We’re currently in Cartagena, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Moby and I thought it appropriate to take some time to reflect on the past nine+ months of overland travel. This is a summary of our journey through North America.
For reasons I’m not going to get into here, we didn’t spend much time at all in the U.S. and much of the time we did spend there was spent gathering last minute supplies and doing last minute maintenance and vehicle preparation type tasks. We did have some stand-out moments though. As you may recall, the trip began in earnest in Salt Lake City, Utah as that is where Moby was stored while we finished our lease on our house in Mexico. From there, we headed east to Wyoming as there was some bureaucratic business to get taken care of as well as a quick visit with some family. It was county fair season and our first campground was right next to the fairgrounds in Evanston, Wyoming. We went to a tractor pull while there which was really awesome as it’s been a long time since either of us have lived in the U.S. and an event like this is uniquely American. It was surprisingly fun and enjoyable.
Once the government business was completed, we pointed Moby straight west. We passed back through Utah and then Nevada, Finally reaching the coast in Eureka, California where we stayed with some friends for several days. During our stay there, we were able to put some finishing touches on our home on wheels and we relaxed after what was a very hectic several days.
We left Eureka with Las Vegas in our sights. Cate had never been to Las Vegas before and I was a bit excited to be going there to revisit some of my favorite places. It was this leg of the journey where we first encountered what every overland traveler will eventually encounter and need to learn how to manage. Things will break, plans will go sideways and you must remain extraordinarily flexible. We had two breakdowns in one day and ended up sleeping in the Auto Zone parking lot in Barstow, CA. That particular overnight is the sketchiest place we have stayed thus far. We did eventually make it to Vegas and damn Vegas, you hot in August. Given our previous lessons in flexibility, we decided to move on to cooler climates after only one night in Vegas, so essentially we went hundreds of miles out of our way to have dinner. Dinner was very nice, though so it was worth it.
From Vegas, we pointed south towards Mexico. As luck would have it, a friend of ours was visiting San Diego from New Zealand so we planned a few days in the are to pick up a few more last-minute items and spend some with our friend. With all of that done, it was time to face what we then viewed as our first (of many) major obstacle on this trip, the dreaded border crossing.
It turns out that border crossings aren’t nearly as much of a hassle as we had anticipated. I’m not saying that I enjoy them. They are not really much more involved than entering a country without a vehicle, it’s really only a bit more paperwork. Anyhow, with that done, we were in Mexico and finally felt like we could slow the pace a bit and take it easy. The northern part of the Baja peninsula proved to be an absolute delight. The weather was divine and since so many people go there in their RVs, the infrastructure for campers is quite robust. We probably should have spent more time in the north and had we understood just how hot the south would be, I’m sure we would have.
Heat aside, the southern part of the Baja proved quite interesting. It was here that we experienced our first bit of foul weather, and foul it was. We were camped in Loreto, which coincidentally was right in the path of hurricane Newton. We experienced a direct hit from a category one hurricane in our camper and ended up doing some stupid shit.
Eventually we reached the southern end of the Baja and from there put Moby on a ferry to mainland Mexico. Highlights of the mainland included being invited to a cookout in Etzatlán, visiting the Monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán, Christmas and New Year’s on a nude beach and my personal highlight of the entire trip so far, a two-day mezcal tour in Oaxaca.
With about a month remaining on our time, things in Mexico got a bit unstable. There were nation-wide gas shortages and protests about the sudden increase in gas prices. These kinds of events aren’t necessarily outside the norm for Mexico and they have a tendency to blow over. We were close enough to our beloved San Cristobal that we could have just gone there and hunkered down for a couple of weeks, but in the end we decided to move on to Guatemala a bit ahead of schedule.
Guatemala was a new country for both of us and we didn’t really know what to expect. Our introduction to the country was underwhelming to say the least. We followed the well worn overlanding path to Lake Atitlan and ended up at the famed Pasajcap campground. This particular campground lived up to its reputation and we were able to easily understand why so many people seem to end up spending far longer at Lake Atitlan than they may have originally planned. This is that place that sucks people in. Trips stop here for indefinite periods of time. While we were still living in Mexico, we had hosted an overlanding couple in our house for a few days. When we arrived at Atitlan, they were still there and so far as I know haven’t left yet. That’s the kind of power that this special spot has. It sinks its teeth into you for sure. Also, the drive in was awful. If you just stay, you never have to drive back out. I liked the steak.
