Gary and Elizabeth Gray shipped their Travel Lite truck camper rig from Florida to Argentina to continue their exploration of the Americas. Here are some important travel tips from their trip.
We were inspired to visit South America by the overland adventures of three couples; one English, one Australian, and one American. We met the English couple when they were in Australia five years ago. We met the American couple last November in Texas after they returned from a few months in Italy. And we serendipitously ran into the Aussies on an isolated beach in the Bay of Conception in Baja, Mexico last January.
On several occasions, Gary asked them each questions via their blogs and received timely and relevant answers. But, to actually meet each of them was a real buzz for us. Knowing there were others out there exploring gave us the feeling that we were never alone.
While crossing the Canadian prairies last summer, we discussed the desire and the need for a real adventure in our lives. South America had been a topic of intense discussion with each of our overlanding friends. It made sense, while we were here to use the United States as a jumping off point, to journey to South America.
For us, the hardest part of doing most worthwhile things in life is actually making the decision. Once we made the decision to go to South America, our excitement ran high. When people learned of our plans, many of them feared for us. Those who were excited were folks like us; curious, adventurous, and making every day count in their lives.
Above: Gary and Elizabeth Gray at the glacier Perito Moreno
We didn’t know how long exploring South America would take us. Six months seemed very short, but twelve months seemed like a long time. We packed for twelve months and left the rest to fall into place. We have the philosophy that things have a habit of sorting themselves out. Usually, they do.
Pre-Trip Planning and Preparation
Above: Boodocking north of San Julien, Argentina
Being prepared for a trip to South America can be complex, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We conducted a significant part of our research by reading the online blogs and journals of travelers who had already explored South America.
Here are our favorite South America travel blogs and journals:
While surfing the web we came across this website Whiteacorn which was packed with information about their trip to South America. They are two Aussies now living in the USA. They are currently in Europe after driving right across the Russian continent from Vladivostok.
We found this site through another Aussie overlanding in Africa at the time. Travelin Tortuga has incredible information about every country including wild camp spots, shopping, internet, and more.
Stephen Stewart’s Website
Stephen Stewart was a guy we met while he was touring Tasmania (Australia) and we have followed his travels ever since. His information is a bit limited, but his wit is very strong!
From Alaska to Brazil
One other site well worth a visit if contemplating South America is from Alaska to Brazil. This couple we have not met, but their travel and camping information is excellent.
Auto, Liability, and Medical Insurance
Above: Just north of Lima, Peru
No insurance company would insure our truck and camper while we were in South America, so we decided to self-insure. It was a financial risk that meant we had to be extra cautious at all times, and drive defensively.
It is compulsory in all South American countries to have liability insurance for any injury caused to the locals. We were able to obtain this at every border crossing fairly easily. This insurance did not cover any damage to other property or our rig. The cost of this insurance ranged from $5 to $45 USD for ninety days, depending on the country.
As Australians, we had comprehensive medical and travel insurance from an Australian company called World Nomads. They provided superb service when needed, and fortunately that was only once.
Using a Roll-On/Roll-Off Shipping Line
Above: The Heroic Ace Ship, Roll-On/Roll-Off (RORO) shipping service out of Jacksonville, Florida
There is no way to drive from Panama to Columbia. Therefore we had no alternative other than shipping the rig to South America. Our truck and camper was too big to fit into a container, so we enlisted a Roll-On/Roll-Off (RORO) shipping service out of Jacksonville, Florida.
Roll-On/Roll-Off ships are designed with ramps that allow cars, trucks, and tractor trailers to drive on, and drive off the ship. Unless your rig can fit into an ocean container (7’8” wide by 7’10” tall) a Roll-On/Roll-Off shipper is your only option.
We shipped our rig from Jacksonville to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The shipping company we used was Sefco Export Management Company Inc. The cost to ship the rig to Buenos Aires was $5,500 USD.
It’s not possible to accompany a truck and camper during shipping, so we made sure to secure our rig carefully before putting it on the Roll-On/Roll-Off ship. To make our truck and camper as secure as possible, was indeed difficult.
We only used the camper supplied locks and had no problems at all. RORO shipping is becoming more secure than ever. However we did take valuables such as cameras, a laptop, and an iPad with us. The shipping took thirty-one days and the rig arrived without a scratch. We flew from Miami to Buenos Aires to meet our rig when it arrived.
