Traveling by Car from Detroit, Michigan, USA, to Punta Tombo, Chubut, Argentina

Traveling by Car from Detroit, Michigan, USA, to Punta Tombo, Chubut, Argentina

A Few Practical Tips (2006)



This link has been updated for the last time on January 1, 2007 





In the first 8 months of  2006, my wife Donna, our dog Leela, and I traveled in our 1996 Honda Civic  from Detroit, Michigan, USA, through the USA, Mexico, Central and South America to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  By August 9, 2006, we made it to Buenos Aires, and by September 7 we reached our final destination (Laguna, Brazil)..  This brief webpage is not aimed at capturing the beauty of this trip, our adventures, or the overall friendliness of the people.  Instead, it offers a few practical tips for people who may travel in the same places and who may wish to avoid some of our worst mistakes.  

Should I learn some Spanish before embarking on such a trip?  Yes.  The average Latin American, especially in out-of-the-way places, speaks no English.  To get to know the people (which for us was critically important), and to get by without guides, one needs to acquire a vocabulary of some 500 words.  Hand signs, time, a good pocket dictionary (e.g., LaRousse), the good will of most locals, and the similarity between English and Spanish will take care of the rest.

What about Portuguese?  Brazil is a half-continent all by itself, with a population of over 180 million (50% more people than in all other South American countries combined).  It may take a lifetime to get to know this immense and diverse country.  For me, the first few days in Brazil were a shock—all of a sudden, I was unable to speak nor be spoken to. The one consolation was that I could more or less read Portuguese, for it is not unlike written Spanish.  Still, owing to the great similarity between Portuguese and Spanish (on first hearing, Portuguese sounds like odd Spanish, something like the funny language the time travelers in Ray Bradbury's Sound of Thunder encounter on their return), you can probably get to a point of meaningfully exchanging oral information by intensely studying the language for about two weeks prior to entering Brazil.  So, if I had to do this trip all over again, I'd either skip Brazil, leaving it for another extensive trip, or get hold of a good dictionary and language CDs and study and listen to them like crazy for a few weeks just before entering Brazil. 

Maps and Books.  A good map for each country, one guide book for Central America/Mexico and one for South America, are mandatory.  We had almost nothing when we started (embarrassing but true).  We tried to buy some along the way but were unsuccessful (when we entered Venezuela, for instance, we stopped at every gas station and bookstore, looking for a road map of that country in Spanish, for a stretch of some 300 km before we gave up).  We ended up having a book and maps sent to our USA address and then re-sent to Quito.  So: Get them all before you leave home!

Crime.  In big cities and tourist-infested places, especially in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Bolivia, car theft and larceny are serious problems.  Murder, for whatever reason, is extremely rare.  If you exercise extreme caution and only drive by day, you are probably less safe than you would be in Toronto or Stockholm, but safer than you would be in Detroit or Miami.  All the same, I would not recommend carrying any jewelry, gold rings, expensive cameras—anything valuable.  Insure your car against theft, if you can.  Install as many anti-theft measures as you can, and then some.  Never leave your car unattended (in one Venezuelan province, for example, according to a local newspaper, there are more stolen than legally-purchased cars). 

Here is one personal story, to give you the flavor of the situation.  We were on hand on Saturday for the colorful market in the gorgeous city of Otavalo, Ecuador (a must see).  At one point we stopped at the S.I.S.A. bookstore.  There was no vendor right then, and Donna my wife left her heavy purse on the counter, with me in charge.  A man came in and asked where the bathroom was.  I turned around and moved a few steps from the counter to show him.  When I  turned, the man, his associate, and Donna's extremely valuable purse (cash, glasses, personal items) vanished.  Another story:  While reporting the robbery at the police station (a totally useless exercise—better let it go, when this happens to you), we met a young New Yorker just short of a valuable backpack, courtesy of the same gang.  She lived in Quito 2 years, and had been personally robbed 3 times while her apartment had been ransacked once. 

In Colombia, we fell victims to another trick.  A couple of guys on the side of the road drew our attention to the "fact" that one of our wheels was leaking oil, and suggested a place for replacing the brake shoe and bushing—for $50 (they originally asked $100 for a brake that later turned out to be of inferior quality).  Almost certainly, they sprayed oil on the rim.

In Bolivia, in two separate incidents in mid-June 2006, two pairs of tourists took a minibus from Copacabana (along Lake Titikaka) to La Paz.  Some thugs, in collaboration with the bus drivers and the local police, stopped the bus, detained them for 24 hours, stole their packs, and drew money through their ATM cards.

