Essentials for the Drive to South America


This book was absolutely an essential starting point for planning my trip. Get it.  Note: The link seems to be down, and the book is now almost impossible to find.  The name of the book was called, “Driving Through Latin America,” by Chris Yelland)

Get your Documentation in order

Make sure your Passport, Driver’s License, and Auto Registration (Title) all have the same name with the correct spelling on them, with the same address if possible. This will save you a lot of trouble when crossing borders.

Banks/Credit Cards

Before you embark on your trip, call your bank and your credit card companies, letting them know that you’ll be traveling through Central and South America. They’ll ask you how long you’ll be gone for, and which countries you’ll be visiting. Be as broad as you feel is necessary. If you do not go through this process, your ATM/Credit Card company will alert you to contact them and may later void your access until you do.

Bring both Visa and Mastercard credit cards if at all possible. Worst thing that can happen to you is for you to run out of cash and the only ATM that country accepts is the one that you do not carry. This happened more frequently than I thought it would. Trust me, it’ll be worth the trouble to prepare ahead of time.

If you must ABSOLUTELY choose one or the other, choose Visa. I used it ~75% of the time.


  • 1 Visa Credit Card,
  • 1 Visa ATM Card,
  • 1 Mastercard Credit Card,
  • 1 Mastercard ATM Card.

I recommend you carry around $200 in US Currency. If worst comes to worst, you can almost always pay in US dollars. It is practically the universal currency in Latin America.

Note: You’ll consistently see Citi Bank and HSBC Banking Centers all over Latin America.


Your choice of car can very much determine how far you make it on this trip. I’ve set up another section specifically for that here.


GPS is an absolute must for travelers today. The highways turn into a local road once you drive into a town/city, and that same road almost never led me out. Finding that route is a combination of luck and will later turn into a sort of a skill for you.

Garmin sells great quality products. I personally used GPSMAP® 60Cx. No matter what kind of GPS company you go with, I highly recommend you choose one with high-sensitivity GPS unit. All GPS units lose some signal strength when you use it in a car. Add in any buildings, jungles, clouds, and any other environmental variables, and your non-high-sensitivity GPS unit would be good in the desert, which is the last place you need it. Spend a little dough on high-sensitivity GPS unit, and you’ll thank me you did. It doesn’t mean you won’t get lost; it just means you’ll get back on the road that much quicker.

I estimate that my high-sensitivity GPS unit saved me about 5 full days worth of searching and driving during my total trip (which took 75 days total).


Vaccination cards are not required (except for tropical South America: see note below for yellow fever). Obviously, the longer you are in a more dangerous area, the greater your chances of succumbing to exposure. Do your research on the areas you plan on sitting on the following sites. Minimum of hepatitis A and B is usually recommended, but not required. Also, try and take necessary precautions for malaria.

I personally didn’t need to get extra vaccinations. My military deployment to the Middle East ensured that I had the latest and the best immunizations to counter pretty much everything including anthrax.

Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention: “The only vaccine required by International Health Regulations is yellow fever vaccination for travel to certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. Meningococcal vaccination is required by the government of Saudi Arabia for annual travel during the Hajj.”

U.S. Department of State >> Tips for Traveling Abroad >> Health

Passport and Visas

For citizens of United States of America, a valid Passport is required for all Central and South American countries. Furthermore, Brazil, Paraguay, and Venezuela require Visas. This is all subject to change. Please check with the U.S. Department of State for the latest information.


DO NOT SHORTCHANGE YOURSELF ON MAPS. It’ll be an expensive trip, but maps are the last thing you should ever try to do without. ITMB publishes very good maps. They do not publish maps for Chile, but the rest of the maps are excellent. Just get the individual maps of all the countries in Latin America. You never know which ones you’re going to change your mind and end up going to. (I never meant to go to Colombia but did and not having a map sucked. The country of Colombia, however, should not be missed).

Guide Books

I used Footprint’s guides.  They have two major ones, covering Central America and South America.  I had Lonely Planet’s shoestring guide to South America with me, but I prefer Footprint over Lonely Planet.  I don’t know, it’s just me.  Most people seem to prefer Lonely Planet.  Which is reason enough for me to go the other way. Every tourist and their mom that you run into will be carrying a Lonely Planet.  I’m sure glad I didn’t.  But at the end of the day, it’s up to you.  I thought Footprint’s had more of the relevant information: a brief story of each city/attraction you go into, border crossings, and for south america, a few tips on driving there.

International Driver’s Permit

It is very easy and affordable to get ($15) at your local AAA office within an hour. No membership required. I never had to show my International Driver’s License while traveling through Central America, but I would say get it anyway. It’s an additional form of ID, is cheap and easy to get, and someone may actually ask you for it.

Auto Insurance

Insurance is supposedly a requirement for all Latin American countries. I bought Vehicle Insurance for Mexico once, but I never had to show it. I never bought Central American country insurance. Costa Rica makes you buy one at the border, a liability insurance for $15.

Sanborn’s is recommended for their ease of service and knowledge about traveling south. Should you visit their office, ask for Road Logs of the countries leading to your destination. Not necessarily because you need to follow them step by step (you can if you want), but also because they’ve got great maps of each region’s cities. They provide insurance only for Mexico.

Automobile Insurance – Argentina

One single country that you absolutely must have insurance for is Argentina.  It can usually be purchased in the Chilean side of the border before you cross (I don’ t know if they do that in Bolivia).  Argentina is the only country where they asked you to show your insurance documentation whenever I got pulled over for random checks, or when I had to cross into Chile and back into Argentina while trying to get to Ushuaia.  Other countries ‘require’ it, but they never checked for mine.

Consulate / Embassy

Visit U.S. Department of State’s International Travel website, and print out safety information for each country you plan on visiting. They contain important information regarding safety situation of each country and consular / embassy information in case of emergency.

License Plate

Some countries require license plates on both the front and the back of the vehicle. So get an extra license plate if you only have one in the back. If you want, 2 or 3 extras in case the cops decide to take it (never happened to me, but I’ve read of such cases).

Duplicate car key

I duplicated my car key in case something happened while driving south. If I was traveling with someone, I would have had them carry it with them at all times. I think this is a great idea, although so far, I haven’t had to use it. It cost me $50 to copy both keys (door and ignition) of my classic 1980 Mercedes Benz.

Next >> Car Choice for the Drive to South America