Archive for the 'South America' Category


Friday, June 2nd, 2006

Already 70,000 kilometers into the trip, I find myself answering the same questions over, and over again. Inquiries come from friends back home, from backpackers and hitchhikers met along the way, from people still in the planning stage sending emails, or from the many locals I meet who marvel at seeing my license plate driving on their roads. The questions express genuine interest: how, from where, and via what route had I got there, oh and “It must be so beautiful!”? The answers to the first and last questions are the subject matter of this book.

Predictable though the questions may be, my arm needs little twisting to get me onto the topic of driving the Americas. I hope that this will never become a stale topic. More importantly, I hope that the information in this book will encourage more visitors from abroad to drive Latin America.

Independent travel dissolves barriers between people, enriching the lives of the traveler and those they visit. Whether traveling by road, bus, car, horse, or bicycle the open-minded traveler brings much into the lives of those they visit, but brings away so much more.

The scale and beauty of the sub-continent of Latin America are difficult to take in and next to impossible to imagine. Even those lucky enough to have had their lives enriched by traveling here will be lucky to absorb the extraordinary terrain and the beauty of Latin American people.

Getting off the beaten path often means difficult traveling conditions, but the results are priceless and often unexpected.

For me these include: arriving at nightfall into an Andean village in Peru at 4200m, and noticing the curious glances of the children, only to discover that they have never seen green eyes before and that the car we gad driven into town was the only one there. Sitting on a veranda being asked by a fully grown man whether the sun comes up in different place in different parts of the world; only to find yourself explaining that the volcanic crater in which he has spent his life, is next to the equator of a planet that is shaped like a sphere.

Imagine the joy of being introduced to your very first coral reef by a local Honduran dive-master, or reaching a 4,700m peak after crawling out of the jungles of the Amazon on a dirt road for a week only to have a coca chewing truck-driver stop and offer to take your photo in the snow?

Basic Preparations
So, what is important? What makes a trip like this a fabulous adventure and not the worst mistake of your short life? If you are planning to take a year or so of their lives to traverse a continent by road, some common sense advice can make a huge difference.

It may at first seem a little daunting, but don’t worry there are few mistakes that cannot be solved while on the road. In fact most of us, (myself included), are inclined to over prepare, to over plan, to take control of the uncontrollable. Paying attention to the smallest practicalities can make a huge difference, there are only a few basics you need to get sorted before you hit the road the rest can be taken care of later and often at less cost.

Traveling in the right car with the right paperwork, good maps, travel gear and a Spanish & Portuguese dictionary with a basic grasp of the local languages is a great start.

So don’t get freaked out! While safety is an issue while traveling in Latin America is much less dangerous than some people seem to think. Adventure writers make a career of describing the dangers of obscure locations. That’s their job. Excitement and suspense adds to the readability of their books, but back here in the real world safety is a little more mundane. For example, it can be much more important to your personal safety to shake out your boots in the morning for scorpions and religiously check the pressure in your tires, than to carry an automatic weapon for banditos, or a bowie knife just in case you are swallowed by an eight meter long anaconda. Brush your teeth with clean water and wear long sleeved tightly woven and loosely fitting clothes, there will be plenty of time to play at being Indiana Jones later.

Health and safety are important in long-distance travel but a little common sense goes a long way. The paranoid will face much more dangers in their mind’s eye, than they will in reality.

They’ll also most likely get themselves into much more trouble while having an awful time. If you can’t chill out than maybe, it is better to stay at home and watch nature programs on television?

Being aware of one’s environment is as key in Caracas as it is in New York or in Dublin. When a criminal chooses their victim, they often choose carefully, they sense weakness, and unease.

They will feel your fear or notice your relaxed confidence. This is their job and they are good at it. If they attack you they are taking a risk, because they fear their prospective victims too. For each actual assault, bribe request, or robbery there are hundreds of lucky others that sail by, avoiding such inconveniences. Confidence, awareness, and just the right amount of eye contact are a warning to those who make a living prowling the streets. You will be avoided if they feel that you might be too much trouble, if you look like you have nothing on you, or if they feel you might have friends in high places which could extend their jail-time drastically should they make the mistake of picking the wrong victim — you! Sure, this tactic is mostly bluff, but it is surprisingly effective.

If you are checking out some movies for research you might fare better reading Che Guevara’s book “The Motorcycle Diaries” than watching movies like “Salvador” or “Missing”.

Remember before you leave you will face endless questions and uncertainties, you may feel a little strange and alone. Most of your friends will look at you a little strangely and some might just come out and tell you that you are quite insane but this is normal. If this paranoia didn’t exist society would crumble and vacancies would open up all across the world in the best jobs imaginable. Someone has to keep the home fires burning, but now it’s not your turn. Once you have made the decision to proceed then you are half way there.

So get started! Get some cash together, buy a vehicle and get mobile. It isn’t easy but what life experience worth its salt really is? Traveling can be such incredible fun that you will wish you had started sooner!

Shortly before I left San Francisco I spoke to a gentleman from there who now lives in the gringo colony of Cusco, Peru. I asked him what he thought about my strange plan? His only regret was that he hadn’t discovered South America earlier in life. Think about it!

Once you get on the road your peer group changes. Time moves quicker for you than it did back home. You become a member of a select group of world travelers whose everyday experiences in the real world are quite extraordinary for those you have left behind. At first, it will all seem a little strange but then it will feel good.

In this electronic age emails and chat sessions, electronic banking and ATM machines make traveling a piece of cake and help you to keep in touch. Your family and friends will miss you, but for them, time will pass much more slowly than for you. Eventually you will stop asking them. “What’s new?” In your mind’s eye it may seem like their lives have stopped, but it is your sense of time that has changed not theirs.

Your mind’s eye will be filled with the endless jungles and the Andean splendor of the southern sub-continent. Living amongst such beauty, communicating with people whose life views are so different to yours will change you in ways that you may not expect. In fact, you may not notice it at all while it is happening but fear not, most of the changes will be for the better.

Travel isn’t all sunshine and roses but with a little planning, an open mind and eyes firmly set to the South maybe this can be an experience of lifetime that you will cherish forever.

By getting your basics straight up front, the trip will begin with the dice loaded in your favor. The vehicle, visas and paperwork, adequate funds, packing the vehicle correctly with what you need and leaving behind what you don’t, and finally and possibly most importantly, starting the trip with the right person! Get this 90% right and everything will work itself out just fine with Lady-luck on your side.

By getting your basics straight up front, the trip will begin with the dice loaded in your favor. The vehicle, visas and paperwork, adequate funds, packing the vehicle correctly with what you need and leaving behind what you don’t, and finally and possibly most importantly, starting the trip with the right person! Get this 90% right and everything will work itself out just fine with Lady-luck on your side.