When we returned to the United States, we shipped the camper from Cartagena, Columbia to Port Everglades, near Miami, Florida. During the shipping time from Cartagena to Port Everglades, we stayed on in Cartagena and flew to Miami. We waited for the truck to be cleared from the port, which actually took longer than the shipping. Again, the rig arrived without incident. The cost to ship the rig back to the United States was $3,000 USD.
Using a GPS, and Maps
We used a Garmin GPS because we were able to load third-party South American maps into it. Specifically, we used maps provided by OpenStreetMap (OSM). OSM is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world. We downloaded Garmin Basecamp for the Mac, and then selected the country maps we required.
For the adventure traveller, OSM not only provides the best quality digital navigation maps for much of the non-developed world, but the maps are also free. The OSM map database is easy to convert into a format for Garmin satellite navigation and Garmin Basecamp, Mapsource, and other road trip software. Thanks to Horizons Unlimited for the clue about these maps. Our route shown is in purple.
Border crossings were far easier than we anticipated. When exiting a country, we parked in a designated parking area. We then walked into the customs building and got our passport entry stamp cancelled by the border officials. Then, at the customs counter, we got our TIP (Temporary Import Permit) cancelled.
Above: Peruvian border crossing
After that was completed, we drove to the next countries’ border and did the same thing. Each country allowed us to visit for ninety days. Once we were legally allowed into the country, we progressed to the customs official who issued us with a vehicle temporary import permit. All we needed was an original vehicle title certificate and our passports.
Lastly, we visited the local insurance office and bought our liability insurance. The average cost was about $5 to $45 USD for ninety days. The fastest we went through a border was twenty minutes and the slowest was about two hours, since we arrived at the same time as a local tourist coach.
Corrupt Police in Peru
During our trip throughout South America, we had dozens of police and army inspections. All of these interactions were courteous and friendly, except for one. There’s on particular point in Peru where the police extorted $100 USD. We would have needed excellent Spanish language skills to talk our way out of that situation. We paid the fee, and moved on.
Finding Fresh Water
We were always able to find fresh water for our truck camper, but we preferred to buy five liter drinking water bottles from supermarkets for our daily drinking water.
Although we did not drink local water, we did fill our camper fresh tank with local water. More often than not, the water supply was located a good distance from our campsite. To fill the tank, we used an old drinking water container and made an average of six trips to the water faucet.
Before we began our South American trip, one concern we had was using high sulphur diesel fuel instead of the ultra-low sulphur diesel (15ppm ULSD) that is universally available in the United States. South American countries provide diesel with sulphur content from 60ppm to 150ppm.
Well, we had no reason to worry. Everything went well. The exhaust filter cleaning process went through its normal cycle, and our diesel engine had no issues.
Finding Campgrounds and Boondocking Opportunities
Above: Campgrounds in Ancud, Chile, San Antonio East, Argentina and Madela, Ecuador. Click to enlarge.
Before the trip, we downloaded campground listings from fellow travelers’ journals and blogs. These notes helped tremendously including details of campgrounds and hostels that allowed overnight camping, recommended boondocking spots, and fuel stops that offered overnight parking in their lots.
Above: Boondocking at Rio de Mayo, Argentina, Lake Azul Volcano, Argentina, and San Pedro de Atacama, Chili. Click to enlarge.
We actually never had a problem finding a seemingly safe spot to overnight in. Many spots we simply stumbled upon when we felt we had had enough driving for the day.
Above: Dry camping at Rio Gallegos Riverside, Argentina
Campsites in South America are very basic and are mostly set up for simple tenting, not RVing. Our rig was a tight fit into some campgrounds, especially with low handing tree limbs and tight turns.
There is no such thing as marked campsites. You just park where you can and get as close to an electrical point as possible. Our fifty foot electrical cord was quite useful in these situations.
Above: Campgrounds in Salento, Colombia, Ushuaia, Argentina, and Zorritos, Peru. Click to enlarge.
Sometimes we had to drive around trying different outlets to find one that actually worked. Even then the plug and socket would need to be carefully rigged to stop the cord from falling out of the socket.
Finding Electrical Power
Argentina, Chile, and Peru have 240V/50Hz power, so we needed a transformer for electrical hook-ups. We bought a LiteFuze LT-2000 step-up and step-down transformer on amazon.com.
Above: The LiteFuze LT-2000 step-up and step-down transformer
It worked very well. All we needed to do is plug into a 240V/50Hz supply and press the 110V/60Hz output button on the transformer.
Most of the campgrounds we stayed in had electrical power available, but at a very low amperage. We joked that had we tried to use our air conditioner in South America we might have short circuited the continent.
