FAQs


Have you always wondered just how much we miss European cheeses, whether we’ve had scary moments, or how we manage to pee in an emergency? Well, wonder no more.

Below we’ve tried to answer some of the questions we are most frequently asked, and we’ll keep adding to this page if new things come up.

Do you still have a burning question that we haven’t answered? If so, feel free to contact us directly, or use the comment box below.

In no particular order, these are the questions that are answered below.

Q1: How long are you travelling for?
Q2: How are you funding this trip?
Q3: What has been your favourite country?
Q4: What do you miss from home?
Q5: Have you ever been scared?
Q6: How do you cope without having a toilet or shower in your camper?
Q7: How is your Spanish?
Q8: What is your plan for the future?
Q9: What will you do with the van when you reach the bottom?
Q10: How did you get your van from Panama to Colombia?
Q11: Is it a hassle to cross borders with the vehicle?
Q12: Have you had to bribe loads of police officers or other officials, and have you been shaken down for money?
Q13: What’s involved in a buying a car in the US, as a foreigner?

—-x—-

Q1: How long are you travelling for?

A: It was pretty open-ended – we left the US in October 2011 and initially we thought we’d be on the road for about two years but that was eventually exceeded by two-and-a-half years.

Q2: How are you funding this trip?

A: We saved money from our salaries at home for almost 10 years.

While for many years we didn’t have a specific plan for what kind of travelling we’d do, we always knew we would want to take off on a big journey at some point, so we saved every month with that in mind. We decided to forget about buying a property, a car, or trying to keep up with every expensive gadget, so we could hoard cash instead.
Paula took voluntary redundancy from her job at the BBC, and this helped pay for the van.

We are supplementing those savings by freelancing on the road. We do a mixture of travel writing, news features and articles on human rights, media and press freedom issues – often for trade union magazines in the UK. Jeremy has done trade union training/speaking in Jamaica and Costa Rica, and also covered a media conference in Mexico City. We’ve also written a report for a British NGO and hope to keep building on this type of work.

We have a set daily budget of US$60 (about £40), and everything (yes, everything!) we spend is written down so we can keep track of our average. It’s not as boring or uptight as it sounds – Jeremy has just got into a habit of writing everything in his little black book, and it has become part of the routine.DSC_0769
That $60 covers all camping accommodation fees, petrol, food and drink, tickets and tours, everyday car maintenance bills, road tolls, and sundries like laundry, internet and propane gas.

We have a separate contingency fund for larger one-off expenses, like annual insurance policies, shipping, flights home, and the larger mechanics/parts bills. This means that big surprises or bills don’t skew the daily budget and mess with our heads.

On the road we live cheaply, and very rarely buy any material goods other than things we really need for life in the van. Clothing and shoes are replaced only when they wear out. It’s actually a relief to have fewer possessions and no more endless reasons to traipse around the shops.

We have virtually no overheads at home, as we left very little trace behind. We sold most of our possessions, and what is left is stored at Paula’s parents’ house.

Q3: What has been your favourite country?

A: Don’t ever ask us this question again – there is no way to answer it.DSC_0229

We’ve loved many things about every country we’ve visited, and each has its strengths. For wildlife, we’d choose Costa Rica; for beaches and heavenly food that we still dream of, it’s got to be Mexico. Nicaragua stands out for volcano-watching and surf life. Colombia was just fabulous in almost every way – that’s like visiting five separate countries, such is the variety in landscape and climate, plus the people are exceptionally friendly. And we loved the indigenous cultures and scenery of Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru.

The landscapes of northern Chile and southern Bolivia are so breath-taking as to be almost beyond belief. So many things about Bolivia, especially the people and culture, grabbed us in a way that will stay with us forever.

It’s impossible to know where to start with Argentina, southern Chile and Patagonia – wild, often barren terrain, phenomenal snow-capped mountains, lakes, lakes and more lakes! Penguins, armadillos, guanacos, amazing birdlife. It’s a region of extremes, but also closer to Europe in terms of culture, so in many ways easier to travel in. If we ever leave, I will mourn for the steak and red wine of Argentina.

