Many truck camper owners dream of exploring Central and South America in their rigs, but for whatever reason never do it. Mike and Geneva Saint-Amour are making that popular dream a reality. Last year, we introduced you to the couple and to their truck camper rig in a two-part article which chronicled the first half of their epic journey. In this article (part 3), we pick up where they left off. This is a two-part article, part 4 will be published later this month.
TCA: Hi, guys. Thanks for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to catch up with us. Where have you been since we last spoke?
Geneva and Mike: When we chatted previously we were in Central America. There we had explored Mexico and Guatemala (part 1) and then El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua (part 2) Since that article was published we also went through Costa Rica and Panama and then shipped the truck to South America. We spent some extra time in Costa Rica, which was a lot of fun because family flew down to hang out with us. My sister rented a roof-top-tent camper (Nomad America) and we traveled around Costa Rica and Panama together.
We really enjoyed learning about the Panama Canal and crossing over it to look at it from several angles. It is a fascinating feat of Western engineering. We also had an aunt and uncle visit in Costa Rica. They rented a house and we spent time relaxing outside of the camper. After the family visits were done we made arrangements to get the truck shipped around the Darien Gap and enter South America. We’ll talk about that later. We arrived in South America in July 2018 and have been through Colombia, Ecuador and much of Peru since then. We are currently wrapping up our stay in Peru.
TCA: Which country has been your favorite so far?
Geneva and Mike: It is difficult to say which country has been our favorite because every country has good points and bad points, the latter due primarily to poverty. But our favorites have been Mexico, Colombia and now Peru. We really miss the street food and culinary delights of Mexico. There is nothing quite like it as you continue south. Tacos and burritos are NOT universal foods. We did learn to enjoy pupusas in El Salvador and arepas in Colombia. But nothing compares to a carne asada street taco or a delicious quesadilla made with a fresh tortilla. Colombia is a bright and vibrant country.
It was also the first time we began to cool off after the unrelenting heat and humidity of Central America. But in addition to the good weather, the people of Colombia are incredibly warm and friendly. It is said that if you ask someone for directions in Colombia, they will stop what they are doing to deliver you safely to your destination, and then invite you over for dinner. We spent over seven months driving around the countryside of Colombia.
We are currently in Peru, and it is spectacular. Peru boasts an abundance of ancient history, colorful indigenous cultures and a wide variety of climate, terrain and scenery. We have enjoyed beaches, glaciers and archeological delights. We are fortunate to have a six-month visa to fully explore this large country.
Which country has been your least favorite? The least favorite country is even a more difficult question to answer. We don’t want to hurt any feelings, but probably either Belize or Panama takes that award.
While it is easy to travel in Belize due to the size (small), the language (English), and the currency (US Dollar), we found it to be hot, humid and somewhat expensive. I must admit that because of our dogs, we did not dive or explore the islands during this visit. We covered nearly all the mainland area within our 30-day visa. There just wasn’t much more that we wanted to see.
Panama has very little indigenous or ancient history. The country was primarily developed to its modern state as a result of the Panama Canal. The influences of American and French are strong, as they played a major role in the canal work. Additionally, in our memories, Panama holds the challenge of shipping the truck, camper, dog and humans to South America. This is not a simple, cheap or enjoyable task.
TCA: So, how did you deal with the Darien Gap crossing between Central and South America?
Geneva and Mike: Research, research, research. This crossing has been done many times and a few different ways. Because of the size of our truck camper we needed to ship the rig using a roll-on roll-off (RoRo) system. Smaller campers and vehicles can fit inside a shipping container, but not ours. Container shipping provides a little more security, as you drive the vehicle into the box and then lock the doors yourself. RoRo shipping means that after police and port inspections, you must hand over the key so the vehicle can be driven onto the ship. The truck camper is ideal for RoRo shipping, as it separates the living space and personal belongings from the cabin. And yes, thefts do occur during shipping. But we are happy to report that nothing was stolen from us.
The shipping route to South America that we selected leaves from the port in Colon, Panama and arrives to the port in Cartagena, Colombia. While the truck and camper were on a container ship, we flew to Cartagena. At that time we had one dog, which we shipped as cargo on the same plane that we took. Some people also choose to sail through the San Blas Islands and meet their vehicle in Colombia. But by then we were done with the heat and humidity, so flying was more pleasant for us. The entire process including RoRo shipping, flights for us and the dog and lodging at both ends cost us around $4,000. We had budgeted for this when we left the USA, and were prepared for all the hidden and unmentioned costs. While the process is a hassle, it is now just a memory to us.
