The idea of creating a road that could span North, Central, and South America was first proposed at the Pan American conference of 1889. Today, you can drive almost 25,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the tip of South America, except for the 54 mile (87 kilometer) Darien Gap in Panama.
Due to increasing political stability throughout Latin America and the massive road building efforts in many Latin American countries, there has never been a better time to take to the road. To get yourself in the mood for your upcoming travels, we also have recommended books and movies about Latin America. This article should give you a good overview on what you need to do to plan your trip, whether you are driving through only one country or a dozen. Also check out our related articles: Travel Health and General Border Crossing Tips.
When to Travel
Since the Americas cover almost every climate of the earth, when to travel is dependent on your location. The most important thing to remember is that may not want to be in the northern reaches of Canada or Alaska during November through January, or Tierra del Fuego in South America during May to October. In Central America, the seasons are not dictated by the temperature, but the rainfall. The rainy season runs from April to November, which may make driving in rural areas difficult. In northern South America, rainy seasons depend on whether you're on the coast, the highlands, or the Amazon. Check out some recommended travel guides for more specific information about weather.
You can buy cheap phones in Central and South America, the best price comes from the company Movistar. The phone will cost around $30 USD which includes 300 minutes, and refill your account at any Movistar location or at many convenience stores. Calling USA or Canada costs about $1 USD per half hour. Another option is to use a computer and Skype to call. Calls to the US are $.02 USD a minute. If your family and friends have basic computer knowledge, have them install Skype themselves - Skype-to-Skype calls are free, and the connection seems to be even better than calling a regular phone. You can also find Skype at internet cafes.
Learning the language of the countries you are visiting can make your travels easier and more rewarding. The dominant languages of North and Central America are English and Spanish, and Spanish and Portuguese in South America. Many travelers spend time learning Spanish while traveling, and Guatemala is known as one of the least expensive places to learn. A ballpark price for 4 hours of learning one on one with a native Spanish speaker, including room and board with a local family costs $175 USD a week. Other options include purchasing Rosetta Stone if you have a computer. Pimsleur Spanish Audio CDs are also a great way to learn Spanish in the car during those longer driving days.
Lots of documents and paperwork are needed to transport you and your vehicle across borders. You will need:
- Driver's License (both from your home country and an International Driver's License)
- Vehicle Registration
- Vehicle Title
- Proof of Insurance
You may need:
- Marriage Certificate
- Birth Certificate
- Visa (depending on your country of origin)
- WHO Yellow Vaccination Card (proof of vaccination against Yellow Fever)
- Proof of finances
- Visas - depending on what country you are from and where you are traveling, you may need to apply for visas months in advance. Check with your government to determine which countries will require visas.
You will also need copious amounts of photocopies of all of the required documents every time you cross a border. These can be simply organized by placing multiple copies of each document in a clear sheet protector and collecting these in a binder. That way all copies are organized and you can quickly find the document you need. Store the originals somewhere very safe, and only use them when necessary. It also is a good idea to electronically scan all original documents, and email yourself and a couple of friends or family these electronic copies. That way if there is some catastrophe and you lose all originals and copies, you will be able to access the copies online. Check out the information on a specific country for exact document requirements.
See the vehicle page for more information on vehicle ownership, insurance, and suggested modifications. Also check out the roadtripper profiles to see what vehicles other roadtrippers are using for their adventure.
Camping and Hotels with Parking
There are many camping options in Mexico. Tent camping, car camping, and RV options are found throughout Mexico, and roadtripper recommended options can be found at the Mexico-camping and hotels pages. If you are staying in a hotel, it's worth asking if they have a secure parking lot or a night watchman if your car will be parked on the street outside. If not, it may be a good idea to look for a parking lot, as parking at night on the street, especially in cities, is a risky proposition. Recommended hotels with secure parking are also included in the pages Mexico-camping and hotels pages. Additional information about hotels and camping across South and Central America is also available in each country's section.
Routes and Distances
You may want to plan out your route beforehand, but remember that the road conditions will cause you to drive much smaller distances than you would in the United States or Canada. You can check bus schedules between cities to estimate times of travel, but it's always a good idea to start your driving early in the morning to ensure that you are off the roads before it gets dark.
Watch out for broken glass: If you see broken glass on the street, this is a tip off that people are breaking into cars.
See also more information on Roads and Driving.
In general it is a good idea to check for the latest exchange rates before you enter a country, as many of the border crossings do not have banks. Make sure you bring plenty of money to the crossing so you will be able to pay all fees. If you need money exchanged at these crossings, you can usually find men walking around with large wads of cash who are willing to exchange your money. If you don't know the exchange rate, you run the risk of getting ripped off. Useful information on exchange rates can be found at exchangerates.org. Having a hidden stash of American dollars or travelers checks in your car for emergencies can also come in handy in a pinch.
Temperatures in Latin America vary widely. The coasts will be very warm, but the highlands through the middle of Mexico and Guatemala are at elevations high enough to be cool during the day, and downright cold at night. Plan on bringing pants, sweaters, and jackets for the higher elevations. It's also worth checking the seasonal rain schedules, as the rainy seasons tend to be sweltering hot.