The 7 Commandments Of A South American Roadtrip

Monday, August 22, 2011

Take one old and, as it turns out, less than reliable Volkwagen Combi. Paint it purple, and make it convertible. Fill it with a motley and changeable crew of South American musos, European backpackers and one dog. Hit the Panamericana, and drive north. That, baby, is where the sun is.

Before you do, though, you’ll want to memorize these rules.

1) Speak the language

Things will go much more smoothly if someone in the car has a fairly robust grasp of the local language. From dealing with the police and haggling in local markets, to bargaining with mechanics and flirting with locals in adjacent cars, life will be simpler and cheaper.

Failing that, be sure to have a good phrasebook and a list of auto parts and mechanical jargon in the relevant language. Gesture and body language will get you a long way, until some obscure little doo-whit from the depths of the engine goes bust.

2) Know The Rules of the Road

You should be almost as well versed in the road legislation of the country you’re driving in as the policeman who will pull you over and see the opportunity to impose an ignorant foreigner tax. Knowing if you’ve actually broken the law is half the battle. Do not be the dope that panics and hands over cash for something that isn’t even in the local rulebooks.

If you have actually broken the law, bite the bullet and proceed to Commandment “3”.

3) If You Choose to bribe, Know the Going Rate

Paying an extravagant bribe out of the car’s communal funds will not win you many friends. When our designated driver announced he’d just paid S/.90 out of everybody’s money he narrowly avoided a lynching. I suspect that policeman is still in his local bar, drunkenly raising a bottle of pisco, tears in his eyes as he toasts those extranjeros estúpidos, pouring out shots for the entire neighborhood.

Ask around, or hit up the blogosphere.

Note: in Peru, aim for S/.10 nuevo sols, but be content with S/.20 (see why Juan was so unpopular?).

4) Always Fill Up the Tank

I repeat: always. This goes triple for roads in the Andes, where there are few gas stations and not one handy sign notifying that the next station will be another 200 miles away. Assume every gas is the last gas.

We drew to a slow, shuddering halt at 11:30 p.m. one chilly, Andean night, at the highest point of the crossing between Cusco and Lima. Despite the energetic bouncing of the boys in the front seat (“if we can just inch forward I’m sure it starts descending here . . .”) we were clearly stuck.

Flagging down passing cars gained us a packet of cigarettes and a half-empty bottle of caña liquor, but no gas. It was a very long, very cold night, until the sun finally rose on the flat, empty, lunar landscape of the high Andes; a thin layer of ice coating the van and everybody’s mood.

The second time this happened we were, at least, in tropical lowland Ecuador and armed with the requisite bottles and hoses. Know how to siphon gas, make like boy scouts, and be prepared.

5) Mechanics Are the Enemy

Treat them as such: with suspicion. Read up a little on basic auto mechanics and care before your trip, and carry a manual for your ride. Be sure to hover during the entire process, as it’s not unheard of for mechanics to pinch a few parts to sell, replacing them with parts that are worn or from a different make or model.

A trusted mechanic is the best friend you will have on this trip. Shamelessly call on all contacts, however tenuous, if you’re having car problems. Doesn’t your Aunt in Iowa have a neighbor whose dentist once had an exchange student from Bogotá? Call that contact in and see if they know a mechanic. If they’ll accompany you throughout the whole tedious process of supervision and negotiation, even better.

Talk to lots of locals. Just by quizzing anyone who’d stand still long enough, we chanced upon a long-retired German who had been a engineer for Volkswagen just down the road from where we were staying in Montañita.

Negotiate the price beforehand, and buy the parts yourself, although be sure to check them thoroughly for wear, and to bargain cannily.

6) Pimp Your Ride

While the whole point of hitting the open road may be to escape the pressures of modern materialism and blah blah blah, digital nomads can pimp the front passenger seat into a Wi-Fi hotspot!

A universal adaptor for the cigarette lighter not only charges a laptop, but also everybody’s cameras, phones, iPods and so on. We picked ours up in a Radio Shack in Lima. Most mobile phone operators in the region offer fairly affordable pre-paid Wi-Fi, although do be aware that service may be sketchy between population centers.

Our Wi-Fi was a great complement to Commandment 5: We broke down between Lima and Trujillo, and by the time we’d crawled up the coast with out patched-together motor, I had the friend of a friend’s mechanic lined up waiting for us. Bless you, Claro and Facebook.