TCA: How difficult has it been passing through borders?
Geneva and Mike: Initially, we found border crossings to be one of the scariest parts of the trip. We always worked ourselves into a state of anxiety. Yet, nearly every crossing has been easy. Every country requires a TVIP (Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit), which is issued by the aduana (customs office) and a passport stamp, which is issued by the immigration office. This procedure means providing them with originals and copies of vehicle documentation, passport and usually a driver’s license. Although we are VERY organized with our paperwork, we always fear the worst.
Some borders really were tedious and annoying (El Salvador/Nicaragua) but most of them can be broken down into a simple formula: Approach the border and figure out where to park. Walk to the aduana building to turn in the TVIP from that country. Proceed to the immigration office for an exit stamp in the passport.
Return to the vehicle and drive across the physical border (often a bridge or a booth, but no actual line or wall) and look for parking again. Search for the immigration office to obtain an entry stamp in passport. Request maximum number of days allowed so you can fully enjoy their country. Take required originals and copies to aduana office for the TVIP. Return to vehicle and drive to a new location to purchase automobile insurance, if required. There is seldom a checkpoint or customs type inspection. No one searches the vehicle or asks about foods on board. Simply a wave from an officer and we are off to see a new country
TCA: Have you had any issues with your health since you left the United States?
Geneva and Mike: Health issues in foreign countries can be intimidating with the language barrier. We have dealt with a couple of issues. Geneva had a chest infection from a lingering cold in Honduras. We were able to camp in the hospital parking lot while she received two-a-day breathing treatments and a few x-rays. After a couple of days, things improved and we paid off the $480.00 hospital bill.
Geneva also had major foot surgery in Costa Rica. This was an opportunity to correct some poor surgeries performed in the USA. The procedure was done outpatient at a major hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica. Two surgeons, an operating room, anesthesia and incredible medical care was estimated at just over $6,000. This amount had to be prepaid. This was the full bill, not a co-pay or deductible. But before she could check out of the hospital the staff informed Mike that he had to go to the accounting office to settle up the bill. We anticipated that we would now be hit with some hidden charges or additional fees. Instead they counted four; one hundred dollar bills back to Mike. It was a refund for unused funds from the pre-payment! Geneva’s feet are now in excellent condition and she is able to hike again.
Mike developed some wrist pain in South America. After trying a few common treatments he finally agreed to see a doctor. In Cuenca, Ecuador he had x-rays, an MRI and a consult with a doctor. The diagnosis was a damaged tendon from repetitive use (driving). He bought a brace and wore it faithfully for 16 weeks. The pain is gone and the total cost of care was just over $65 including the brace.
Being older adults and on the road for two-plus years means we have needed routine medical procedures also. Generally in the larger cities (Guatemala City, Bogota, Lima) we locate a laboratory and a clinic or hospital to have blood tests, dermatology exams and routine exams. All of these have been performed at or above USA standards, and at cash-pay, affordable prices.
TCA: How has the heat and humidity been down there?
Geneva and Mike: As far as the heat, we left that behind in Cartagena, Colombia! There is no denying it; Central America is HOT and HUMID. To help the dogs and us cope with the heat we wired in some little computer fans. These circulate a great deal of air, and they also keep the bugs off of us while we sleep. We also added a plastic cover to the ceiling vent fan so it could be left open in the rain. Many hot, muggy nights include pounding rain with no relief. But even still, we experienced some of the most relentless heat. There simply was no place to go to achieve enough elevation to cool off. Occasionally we located a camping spot that offered electricity, so we could run our air conditioner. But often this would overload the electrical system and blow the area circuits, or simply not be enough power to kick on the compressor.
In South America the weather is cooler in general. And within a days drive from anywhere, you can usually find a different climate. Ecuador had a few warm days when we broke out the shorts again. Now in Peru we are wearing a jacket by evening and we have had a few very cold nights.
TCA: How has the food been?
Geneva and Mike: Mexican food is unparalleled along this route. We really enjoyed the cheap, delicious street food while we were there. In Belize we did not try chicken-feet, but we watched a chicken-foot eating contest, which was won by the mayor. Guatemala had delicious breads and also fresh fruits. We also learned that the pupusas are delicious in El Salvador and the empanadas are good in Honduras. In Colombia we sampled amazing arepas with delicious fillings and loved the fresh baked yucca flour bread. Ecuador and Peru introduced us to grilled Cuy (Guinea Pig) on a stick. But we haven’t found it to be particularly delicious; maybe it’s the presentation that bothers us. But it is a serious food product here in Peru.