From Atitlan, we went to Antigua. We both really enjoyed Antigua. It’s a very charming town. Unfortunately, we ended up in a bit of a holding pattern there as we were waiting on truck parts (which ended up never reaching us anyhow). We did attempt to get out of town and explore a bit more of Guatemala, but that ended up in a breakdown on the side of the road. We ended up spending the night in a gravel pit and the next night in a mechanic’s driveway. We eventually were able to move on to Honduras.
The original plan was to drive across El Salvador and Honduras as fast as we possibly could. Both countries have a bit of a reputation for violent crime and we really didn’t want to experience any of that. After having talked to others, however, we decided to give Honduras a little bit of a chance. That’s really all it ended up being was a very small chance. We were only in Honduras for ten days (and completely skipped El Salvador). A story worth mentioning, however, is that despite everything that we had heard about corrupt police we only experienced kindness. We were at a grocery store one afternoon and had done a poor job of parking (when in Rome…). We were waiting in line at the checkout when the police chief and his entourage entered and headed straight for us. I just knew that we were about to get a shakedown for our parking job. I was wrong. The policeman approached, introduced himself, commented about what a fan he was of our camper and gave us his phone number and told us that we were more than welcome to come stay at his house. Also, there was a nice craft brewery in Honduras.
We had both been to Nicaragua before. We weren’t necessarily excited about returning but we weren’t dreading it either. It seemed like more an obstacle than anything. Traveling the way we are gave us a different perspective on Nicaragua though. We ended up having a great time at a little hostel right on the beach in the north of Nicaragua. We spent a night in Granada only to revisit a restaurant that we had eaten at before (and loved). We passed through Leon and of course spent some time in and around San Juan del Sur. Cate got in some saddle time and I enjoyed what I think is the best craft beer in all of central America at the San Juan del Sur Cervecería.
We had fallen for the siren song of Costa Rica’s reasonably convenient airport before. In fact, that’s really the only reason we had visited Costa Rica previously. We decided that we didn’t like the country based on those prior trips but I vowed to keep an open mind about Costa Rica. I had a work trip and Cate didn’t want to spend the week alone in the camper again so she decided that she was going to fly back to Utah. San José’s airport seemed a reasonable choice. If it hadn’t been for this, we may very well have driven right through this Disneyland of a country. Honestly though, we did give it a chance and I came away hating the place more than I did before. If we ever find ourselves faced with passing through Costa Rica again, I intend to go around. That may very well mean that if we do end up driving back north after we reach Ushuaia, we would ship from Cartagena (or somewhere else in South America) to Veracruz. Central America has been a bit underwhelming, but Costa Rica really takes it over the top. I would avoid the entire region if for no other reason than to avoid Costa Rica.
It’s a bit tragic that Panama only grants temporary import permits for 30 days. This means that a good portion of one’s time in Panama ends up being used getting the logistics sorted out for getting out of the country. We would have liked to take things a bit slower than we did but them’s the breaks, I suppose. Anyhow, it was nice to return to someplace that we were quite familiar with. We visited with old friends and spent a bit of time at some favorite places.
Panama City is a bit of a chokepoint for people doing this type of trip and so we did end up meeting quite a few other overlanders while we were in the vicinity. Some were headed north so we got tips from them concerning current conditions in Colombia. Some were ending their trips and heading back to Europe and some were, like us, getting ready to ship south. The shipment process is something that has sort of hung over us since the beginning. It’s one of those things that you know has been done countless times before, but we hadn’t done it so didn’t really know what to expect. In reality, it’s really much like a border crossing just on a much larger scale. Make a bunch of copies, go to random buildings, listen to government workers grunt and go to wherever they point, hand over stacks of paper and wait. Anyhow, we got through that and Gretzky willing, we’ll get our truck back in the next couple of days and continue on.