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John and Mandi

us --> van --> overland
905 days a wanderin'

Pan-Am Planning - Basics

Sep 19, 2016
by John

While we spent a fair amount of time looking into the Pan-American before we set off, we have not included much of it in our blog under the assumption that the base information is already available. The recent repetition of questions on forums and Facebook, including some irreverent and impatient responses, has us reevaluating our position...deciding to hobble together a rudimentary guide, or starting point, for any who are planning or considering undertaking a similar journey.

What's that bullshit about the 6 Ps?

What's that bullshit about the 6 Ps?

The Pan-American Highway is considered to be the longest driveable road in the world, except for that pesky bit that separates the two American continents known as the Darién Gap, which requires shipping around it in some manner. Depending on route, it can be as short as 19,000 miles. Realistically, most of us don't spend much time on the Highway itself and use it as a descriptor for our general direction. Some Pan-American travelers skip the northern most part in the U.S. and head directly to Mexico, essentially cutting out a couple of the most expensive countries and reducing the overall mileage a little.

The route is traversed both southbound and northbound. Starting from the south gives the traveler(s) the benefit of visiting what is arguably the harshest climate at the most opportune time, the southern tip during the South American summer (North American winter). It is also possible to start southbound in North America but run South America northbound to accommodate the seasons. The most adventurous might scoff at such a suggestion, do what you want.

everyone's trip is different and the most important tools are an open heart and mind

All types of transportation are used, from motorcycles, vans, trucks, SUVs, Unimogs, tuk tuks, bicycles, to going it on foot; a 4x4 seems to be one of the most popular. It is not uncommon to underestimate the time or funding needed, usually due to slowing down and having too much unexpected fun in under-expected places, necessitating the long-term storage of a vehicle while the traveler(s) return home to resupply their exhausted bank account. Costa Rica has become the de facto choice for southbound travelers because of its friendly up to two year vehicle storage allowance. Uruguay has a 12 month visa so it's a viable option in South America.

Mentally, both excitement and apprehension are to be expected before, and especially during, the beginning of the trip. It's normal. Eventually a groove will establish itself and you will be well into your journey. Two important things to remember are: everyone's trip is different and the most important tools are an open heart and mind.

Learn

We are firm believers in reading those that have gone before, it's how the 'standing on the shoulders of giants' thing works. Our suggestion is to start with as many blogs as you can from those who have already completed their trip. You won't finish them all, probably less than you think, but the similarities among those you do finish will outline a draft of your travel expectations. This cannot be overstated. Meeting and/or communicating with those travelers that resonate to you will help you more than any superfluous how to guide, such as this. Ask questions and be receptive to what is being shared, the best things we learned were from former Pan-Am veterans in person, many have become our dear friends to whom we still reach out for advice while on the road.

meeting and/or communicating with those travelers that resonate to you will help you more than any superfluous how to guide

Once you have your mentors, start reading a couple blogs of those that are currently traveling. Again, you'll find some that align with your idea of what your trip will be. Before you set off, take the time to print your favorite blogs to pdf to use for reference while you are on the road. Here are a few of our favorites along with Overland the Americas' listing of Pan-American blogs, the most comprehensive list we've found.

 

There are several books, more as of late, chronicling trials, tribulations, and elations along the Pan-American Highway. There are also many guidebooks that discuss the tourism possibilities in every country, however, don't fall prey to the the romantic sensationalist writing methodologies they employ. While pleasure reading isn't as important, reference material is. At the least, bring something that covers Central America and South America.

 

Budget

The amount of money allocated for the trip is probably the largest influence over the trip itself. There are those who have managed to do the Pan-Am solo on the cheap for roughly $40US per day, many couples target between $60-80US per day when all is said and done. Trip length, excursions, dining out, vehicle maintenance, drinking, etc., all must be factored when planning. Some of the big ticket items are shipping across the Darién Gap, touring the Galapagos Islands, and visiting Machu Picchu...to name just a few. The largest collective expenses are easily food and drinks, accommodations, and transportation expenditures. Costs vary by country so expect some to be relatively inexpensive and others much higher. Many skip Belize because of the higher cost, we think that is a mistake. Several travelers, such as ourselves, provide expense information on their websites.

