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.

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