Aug 19, 2012

Overland Advice: To Drive, Or Not To Drive


This post is the first in a series of advice, geared towards those of you who are preparing to embark on your first big trip.  There's obviously more than one way to see the world and I won't pretend we know much regarding each option but we'll do our best to touch bases.  We invite our friends in the overland community to please contribute to the discussion.  First of all, a big consideration is whether you want to travel among many countries that are connected on a string, for example exploring the African continent versus spending a year jumping among highlight destinations across the world like India, France, or Thailand.  If you chose Door #2 then your obvious choice would be an airplane...

I write this post as we are waiting for our vehicle to be nursed back to health by a mechanic in Guatemala City.    For the past two weeks we've been traveling by backpack and we're now taking advantage of our tent and the free camping provided by Antigua's Tourist Police.  In the past few days we've taken several hour-long rides on an Extra-Urbano, also known as a Guatemalan chicken bus (which costs roughly $1 USD each way for non-locals).  It's a white knuckle ride which no one should miss when traveling thru Central America.  It made for a fascinating day, just being a fly on the wall in the #1 mode of transportation across Guatemala.  

The interior perspective of a Guatemalan chicken bus

I was really intrigued by the communication between the driver and the assistant, who is usually hanging his body completely outside of the open doorway while telling the driver whether it's safe to pass, merge lanes, or cut off the poor sap next to him.  It reminded me of my previous life driving firetrucks and the relationship shared between the driver and the Lieutenant riding shotgun...only instead of being distracted by a dispatcher's radio traffic and the laptop screen in front of him, the bus driver's assistant is distracted by the loud unmuffled diesel engine and the cute blonde extranjero in the seat directly behind him (yes, I'm referring to Shannon).  


The bus doesn't exactly stop for passengers to get on or off, the driver simply slows down enough for the assistant to hop off in a jog and the ongoing passengers take a running start to hop inside.  I watched in surprise as a pregnant woman with her small children in tow were given the same treatment while unloading, the baby she had strapped to her back hitting it's head on the way out while the driver's assistant drags the other kid out by his arm in a rushed manner.  Better keep up kid!


This experience would be hard to come by for an overland traveler, unless of course they wanted to leave their vehicle behind in another city for a day.  I had been looking for an excuse over the past 1.5 months to enjoy one of these rides, however impractical it seemed.  I suppose I should consider myself lucky that our vehicle needed some attention during the same week that we had 31 people join us in Guatemala for our wedding.

We don't need no stinkin' gauges

So why would someone choose to backpack around the continent or drive across by vehicle?  What are the considerations involved?  It can all depend on your lifestyle and your preference for travel.  We have tried both modes and each have their appeal for different reasons.  Let's talk a little about one versus the other...

Traveling overland by backpack

Simplicity  When everything you own has to be carried on your back, you're forced to take less junk and focus on only what is necessary.  After the first 6 months or even a year, you find yourself carrying much less than you started with.  The minimalist approach at its finest.  Like choosing a proper vehicle, be sure to find a backpack that fits you well with comfort...your spine and your feet will thank you.

If I look cranky it's because I'm carrying most of the weight
Transportation  You are at the mercy of public transportation which can be expensive or cheap depending on the options.  A positive note is that when there is a breakdown, it's not your responsibility to fix however now you have to find an alternative way of arriving at your destination.  These situations can enrich the journey, sometimes eclipsing the experience you actually have once you've arrived.  Using public transportation among the locals is usually one of the best glimpses into a culture, however you can be severely limited in routes and it can sometimes be difficult to get off the beaten path.  If you just want to see the highlights around the world, with a little research you can find great deals on open-itinerary around the world flights for under $2500 USD.

Security  While it can sometimes seem intimidating on foot, you are constantly exposed unless you're in the comfort of the hostel.  This can be bad and good...Forcing yourself outside of one's comfort zone can drop barriers and leave you exposed to the kindness of strangers.  These experiences can be positive and memorable, or in the wrong part of town it could be a scary ordeal.

Our favorite campsite yet, on the rooftop terrace of a completely booked hostel in Campeche

Lodging  Accommodations can be more expensive when backpacking, often spending more at hostels and hotels, however the effects can be reduced if you are carrying a small tent (adding more weight to be carried).  Staying in hostels and hotels can be rewarding experiences because of the other travelers you meet, however the night before an early morning hiking excursion it can be a curse while everyone at the hostel is partying except for you.

