with an international flair and great cultural variety.
In Belize, we really enjoyed our time in Orange Walk where we camped on the banks of the Lamanai River. We were there during their Independence Day celebrations, so the festivities were exciting and entertaining. We also had a great time exploring Placencia. But we didn’t venture out to do any diving.
Guatemala was a surprise to us. We didn’t anticipate enjoying it immensely, but once we were drawn in, we wanted to keep exploring. The market at Chichicastenango is an incredible experience of sights, sounds and smells. Antigua is a beautiful colonial city in the shadow of active volcanoes. It has great restaurants and many cultural activities. And Lake Atitlan is a collection of small villages around the rim of a crater lake. Camping on the shore with incredible views and passing between the villages by boat was certainly a highlight in Guatemala.
El Salvador and Honduras are small countries. Even the large towns in these two countries give off a small-town vibe. We enjoyed Suchitoto, especially the work being done there by the Centro Arte de la Paz in that war-torn, colonial setting. The town of Copan Ruinas in Honduras was also very appealing to us. We found the weather pleasant and the balance between local and tourism to be comfortable. We’re still exploring Nicaragua, but our favorite night thus far has been the lake front beach at Playa Momotombo. Camping on the shores of a windy lake and watching an active volcano on the horizon was pretty special. Keep watching our blog for more highlights, favorites and stories about our travels.
Have you explored any Mayan ruins yet?
Mike and Geneva: Yes. The Mayan ruins are incredible in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. We explored many of them including Teotihuacan (largest pyramids in the Americas), Palenque, Chichen Itza, Tula, Tonina, Monte Alban, Tikal, Copan and many more. Many of these are UNESCO sites. Understanding more about the Mayans, Aztecs and Olmecs has been fascinating during this journey.
We also explored several other UNESCO sites along this route. It’s surprising to learn just how many places have worked for that recognition. Additionally, there are geographic features such as mountain ranges, hot rivers, frozen waterfalls and volcanos. These countries have features that cannot be found anywhere else in the world!
What about food south of the border? Do you eat out or prepare most of your meals in the camper?
Mike and Geneva: When we’re on the road we mostly eat out and explore the local cuisine. Street food is low priced and efficient. It is called tipico. Tipico food could be tacos, Sonoran hot dogs, carne asada, pupusas, gallo pinto, quesillos or many other specialties. Most countries have a taste that’s unique to their heritage and to their local ingredients. Most meals include cheese, salsa, rice or cornmeal and often some kind of meat. These meals will be cooked and sold over an open fire or grill at stands throughout the towns. Whenever we’re not sure where to go for a meal, we simply visit the town square across from the church. That central plaza is guaranteed to have carts peddling yummy tipico foods. If we see a crowd it means the locals know the food is good. We jump in line and wait for the goodness to be served!
Our camper eating habits seem to change with the weather and availability of fresh food. When it’s too hot to cook, we often eat just fresh local fruit, cheese, crackers and salami or basic sandwiches. When it is cooler we fully utilize the camper kitchen. Having three burners and a prep surface is an upgrade, since we started our travels in a VW van with just two burners and no counter space! We make pastas, frittatas, curries, steamed veggies and much more. One of our favorite recipes is chilequiles.
We also have an Omnia Oven for stovetop baking. This can be used to make lasagna, breads, muffins and even brownies! In one of the exterior storage compartments we carry a BBQ grill, which can pigtail into our propane tanks. We enjoy grilling bacon wrapped chicken, corn on the cob, and occasionally a steak. Recently, we acquired an old-fashioned pressure cooker and we’re learning how to use it. We’ve made a delicious chicken mac and cheese recipe and some vegetables. There are many great websites and Facebook pages that share recipes, which can easily be adapted to the camper cooking systems. It’s fun to experiment and learn to substitute with available, local ingredients.
Do you have any other hobbies you’ve been able to enjoy on your current trip?
Mike and Geneva: In one of the storage compartments we carry an inflatable stand-up paddleboard. This particular unit can also have a seat clipped on it to make it a kayak. Paddling around a lake, river or mangrove is one of our favorite forms of entertainment whenever we are parked near water. The dog loves to ride along on the board!
Geocaching is something we started when the kids were young. We’ve continued, and are proud to have geocached in 12 different countries. We find geocaching takes us to places that we might not otherwise explore and helps us see areas that are off the typical track. There aren’t as many in Central America as we had hoped, but we still cache along the way!
Mike is an avid hiker whenever trails are available. He and the dog go on walks twice daily. Exploring cities on foot has also become a hobby. We love learning the layout of the streets and walking around to find highlights and photo opportunities. We’ve also visited quite a few UNESCO sites along the way, perhaps we are collecting them!
In the evenings we relax in the camper or outside on our chairs. We may surf the Internet if we have data available. Sometimes we play games, watch DVD’s or movies from a hard drive, or read books traded at various campsites. As full-time travelers we have no shortage of things to keep us busy. We are thrilled with our choices and thoroughly enjoying our time on the road together in our custom truck camper rig.
Do you have any advice for those contemplating a similar trip to Central and South America?
Mike and Geneva: Our advice for others is that they should do it, and do it soon! We were fortunate to be able to travel in our 50’s. Many people wait too long to make these type of adventures a reality. There are families along this route with young children, teens, and in the early years of their careers. It is fascinating to see other cultures and the people have been incredibly friendly. Language barriers are easily handled with persistence and a smile. Travel such as this is beneficial to expanding minds and learning more about the world.
Anyone who hasn’t yet crossed a border should start with a passport and then head to Baja. It’s a simple way to experience the border and a new culture. Baja is often called Mexico-Lite by travelers. It’s cheap, safe, beautiful and easy to travel around. From there, you are ready to keep going South. Getting passports, opening new bank accounts, managing bills online, unlocking cell phones, carrying documents. All of this is important to manage carefully. But it’s quite simple and easy to set up. We even have the dogs with us, and have found their paperwork to be pretty basic stuff.
Border crossings can be intimidating but the routine is the same each time. There are resources and write-ups to help coach travelers through these new experiences. A little research goes a long way. It’s a controversial topic, and I hesitate to kindle this fire. But our number one tip for those who are thinking about driving South is this—DON’T listen to scary stories from those who have never been there. If they haven’t experienced it first-hand, then their words are merely opinions. Get out there and find your own experiences! If any readers are contemplating this, we welcome direct contact for additional suggestions.