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 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 two-part article, consisting of parts 3 and 4, we pick up where they left off. Part 3 was published earlier this month.
How was it exploring in the Andes? How high up in elevation did you go?
Geneva and Mike: Exploring the Andes began in Colombia and continued through Ecuador and Peru. We will have more of the Andes to see when we get to Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. These mountains are rugged, steep and very cold in some areas. Each section has a few volcanoes, but most are inactive. One special feature of these volcanic areas is the hot springs. We love parking near a rustic hot spring for a night or two. The camper is the perfect rig for enjoying a relaxing soak, a hot meal and a peaceful night!
The highest peak we have crossed has been over 16,000 feet. But we have spent several nights at 14,000 feet and higher. At these elevations things really begin to feel different. The terrain is dry and rocky and wild vicunas roam the open plains. The weather at these elevations has included snow, sleet, hail and rain.
Some of the roads in the Andes are unpaved, so sticky, deep mud is the norm. The truck and camper performed incredibly. Although we did notice a decreased amount of power from the engine, and on the steep inclines we were going very slowly in first gear as we pulled our load up and over the Andes.
We assume you suffered from some form of altitude sickness while you were in the Andes. How do you deal with it?
Geneva and Mike: We did experience altitude sickness on a few occasions. It begins to effect both of us at about 12,000 feet and above. The first thing we noticed was a mild headache and shortness of breath. If we climbed elevation too rapidly we also had some intestinal pain manifest. That came as a real surprise. But if we were able to climb the mountains slowly, spending a night at each 1,000 feet or so, the symptoms were manageable. We also practiced the suggestions of drinking a lot of water with coca leaves in it and taking Excedrin. Both are said to provide relief for the symptoms, and we felt that it did. The coca leaf tea doesn’t taste very pleasant, so we add chamomile and a bit of honey. But the taste is much more palatable than the pain and discomfort of the altitude sickness. It is interesting to feel the body return to completely normal, as soon as the descent occurs.
Tell us about the roads and off-roading there. Looks like you’ve been on some pretty gnarly roads.
Geneva and Mike: The roads in Central America were just a practice run for what we have encountered in South America. While they boasted some huge speed bumps and deep potholes, most roads were paved or graveled through out Central America. Here in South America we have experienced roads that were not much wider than a donkey cart, and about as smooth as the magnified skin of an orange. In Colombia the main highways are toll roads, which are wide, smooth pavement. But the smaller, non-toll roads tend to be poorly maintained and a bit rough. The roads can also be used for more than just car traffic.
In Ecuador the roads were much better, and even the dirt roads were mostly passable except after rainy season. But in Peru…. well the roads are a bit of a challenge. Occasionally the map will show us a state or national highway. But what we see with our own eyes is barely a single-track trail for off-roading. These narrow roads are used for daily, two-way traffic, which means a Peruvian standoff when meeting oncoming traffic. Someone ends up backing up or down hill to a slightly wide spot. Then mirrors are folded in and breath is held as the two vehicles inch past each other. At 8.5-feet wide, narrow roads have been more of a challenge than rough roads.
Another situation with the roads in South America has to do with abrupt changes. We may be driving along a road that has been paved and then at a certain point (political district, private property easement, highway construction, landslide, earthquake, etc.) the pavement is gone and the road becomes dusty or muddy rutted bogs that are traversed by small family sedans and huge fuel tankers alike. These roads leave our truck and camper looking like a mess, but performing like a champ again.
How is the camper and truck holding up to all of this travel? Have you had any issues?
Geneva and Mike: The 2005 Northstar Arrow is doing well. As your readers may recall from part 1, it is mounted to the chassis with bolts and to an aluminum sub-frame. In Colombia we experienced an extremely rough road, which caused two attachment points to break. These are the bolt boxes that are welded to the frame of the truck.
We visited a well-known metal shop in Bogota that was able to fabricate a reinforcement to the attachment points and add some springs to the bolts that hold the camper to the chassis. This seems to allow for more flex and less jarring of the camper. However, we have noticed some cracking in two interior walls and we are hoping that the camper frame is not compromised. In spite of this damage, the wood-framed Northstar continues to provide a comfortable and convenient home in every setting we visit.
