Just when you thought a tour around the United States in a truck camper sounded like a big deal, along comes Brad Christ on his tour of Central and South America. We were very excited when we heard about Brad’s adventure and emailed him a list of questions to answer when he found an internet connection.
Several weeks went by, but the wait was well worth it. And for dessert, there are some amazing pictures throughout this story. They’re unbelievable. Thank you Brad for taking the time to answer our questions and for going on what has to be one of the most inspiring adventures we’ve covered so far. Enjoy the rest of your adventure and come home safe.
TCM: Tell us about yourselves and what brought you to truck camping?
Brad: What brought us to truck camping was a series of unusual events. LJ and I had just gotten engaged. She sold her house in New Jersey and I sold my house in Maryland so we could purchase a home together in Maryland. LJ left her job to come to Maryland when we suddenly came to the realization we had no mortgage to pay, no children, and nothing stopping us from traveling.
I had always dreamed of driving the Pan-American Highway to the island of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Argentina and LJ loved the idea of exploring Central and South America. I was able to obtain a one-year leave of absence from my employer and so the idea for our North America–Central America–South America (NACASA) Expedition was born.
Since we no longer had homes to live in, we needed to get on the road as quickly as possible. I am an avid motorcyclist with some desert racing experience and originally pitched the concept of making this trip on a large BMW-expedition-motorcycle, but LJ had the common sense to quickly veto that idea. She agreed overland travel would allow us an opportunity to see places where tour companies did not normally travel and so we decided to purchase a Recreational Vehicle. Our decision to use a truck camper came about after we scoured the RV dealers in the USA and realized there were no readily available diesel four-wheel drive campers built for the rigors of the routes we planned to travel.
TCM: What are you doing with a truck camper in South America?
Brad: Since elementary school, I have often daydreamed while looking at maps of North, Central & South America and wondered what it was like for those early adventurers who traveled on foot, by horse, and by boat during the early exploration of the American continents. I wanted to experience the feeling of exploring new places and cultures, so we set out in our truck camper for South America.
TCM: Tell us about your truck camper. How did you come to put together this unique combination?
Brad: Although adventure-expedition-campers seem to vary in size, the general consensus seems to be that the vehicle should be no longer than 28 feet, no taller than 11.5 feet, and no wider than 8 feet.
We considered importing a German camper since the Germans are known for building amazing heavy duty 4×4 campers for world exploration, however we did not have time to deal with importation restrictions, emission variances, and street licensing issues in the short one-month time period we had to put together our trip.
We looked at a used Mercedes Unimog, but quickly determined these incredible vehicles were better suited to applications that did not require highway driving. A truck camper seemed like the perfect size and had all the amenities LJ wanted, including a separate shower and toilet, a microwave oven, satellite dish, flat screen TV and DVD player.
The slide-out living room provided lots of additional living space. We checked around with experienced RVers and everyone said very good things about the design and build quality of the Lance products. When I began to calculate the weight of the winch, spare parts, tools, extra diesel and water cans, clothing, bicycles and all the assorted gear we wanted to bring, it was quickly apparent we would need a very large truck to haul the camper. There were really only two choices: the Ford F550 or the Chevrolet Kodiak.
We could not find a suitable Ford F550 that was immediately available, but did locate a new 2005 Chevrolet Kodiak diesel 4×4 flatbed at Randy Marion Chevrolet in Mooresville, North Carolina. I purchased the truck over the phone and then rode my BMW motorcycle to North Carolina, put the motorcycle on the Kodiak’s flatbed, and drove it back home in one day. Shortly thereafter, the dealership dropped off a new 2006 Lance 1191 in my mother’s driveway.
Of course, the flatbed Kodiak and the Lance Camper were not immediately compatible. Two of my close buddies, Tommy Popp and Luis Aveleryra, immediately volunteered their time and amazing mechanical talents for the project. On a blistering hot day, we all worked together to detach the heavy flatbed and then Luis did a masterful job of shortening the flatbed 1.5 feet using his plasma cutter and MIG welder so the flatbed was the proper length for the Lance camper.
Over the next few days, I built a special cradle in the flatbed for the Lance Camper to slide into. After mating the camper to the truck, all our spare time over the next few weeks was spent installing an air compressor, five-gallon volume tank, winch and heavy duty winch bumper, theft alarm, seat covers, security console, and bicycle rack. Tommy was very skilled in wiring and did a professional job to make sure all the electrical connections were sealed against water and protected from vibration.
Shortly thereafter, the crew at Hagerstown Metal Fabricators helped out on short notice by fabricating and installing the diamond plate utility boxes. In less than a month, we had created a very rugged, but comfortable home for LJ and me to live in for the 11-month trip.
We had so little time to prepare for the trip that we never actually spent a night in our truck camper until the first night of the trip. In retrospect, the first several days on the road were amusing because we had to keep reading the owner’s manual to determine how to do simple things like activating the generator, turning on the hot water heater, and dumping the water tanks.
