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Travesia Panamericana

Highlights of Our Pan American Journey in a Vintage VW Westfalia.

Four months, 13,317 miles, 475 gallons of diesel, 12 border crossings, U$ 837 in diesel, U$ 2.65 in propane, 28 mpg average fuel consumption, 76 nights in the car, 24 at friends’ houses, and 20 at hotels. A good recipe for happiness. These are some numbers from our recent journey via the Pan American highway from our home in Oregon, USA to Buenos Aires, Argentina in a 1982 VW Vanagon. The crew consisted of my wife Barbara, our dog "Chance", and myself. ...

I could write forever about this experience that enriched our lives so significantly; the amazing people we met along the way, the Caribbean beaches in Yucatan, Costa Rica, and Panama; the amazing mountain roads in Peru; the snow in southern Bolivia; the fascinating architecture of colonial Mexico and the Mayan and Inca ruins; the colors of northwestern Argentina; the wildlife in Costa Rica, the extremes of Bolivia, the richness in food, colors, music... Hopefully the following excerpts from our journal will provide a taste of our adventure. For the whole story and photos, visit our trip web site at http://torlasco.tripod.com/

"May 15, 2002. Lake Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Odometer: 202,273 miles... The crossing into Belize was a bit messy and expensive. An extra certificate for Chance was required (we still don't know what for) that cost U$ 25. On top of that, we found out right before crossing that we needed a visa to get into the country; this meant another U$ 20 for both. Fumigation of the car was another chunk of money. They also informed us that we would have to pay a "departure tax" once we leave the country. As we said we were only in transit, we were given one day to reach the border with Guatemala. Fine with us, since we didn't have any Belizean currency, and snorkeling at the cays was out of the question due to its price. The crossing into Belize cost a lot more than we expected and confirmed our suspicion that border crossings will be the most frustrating and expensive part of our journey to Argentina."

"June 18, 2002. Almirante, Panama. Odometer: 205,331 miles... We were searched by the Panamanian police. It seemed to me that it was more to satisfy their curiosity about our gypsy-mobile than to look for drugs or arms. In any case, after searching through all of our bags and cabinets, the guy opened the porta potty while asking me what was in there. I replied that it was our "inodoro quimico" (chemical WC), and he immediately let go the cover. Needless to say, the search was over at that point..."

"July 1, 2002. Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica. Odometer: 205,915 miles. Early in the morning we left San Jose to Puerto Caldera, on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Our ship, the American Highway, comes loaded with 3,000 new vehicles from Japan and delivers them throughout Latin America... we finished all the paperwork with our customs agent and left Guapo in a fenced parking lot. It was going to be loaded into the American Highway that same night. Both of us felt a sense of uneasiness when leaving what has been our house, vehicle, refuge and closest to the concept of "home" for the last 3 months... While waiting for the bus back to Puntarenas, we saw the American Highway entering the port, helped by three tugboats. It has to be one of the biggest ships I’ve ever seen, pretty impressive, probably about 6 stories high...

We took a bus to San Jose. This short bus experience reminded both of us how much more complicated and slow our trip would have been if we were depending on public transportation. About an hour into the trip, and with the bus completely dark inside, I felt something soft touching my foot. I didn’t mention it to Barbara because I thought it could be a mouse and didn’t want her to worry about it. Half an hour later, the driver pulled over and turned all the lights on. Next, he screamed: "Who owns the iguana?" while holding a huge fluorescent green specimen from his left hand. Nobody claimed ownership, so the driver set the iguana free next to the road. The animal must have been pretty confused about the whole experience that night. One of the passengers explained that it had fallen on his shoulder from the overhead storage tray a while ago. Later, Barbara told me that she had also felt something touching her leg, but hadn’t mentioned it either! So both of us have been touched by a huge iguana running loose inside a pitch-dark bus..."

"July 5, 2002. Guayaquil, Ecuador. Odometer: n/a, car in ship. Our day was centered on Guapo’s arrival to Guayaquil’s port... We were able to find out that the "Carnet de Passage" is still required in Ecuador (despite what some say or write), and consequently we would not be able to travel freely through this country. As soon as we take the car out of the port, a customs officer will escort us to the border with Peru."