Here is another trick, from the city of Mendoza, Argentina (second only to Buenos Aires in Argentinean crime).  A lady walked into her bank, and took out $16,000 in cash.  Somebody in the bank called his friends, who then followed her and, some distance from the bank, robbed her.

The worst trick, however, was played by Air Canada, on our flight back home, at the end of the trip.  When we bought our tickets from them, we were told that it would cost some $175 to ship our dog.  On the day before the flight, however, the price went up, with some kind of bureaucratic magic, to $1000 ($220 more than our own individual tickets and $900 more than the American Airlines' price). 

Hotels have at least two other traps.  One involves quoting a price and receiving payment, and then, on the following morning telling you that this was a quote for one person, and that you still owe the same amount you already paid (if there are 2 of you).  We first experienced the second trap in Hotel El Rocio, in Otavalo, Ecuador.  We stayed there 8 days, paying regularly in advance every morning, and, right after we announced that we were about to leave, the owner "forgot" that he received payment for the previous night and for the laundry.  To avoid both traps (for us, it's the disappointment, for the most part, not the loss of money, that we wish to avoid), in suspicious-looking places we now resort to something like the unpleasant following chart:


Nombre de Lugar o Hotel

Tarifa: 1 noche por 2 personas

Firma: He recibido  el pagamiento pleno por dicha fecha

8 Mayo




9 Mayo




10 Mayo




11 Mayo




12 Mayo




13 Mayo




14 Mayo




15 Mayo




16 Mayo




17 Mayo




18 Mayo




19 Mayo




20 Mayo




21 Mayo




22 Mayo




23 Mayo




24 Mayo




25 Mayo




26 Mayo




27 Mayo




28 Mayo




29 Mayo




30 Mayo




31 Mayo





Moral:  You chose to get off the well-protected but pretty vacuous tourist track, even though you often stick out like a pair of pink glasses, carry legendary sums of money on your person, travel in lands where extreme, needless, poverty is the rule, don't know your way, and can't legally arm yourself.  You chose to have real adventure, and must pay the price of getting cheated and robbed now and then.  The only thing you can do about it is to be less naive than we have been, exercise caution, and minimize your losses.  And when you do get fleeced or mugged accept it philosophically, reminding yourself that almost all the "heroes" of our history books (e.g., folk "heroes" like atom-bomb-dropping Harry Truman) were made of even worse stuff than these petty thieves, and that the successors of these very scoundrels of ours are still stealing us blind ("I have always found that rogues would be uppermost. "—Tom Jefferson, 1795; see some of my publications for a few depressing updates:

U.S. government travel advisories.  These are, for the most part, propaganda tools of the United States government, a function of the compliance of a particular Latin American Caudillo with the American corporate agenda, and ought to be taken with a grain of salt.  Over and over again, for instance, we have been told by gullible fellow Westerners to avoid Venezuela, because it's dangerous, because it's unstable, because President Chavez encourages his people to rob Americans, because they hate Americans, and because of 1001 other concocted reasons.  We had been in that beautiful, friendly, country for 6 weeks, driving our car everywhere by day and night, hiking solo in the Andes, and interacting with one zillion people and officials, including dozens of Westerners, sadly concluding that State Department Advisories have little to do with reality and much to do with politics.  The worst experiences we had, and the worst stories we've heard, involved, so far, Costa Rica and Ecuador, not Colombia, Venezuela, or Cuba (on another visit).

Money  1. We relied almost exclusively on ATM machines, as they afford the most convenient way of getting local currency.  The drawbacks are a 1% surcharge, and the rare occasions of people being kidnapped, forced to surrender their PIN number, and being held in captivity or even murdered while their accounts are being drained.  2. Credit cards in out-of-the-way places are useless, and USA banks charge 3% for using them abroad (citing "security" concerns).  When necessary, we relied instead on debit cards, which work just as well, are accepted in most places credit cards are accepted, and charge only 1%.   3. Cash in large quantities is unnecessary and risky.  So far, there was only one country where cash would have saved us hundreds of dollars.  That is, in Venezuela, during our April, 2006 visit, at banks, you got 2,144 Bolivares (the local currency) for $1. On the street, you could get between 2,300 and 2,500 Bolivares.  So, if you plan to stay in Venezuela a long while, you should bring plenty of cash!  Also, remember that you can replenish your dollars in the 3 countries which use American currency: El Salvador, Panama, and Ecuador, and that dollars can be taken out of ATMs in a few other countries as well.