If you can swing it, a slush amount per month could help absorb any unintended expenses. Most of us like to pick up a handmade item from time to time, or replace something that was "misplaced". Building in $100 per month, $1200 per year, can really enhance the overall experience. Birthdays, holidays, and random overlander celebrations happen, which can unexpectedly hammer a monthly budget. Having a little cushion is never a bad idea. Also, don't forget shipping home, yourself and/or your vehicle...rejoining regular society will be hard enough.

the amount of money allocated for the trip is probably the largest influence over the trip itself

Besides normally incurred expenditures, a consideration should be made regarding foreign transaction fees. There are credit cards that offer cash back incentives that are higher than the percentage charged for international purchases, thus providing a positive offset. The most popular is Capital One, so check what's in your wallet ; ). Realistically, most transactions are in cash so ATM fees are a bigger concern. There are banks that reimburse all ATM fees, foreign and domestic, opening an account with one of them can take well over 30 days so plan accordingly. Charles Schwab seems to be the bank of choice.

Identity theft does not stop at borders, in fact we've had accounts compromised and Mandi's identity stolen since being on the road. At this writing, a new bank card is in the mail and we are still awaiting our 2015 tax refund. We recommend keeping a small balance in the checking account being used for cash withdrawals, transferring money from a separate account located in another bank when needed adds a layer of protection. Using the banking apps on a smartphone to monitor activity is essential. Security freezes can be implemented annually with the three major credit bureaus directly, preventing any credit inquiries from occurring.

The flip side of budgeting is tracking expenditures. This can be as simple as a note on your phone, a spreadsheet, or using Trip Wallet or the like. Most travelers know their expenses, it's a frequent topic of discussion (so is fuel mileage). We prefer to track ours by a daily average per country and an overall per day average. While we all want to be carefree, we will all need to get home...some day.

Prepare

Before setting off on a multi-country trip, it's necessary to get all of the required immunizations. The main one usually discussed regarding the Pan-Am is Yellow Fever, which is required for certain countries in South America. After consulting with a travel physician, we also made sure we were current with Hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, and Typhoid. We skipped Rabies but if you will be volunteering with animals, it is highly recommended. Keep in mind Hep A and B are given over the course of 6 months, last minute is not an option.

Our travel physician also gave us prescriptions for a general antibiotic, Cipro, and some for pre and post altitude sickness. Due to existing allergies, she also recommended we carry an EpiPen. She covered a lot with us and was as excited as we were regarding our upcoming trip. Some health insurance policies cover the immunizations recommended by the CDC, worth checking in to.

one of the most beneficial things we did while preparing for our Pan-American trip was to start a list of the places we wanted to visit

Making recommendations for vehicle selection and outfitting is tricky, most overlanders vehemently defend their selected setup. The options vary widely from an SUV with roof top tent (RTT) to fully kitted out MANs. It is important to pick a vehicle that reflects your intended travel style and budget. We do suggest planning some extra money for the occasional hotel, sometimes a break is desired or necessary when ill. In the future, we might take a stab at putting something together regarding overland vehicle selection...for now we're choosing to just mention its importance.

Passport, driver license, title, and registration are the most commonly required documents, driving a vehicle adds an additional layer of complexity as it will need to be temporarily imported for each country visited. Having digital and physical copies of all of those along with your birth certificate, Social Security card, and marriage license or equivalent is a good idea. It wouldn't hurt to leave a set of copies with a family member either, just in case. If a four legged furry friend is accompanying you, make sure you have all of their necessary documents too. We don't have any experience in that regard but friends of ours taught the 'Traveling with Pets' class at Overland Expo 2015 and have detailed Central American border crossing information on their blog.

One of the most beneficial things we did while preparing for our Pan-American trip was to start a list of the places we wanted to visit. This enables us to expand it as we hear about new ones during our travels. There is no way we can visit every single attraction or city, but the working list helps us iron out the finer details of our route a few days in advance. We started with a simple document then switched to a note that is synced between our phones. Eventually we add our points of interest to maps.me for the country we will soon be entering, giving us a visual representation of where we expect to be.

Digitize

Most travelers rely heavily on their smartphones, rightly so. Mobile applications have enabled us to handle almost everything about our mobile lives. Banking, mapping, messaging...it's all available and fairly easy to use. While it is possible to only use free WiFi, many also purchase local sims for unlocked phones to ensure the greatest chance of connectivity.