Q4: What do you miss from home?

A: Apart from the obvious – and hardest – things like family, friends and our elderly cat Gizmo, it’s cheese.Gizmo
Blue cheese, sharp cheddars, cheeses that smell like your grandad’s toenails, cheese with character! It’s just not happening here, there’s no respect for proper cheese – you can buy imported stuff in supermarkets but it’s expensive and would probably disappoint. There’s more variety in Argentina, but it’s still a relatively poor show.

So we try not to think about it and just enjoy the nice food we can get, which is plentiful. But some days…

Anything else? We’d love to be able to have a long hot bath sometimes; to pop out for a night in the pub with friends; to pick up the phone to our parents, rather than shouting ‘what was that? No, we’re losing you, you were breaking up there, switch your video off, it’s the button with the little camera on it…argh…‘ all the way through our Skype calls.

Q5: Have you ever been scared?

A: We sometimes have hairy moments on the road, especially with kamikaze truck and bus drivers doing eye-popping manoeuvres. There have been a few nights of wild camping where we have felt a bit uneasy, but this is rare because we try our best not to camp somewhere that feels sketchy at all.

The only time we’ve felt directly threatened was our first night in Guatemala, when we ended up ‘camping’ in a slightly dodgy motel. We were told to park right in front of a run down, disused motel room, which was in the corner of a walled car park. We awoke about midnight to find the van surrounded by quite a large number of drunk and drugged-up people, who had broken into the room right in front of the van and were having a party. They had also blocked in our vehicle with a large pick-up truck. We couldn’t work out if they realised we were sleeping in the van, but the pop-top was up, so it must have been quite obvious.

Their behaviour was unpleasant – a woman was being sexually assaulted by two men right next to the van, people were staggering about, some were leaning on our van, and things didn’t look like they would end well.

We quietly cleared out the drivers’ seat and got ready to make a dash for it. Jeremy got into the seat, and on a count of three I whipped down the night-curtain covering the windscreen as Jeremy slammed the van into reverse. We reversed over the garden behind us and managed to squeeze between that and the truck that was blocking us. The partygoers looked pretty stunned. Some of them jumped in their truck and chased us as we drove out. We were really scared, especially when I had to get out of the car and open a gate to let us out.

We pulled round to the motel reception and leaned on the car horn until the night guard came out. He had clearly been complicit in letting the party happen. However, he apologised and offered us a room in the more secure, internal part of the motel. We parked up there but refused to leave the van. As soon as it was light we left. Not a good night, but thankfully a very rare occurrence.

Lots of people ask us whether Mexico was a terrifying lawless land of narco-criminals, bandits, car-jackers and corrupt police officers. We had no problems at all during our three months in Mexico. This blog post ‘Demonisation of a nation’ pretty much covers that topic.

Q6: How do you cope without having a toilet or shower in your camper?

A: Before the trip we thought this could be a potential nightmare but have become remarkably accustomed to not having our own facilities. When we’re on the move we use supermarkets, petrol stations, cafes and the great outdoors. Most places we camp will have some kind of toilet facility, although not always a shower, and not often a hot one. We have vastly lowered our expectations in this regard.There have been times when we have wild camped for days, with only the sea as a water source.

We carried a portable chemical toilet in the back of the van for about a year, and used it about twice. It was a total pain in the neck to get it out and use, and then empty, so we dumped it.

If you really want to know, for emergencies like town centre camping, we have a great new, very low-tech, ‘gadget’ called Uriwell.
It’s basically a bendable plastic bottle to pee in, ergonomically designed for women too so you don’t have to be traumatised by the prospect of peeing all over your car…… too much detail?

Q7: How is your Spanish?

A: It’s kind of getting there. We want to be so much better, but we have learned loads, having set off on the trip with only a few words.

We had short stints at Spanish schools in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Colombia.
I think our 2011 selves would be impressed with some of the situations we’ve coped with, but at the same time we would love to be able to speak with more fluency, and not like a couple of 8-year-olds.