If you aren't a millionaire, the question of cash could be critical.  A short time ago, we met someone who solely relied on travelers' checks throughout his year-long Latin American trip.  To begin with, he had to pay, he says, a 7% fee (with our ATM cards, we paid only 1%).  Next, the exchange rates they gave him were not as good as our ATM rates.  Next, he could only cash his checks in certain major banks, during bank opening hours, whereas we could get our money in just about any city, at just about any time.  In money terms alone, for a whole year, the difference between the two modes of getting money could exceed $1000!  And there is a point of principle, of being a good consumer, and not letting the world's real rulers (bankers) get away with pilfering so much of your hard-earned money.  Our advice: Get two ATM cards from two different banks, use them everywhere, but exercise extreme caution.

Type of vehicle.  We did manage well with our little 1996 Honda Civic, but, if we had to do it again, we'd get a sturdy, air-conditioned, 4-wheel-drive, gas-efficient, Honda or Toyota (do stay away, if you can, from unreliable, gas-guzzling, GMs and Fords).  In Costa Rica and Bolivia, especially, many roads were either inaccessible with our little Honda, or semi-accessible (driving 15 miles an hour for hours on end, on "roads" that must be experienced to be believed). 

If we do it something like that again, we might consider traveling with a GPS.  It's a nightmare, just trying to drive out of most Latin American metropolitan areas—to mention just one use(?) of a GPS.  In some cities, we had to inquire at least 10 times, and wander about aimlessly, before finding our way.

Selling your car at the end of the trip.  The law of many countries, e.g., Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, prohibits the sale of  used imported cars.  But as usual, things are not as rigid as they sound.  First, you can legally sell your used car in Paraguay, and yet get the price you would probably get for it in the USA or Canada.  Second, you can ship it back to N. America, if you shop around, for some $1000.  We ended up, however, selling the car to non-Argentine friends, getting about half its value in Argentina, and, roughly, twice its value in the USA.  

License Plates.  It might be a good idea, before leaving home or as soon as you cross the Mexican border, to find a sign maker, have him make 2 copies of your license plate, and using these copies for the duration of the trip (while keeping the real ones hidden inside the car, just in case someone decides to steal the external plates). 

Our state (Michigan) only provides one license plate, to be placed on the back of  one's car.  Up to Peru, our single plate presented no problems.  In Peru, however, cops are amiable pirates, looking for any  imaginable pretext to stop foreigners and exact a bribe.  The absence of a front license plate on our car provided them the ideal pretext.  In total, we have been stopped about 20 times (more than in all other countries combined), lost about 4 hours chatting with cops, and had to pay some $200 in bribes.  So we paid a sign maker $7 to forge 2 rough replicas of our license plate, stuck one plate on the back and the other on the front, and hid the real one inside the car.  This little precaution more than made up for itself in two days!

Border Crossings.  Apart from crime and cheating, this was the most unpleasant part of our trip (enough to make an anarchist out of some people, leading them to "imagine there are no countries").  Leaving one country and entering another, you typically end up losing a few hours dealing with petty officials.  Mexico so far has been the fastest, while the U.S., Brazil, Honduras, and Panama take the cake for slowness.  Honduras was also the most corrupt, forcing us, in desperation, to bribe our way through.  If you cannot look past corruption, inefficiency, red tape, irrationality, loss of time, and occasional extreme heat, you may re-think the whole idea of this trip.  Instead, just go to beautiful, friendly, culturally-rich, Mexico and Guatemala.  For us, it was worth doing it once, but there is no way that we'll cross all these borders again. So we left it behind us in Argentina, and sold it after returned to the USA.   

The Mama of All Border Crossings: Getting from Panama to Colombia (or from Colombia to Panama).  So far, this was the only genuine nightmare of the trip.  You can't drive by car from Panama to Colombia (or the other way around).  So car, dog, and people were hoping all along to be able to take a ferry from the USA, or Mexico, or any Central American country to any South American country.  But, after many fruitless hours of searching the internet and trying in both the major and minor ports along the way, we have learned that it wasn't going to happen (the only place we did find was Puerto Arena, Costa Rica, where we could ship the car for $600). They used to have a Panama/Colombia ferry, but it no longer exists.  So, instead, you must ship your car from Colon, Panama, to a city like Cartagena, Colombia, for $800-1,000 and then fly to that city (some $200 per person) to pick up your car.  Once we got to Panama City, it took us about 3 days to find a carrier, and we then had to wait another 10 days to drop the car at the shippers and wait for the ship to sail and arrive in Colombia.  It took days to learn to negotiate our way in Panama City, and to get through government red tape.  It took another 10 hours (a record of shortness according to the shipper) to get the car released on the Colombian side.  The difference between the ease, low cost, and efficiency of bringing a car to Newfoundland from mainland Canada, or of doing the same in Mexico from La Paz to Mazatlán  (we did both on former trips), is incredible.  It's because of the horrors of getting a car to Colombia, the tedium of all other border crossings, and the enormous distances that I'd recommend driving only one way to Argentina or Chile, selling or shipping the car, and flying (at the moment, Air Canada tickets, Toronto—Buenos Aires are around US$740 each) back home (or shipping your car to Argentina and starting there). 

