It started as a simple question: if we drove south, how far could we get before the road ends? 27,000 miles later, we had the answer.
Ever since my husband Chris and I met in 2004, we talked about how great it would be to travel the world. Three years later we decided to make it happen. In December of 2007, we started seriously plotting our escape from the ‘real world.’ My fellowship would be ending in September of 2008. Likewise Chris, working in the financial world, saw the writing on the wall and thought his job might not be that secure.
The first step was deciding where to go. Open to traveling anywhere in the whole world, we bought some general guidebooks on India, Africa, Asia, and South America and started reading. At some point Chris began wondering about the possibility of driving our own car as our mode of transportation, rather than relying on flights, buses, and boats. That logically led to the next question, if we drove our own car from our home in San Francisco, California, where could we go? Some quick research on the internet and we found out that the Pan-American Highway stretches from Alaska to Argentina. The almost 30,000 mile long road is unbroken, except for a small 50 mile gap between Panama and Colombia, called the Darien Gap. While it used to be possible to trek across this inhospitable jungle wilderness, narcoterrorists have made this too dangerous in the last 10 years. Some more internet research led us to blogs by motorcyclists and car drivers who shipped their vehicles from various locations between Central and South America to circumvent this gap.
Armed with the information that it is actually possible to drive almost the entire distance, we next investigated options for vehicles. We didn’t think our 1997 Honda Civic or 1996 Volkswagon Jetta (with over 300,000 combined miles) would be that reliable. We briefly considered purchasing a Volkswagon Vagabond Van with a pop-top camper. However, the high price of even very well used Vagabonds, their spotty reliability record, and our utter lack of mechanical abilities quickly convinced us that this might be an unwise choice. After much late-night googling, Chris stumbled upon the perfect compromise. Two boat-builders in San Diego, California, were just starting a business where they custom converted the quirky (some might say ugly) Honda Elements into pop-top camper vans called ECampers. Reassured by the reliability we had experienced with my Honda Civic and the low price, we soon found ourselves driving the 5 south from San Francisco to San Diego with our newly purchased atomic-blue Element who we named Caballo (Horse). Three weeks later, we picked up Caballo sporting his fancy new white top. The ECampers top pops up to provide two adults room to sleep on the roof. We quickly got used to other Element owners stopping to ask us why our car looked funny, and then answering their jealous questions as we popped up the camper.
Fully committed to the trip at this point, we began tying up loose ends. We sold most of our belongings, found a small storage unit for what we were leaving behind, investigated insurance, and eventually broke it to our employers that we would be leaving in July. We also told friends and family about our plans, to very mixed responses. Some people were horrified, convinced we were going to be kidnapped, robbed, or killed. Upon further questioning most of these naysayers had never actually visited any part of Latin America, let alone in a car, so we tried not to be dissuaded by their reactions. Others questioned the wisdom of leaving good jobs, and whether we would be employable when we returned with such a large gap in our resumes. This was something we had pondered as well, but we thought that experiencing the world, new cultures, learning Spanish, and really getting outside our comfort zone could only be good for us. A small minority jealously asked for more details and regaled us with stories of their own world travels. We figured if we didn’t do it now, we might never do it. We didn’t have children, didn’t own a house, so it was the easiest time for us to cut ties and see what happened. On July 4 of 2008, we turned in the keys to our apartment and drove our packed car east.
For those considering driving the Pan-American Highway, we have collected information on border crossings, car shipment, road conditions, and everything else we found useful as road trippers during our travels at Drive the Americas.