TCM: Where have you gone? Where are you going?
Brad: In October 2006, we left New Jersey and headed to San Francisco by way of Atlanta. From California, we drove to the tip of Baja, Mexico. We then took a ferry across the Sea of Cortez to the west coast of Mexico. We crossed the central mountains to the east coast of Mexico and then drove through the Yucatan peninsula. From there we meandered through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. In Colon, Panama we loaded the truck camper onto a ship and six days later it arrived in Lima, Peru.
We then traveled into Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. In June, we plan to ship the truck camper from Buenos Aries, Argentina back to Colon, Panama. During the 21 days the truck camper is in transit aboard the ship, we will travel by bus to explore Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador. After visiting the Galapagos Islands, we will be reunited with the truck camper in Panama and then drive it back through Central America and Mexico to Maryland.
TCM: What unexpected challenges have you encountered on the road?
Brad: Three unexpected challenges we have encountered include altitude sickness, shipping, and propane.
In Peru, we spent several weeks living at 12,000 to more than 15,000 feet above sea level. During this time, our bodies suffered from altitude sickness with symptoms varying from headaches, sinus congestion, coughing, nausea, and sleeplessness. Although we gradually improved, we never fully acclimated and disliked the physiological effects on our bodies. Shipping the truck from Panama to South America proved a bigger challenge than expected. When we arrived in Panama, the shipping broker we planned to use was not able to accommodate our truck on their vessel. It was a real challenge to find another vessel in the short period of time we had allotted.
We would recommend providing shipping brokers with photos, dimensions and the weight of your vehicle prior to arrival in Panama. Getting our propane tanks filled presents an ongoing challenge. Propane yards are located in every large town or city; however, depending on the country, getting a large USA propane tank filled may require a trip to the local propane hardware store to purchase some sort of adaptor.
To save time, truck campers traveling to South America should consider using five-gallon propane tanks because those tanks are easily adapted to the local standard and are commonly available for exchange in nearly every tiny village.
TCM: How do you find safe places to sleep at night? Is security an issue?
Brad: We follow some basic rules to enhance our safety and security.
Rule #1 – Do not drive after dark.
Rule #2 – Begin looking for a nightly parking location at least 1.5 hours before sunset.
Rule #3 – Obtain permission to park in a secure location (gas stations, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, shopping malls, police stations, marinas, private residence driveways, municipal parks, etc.).
Rule #4 – Do not leave anything outside that is not securely locked up and do not leave anything in the cab of the truck.
Rule #5 – After dark do not go outside camper if area does not seem secure and only speak to strangers through the windows.
TCM: Do you speak the languages and understand the cultures you encounter?
Brad: Luckily for me, LJ began this trip speaking elementary Spanish. She has been very diligent about studying the language during our trip and has become very good at communicating in every region we visit. I speak no Spanish and regret it. I am very dependent upon -J to accomplish seemingly simple tasks like getting our propane tanks filled or getting our laundry done. There have been some instances where my lack of Spanish has caused some hilarious misunderstandings, but I always have LJ to set things straight.
My advice to others travelers is learn some basic Spanish before coming to Central and South America, even if only to communicate at toll booths, gas stations, and grocery stores. That having been said, we have met some people who have traveled all of South America speaking only English, so it can be done, but it severely limits your interactions with the local people.
TCM: Is there a plan or have you let the trip take you?
Brad: We started out with an 11 month timeline and a plan to drive to the end of the Pan American Highway to Ushuaia, Argentina, and back. We timed our arrival in Baja, Mexico so we could watch my brother race in the Baja 1000 in November, and we met up with our mothers and LJ’s sister in Belize during the December holidays.
Other than that, we had no restrictions other than the requirement for me to return to work by September 1, 2007. Our initial route planning was done using the road guide book written by Chris Yelland called, “Driving Through Latin America, USA To Argentina”. For information on places to visit and camp in Mexico, we were lucky to obtain a copy of the book written by Mike and Terri Church called, “Traveler’s Guide To Mexican Camping”.
For any RV traveling into Central America, the book to have is, “99-Days To Panama” written by John and Harriet Halyard. To identify local attractions, we used The Rough Guide, Fodor’s Central America and Fodor’s South America guide books.
As we traveled, we spoke with every over-land camper we encountered and shared GPS coordinates and trip notes. This allowed us to adjust our route based on the recommendations of people who had driven and camped there, which was much better information than what may be available from bus travelers or guidebooks. We did not stick to the Pan American Highway for the entire journey and that proved to be a very good decision since it allowed us to travel to places off the beaten track.
TCM: How do you find groceries and safe water to drink?
Brad: There was a grocery store of some sort in every town we have visited, however many of them have been very small with limited selections. In very remote areas, we were surprised to find the local grocery store was located in the living room space of someone’s house!