The single most important app, to date, is iOverlander. Coupled with an open source mapping app, such as maps.me, routing is a breeze. We do have a stand alone Garmin, loaded with OpenStreetMap, but use a smartphone to double check and refine our driving routes. Most of the other notable apps are used for some form of communication like WhatsApp, which incurs no cellular data usage on some providers in certain countries. We included Allstays as it is helpful for locating campsites in the U.S.

 

While we wish everything was available via smartphone apps, that isn't so. There are some tried and true websites that are extremely useful, especially for border crossings. Also, user forums are the number one resource if you decide to build your own overland vehicle and for other obscure information. This is not an extensive list, nothing in this entry is, but a start for anyone embarking on any long term journey.

 

There are also a couple Facebook groups that bring us all together to help those before, during, and post trip. Sometimes members get a bit testy, downright grumpy, when questions are asked over and over again. Regardless, the two groups listed are full of great people who might save your ass one day.

 
Get Started

At times it will seem as there is too much to do and know. Starting small is the best advice we can give. Maybe print some things out and collect them in a folder, or get a notebook to organize all of your thoughts. Bookmark websites that contain key information. Binge on a few Pan-American blogs, finding those mentors we mentioned above. Once you gather some momentum things will begin to fall into place.

We barely scratched the surface but feel this entry is as long as anyone will actually read. In the future, we might create a few additional blog entries that provide much more expanded information. For now, know that we are excited for you and can't wait to relive our own journey through yours!


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Say what? (8)
Sep 19, 2016 at 10:33 AM
Thanks for this! Great info :)
Sep 19, 2016 at 10:56 AM
Thanks Ryan. We're currently house sitting, which provided us the time and WiFi to write this. If we receive a fair amount of interest we'll expand upon almost everything we've mentioned above.
Oct 25, 2016 at 01:13 PM
Just found your blog while reading "Song of the Road" and I'm glad I found it. Great information just on this page. I have been reading blogs for a while. I plan on doing the Pan-Am on my motorcycle in 2018 but have been trying to convince my wife to agree to do maybe 2 years later by truck/Camper. I have even started a blog (just preliminary design and pages) for our future trip :-) Here's the blog I would be using: http://2roamingvagabonds.com I'm now going to read your blog too. Thanks for putting all this together.
Oct 25, 2016 at 02:40 PM
Hey George, thanks! We'll be adding a few more Pan-Am Planning entries over the next couple of months. I'm apparently a rabid researcher so we figured we should toss what I can remember on our blog to hopefully assist others who are planning their own journey.

Driving the Pan-Am twice would be remarkable. Just show your wife some of the blogs, Song of the Road would be a great start. I've been romanticizing traveling around on a couple of motorcycles... especially after watching The Long Way Round about twenty times.

Definitely, let's keep in touch. There is a possibility we'll still be kicking around, probably in South America, in 2018.
Oct 25, 2016 at 02:51 PM
I think I'm going to start a page on my blog just for blogs I have read or currently reading with great info. Yours will definitely be included.
I have been dreaming about doing by motorcycle for a long time, have seen both Long Way Around and Down and have also read lots of motorcycle blogs.
I attended the latest Overland Expo in Asheville, NC with my wife a few weeks ago, I enjoyed it and I think she did too. Hope to meet you guys on the road one day.
Oct 25, 2016 at 03:03 PM
Awesome. We obviously think taking a long-term trip is definitely worth it. One of our regrets while traveling outside the US is missing Expo. Hopefully you got to meet Brenton & Shannon of http://www.ruinedadventures.com. They are dear friends of ours and some of the nicest people imaginable. They were one of our inspirations and mentors. If you didn't meet them, but get the chance, do it!

Likewise, we'll keep the fire burning for ya!
april
Nov 24, 2016 at 04:19 PM
Thanks, very helpful! My husband, myself, and our 6 year old will begin our journey in 2017. We just bought our overland vehicle to outfit to meet our needs. Super excited and nervous. April
Nov 25, 2016 at 09:04 AM
Your most welcome April! Congrats on starting the Pan-Am in the coming year. We were a mess during the last few months before setting off. Reaching out to other travelers helped us tremendously, especially during the epic freak out moments. Looking back it all seems ridiculous, but unfortunately, it's a phase most of us have to go through. We now refer to the trip planning and van buildout as the first third of our journey. It may not seem like it right now, but you've already started your trip even though you haven't left yet.

Please feel free to reach out anytime and, since we travel fairly slow, hopefully our paths will cross somewhere on the road.
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