"July 17, 2002. Huaraz, Peru. Odometer: 207,026 miles. Coming back from the lakes yesterday, and with 3 hitchhikers on board, the oil pressure light went on. I pulled to the side of the road immediately and checked everything. To my dismay and perplex ness, the cooling system was full to the top with engine oil, and the engine had almost run out of oil. My first thought was a leaking head gasket. I added all the spare oil I had in the vehicle and kept driving to Huaraz, not very far away, and constantly checking the engine temperature and oil pressure... We were lucky enough to locate a VW mechanic that same night, who not only said he could help us, but accepted my proposal of us sleeping inside Guapo in his shop. So that was the beginning of our experience at Hern·n`s shop, which lasted three days and was, overall, very positive. In the morning, Hern·n confirmed his first diagnostic last night: leaking oil cooler (which works as a heat exchanger by running coolant next to the oil, thus cooling the latter). The oil system working under more pressure than the coolant system caused the former to transfer to the latter. The result was that every single component of the cooling system (radiator, pipes, hoses, tanks, water pump, heating system, etc.) had been impregnated with oil! A small nightmare yes, but at least the engine was undamaged. Once the problem was established, the next challenge was to locate a Vanagon oil cooler in a country that has no Vanagons, and from a remote mountain town...well we got very lucky, a big VW distributor in Lima had one (don’t ask me why)... In the meantime, Hern·n`s workers and myself had completely disassembled the cooling system and cleaned all the oil. Once everything was installed back in Guapo, we spent a long time rinsing the cooling system of any left oil by adding water from one end and letting it pour from the other while running the vehicle until the water came out clean. Needless to say, Guapo got an unscheduled oil and filter change... Hern·n also invited us to his nearby property, located right next to the river.."

"July 19, 2002. Huaraz, Peru. Odometer: 207,033 miles. We departed Huaraz around noon, heading south to another section of the Huascar·n National Park. This park and its surroundings was a definite highlight for us, the landscapes we saw today are among the most beautiful in our whole trip. We drove very close to permanently snowed peaks (nevados); naturals gasified springs, prehistoric art paints, glaciers, and more. Our altimeter indicated that the gravel road that crosses the park goes from 11,000 to 14,400 ft. above sea level, which definitely tested Guapo's power at high altitudes, successfully.(...) The outstanding views didn’t stop when leaving the park, where our high altitude allowed us to see snowed mountains chains at 360_. We saw very little traffic today, around 3 vehicles overall. We made it to the tiny mountain town of Huallanca by early evening, ‘checking in,’ as usual, at the local paid parking lot. These parking lots would prove very useful during the rest of our trip, a place that every town or city had, where we could safely sleep in our camper for a very modest price. This was also the first night where we needed to use our EbÎrspacher gas heater, which kept us cozy despite the low temperatures outside."

"July 20, 2002. Huallanca, Peru. Odometer: 207,113 miles... The first 100 kilometers took us a whole day, traveling through dirt roads with loose gravel, streams, precipices and other complications. The vistas were spectacular. We went through small rural towns, transporting local people from one place to the other (many people confuse us with the public transportation vans and signal us down), we saw corn drying next to the adobe dwellings, and were stopped by the police (20 times in Peru alone!) to pressure us to give a ride to a couple of priests which we had decided against a second before... our route to Cusco was characterized by desolate gravel roads, sometimes scarily steep, with awful pavement, or that abruptly climbed and descended more than one thousand meters. This part of the trip was also marked by mountains and deserts of extreme beauty and silent majesty, and by isolated indigenous communities whose main form of transportation was on foot, by mule, or by sparse minibuses packed with people, and with the roof rack overflowing boxes, blankets, baskets, bags, and/or animals. Ayacucho was the most important of the mentioned cities, and the place where the guerrilla group Shining Path was born... Practically the only vehicles that we saw were public transportation, taxis, or trucks; no private cars... we constantly had to be aware of the many dogs, chicken, sheep, goats, llamas, cows, and mules in the road..."

"July 29, 2002. Huari, Bolivia. Odometer: 208,590 miles... the decision was made to visit the Uyuni salt flat, which, with an area of 12,000 square kilometers is the world's largest. Getting there was not an easy task; we could have been stuck for days waiting for rescue. The 140 miles of dirt road (for lack of a better word) to the town of Uyuni wondered through the immensity of the Andes plains and mountains, hitting rivers (there were no bridges, Guapo was submerged to the top of the wheels in several instances), very steep inclines (which tested the limits of our first gear), sand, and seemingly ghost towns. We found out that the best way to test how deep the rivers were before crossing them was to throw a rock to the middle of the crossing and have Chance chase it. It worked out great.

