Just back from Central America
Posted by asteele:
Hello all. I was a member of the ExpeditionCampers forum and found out that they had "joined forces" with Expedition Portal. I just got home yesterday from a 2 month trip to Central America. I took my father with me and we visited Mexico and all 7 countries in Central America. It was a great trip. I'm not really into off-road travel, just overland travel. But one thing I can say for sure after going to Central America is that suspension and ground clearance are probably THE two most important things when it comes to overlanding. My "ambulance conversion" did a great job but we did have some minor problems with a shock and then with the transmission, which the transmission problem could have been avoided had I done some follow-up before the trip. But again, suspension, suspension, suspension! I thought I had done my homework, knew that the roads were bad but never knew they would be as bad as they were! Even with that, the only thing I can say is just "go for it". I learned so much just by going on the trip and luckily meeting up with other "overland travelers" en-route.
I just got home yesterday and am already planning my next trip!
Here's the shortest answer I could come up with on advice for trips to South America. Keep in mind these are my personal thoughts and opinions and in no way a complete list.
If at all possible, learn Spanish before you go. We made it okay with my limited Spanish words and phrases but I really feel that we missed out by not being able to really speak to the locals. Also, simple tasks like shopping, eating, getting directions, etc... became a major ordeal at times. One thing that really hit home with me was when a local told me that what made Americans "gringos" as compared to the other travelers in Central America was that travelers from everywhere else learned the language before they came while the majority of Americans expected everyone to speak English.
Have good maps, especially Mexico
I bought the ITMB maps for all the Central American countries and Mexico. They were good but the Mexico map didn't have enough detail. I met other travelers who had Mexico map books that showed all the toll-roads, bypass roads and new roads that we missed on the way down.
During our travels we saw any and every vehicle you see here in America and then, some you don't. Especially the Toyota Diesel Landcruisers and trucks (grrr!) As far as overland travelers we met, they were driving everything from Fords, Landcruisers, Chevy Dualies to the big Mercedes overland campers and then some in "standard issue" Class C motorhomes.
I chose my vehicle because it was secure, heavy duty and Ford seemed to have a pretty good network of dealers in Central America (finding them is a whole different story). I also designed my truck as a "camp beside" vehicle, meaning we had to set up camp outside the truck anytime we stopped. After this trip, I will definitely redesign my truck to be a "camp inside" vehicle so two people can comfortably sleep, eat, live inside the cabin without having to go outside. We never had a problem but a "camp beside" vehicle can limit your options as far as where you feel comfortable setting up camp or not.
2WD vs. 4WD: In my opinion, for general overland travel, you don't need 4WD. As mentioned in my first post, as long as you've got good suspension and decent ground clearance, you'll be fine. Just remember, the roads in Central America aren't near as good as the US and your vehicle will work harder than it ever would at home. I also specifically picked a single rear wheel truck. In hindsight, I wish I had gotten one with dual wheels. We were in Central America at the end of the rainy season and we got stuck a few times, right on top of the ground in the mud, when standard RVs with dual wheels had no problem at all (embarrassing!). I know the standard single vs dual wheel arguments but we only met one couple who had any trouble with rocks between the wheels/tires causing any problems. And I personally think the benefits of dual wheels outweighs any problems you could have.
If you're gonna try to make it to Yavisa, the end of the PanAmerican Highway, then 4WD is a must! The Good Lord was looking out for us the day we attempted to reach Yavisa. It hadn't rained in a while, so the road was fairly dry. Looking back, we should have never been down there in the first place. Once the pavement runs out, it's a one lane, dirt road from he*#! with deep ruts, soft sand/mud and very few places to turn around/pass. We had our hi-lift jack, tow strap, wood blocks and everything we needed to get out of a normal "stuck" situation but were in no way prepared to recover the truck had we gotten stuck way down the road in the Darien. And there's no doubt in my mind that if it had rained we would have been stranded for days.
With all that said, it all comes down to personal preference. Sure, we'd all like to have an Earthroamer,Unicat or ActionMobil but truth is, it's what you can afford and feel comfortable with that matters. I felt kind of silly after all the worrying I did over which vehicle to take, how to outfit it, etc... and then a French couple shows up with their two small kids and they've been traveling for 5 months in a 1986 Winnebago motorhome and loving it!
Navigation and driving
I had done tons of reading and research about traveling in Mexico and Central America but nothing can prepare you for driving on their roads and in their cities. Driving in Tampico, the first major city that we hit, was one of the most intense, stressful and nerve-wracking experiences I've ever had in my life! My GPS was the Garmin 18-USB connected to my old Tablet PC running the Fugawi software with the Central American maps. It saved us numerous times from spending hours going around and around in a city. We also shared information with any traveler that we came across. And a special thanks goes out to the dare2go.com team and Stephen Stewart with Silkroute for sharing waypoints with us!
The best advice I can give is to just "go for it"! Read and research as much as you can but in the end, you've just got to do it. The people in Central America are some of the friendliest people I've ever met. We never felt physically threatened, endangered or scared at any point during our travels. The only "inconvenience" we faced was dealing with the Policia and Military at their checkpoints and stops. One bit of advice: always have some type of cold soft drink on hand as it goes a long way in "appeasing them" and getting on your way.
Also, a trip to Central America doesn't have to be expensive. I may be wrong but I think the problem for the majority of us that want to travel is not necessarily the money but getting time off from our jobs!
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