Q8: What is your plan for the future?

A: No idea yet.

We’re not really just on a road trip, but would like to build on our freelance writing projects and also find new opportunities that could keep us in Latin America for a while.

We have no timescale or deadlines for going home, we are just going with the flow for now and will see how we feel once the travelling part of the trip is done.

We are really happy with what we’ve achieved in our careers up until now, but feel no pressure at all to return to that pace of life, nor to be full-time journalists for ever. We would rather have less money and more time, perhaps doing a variety of jobs or projects to keep us just ticking over.

If that doesn’t work out, if something new comes up that we fancy doing, or we get tired of being nomadic and far from home, then we’ll return to the UK – or thereabouts – and try to find jobs.

Q9: What will you do with the van when you reach the bottom?

A: Don’t know. We are happy just to keep it going for now, and make a plan when we have to.

After we’re done with it, there are several potential options – to ship it back to the US and try to sell it; to sell it to another foreigner in South America; to sell it locally (different countries have different tax rules about importing a foreign car – some are prohibitively expensive); to ship it to Europe and keep it or sell it; to push it off the nearest cliff; to give it away!

Q10: How did you get your van from Panama to Colombia?

A: As most people know, there is a roadless patch of jungle between Panama and Colombia called the Darien Gap, which prevents vehicles going overland between the two countries.

Every vehicle has to be shipped across the ‘gap’ in a container ship or, for larger vehicles, a RORO ship. It is an unavoidable hassle and expense that just goes with the territory of doing this trip by vehicle.Snake, Costa Rica

We shipped from Colon to Cartagena with a company called Evergreen, using an agent at the Panama side called Tea Kalmbach. The service is not perfect, but many travellers use her and have successfully shipped! If your vehicle is small enough you can save some money (as we did) by sharing a 40ft container with another car/van, and Tea can help find a partner if you don’t already have one.

Tea’s email is teakalmbach@hotmail.com and Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/tea.kalmbach?fref=ts

Rather than go into every detail about shipping your vehicle, let us refer you to the brilliant, detailed website almost everyone uses to guide them through the shipping process and more – Life Remotely.

Life Remotely: Shipping from Panama to Colombia: part one

Life Remotely: Shipping from Panama to Colombia: part two

What about our own passage across the Darien Gap? You cannot travel with your car – you need to either go by plane, sailboat or motorboat. You can turn this into a trip in its own right by sailing through the San Blas islands, which we did – see our blog post here.
There are many options for your own journey – we travelled with the Darien Gapster.

Q11: Is it a hassle to cross borders with the vehicle?

A: It is not that bad, especially once you’ve done one or two and you become familiar with the process. It can take a few hours to go through all the paperwork, but it rarely costs anything.

You can’t just bring a car across an international border without permission. If you bring a foreign car in you are effectively importing it, and if you did this long term you would be subjected to import taxes.

So, as well as getting your own tourist entry stamp, you must also get a ‘visa’ for the vehicle – it’s a temporary vehicle importation permit which is usually for the same length of time as your own tourist visa eg 90 days. In some cases this length of stay can be extended, which has to be done by the customs authorities (aduana).

In most cases you will also have to buy a (usually cheap) mandatory liability insurance policy for the country you are entering.

Again, I will not repeat every detail because there is a fantastic resource out there which describes almost every LatAm border crossing you will ever encounter. It’s Life Remotely again.. see their helpful border crossings page.

Q12: Have you had to bribe loads of police officers or other officials, and have you been shaken down for money?

Never and never (so far).

Q13: What’s involved in a buying a car in the US, as a foreigner?

A: We are from the UK, and we bought our campervan in the US.
As we understand it, each state is a bit different – our experience only relates to our buying process in California. We are not experts, but have been feeling our way through this for a couple of years, and at some point we might know what we are doing.

What you do need is an address at which to register the vehicle.