When hooking up to local power, we needed local power plug adaptors. Ecuador and Columbia are the only countries that use United States plugs and 110V/60Hz power.
We had many problems accessing cash from ATMs until we cottoned to concept that we should only attempt to get cash in major tourist areas. Once we made this adjustment, we had no problems getting the cash we needed. We also used both a Visa credit card and a pre-paid Master Card for the trip. Both worked well.
After being refused money yet again at an ATM in northern Patagonia, a young woman standing behind Elizabeth said in halting English, “I can take you to my bank. I am sure you will be able to get money from them”. We were successful. And because the local camping place was no longer operating she also asked if we would like to stay the night at her farm (FOC). So we did and her family were just the loveliest people.
Countries We Visited
We traveled through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia. Any country that required a Visa for us as Australians we opted to ignore. This immediately excluded Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Paraguay. We came close to driving into Uruguay, but decided to head south to Ushuaia while it was relatively warm there.
Bolivia proved to be the only problem for us because of pickets and protests at the border with Chile. Furthermore, we received information that it was very difficult to get diesel with a foreign number plate. Even if you could get diesel, you had to negotiate the price. In this type of situation, it is more often than not double the price for foreigners.
Here are some highlights:
Buenos Aires: What can you say about a fascinating city? You should have this city on your bucket list! It’s a city of faded glory, illustrious history, Tango, Portenos and their café society. And let’s not forget beef! The best steak in the world is here, bar none.
Above: Buenos Aires, the historic Spanish and European neighborhoods are in the top row, and the the modern high tech, well designed areas with great looking architecture and landscaping are the bottom row. Click to enlarge.
Above: Elizabeth in Ushuaia
Ushuaia: Visiting Ushuaia gave us a real buzz. At almost sixty degrees south, it added specialness to our almost sixty degrees north visit to Iceland. We took a voyage up the Beagle Channel including getting up close and personal with penguins, sea lions, and cormorants in their natural habitats. Visiting the first ranch in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the Haberton Estancia, put the cherry on top of the Argentinian cake for us.
Above: The Beagle Channel voyage where they got up close and personal with penguins, sea lions, and cormorants in their natural habitats. Click to enlarge.
Seeing the Glacier Perito Moreno up-close was just amazing, awesome, and unbelievable. All those superlatives rolled into one fantastic experience.
Above: Glacier Perito Moreno
We felt privileged to be a witness to such grandeur of the Andes along with her National Parks and volcanoes. We also enjoyed the beauty of the Lake District in the northwest. Our train ride on the Patagonian Express was superb. Paul Theroux, eat your heart out!
Above: Marveling at some amazing volcanos in the Andes
Above: Riding the now famous Patagonian Express. Click to enlarge.
Above: The Atacama Desert in Chile
Chile: The Atacama Desert in Chile blew our minds. The sheer enormity of it. The geographical relationship between the mountains and cities along the coast. How people exist in it and the extent to which it is being plundered, I mean mined.
Above: The Mining town ruins along the highway in Chile
Above: Grande Isle de Chile and the town of Castro. Click to enlarge.
We visited the Grande Isle de Chile and the town of Castro which is famous for its fishing cottages built in the bay, but the tide was out for us. The yellow timber Cathedral was interesting.
Above: Mano el Desierto spoiled by graffiti
We detoured to visit the famous, Mano el Desierto, a concrete hand sticking up out of the desert sands. It is now very much spoiled by graffiti.
Above: Gary and Elizabeth at Lake Titicaca
Peru: Lake Titicaca and its Reed Island Dwellers were very interesting. People are living on floating islands!
Above: Spanish colonial city of Cusco. Click to enlarge.
Above: The Saksaywaman Ruins
We also enjoyed spending time in the beautiful Spanish colonial city of Cusco, the jumping off point to see the Machu Picchu ruins. We camped quite close to the Saksaywaman ruins. We had never seen such precise masonry work!
We liked the spectacle of the Machu Picchu ruins (shown above), and the mountainous region in which they reside. Click to enlarge.
Above: The Caral ruins, which are possibly the oldest pueblo village in the Americas
Ecuador: The beautiful city of Cuenco is not to be missed as well as the Otavia volcano and surrounding picturesque region. We stayed at a hostel in the mountains nearby.
Above: The city of Cuenco, Ecuador. Click to enlarge.