7) Pimp Your Ride, Redux

Whether it was filling the thermos with hot water or letting us cook in the restaurant’s kitchen, we were overwhelmed by people’s kindness pretty much everywhere we went. The firemen in one Ecuadorian town let us sleep in the station, and fisherman in another made our day with a bucket full of fresh fish, on the house.

Throw an eye-catching vehicle into the mix, and expect the good vibes to treble. Kicking back in the YamanVan, we were asked for autographs, invited for a free lunch in more than one cevichería, shouted beer after beer. Pimp your ride, always have a smile, enjoy yourself, and bask in the good hippy karma comin’ your way.

By Camden Luxford



Camden Luxford lives for long, uncomfortable journeys and dreams of the Trans-Siberian Railway. From hitchhiking in Europe and traveling through Asia by bus and boat, she has found herself in the Peruvian Andes, where she relishes the colors of the festivals, the warmth of the people and the hearty flavors of the soups.

When she’s not exploring her new home, she’s studying politics by distance or writing for her blog,, or as a regular contributor to Camden’s writing has also appeared in the TheExpeditioner’s Guide to the World.

  • Dahr Vrijsen

    Dear, This summer i will be travelling through out South America. I will begin my epic quest in Rio de Janeiro and from there of i will go to Colombia. I was wandering if you could help me with what my possibilities are to travel; should i buy a car for two months or rent one, because it found a picture of thiss nive Volkswagen Hippy van and your logo on it. But i need a car that can pass borders and i could drop in Bogota? cause it is a one way trip. I hope you can help me cause i m a bit scared right now an my tickets back to Europe are already booked. And i couldn t bare the thought to need to take trains and busses to go into nice nature…. it just wouldn t be the same. hope you can help me

  • Pete W Noel

    Love the post. My friends and I are also looking to road trip s. america starting out of Buenos Aries. How much was it for a vehicle and how long was your trip? We are looking at about a month for ours and planning on purchasing a vehicle or renting doesn’t matter really as long as we can find something reliable. Also, what time of year was your trip?

    • Hi Pete, glad you enjoyed the post!

      We bought the Volks in Cusco for about $3000 if I remember correctly – it was a while ago! Keep in mind that Cusco is a little remote and not that big: if you purchase in a capital city you will probably find much more variety and better prices. I would suggest that for a month renting might be a very attractive option to avoid the paper-work and hassle of purchasing and then re-selling (and the very real possibility of getting ripped-off). If buying I would perhaps consider buying from fellow travellers unless you’re really comfortable negotiating in Spanish with people seeing an opportunity to perhaps rip off a gringo – a Peruvian friend did the purchasing of ours.

      Be prepared for petrol prices to vary wildly depending on state subsidies in the different countries. Venezuela for example was and I believe still is incredibly cheap, Ecuador slightly less so but still cheaper than Peru, Chile and Argentina getting a bit more expensive again.

      We travelled for about 6 weeks, in May/June through Peru and Ecuador (I was living in Cusco at the time). Very good friends of mine did a loop of South America over the course of a year in a combi and had mostly good experiences. I think they would tell you to investigate insurance properly (you’re required to have insurance for each country and you can buy on the border; there is a general regional insurance you can buy but Peru, for example, doesn’t accept it). Also don’t let your car out of your sight: they sent it off on a boat somewhere in the Amazon and it arrived ten days late to the next stop, where they were waiting with increasing anxiety! Be safe, and when in doubt ask the locals where a good spot to spend the night may be.

      And have fun – I’m jealous!

      • Peter Zambon

        Hi Camden! Thanks for writing on your South American roadtrip. Three friends and I are going to be heading to lima Oct. 31 for a three month trip. You mentioned getting the insurance figured out beforehand, and thats exactly what I’ve been having a hard time doing… We are going to ship a car registered in the USA. Do you have any further advice on insuring it? I’m trying to figure out whether or not to try and set up a regional one like you mention and just buy extra at those certain borders where it wont work OR just go without anything but our typical domestic insurance, and plan to buy at each border. If you have no idea don’t hesitate to say so! I’m just searching for information anywhere I can find it! :) thanks for your consideration. -Pete

  • Pingback: The (hateful) ties that bind: Expats and cultural criticism | The Brink of Something Else: expat life in Cusco, Peru()

© 2017