In general the food in Central and South America seems to be healthier for us. The meats are not made with fillers or additives, and most are farm-raised. The fruits and vegetables are usually not treated with pesticides or genetic modifications. The breads and baked goods are fresh and often homemade. We also are much more active and interactive with our foods. Selecting items at the open-air market and buying directly from growers is a true pleasure. And enjoying the rich, genuine flavors of fresh foods has helped us reduce our appetites. All of this has led to feeling healthier and more active. But we still splurge now and then!
TCA: Which cultures have wowed you the most thus far?
Geneva and Mike: When we were in Guatemala we were introduced to some of the history and practices of the modern Mayan cultures. There are 22 different tribal groups there. They have interesting ceremonial, religious and familial practices and they comprise over 50 percent of the population of Guatemala. Then in Ecuador we began to learn about the Quechua and their modern forms of community and farming practices.
But in Peru we have really been wowed as we learned about the modern Quechua, which makes up 45 percent of the population. But we also learned about ancient cultures that existed prior to the Inca history that most of us were introduced to in school. We would have to agree that Peru has the richest blend of ancient and modern cultures that we have experienced thus far. We have also just been wowed by the technology and sophistication it took to build the structures and canals, and feed the people of those cultures. South America is so much more than the Inca. In fact the Inca civilization lasted less than a 100 years.
But through all of these lessons in cultures and native people, we have also come to realize that people are the same everywhere. Living their lives and going about their daily business.
TCA: Tell us about some of your favorite places in Peru.
Geneva and Mike: The archeological ruins and their related museums have been our favorites. There is so much to learn here. We also enjoyed the Nicolini Auto Museum in Lima, which is filled with many unique cars and a beautiful restoration facility. During our time in Peru we spent a great deal of time in the Cusco and Sacred Valley areas. The ruins, villages and beauty of these areas are compelling and enjoyable.
One of our highlights in this region is the Maras Salt Beds. These small, managed ponds have been producing salt since the pre-Incan times and are still active today. The Pan American Highway follows along the coast for most of the country. The Peruvian coastline is not beautiful, but we found a few nice campsites along the way. We also loved spending the day at the floating islands of Uros. These islands are on Lake Titicaca and inhabited by families that have been there for many generations.
TCA: Did you get a chance to see Machu Pichu while in Peru?
Geneva and Mike: Yes we did and what an experience. What makes Machu Pichu so special is that it is one of the few ancient cities that were not destroyed by the Spanish. Additionally the Peruvians make getting to Machu Pichu an experience on it’s own. You can take a train, hike a 4-hour trail, hike for days along the Inca trail or a custom combination of all three versions of travel. We were pleasantly surprised by how few people were at the ancient site in the afternoon, and we captured many fine photos of the beautiful location. After a day at the ruins, you can spend a night at the village that supports Machu Pichu. Although it is very touristic, it offers excellent restaurants, souvenir shopping and even natural hot springs. There are no roads to the village or the ruins; so visiting by truck camper is not possible.
TCA: What other ruins of note did you explore while in Peru?
Geneva and Mike: While exploring Mexico and Central America we saw many large and beautiful ruins. Upon arriving in South America we enjoyed a few ruins in Colombia and Ecuador. Entering Peru from Ecuador delivered us to some surprise locations. We really enjoyed exploring some of the little-known ruins such as Revash, Keulap and Karajia Sarcophagus. As we drove towards the Peruvian coast we camped and explored several more archeological sites such as Caral, Chan Chan and Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon.
These ruins, and many more, were made by cultures that existed long before the Inca and demonstrated incredible skills in astronomy, architecture, ceramics and societal structure. It has been wonderful to learn about aspects of ancient history that are seldom covered in standard historical textbooks.
Our truck camper carried us down many rough roads to beautiful ruins, and often we were able to camp there. There is something surreal about waking up in your truck camper next to the walls of an ancient city.
We have visited well over 30 different ruins while on our travels in Peru. The civilizations that built and populated these ruins existed more than 5,000 years before the Inca arrived and left elaborate structures, temples, cities and artifacts behind. When you visit a place that is older than the Pyramids of Egypt you develop a deeper respect for the past civilizations of that area. There are so many ruins and ancient cultures in Peru that it is mind-boggling. We are fortunate to have six months to drive all around this huge country.