How to Start Planning a Driving Trip in Latin America
Trip planning goes a long way. And it's fun, if you make an adventure out of it. Sure, guide books are long, but time on the road is precious. Read up as much as you can now, because you won't later.
How Much Time Ya Got?
Traveling takes time and money. Sadly, it's often the time that's more expensive than the money of the trip!
If you are planning well ahead of time, and you are renting, you can work your timing so that you can put your possessions in storage at the end of your lease. Just that money saved will give you lots of traveling money, and allow you to extend your trip if you wish.
So to begin planning, you'll need to figure out how much time you realistically have. Is this a between-semesters in college? Taking two weeks of from a career? Or a post-graduation, pre-career indefinite trip? Deciding how much time you have will dictate every other choice you make.
We took three months to complete our trip, though we allotted six. How? We saved, we weren't tied to leases, and no one had a job they couldn't walk away from. This may not be your situation, but you can still work your situation for maximum travel time.
And, when it comes down to it, why can't you walk away from that job? You found that one; what makes you think you can't find another?
Here's the most important thing: It will take longer than you think.
So, forget about blowing through Central America a month. Why bother? Spend more time in one place, see that place, enjoy that place.
This isn't to say that "all of Latin America is the same"... but if you just spend a few days in each country, have you really absorbed it? Travel isn't about the destination, it is about the journey. Take time out.
We spent 3.5 weeks in Mexico, but only a month for Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Was that too fast? Too slow? It's only up to you when you're there, and deciding if it's time to stay, or go!
Start With Good Guide Books
There are many guide books on the market, and each has their own angle.
Lonely Planet: The backpacker's bible, these books are hip, up to date, and pay special focus to expenses, especially for accommodations. At the very least you should pick up the general Central America and/or South America guide from these people. Buying a new copy is worth the expense; the value in these books is up-to-date lodging information.
Rough Guides: Rough Guides produce a quality guidebook. They maintain that they focus on finding the great experiences, not just the cheapest eats or the cheapest beds. That was true — the accommodation section is often outdated. Use these books as the resource to plan what to see, and where.
Let's Go: We took a Let's Go Central America, but didn't find it particularly useful. However, we had a lot of Rough guides that were country specific.
There are other books, such as Moon Guides, but we have no experience with them. Let us know your thoughts on guidebooks!
After you've secured your guidebooks, get to reading them! Aside from the location-specific information, there is a wealth of travel advice and local custom info that you'll want to know. Really. We read them, and it was worth it.
Get Good Maps and Organize Your Papers
You'll need driving maps. Those maps in the back of Lonely Planet aren't good enough. Spend a few bucks.
You'll also need to keep all your papers together. We took a expandable portfolio. In it, we had photocopies of everyone's birth certificates, passports, shot records, truck title, registration, etc.
We kept all the insurance info and country-specific papers so we had easy access at every checkpoint. Our preparedness probably helped get us through the checkpoints faster. The longer you're there, the more time they have a chance to decide to ask for propina!
What Do You Pack?
You can see our packing list for driving to Central America, and use it for a starter on your own. Basically, you're going to try to over pack.
Here's how we stopped that: we each bought a duffel bag, and filled it up. When it was full, we couldn't take any more personal stuff. Done.
You're going to want to take a bunch of crap you don't need. On the road, you'll quickly realize this, but it's often hard to let it go and throw it away. Let go your packrat nature. You didn't need that fold out grill after all. Someone will make great use of it in Guatemala. Done.
For what you need for your vehicle, see our article about "how to prepare a vehicle for Central America".
Last Updated November 11th, 2006.