Tuesday, April 30, 2013

PAN AM Learning Lessons

Sitting here sharing an evening with another overlanding couple, the conversation naturally turns to the highlights and low-lights of the last 2 years of voyaging between Canada and Argentina.  There is a random staccato of ideas and methodologies to possibly make for a smoother trip resounding over the dinner table.  So for future PanAm overlanders, here is what I learned:

1.  START at the end.  What this is to mean is that it would have been more fun to finally arrive at ‘home’ rather than arriving at the ‘end of the world’ and THEN have to face the stresses and concomitant costs inherent with either selling the vehicle or shipping the vehicle back home.  Particularly as the trip winds down and overlanding-fatigue sets in how much nicer is it to have in the light at the end of the tunnel to be an anticipated arrival with your family?

Speaking of overland fatigue; imagine running out of time or money or motivation, it is always easier to make a decision to ‘skip’ a country by considering visiting ‘another time’.  Not so easy living in Canada to visit Argentina another time, but the nearby USA is possible.

Finally, it is so much easier to arrange for shipping your vehicle from Canada (Europe) to Argentina in your native language then it is to undertake finding and coordinating a container share or risking RoRo shipping FROM Argentina.  Furthermore since most Overlanders are looking to offload their expedition tested and proved rig in Ushuaia/Buenos Aires there is a reasonable choice in vehicle should you opt to buy in-situ rather than ship your car.

The down-side is that it is a rather large ‘culture shock’ to arrive in Argentina, buy a car and start the trip as you are far from home in a foreign environment with not much nearby familial support.  Our time travelling the USA and Mexico was a great ‘shakedown’ opportunity and permitted to resolve problems closer to home before diving deeper into the PanAm.

2.  Learn Spanish. Nothing makes life on the road and enhances local contact and by extension the ‘experience’ with a capacity to say more than Si or No.

3.  Go on, take a VACATION!  Well since travelling is such a stress, it is good to schedule a ‘vacation’ from your vacation to reconnect with family and friends at some regular interval– 2 years on the road is a long time to be away.  But mostly, it is a way to transport all the stuff home that you THOUGHT you needed, and return with the things you actually DO need.   Maybe you DO have space for that gas-powered tailgate mounted Margarita mixer???

4.  Vehicle Choice.  There are a million choices on what vehicle to take, and every decision is predicated on ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ of the Overlanders – who often find difficult to distinguish between need and want.  Or more predictably in their excitement of the impending trip, spend too much time trying to resolve solutions to potential problems which never actually arrive (while the unexpected always do).  North American vehicles (both NA brands and NA Japanese brands) are globally a poor choice for Overlanders for a mitt-full of reasons– but it is what we have to work with.

I might suggest the best vehicle for the PANAM would be a Japanese vehicle over 10 years old.  Older is better than newer as older vehicles are less ‘mission dependent’ on electronics, are more familiar to mechanics in the regions being traversed and have relatively easy access to parts. 

North American brands are rare and can only be found in scattered countries along the PANAM and are SUFFICIENTLY different from so called local ‘third-world models’ that engines are frequently different as well as most of the critical parts.  Similarly North American models of Japanese vehicles are also different from these ‘third-world’ vehicles found south of the US/Mex border.  Case in point:  I actually got turned away from Mitsubishi dealerships in Nicaragua and Costa Rica flatly as they believed my van was a North American model, they would not touch it.  No discussion.

Ultimately too much time is invested in mulling over the vehicle choice.  The best solution is to move your current vehicle out of the garage, fill the tank and GO!

5.  Discretion is the better part of Valor.   A vehicle that carries all your possessions and dreams should not stir the interest and dreams of the locals and more importantly the local hoodlums.  A plain, white panel van is the way to go, or at least a vehicle as common as possible to blend into the scenery.

One thing that Bippers was NOT was discrete.  On one hand we loved having people come by for a chat and gawk on Bip Bip.  This opened channels of contact with the locals.  In fact, Bip Bip was SO flashy that we believe it actually provided security as nothing went unnoticed around Bip Bip.  Furthermore, the Right-Hand drive drew lots of interest but since it was such a confused concept to the local psyche, no one could consequently conceive of stealing the van. 

It was, on the other hand, tiring to answer the same questions time and again and, more importantly, extremely tiring to worry at every Police and Military checkpoint to have to ‘inspect’ the van or to play the rich-tourist-backsheesh game.  Low key is better we learned.

6.  Buy as cheap as possible.  Best to go as simple and inexpensive as possible.  Read: better buy a 1990 Isuzu Rodeo for $2500 than a 2010 Toyota FJ for $30 000+.  You can be assured that both will break down on the trip and shipping parts for the FJ would be an additional stress and expense.

We often spend years dreaming about the trip, planning and re-planning  mulling over vehicle choice...a van or a SUV or a pick-up, camper or roof-top-tent, toilet or no, ARB fridge or not...the permutations are endless.  Keep it simple, KISS, has always and will always be a sound principle. The more complicated the rig, the more probability of having some sort of 'mission ending' failure.

Ultimately, when the vehicle gives up its last gasp and shutters to a stop in the middle of some inhabited wasteland you are free to ‘shoot the horse’ and move on with your life.

Those of us who poured our soul in our car, constructed and invested in the dream, and truly over-designed solutions for every eventuality  - while we enjoyed and were positively occupied during the pre-trip preparation -  are so invested that it is nearly impossible to take the final and objective decision to part ways with your ride at the appropriate time.  

The moral of the story is JUST GO – fill the tank of the car in your garage and stick it in drive.  Forget trying to fabricate the 'perfect overlander machine'. These exist only in our dreams and maybe in Europe as North American car companies do not even have a basic concept in this market.