The 2013 GMC 2500HD is a beast. This truck has performed incredibly well in every task we have asked of it. The interior of the truck is comfortable for the long days of driving and the dogs enjoy their custom platform in the back (part 1). The gas engine has given us 10 mpg regardless of speed, load or elevation. The 4×4 system has delivered us safely though some very rough road situations and hauled the fully loaded camper along, too. The rig gets muddy, dusty and dirty, but we just wash it off and keep going. We have had two flat tires during the journey. We were well-prepared for this, and were able to get the tires patched easily.
Did you get a chance to see the Nazca Lines in Peru?
Geneva and Mike: Yes! The Nazca Lines are amazing. We feel very fortunate to have been able to camp among some of the lines in nearby Calca. Then we saw some of the Nazca Lines from a huge viewing tower. This piqued our interest enough to spend the money on a flight over the Nazca desert. For about $80 per person we spent 40 minutes in the air, viewing the animal, plant and geometric shapes. This experience was topped off by a visit to the local museum. And as so many people can agree, after viewing these enigmas, you walk away with more questions than answers!
Did you spend any time along the Amazon Jungle?
Geneva and Mike: We did explore a little bit along the edge of the Amazon in Ecuador and also Peru. These areas were thick and filled with jungle growth. However, the regions we explored were also hot and humid. (Since we had our fill of that climate in Central America, we didn’t stay long in this area. We will experience a more in-depth exploration of the Amazon as we cross from Peru to Brazil. Check back with us to learn of our adventures in the Amazon of Brazil.
Where do you typically camp or park at night?
Geneva and Mike: This journey has been filled with memorable overnight parking places. But not all of them stand out as fond memories. We frequently use the phone application iOverlander to research about possible camping locations. We also start watch for suitable dirt roads, riversides and similar open spaces. Generally we begin searching for a spot around 4:00pm in the afternoon. We have a solid rule of never driving at night. We like to be off the road and settled before dark. This is not because of fear, but rather due to the animals, potholes, landslides and bicycles, trucks and poorly lit vehicles that are on the road at night. We also prefer to get leveled, make dinner and relax while enjoying a sunset in our new location.
Sometimes our parking place for the night is a truck stop or gas station parking area. Sometimes our campsite is a popular gathering place of other travelers. Here we may meet folks from around the world and view a wide variety of travel rigs that are actively in use. Occasionally, we are able to find a beachfront or mountaintop space to set up camp. Full service campgrounds are common in Mexico and a few parts of Central America. But these are not so common in South America. It is not unusual for us to spend a night or two parked on the central plaza of a small village that we want to explore. This usually results in a visit from curious locals, especially children. Sometimes we camp in a hotel parking lot, along with other travelers. Our favorite campsites are generally along the shores of a lake or river. We have not had an overnight spot in which we felt afraid or threatened in any way. We consider ourselves very fortunate that in almost five years of traveling we have been safe and secure all along the route.
That’s great to hear. It looks like you adopted some dogs while you’ve been down there. Tell us about them?
Geneva and Mike: Oh, the dogs are the toughest part of the traveling. Not our dogs, they are amazing. But all along the route in Central and South America we have encountered stray, wild, abandoned, neglected and injured animals. We now carry a basic first aid kit for dogs as well as some treatment products for worms, wounds and parasites. We try to help when we can. But our heartstrings are pulled daily by the dogs we meet.
We have adopted two dogs since we left Arizona. Our first adoption was a blue-eyed beauty in Nicaragua. She is a small dog with a big personality. Nica has been with us for about 1.5 years. She has flown across the Darian Gap to South America and also flew to the USA for a family wedding. She walks through town off-leash, knows to wait for cars, stays close by at camp and sleeps on the foot of the bed. She has adapted very well to life on the road, and knows that the camper is home.