Above: Sanctuario de Las Lajas Cathedral in Columbia
Columbia: We visited the Sanctuario de Las Lajas Cathedral in Columbia, which is built in a ravine. We also spent time in the Colombian highland towns of Salento and Villa de Leyva.
Above: The colonial city of Cartagena
The old colonial city of Cartagena was a highlight for us, being the only walled city in Columbia.
The urging by Elizabeth for me to dance with a Tango beauty in the streets of Buenos Aires resulted in an international airing on our son’s Facebook wall. And need I say many remarks like “onya grandpa” resulted!
The second day out of Buenos Aires a casual remark to a young campground supervisor about finding some propane resulted in him procuring two tanks full for us at $12 US each.
The daughter-in-law of a campground owner in northern Chile baked bread and pancakes for us and her two young daughters helped Elizabeth with the washing.
Above: A Peruvian hairless dog
In northern Peru we stayed at a beach lodge where we encountered our first nudist bathers in South America. It was also the first time we saw two Peruvian hairless dogs. Ugly!
We met a fun couple from Oregon who were traveling on their motorbikes through South America. Their dog, Bentley, was traveling with them in a specially built cage on the back of one of the bikes. We walked a few miles together in the mountains to visit a coffee plantation and to have lunch.
Tree Scrapes, Tire Problems, and a Dislocated Shoulder
We experienced a number of side scrapes from trees and a couple scrapes from street signs that were situated very close to the curb. We also hit a nasty speed bump quite hard in a strange town in Argentina. That jolt caused damage to a tie-down point on the truck camper. The damage has since been successfully repaired.
The only other rig damage we sustained was to our Hankook all-terrain tires, which let us down big time in Peru. Prior to leaving the United States, we invested in a brand new set of Hankook all-terrain tires. Well, three Hankook tires delaminated within three days in Peru, and had to be replaced. The Hankook tires were an expensive option we would not repeat.
While not exactly a major issue, we did experience some turbo problems when we were at 13,000 feet of altitude (4,300 meters). We were able to have the issues resolved via computer, but it did slow us down a bit.
Prior to leaving, we had been concerned that truck parts, including spare air, fuel, and oil filters, may be hard to come by in South America. We took truck filters and other routine maintenance parts with us and we were pleased that we did.
The only other damage we sustained during the trip was when Elizabeth fell and dislocated her shoulder in Cartegena, Colombia. We rushed to a local hospital emergency room and, a few hours alter, all was well. We have nothing but praise for the hospital staff and care we received in Columbia. Incidentally, the hospital emergency room cost was not prohibitive.
Other than Liz’s dislocated shoulder, we had no health issues during our trip. Prior to heading south, it was recommended to use to get Yellow fever, Rabies, Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, and Tetanus vaccinations. Many people don’t bother, and neither did we. We survived!
Things We Would Have Done Differently
In hindsight, there are a few things we would change about our trip. For example, we should have visited Uruguay. Due to the heat being incredibly intense in Buenos Aires and Cartagena, it may also have been better to start our South American journey in October or November, rather than January.
Our trip would have been further enriched is we had a better grasp of Spanish. While we got to know quite a lot of commonly used words and phrases, our lack of Spanish speaking skills hampered our interaction with people. Liz carried a Spanish/English dictionary in her handbag, and we used an Apple app to translate anything important.
Finally, we would have fared better with a smaller and lighter truck camper. Many of the access roads were just too narrow for the size of our camper. For towns with the more complicated road systems and/or detours, we hired a local taxi driver to take us to our camping location. As long as we agreed to a price first, that approach worked out well.
We had problems navigating in a lot of towns and villages and a smaller rig may have been helpful in those situations. Driving in larger towns and cities can only be described as exciting and hair raising at the same time. There was a lack of what we would call common road courtesy and an abundance of testosterone-filled Latin American drivers, all of which made for an exhausting driving experience.
Important tip: If there are two lanes through a town in South America, always use the left one. This will keep you out of the way of motorcycles, taxis, and mini buses.
Thank You, South America
Above: Gary and Elizabeth in Ushuaia, Argentina
We would like to conclude our remarks by saying that at no time in the six months in South America did we feel unsafe or threatened. We used common sense and, where we could, asked permission to park, and were security conscious at all times.
For further details of our trip, please visit our travel journal at capepacific.com.
The people of South America made our experience special. Their kindness and generosity knew no bounds. They were also ways ready to assist or advice us during our adventure. Other than the drivers, they were also incredibly patient. Thank you, South America.
Have you traveled to South America with your truck camper? Please share your story about traveling to South America.