7.  Smaller is better than bigger. Having smaller vehicle meant that we got to traverse the narrow roads of Guatemalan villages without too much stress.  We got to park in regular parking spots – even sleep in the car in the Zocalo (Town Square) overnight.  Ultimately travelling as low-key and discrete as possible helps security but also means less questioning at Police and Military Checkpoints.

Finally having a small light 4x4 van meant we spent a whole lot of time visiting places otherwise inaccessible to the larger, heavier and more top-heavy unstable vehicles.  We found that we had more fun and interesting visits to ‘off road’ sites rather than an endless series of town center Cathedrals.

8.  Interior Space.  On the other hand, going small means ‘living beside’ rather than ‘living inside’ your rig.  We lived beside our van for over a year without having any complaint.  Then we got to Ecuador and started climbing higher in elevation.  Days of rain or wind (and even snow) meant we had to find indoor protection.  Living in our van gave us the minimum interior space possible to pass long days.  We learned that these cold windy rainy days would have been hard to take in a tent... so having at least a minimum space in our van meant at least a minimum of comfort.  We appreciated this.
  • Permanent Bed.  We learned that having a permanent bed was indispensable   It meant that after a long day of driving we didn't have to reconstruct the bed to sleep.  It also meant we could use it at any time we wanted.  It meant that the mattress was a dedicated mattress and thus much more comfortable than a collection of seat cushions.  Ultimately it meant we could have sheets and blankets and pillows like grown-ups.  From a security point of view, our permanent bed meant we had secure, locked storage underneath which prevented any smash-and-grab hoodlums from having access to our stuff.
  • Security.  Having inside space in the van meant we could live and boondock in relatively open environments in security.  We thus could sleep in town squares or in parking lots or in gas stations without risk of being noticed as sleeping inside (au contraire to having a roof-top tent  up).  Boondocking meant we could reduce our daily expenses by not renting hotels (or the other risk of parking the van unaccompanied on the street).
9.  Wrench-it!  Learn how to use a wrench and know the basics of mechanics.  I can say that just about every mechanical problem we had related directly to the (poor) work of the previous mechanic.  Every visit resulted in at at least three more visits to resolve the add-on issues.  This got to be such an irritating domino effect that I finally just gave up on mechanics and did all the work myself. 

10.  Range.  I would have appreciated a vehicle that gives at least 800km (preferably 1000km) on a tank.  You never know when the next gas shortage is (read : Uyuni)...or just how far it is to cross the Bolivian South-West Circuit.

11. Lay off the Gas!  I wanted a diesel powered van before we left.  We all believe that the diesel engine is the way to go, however we got lucky:  it turns out that our gasoline engine helped us on this Pan Am trip.  While we had slightly less fuel economy, we got a more powerful engine that was quieter and had greater access to local spare parts.  More than that, we did not suffer excessive power losses when over 3000 m elevations (common to many naturally aspirated diesel engines, and some like the Izuzu diesel actually goes into limp mode at 3000m I hear!). Nor did we suffer any issues with fuel quality as we heard our colleagues had while in Peru and Bolivia.

12.  Toilet and Shower?  We didn’t have a toilet; and it never became an issue.  Except in moments of intestinal distress, there are ways to work around not having a toilet.

A shower however – though relatively easy to source on the PanAm – would have been nice.  The truth is that inside showers are generally not used by most caravaners due to moisture and humidity it creates so an outdoor shower (with hot water) would have been nice in a pinch.  Downside means having to carry water which increases weight and thus stresses on the already overloaded vehicle chassis but also increases fuel consumption.  Another downside might be that trying to have an outdoor shower on the Altiplano, at 5000m elevation, in full gale-force winds would have been relatively challenging.

You can get showers at trucks stops or gas stations in Canada, USA, Peru, Chile and Argentina and I am sure the other countries.  In Central America paying for the odd campsite or hotel will not break the bank (and besides all that time on the beach who needs a shower???)

13 Brrrr Coooold.  Skip the fridge - we spent almost 2 years and never felt at a loss for not having a fridge.  It is a big investment that gobbles storage space in the truck and makes you electronically dependent- thus you need a big investment in solar electricity, or run the engine to charge the batteries or find a way to plug in (ie paid camping).  Costs nothing to stop and stop every couple of days for food and gives you a reason to mingle with the locals.  You can throw away tonnes of spoiled food before you match the price of an Engel or ARB fridge.  Ultimately this is not Africa where you can go weeks between (empty) markets.  And if you need that ice-cold beer - do happy hour at a beachside bar.

14.  Document Management.   Make good scans and color printout of all the important documents – Driver’s License, Passport, Vehicle Registration.  Never give your real documents to Mexican or Central American cops.  If they demand the originals then you KNOW that they are trying to hold you hostage to some false accusation.  The response is to offer to show the original documents AT the police station.  This will end any further discussion as the cops do not want to be ‘outed’ at the station for trying to rip-off a tourist.

Second to this, make 20 copies of the DL, Passport and Registration along with the originals and put them in separate pockets/sleeves in a binder.  When you go into a Central American border post you will look organized and prepared and that, in itself,  will limit phony ‘fees’ charged.  Central American customs guys seem to love copies so better to be prepared than have to run around making copies (to the profit of the copy guys because to be realistic the customs guys don’t really need or care for the copies...).

Other Interesting Reading:



  1. Spot on advice! We're still learning (with a few months left to go), but I second all of this...I wish I would've read more posts like this before the trip, but then again who knows if we would've paid attention ;)

    1. Hey Brenton, Thanks for the nod. I sure could have used a bit of help on down-sizing my construction dreams...live and learn. Maybe next time,,, but I doubt it! Still, we made it in one piece and we had a blast. And that is what actually counts.


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