One afternoon in Colombia we were exploring a small village just as the local school dismissed. Nica got lost in the crowd of school children and we could not find her anywhere in the central plaza. After 30 minutes of searching we returned to the truck to locate a photo of her to show people. And there she was, sitting on the back deck looking at us like we were the ones who were lost. Nica is a traveling girl and has been in seven countries in her three years of life.
Our newest adoption is Pacha. She selected us when we met her at while visiting a dog rescue home near Lima, Peru. We were seeking a larger, adult, female dog to add to the mix. Pacha has been the perfect addition. When we walk in a city or village, she postures alongside Nica as if she is the protector or the big sister. Although she is a year younger, she has a calm wisdom about her as she learns to be a traveler. Pacha is just a year old and has much world exploring ahead of her.
Many people seem to think that traveling with dogs will be difficult. But we find that they add great joy to the experiences, they provide company and peace-of-mind in the camper. Many places in South and Central America would be considered dog friendly. They visit restaurants, explore ruins and enjoy public spaces. The procedures for paperwork at each border are clearly written and easy to comply with. We are happy to have our dogs along this journey with us.
The two of you had an issue getting stuck on a bad road recently. What happened?
Geneva and Mike: We started by breaking one of our rules—driving after dark. Normally we try to stop and make camp before sunset. But we were pushing to make miles in Peru and drove into a new town after dark. We turned a corner and were buried up to the axles in soft sand. We were extremely stuck and spent the next several hours with hydraulic jacks, shovels, wood and a tractor trying to get out. Luckily some wonderful local guys were willing to lend a hand. After got out, we marked the soft sand with stones and drove on into town to park on the plaza for the night.
Have you had any problems with corrupt police and border guards at any time?
Geneva and Mike: Well, we have met only one officer that wanted a bribe. But we didn’t realize it till later. Apparently when they open the rule book and set it on the windowsill, you’re supposed to tuck some cash inside. Oops, missed the clue! Other than that we have been stopped many times for routine check points, border crossings and even asking us if we were lost. (Those nice officers led us to our destination!) Never any trouble. A smile goes a long way!
Now that you’ve spent a significant amount of time south of the border, what do you now consider critical modifications for a trip like this?
Geneva and Mike: The biggest modification others should consider is the toilet. Finding a dump station in Central and South America is impossible. Having a cassette toilet makes it all functional and possible (our Northstar came with one, which was part of the reason for choosing one). Another big modification that we made was the chassis-mount and truck bed removal. This opened up huge options for storage boxes and the ability to easily carry and secure the things we wanted with us. Those black boxes hold a guitar, an inflatable paddle board, a full tool kit, chairs, table, bbq and so much more! Including a water tank. And that is another important consideration. Finding ways to maximize water storage is important. And our modification was a separate water tank for drinking water with a separate faucet for use. This allows us to access more water sources for the main tank. Other key modifications include solar with spare batteries, enhanced springs, the rear deck and sliding drawers for food storage. We also removed the three-way fridge (inefficient and prone to hassles) and now use an Engel compressor refrigerator.
We like to stress preparedness on this website. What spares and other items do you carry?
Geneva and Mike: We carry spares for both the camper and truck. This includes two batteries under the hood and all the spare fuses and connections for that as well as the solar system. We also have an alternator, fuel pump, brake pads, water pump, spark plugs, and headlight bulbs. For the camper, we have a spare fuse for the vent fan and water heater. A spare water pump, door handle, propane regulator and cassette toilet parts are also on board. We also suggest carrying a large roll of Eternabond Tape, some Dicor Lap Sealant, and plenty of Happy Camper Powder. A Water Bandit is also a handy item, as well as a tow strap for helping new friends!
What are your immediate plans and long-term travel plans? When will you be back in the United States?
Geneva and Mike: We want to finish the South American countries before we make any further travel plans. We find that the traveling lifestyle and the accompanying adventure is addictive. We are hooked and will continue to push the boundaries of this type of travel. We estimate another 1-2 years in South America. Then we may move on to explore Europe, Africa or Australia.