We decided to buy in California because we have friends there, and we have used their address to register the car, which has been no problem at all.
We think we probably could have registered it at the address of the car dealer from which we bought the van, if we’d wanted.
We have also read that you can ‘buy’ an address, like a PO box, in some states, but we didn’t try this and haven’t researched it.
We also heard that automobile / motorbike clubs / other overlanders can be helpful in providing addresses.

In our experience it has been good to be registered at the address of someone we know, because inevitably there is mail to deal with – from the Dept of Motor Vehicles and insurance companies.

When foreigners buy in the US there are other considerations such as insurance and maintaining registration. Again our experience is specific to California and may not be exactly the same in every state.

Registration is an annual process in the US. When you first register the new vehicle with the state DMV you will have to wait a few weeks for your licence plates and paperwork to arrive at your US address. (You can drive around in the state, without plates, in the meantime). You must have your ownership title papers for travelling through LatAm countries and borders – they are frequently required by police and customs officials.

While you are driving the car in the US you are required to buy state insurance for the state you have registered the vehicle in. We bought the most basic liability policy and it was about $400 for a year.
Only some companies will insure a foreigner – we used State Farm Insurance. Even then, they insisted we get a California drivers licence within 12 months (as far as they were concerned, we lived in California). We promised to do that, and then cancelled the policy before the year was up. (more on this below)

If you wish to keep your vehicle registered in that state, you also have to keep up your insurance policy, even if you have left the country. If you do not show proof of insurance within a certain period after registration, you will be de-registered by the DMV.

However, once you have left the US, you may decide to let your registration lapse, in which case you can cancel the state insurance. Many travellers choose not to renew the registration, and we have heard no reports of police/customs issues with the paperwork. As long as you can prove ownership of your vehicle, few LatAm officials seem to care whether your annual US registration is up to date. If they queried it, it should be possible to explain it away.

We decided to fully re-register after the first year because there are implications for our Sanborn’s LatAm insurance policy if we let it lapse. (see below)

Your insurance policy might not cover every dodgy ferry journey you take..

Your insurance policy might not cover every dodgy ferry journey you take..

In the 2nd year we discovered you can register your vehicle as Planned Non Operational (PNO). This means you are declaring it is ‘off the road’ and will not be driven in that state – obviously you can stick to this as by now your vehicle is in Latin America.

PNO registration costs $19 for the year in CA, and also meant we could ditch the state insurance payments.

You may also want to buy an insurance policy to cover you in Central & South America. There is a US company called Sanborn’s which insures drivers (including non-US citizens) for Central and South America. But you MUST have your car registered in the US to buy this policy. We got agreement from Sanborn’s that registering our car as PNO did not invalidate our LatAm policy. If you simply let your registration lapse, the Sanborn’s policy would be invalidated.

[If you want to research more about this insurance policy, I recommend emailing or talking to a member of Sanborn’s staff directly – their website is pretty crappy and gives the impression that non-US/Canadians are not eligible. You can contact us for more details if necessary.]

Some states, like California, have mandatory smog (emissions) tests every 2 years. This means that to re-register you have to bring your vehicle in to have a test. Obviously impossible if you are in LatAm. If you register your car as PNO, you can skip the test.

You should also be aware that every state has different levels of sales tax on vehicles – some, like California, are very high ie 7.5-9% of the value of the vehicle needs to be paid in tax when you register.

It goes without saying, as well, that whatever model you buy should be as easy as possible to repair in Latin America. We have had a bad experience with this, which you can learn from! We are continually having to import specialist parts from the US – very expensive and time consuming. Many – but not all – overlanders have problems with US models, even when they have equivalent models in LatAm. The same could be said of models from other parts of the world too though.

Quite a few British people have contacted us directly about whether to ship a UK vehicle to Latin America, or buy one in the US.
If you are thinking of bringing your car from the UK, consider whether you want to drive a right-hand drive vehicle in a continent where everyone drives on the right-hand side of the road in left-hand drive cars.
We had concerns about how safe this would feel, but some Brits do it, eg Earth Circuit and From A to B.

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