Here are essential things you MUST consider before starting this journey, in my order of perceived importance.
Did you know that no roads connect Panama to Colombia? That’s right. You must ship your car around this jungle via Roll-On-Roll-Off (RORO), or more likely a container ship. If you are not prepared to be patient enough to endure 7-14 days shipping your car 300-500 miles around the Darien Gap, then do not even think about driving to South America. The Darien Gap alone is the single most significant deal breaker for many travelers considering this endeavor.
Obviously, the better you speak Spanish, the more fulfilling experience yours will be. I feel that mine was that much more adventurous because hardly anyone understood me and I hardly ever understood anyone. But I would have still preferred being able to speak the Spanish language better. I had a 6 year gap between 3 years of High School Spanish and the undertaking of this trip. I fared just ok considering I had no other training.
You may consider taking a few weeks of your trip to attend a Spanish School. A great place to do that is in Antigua, Guatemala. Known as the ‘tourist capital of Central America,’ you’ll meet more than enough travelers to feel comfortable around, and just enough Spanish speaking residents in Antigua and immediate vicinity to practice your Spanish. A typical class there runs 2-3 weeks.
This trip will not be cheap. It cost me near $10,000 for the trip alone (the 75 day trip expenses include food, housing, plane ticket, shipping the car, etc…), plus the cost to buy the car for the trip. Click here to see details behind that number.
Some people set a record by driving the Pan America in its entirety in 2-3 weeks time. My trip from LA, California to Ushuaia, Argentina took 75 days, and even that felt rushed. I promised myself to go back to the Yucatan, Belize, Honduras, Ecuador, and Argentina some day. Please do not try to rush through. Be conservative in planning your trip and plan for more days on this trip than you’d think.
When you leave for the trip should more be a function of when you want to arrive. You typically want to arrive in Ushuaia between November and March, when the weather is temperate and you can even consider going on a cruise to Antarctica. I’ve heard quotes around $3000-$5000, but everyone who’s been on it has told me any apprehension you may have had prior to the trip will only make you feel that much foolish afterwards.
At least the most elementary of all mechanical knowledge is required. Please visit the internal link for more information.
Getting rid of your car
Ironically, the one of the deal breakers involves getting rid of your car. Here are some options, none of which are much more enticing than others.
- Drive it back to the United States! Remember, you gotta ship your car, though, to bypass the Darien Gap. It may be just as expensive to just ship your car back from wherever you finish your trip.
- Selling your car in Argentina seems to be an option that no one I heard of has pursued and succeeded in.
- Sell car in Paraguay (remember, you need a Visa) to sell your car there and fly back.
- You may want to even ship your car back. This may be very expensive, however. Remember that you pay originating port fees as well as fees at the destination port when you go to pick up your car.
- Sell your car for parts in Argentina.
- Destroy your car. This is in effect what happened to my car. My engine died in Patagonia. I gave my car to a man in Rio Gallegos, and practically gave it away for free. Sign a document of “Acta de Interdiccion,” and you’ll have the proper paper work and the right stamps to allow you passage out of Argentina. The man you give the car to will own the car for as long as the tourist card on that car is still valid. The government will come take it away once it expires, however.
- DO NOT SIMPLY ABANDON YOUR CAR ANYWAY AND ATTEMPT TO FLY BACK! Your passport will contain information pertaining to your entrance into a country with a vehicle and you WILL be stopped at the airport.
Finding a Traveling Partner
Ideally, you should travel with someone you know who can make the long trip with you. There are also forums you can look into. But it’s not an absolute necessity. Be careful if you are taking any strangers. Also, plan your trip as though you were traveling alone. I had several potential traveling parteners but I ended up having to make the trip alone.