Cost of entering countries.  In most countries you pay little or nothing to enter.  One major exception is Brazil, where you have to secure a visa in advance and pay U.S.$110 per person (this is the gringo price; since the USA feels it has every right to terrorize and squeeze Brazilians wishing to enter the USA, the Brazilian government feels entitled to giving Americans a bit of their own medicine).  To our knowledge, citizens of other big-brotherly governments, including Australians (some $40), Canadians, and Japanese, have to pay too. 

Another major exception is Venezuela, where there is a substantial entrance and exit fee (I can't remember how much), and a mandatory phony insurance fee (you pay some $110 to insure your car for a year—you can't insure it for shorter periods—and they will pay, in case of an accident, up to $700!).  If possible, get insurance that covers Venezuela in advance.

Car insurance.  Of the countries we have been to, as far as I can remember, insurance is required in Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil.  Costa Rica involved a small fee at the border, and was not a problem.  We purchased a South American insurance for 6 months, getting $3,000 coverage, in Tarija, Bolivia, from Fortaleza, for some US$50, and this joke, apparently, satisfies the laws.  It may be a good idea to contact Fortaleza or a similar company before embarking on your journey.   In Brazil, we met someone who had to forge car insurance papers (or quit)—Brazil requires foreigners to be insured yet it forbids selling car insurance policies to foreigners (yes, this is just as crazy as it sounds!). 

Speed of Travel.  If you are used to traveling in the USA, Canada, or Western Europe, you need to scale down your expectations.  Some Latin American roads are lousy or mountainous.  Often, they are poorly marked so you will lose your way and will need frequent local help (or a GPS?).  You often have to drive through towns.  Then there are the interminable border crossings.  (The only real exceptions to most of his are Brazil and Argentina.)  So, I suspect, average driving speed is about 35 miles per hour.  In other words, when you make your plans, figure out that, on average for the whole trip, it will take you twice as long to get from point A to point B as it would, say, in Canada.

Climate and pests.  If you can't stand heat, you can still thoroughly enjoy this trip.  First, make sure you have air conditioning in your car (we hadn't, to our regret!).  In big cities like Panama, the temperature inside a car without air conditioning can go up to 120, so air conditioning is a must for some people.  Next, recall that the climate is a function, among other things, of time of year, latitude, and elevation.  Cities like San Cristobal, Mexico; Antigua, Guatemala; San Jose, Costa Rica; Mérida, Venezuela; Bogotá, Colombia; Otavalo, Ecuador; Cachi, Argentina; which are situated some 5,000-8,000 feet above sea level, have, arguably, the best climate in the world—they are cities of eternal spring, never too hot and never too cold.  By choosing the elevation and/or time of year, you can choose your ideal temperature.  Often, for car travelers, the change is striking—you start in the hot, humid, insect-infested coast with its barely clad, sweaty people, and by simply climbing, end up in cool, pleasant, often pest-free, places where people actually wear—and need—sweaters.  You can't avoid some heat, but, by consulting elevation charts or timing your arrivals, you can spend most of your time in cool, relatively pest-free, beautiful places.  Bear in mind, as well, other weather peculiarities.  For instance, owing to the proximity of the Pacific, from May to December, the climate along the Peruvian coast is sunny, cool, and very pleasant.

High Altitudes.  As you climb, the weather gets progressively colder, especially at night.  For instance, in April 2006, I spent a night camping above 4,000 meters (some 13,000 ft) in the beautiful Culata region of the Venezuelan Andes, where the temperature dropped a few degrees below the freezing point.  Many hotels in the high Andes provide plenty of blankets—but no heat!  So be extremely careful, bring winter clothing, and be prepared, besides, for rain and unpredictable weather.  As well, some people cannot adjust to the low air pressure (less oxygen to breathe).  Such people should stay at lower altitudes and never spend more than a few hours up high.  The critical point for many people, the point where they start feeling sick, is around 2,700-3,000 m (9,000-10,000 ft).  For such people, up to that point, no special precautions are needed.  If you plan to go higher, but just for a few hours, and if you do so gradually (at less than the speed it would take you to slowly hike to these higher elevations), most likely you'd be OK.  If you plan to stay for a while at still higher elevations, get there gradually, over a few days, giving your body time to adjust (for example, by increasing the number of your red blood cells).  Thus, it's not a good idea for a Halifaxer to fly directly to La Paz, Bolivia.  Instead she should go first for a few days to a place with elevations of some 2,500 meters, and only then try La Paz.  If she still experiences severe headaches and shortness of breath in La Paz, she should go down to intermediate elevations until these symptoms disappear, and then return to La Paz. 