In major cities, the grocery stores rival their United States counterparts, but travelers need to be prepared for different brand names, Spanish titles, and nutrition information in metric quantities. Ordering food at deli counters or even restaurants has sometimes been a surprise for us as we have asked for the wrong thing or the wrong amount.
Sometimes the grocery stores do not carry fresh vegetables, fruit, meat or poultry because everyone in town purchases these from vendors at the street markets. Shopping at street markets is always an adventure. In addition to the vegetables, fruit and freshly butchered meat, you can purchase all sorts of unusual things ranging from dried llama fetuses for witchcraft to handmade clothing to iguanas. One market we visited in La Paz, Bolivia spanned more than 100 blocks. With regard to drinking water, we have been using bottled water for drinking and cooking since we left the USA. It is readily available everywhere in one gallon jugs and our truck has space to carrying up to eight of the jugs.
TCM: How do you find places to dump?
Brad: This is an important environmental consideration faced by all over-land travelers. In urban areas, we have secured permission to dump in sewers or septic systems of hotels and restaurants, or even into porta-johns.
In rural areas we search out remote locations, often using our rigs four-wheel drive capabilities, to find dump locations situated far away from human residences, creeks, rivers or other potential local water sources.
We treat our waste to eliminate harmful organisms and use special RV/marine biodegradable toilet paper.
TCM: What do people in South America think of your truck camping rig and your adventure?
Brad: It is an understatement to say that our truck camper is loved by almost everyone who sees it. This was a surprise to us. South Americans of all ages routinely wave to us as we pass and all the truckers give us the thumbs-up as we drive along. Every time we stop our truck camper, people come up to take photographs and seem amazed when we explain our adventure.
I have gotten into the habit of slowing to a crawl each time someone on the street whips out their camera to take a quick picture as we drive by. In Central America, many regions where we traveled were economically depressed and many people did not own automobiles or even bicycles. Many of their homes had dirt floors, no electricity & no running water, so the extravagant concept of a truck camper or any type of RV was actually beyond their imagination. They still reacted very enthusiastically to the physical appearance of our truck camper, but often could not bring themselves to fully believe that we slept in it or that it had a bathroom.
TCM: What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to the very beginning of your trip?
Brad: Considering the limited amount of time we had to prepare for this trip, we did a very good job. However, if I could go back in time to the very beginning of the trip, this is what I would tell myself:
1. Do not be so nervous about personal safety; security is achievable with good planning and decision making.
2. Walking through towns and villages is as important as visiting major attractions.
3. At restaurants, make an effort to try the local cuisine.
4. Bring folding bicycles because bicycles hung outside the camper require tremendous maintenance as they get covered in dust, mud, snow and ice; plus they attract a lot of unnecessary attention.
5. Bring pants with zip-off legs because they can be used in a variety of climate conditions.
6. Pack lots of warm blankets for cold winter nights.
7. Installing low-amperage marine fans in bedroom of camper for hot tropical nights.
8. Install two additional deep-cycle batteries for the camper to increase available power.
9. Install a transformer with sufficient amperage capability to step-down the 220-240 volt electricity in South America so it works with the 110-120 volt systems that are standard in USA truck campers.
10. Bring a second laptop for LJ.
11. Bring five thumb drives to store digital photographs and so you can compose emails in the camper and then quickly and easily transfer the data when you reach an internet café.
12. Get good road maps in advance, because there are no readily available maps in Central or South America.
13. For accurate mapping in the middle of nowhere, purchase the amazing Touratech QV 3.0 GPS software for South America.
14. To save space and to have English-speaking entertainment, load lots of music and movies onto an MP3 storage device.
TCM: After your experiences, do you think you could ever live a so called normal life in a stick house back home?
Brad: We love our “Casa Rodante” (Spanish for “Rolling Home”) and our life on the road; however, we plan to sell our truck camper upon returning to the USA in late-August, 2007 and we look forward to getting back to a “normal life”.
We are anxious to see our families and friends, to move into a house that does not require oil changes, and to return to our professional careers. The new daily experiences and challenges we have faced during this trip have opened our eyes to the potential of over-land adventure travel and I predict this will not be our last expedition.
If LJ is willing, in 10 years time I am dreaming of putting together another truck camper to do a complete circumnavigation of the globe. It would be an amazing journey to traverse all the major land masses on the globe and see firsthand the sights in Africa, Europe, the former Soviet Republics, China, India, Australia, etc.
TCM: Is there anything that I have not asked you that you would like people to know about your adventure?
Brad: Anyone planning to bring a truck camper to South America should keep in mind the seasons are reversed. It is now early June as I write this and the winter season is rapidly enveloping the southern hemisphere.
Every night the air temperature drops below freezing and during the day we drive through snow, ice, and freezing rain. Ironically, in six weeks we will be back in the northern hemisphere in Central America and will face some of the hottest days of their summer season with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees.
This type of travel requires a great deal of flexibility, but the sights we have seen and the people we have met have made it worthwhile and have provided us with a lifetime of memories.