Should have bought a car

We’re five months into this Pan American road trip and I’m writing this post in the south Nicaraguan coast in a hostel. A HOSTEL. We’re driving this big gas guzzling camper conversion around, complete with a bed, little kitchen and everything we need to live. Yet we’re staying in a hostel. You see, there’s two problems with sleeping in the van down in these parts of Central America. Firstly, there aren’t a lot of campsites and stealth camping just isn’t all that safe. Since leaving Mexico we’ve managed to find exactly three campgrounds to stay in, and none since we arrived in Nicaragua two weeks ago. However, the biggest problem is that we’re edging closer and closer to the tropics and the nights just keep getting warmer. It gets really hard to sleep in the van when it’s over 23° and it’s always that down here. We do have a little fan in the van. It helps but we invariably wake up with the sheets soaked in sweat. So, we end up parking outside a hostel and sleeping the night in a private room, which often ends up costing less than a campground. Case in point we spent the last two nights in a hostel on Ometepe Island which cost us $10/night. The room was horrible and had lizards crawling all over the walls, but at least it was safe. And cool(er).

Some other travellers we met who are doing the entire Pan American in a 4WD

This all raises the question, is the Pan American best done in a van or a car?  With the benefit of hindsight I’d have to say the answer would have to be a car. Specifically a widely available 4WD like a Toyota or Hyundai. With lots of ground clearance and a roof top tent. The clearance is needed because the roads are often terrible, and if it’s been raining then often the car with need to pass through foot deep puddles of water. It’s still nice to camp inn cooler climates, particularly in North America, so having a roof top tent or full fold down seats in the back could be enough to get a good nights sleep. And for cooking a simple gas cooker would be enough. Such a vehicle would allow for all the off-road experiences on the Pan American whilst also allowing for easy driving and parking in the narrow streets of Central and South American cities. Because of that a proper 4WD would actually allow for more exploration than a van can, because it can tackle dodgy dirt roads and also narrow city laneways, both something that a van struggles with. Finally a van tends to consume a lot more gas than a car. We’re spending about A$1,200 each month on gas at the moment. Cutting that in half with a more fuel efficient engine would be great for our wallet and the environment.

A battery, stove and gas bottle doesn’t need a lot of space

Another learning that I’ve had from this trip is that the traditional North to South direction might not be the best to take. At least for us. Because it is the direction that most take there tends to be a surplus of leftover cars and vans for sale as travellers finish in Santiago, Ushuaia or Buenos Aires. In most cases these can’t be sold to locals, as they are foreign plated, so they get offered to the tiny pool of travellers starting their journey in Argentina or Chile. There’s a moderately busy Facebook Group for people buying and selling foreign cars and vans in Chile. Therefore a smart option is to start the Pan American in Chile, purchase a US plated vehicle from a desperate seller, then drive it back to the US and sell it, potentially for a premium.

Consider starting at the bottom and going north. I kinda wish we’d done that.

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