What to Eat.  The best food in any country is the local food, purchased at traditional local stores and restaurants.  Mexicans make wonderful tortillas and some Venezuelans make wonderful, non-sweet, arepas, but both have yet to master the Argentine capacity of making decent French bread.  If you skip any would-be Western-style restaurants (which, thanks to slick advertising, are surprisingly popular with the locals), and only go to traditional places, ordering platos typicos, you'll probably enjoy yourself (especially in Southern Mexico and Argentina which, in my view, are blessed with some of the tastiest cuisines in the world).

Traveling with a Dog?  We're glad we took our dog with us, despite the occasional problems.  To begin with, leaving her for a whole year wasn't really an option for us.  She can be trusted to always stay close to  us.  As it turned out, she was a wonderful companion, making our journey less lonely and much more fun.  She certainly had more fun, being on the road, than staying alone at home.  With the appropriate papers, crossing borders with her took a bit of time in a few countries (in most of South America they didn't even ask for papers), but never posed a real problem.  Almost all hotels in our price range ($8-38) readily accepted her, especially after we assured them (in the rare cases when this was necessary) that she was clean and that she slept in her own bed.  With a big dog in our car, or alongside us on city streets or hiking trails, car theft or assault were less likely.  She was an excellent ice-breaker, and a wonderful companion on long hikes.  And one late afternoon, I would have ended up spending the night outdoors, in sub-freezing temperatures, tent-less and sweater-less, had she not shown me the way back home. 

When we inquired in advance, the problems of entering some countries with our dog, especially entering Venezuela and Brazil, appeared formidable.  For instance, the Brazilian consulate in Buenos Aires told us that we must travel to 3 different locations in that city to obtain a  "visa" for our dog.  In other words, they wanted a DAY of our lives and God only knows how much money, just for letting our dog enter Brazil (even though rabies is far more common in Brazil than in the USA).  We balked, and arrived at the border (Iguazú Falls) with our old USA doggie papers and a certificate of health from an Iguazú vet in the glove compartment—yet nonchalantly crossed the border, without being asked to submit a single doggie document.  Another example:  we arrived at the Panamanian border late Friday; by then, the appropriate animal official was off for the weekend, so we were initially advised to wait until Monday for his return.  However, we were also told that they would be happy to waive this unreasonable waiting requirement for a $40 fee, which we bargained down to $20.  So, since we share the healthy Latin American disrespect for asinine laws, having a dog posed few problems for us.  If, however, you take bureaucrats at their own word and are justifiably appalled by the idea of paying small bribes, don't bring your dog (or yourself?) along.        

We Shall Never Forget (highly subjective highlights of our trips):

Where to Stay.  In 2006, you could stay in very nice, clean, comfortable places for $8-38 a night along the way.  The trick, of course, is finding these places (we couldn't afford fancier places, which rarely took dogs anyway) while avoiding the horrible ones.  One general rule is to use your intuition (Are they unfriendly or impolite?  Is xenophobia a problem?—If so, we suggest moving on).  Another rule is to check everything at the outset (Do they really have hot water?  Are the sheets clean?  Can the door be locked?).  Another point to remember is that the recommendations of popular travel guides are sometimes useless—if only because such recommendations permanently alter the places they talk about, leading these places to raise their prices and lower their standards (Economics 101).  Still another point is that you can't operate a decent hotel, anywhere, for nothing, so it may be a good idea to avoid hotels that charge less than $6.  Still another point is to start looking for a place at least one hour before sunset, so that you are not forced to take the first place you come across.  Almost certainly, only very few people will ever read our recommendations, so the clean, beautiful, reasonable, honest, dog-friendly, non-Spartan, and exceptionally welcoming places mentioned here might retain their character when you get there:    

Score Sheet (2006):

The $64,000 question: Was this trip worth it?  YES!!! (explanation:  Beauty, knowledge, adventure, escaping old routines, making new friends, and Henry David Thoreau's admonition:  Oh, God, to have reached the point of death, only to find that you have never lived!)

Mexican, Central American, and South American Travel Links:

Glenn Jones' (ongoing) 2006 Trip

Music courtesy of INKARY, Otavalo, Ecuador