Another reason to tent-camp, the unique places you'll stay

Eating  While staying in hostels with a shared kitchen you can usually save some coin by cooking for yourself, however this is not always an option so you will be forced to eat out.  This is a great chance to immerse yourself more by eating from street-vendors or at comedors, saving a little money by eating from the cheaper menu that the locals do.  Just avoid the temptation to indulge occasionally for the food you were used to back home...you will certainly pay more for it.

Overland travel by vehicle

Capacity  A blessing and a curse, when you're traveling by vehicle you can accomodate certain luxuries such as a pack of cards, a french press for that cup of coffee, or a full backpacking kitchen.  The downfall of course is that vehicles tend to be overloaded, seeing as how we love to fill a ten pound bag with 100 pounds of sh#t...especially if it isn't carried on our backs.  A fine balance must be found, and the secret is to pack like you are backpacking and leave behind whatever isn't used regularly.  Your vehicle will thank you when it doesn't have to work as hard to get across the Andes.

Everything but the kitchen sink...oh wait, THERE's the sink

Transportation  Being your own mode of transportation certainly has its perks.  You control the route and the destination, often making it easier to travel the road less taken.  You can be limited by the same conditions as any mode of transportation; weather, mudslides, protests, and military checkpoints, however if you have 4WD you may be able to catch a break while that shuttle bus that your backpacking buddies chose is left behind in the mud.  Border crossings will be more complicated and you might be targeted more by police corruption, however to some of us that shares some of the appeal of traveling abroad.  Another downside is of course the price of fuel and repairs, however depending on vehicle shape and condition, these costs can sometimes be worth the freedom of having your own transportation.  Be sure to occasionally experience the local transportation, whether it be tuk-tuk, chicken bus, or train...it will be an unforgettable experience that will stay with you (or haunt you) for the rest of your life. 

Sometimes overcoming obstacles is half the fun

Security  While many people will feel more safe traveling in their a vehicle, due to locks, alarms, and dark tinted windows...traveling in a vehicle can also attract unwanted attention.  No matter how "low-profile" you think your vehicle may be, it still shows that you can either afford to own a vehicle AND drive all the way from the country listed on your plates, or you can afford a ridiculous car rental bill.  Even as a backpacker, the ability to simply travel outside of your home country will show wealth and privilege.  On the flip side, traveling far distances in a unique vehicle can attract positive attention too, getting you out of traffic tickets, striking up interesting conversations, or inviting friendly locals to offer you free accommodations.

Peace of mind only goes so far

Lodging  One of the biggest attractions to traveling in a vehicle, especially by those who love to camp, is the ability to sleep inside of your car or truck.  Aside from the obvious cost savings, unlike a hotel or hostel you will always know what to expect in the comfort of your home on wheels.  How clean the sheets are, how soft the pillows, and how muggy it can get it certain temperatures.  Depending on your choice in vehicle, it can take considerable planning to make your vehicle a comfortable snoretress; but if done correctly, you may be able to find free parking on the streets of a very expensive city and sleep in your getaway van under radar, not paying a dime except when it's necessary to finally take that hostel shower.  When you're finally clean you can use the WiFi, get some coffee, and maybe make some friends with the backpackers who are paying a little more to spend the night.

Hotel Ruined Adventures

Eating  If you've planned your vehicle accordingly, you can save tons of money by doing your own shopping and cooking for yourself.  Despite what most overland travelers will tell you, a fridge is not necessary, it only makes the job easier.  All you need is a cheap stove, some basic cookware, and the desire to prepare your own food.  This can be a great way to learn more about the local produce and try your hand at cooking the national dishes, however it obviously takes discipline and willpower.  Not everyone enjoys being in the kitchen.  Just remember to occasionally treat yourself to the local cuisine so that you can experience what it's supposed to taste like.

Making margaritas WHILE burning calories?  Brilliant!

Your mileage may vary

Now you have some ideas for the pro's and con's between two very different options for traveling the world.  What I have not mentioned yet is pedal-powered travel, which can be lumped in between somewhere closer to backpacking.  The largest difference with cycling is an increased food budget to offset calories burned, and a stronger emphasis on your health.  This is not for the faint of heart and a considerable amount of physical conditioning is necessary before hitting the road.  I also did not go into detail about motorcycle travel, which also falls in between but closer to vehicle travel...meaning the same hassle at borders and the benefit of better fuel economy.  Of course you should only attempt motorcycle travel if you are an experienced rider with a firm skill set in evasive maneuvers.

I hope that we've presented you with a few rough ideas to start with on your road to planning your journey.  With a little more information and a little soul-searching, you will find which option is best for your needs.  For more detailed information, please check these resources...