We didn't see any traffic during the whole day, and wondered several times if we were in the right path, since signs are extremely rare in this area. We often found a confusing "Y" where both roads had the same hierarchy; it was just a matter of instinct (and luck) to choose the right one... When crossing one of the few towns encountered, we found a barrier interrupting the road but no one around. After a few minutes of waiting, I got out of the car and saw a little booth with the door open. In its dark interior, a Bolivian soldier awaited behind a desk that only had a bunch of blank receipts on its surface. This is normal procedure in Bolivia, no matter the importance of the road, there are toll stations/control booths managed by the military, in which you are expected to stop your engine, get out of the car and walk inside a booth where you will be asked where you are coming from and where you are going to, among other things. By the way, we haven't been able to understand the usefulness of these two questions yet, which were asked to us many, many times throughout the continent... Rather than a security issue, both questions were probably an official way to satisfy the soldiers’ curiosity about where the heck us two, a dog and that weird vehicle were coming from... By mid afternoon we finally reached the eastern edge of the Uyuni salt flat, a place of magnificent beauty. It is hard to describe the feeling coming from being surrounded by hundreds of miles of a pure white, perfectly flat area at 12,000 feet above sea level. The distant Andes Mountains in the back seemed to be floating in the air; the wind was the only sound... We followed the Toyotas to the town of Uyuni, and arranged to stay at the gas station attendant’s backyard... Our minds, however, were focused in our journey out of the area the next day. We had asked around about the condition of the road, and the answers, although diverse, had been mostly negative. We were told that we could not do it in our vehicle, only in a 4WD. The main obstacle would be the infamous Km 33, where sand piles up on the road, creating good-sized dunes. We wandered through town looking for anything resembling a metal plate that could be used under a tire in case of being stuck, with no luck. With so little resources and no trees in hundreds of miles, we had little chance of finding anything like that discarded. That night was a bit on the chilly side, and when trying to turn on the EbÎrspacher gasoline heater I realized that one of the many rocks I hit that morning had bent the unit and its fan was not working properly. So things remained not as warm as we would have liked for the rest of the night..."

"July 30, 2002. Uyuni, Bolivia. Odometer: 208,732 miles. Today was definitely the hardest driving day in our whole trip. We left Uyuni before sunrise, thinking that it would be better to be ahead of the traffic going our way (if any) in case we got stuck and needed some help. After 33 kilometers of heavy washboard we arrived to the sandy spot, and stepped out of the car to examine the situation. Three sections of the road were completely covered by more than a foot and a half of thin sand, the longest of them being about 100 feet. The biggest problem, however, was the road’s center section, which was a lot taller than Guapo's clearance. So we took out our little German Army shovel and started digging, not an easy task at 12,000 feet above sea level. With Barbara and Chance out of the car to reduce weight, I backed up about the length of two blocks and then started going forward, as fast as Guapo would let me. By the time I hit the sand I had enough momentum to go across the first sand dune, our shovel work had been a success.(...) We found a diesel truck stopped before the second dune, with it's driver and passenger in the process of finding the best way to proceed. We helped them with the shoveling and were able to go across it successfully, not without some interesting maneuvering work. I got to the third dune before the truck†, and after the usual scouting I realized that our chances to go through it without getting stuck were minimal. We agreed to try going around it, over a surface that seemed to have had water at some point but it was still not hard enough to make us feel confident about driving over it. We had to act quick, because the truck was behind us and if they decided to take the road option and were successful in doing so, we could be stuck with no help for who know how many hours or even days. So I caught some speed and went by the side of the road. Guapo started to dig into the surface as soon as drove off the road, until it got stuck... We were too far away from the road for even a long cable or rope that could pull us out with the help of another vehicle. We DID NOT want to spend the night there; we were starting to be burned out†from the high altitudes, extreme temperatures, desolation and terrible roads. To our despair, and having seen our incident, the other truck decided to go straight over the dune on the road, and was able to cross it. They were nice enough to stop after doing so and helped us out pushing Guapo back to the road. Close one!

Well, we didn't have much time to celebrate. Contrary to what we were told, we were not done with the dunes... A short half an hour later the road was again interrupted by sand, this time a long stretch of about 200 feet. We had to shovel its center section entirely in order to prevent contact with our vehicle that would make us lose valuable momentum and could even damage something. Once again, I backed up, caught some speed, and was able to cross the sandy area. While waiting for Barbara and Chance to walk back to the vehicle, I was so happy and loaded with adrenaline that started dancing and screaming, celebrating our success. Shortness of breath caught up with me pretty fast though, due to the lack of oxygen at those altitudes... We had a hard time reaching our goal for the day, the city of Tupiza in southern Bolivia. At one point we decided to pull out the GPS, since we thought we could be lost and heading back into the Andes towards Chile! Fortunately this was not so and we reached Tupiza by late afternoon, extremely happy to be back in a populated area. We slept, deeply, in a parking lot that night."

I feel that our trip is not finished yet; I refuse to give it an end. Crossing our last border into Argentina was full of mixed feelings. On one side, we were extremely excited about concluding our adventure, on the other side we knew it meant the end of such a wonderful lifestyle and period of our lives: The closest we have ever come to be truly free. Since our arrival to Buenos Aires, we have been traveling extensively throughout Argentina and Uruguay, and plan to do southern Chile in the coming months. Guapo now has Argentinean license plates, so he will stay around in Buenos Aires, waiting for someone to drive him north...

Before starting this trip, the author lived in Oregon, USA, where he worked as an architect. He is one of the 3 founding members of the WetWesties (http://wetwesties.org), a 500-plus-member VW camping group in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Until a new adventure materializes, Cris, Barbara, gringo dog "Chance", and Westfalia "Guapo" are in Buenos Aires. Cris is the owner of Andean Roads, a motor home rental business in Argentina (http://www.andeanroads.com), and active in the local VW scene, having recently organized the 1st Westfalia Owner’s Meeting in that country.


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