Everyone will have their own opinions about the best places for a road trip in Latin America. Here’s some personal suggestions of mine, and some tips about organizing it all. Plus some suggestions of places you definately don’t want to take a road trip, advice on fiding the best car hire deals, and tips if you’re planning a trip of the whole region…
So, where’s best for a Latin American road trip?
1. Pan American Highway through Central America
My understanding is that it’s pretty easy to purchase a car in Southern USA (say Arizona), drive it to Panama City and sell it there. Without doubt this has to be the most popular road trip route in the region. I’d allow a bare minimum of 3 months for this trip - though 6 months would be more satisfying as you travel through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
Why Panama? Partly because my recent road trip around Panama was so great. Panama is a great place for a road trip for various reasons: the roads are generally high quality (by Latin American standards); everything is well signposted; driving standards are some of the best in Latin America; the roads aren’t busy and chaotic like other places; and there’s a hell of a range of natural attractions that Panama has to offer. It’s just all very easy, and therefore peaceful, and enjoyable - a great, and very safe, place to go exploring. The same could be said for neighbouring Costa Rica.
3. North and East Brazil’s Coastline
This is a road trip for beach-lovers like myself - if you look at a map of Brazil, you’ll see that there’s coastal roads running for thousands of miles all along the coastline from Sao Luiz in the North to Rio de Janeiro in the South. The entire coast is scattered with fine beaches in addition to a host of other natural and cultural attractions. I spent a month last year on this route, visiting about a dozen places between Jericoacoara and Salvador - and wish I’d had more time to keep on exploring. It’s a great road trip, but with some long driving distances.
4. Northern Argentina
North Argentina has some spectacular scenery, great roads and plenty of places to visit all within short travel distances. You could easily spend a few weeks exploring all the scenic highland villages and towns around Salta, before travelling a little South to spend a similar amount of time in the wine growing region around Mendoza. When I was in Salta last year, I just wished I’d had more time plus a hire car to go exploring. It’s a beautiful and interesting place region of Argentina that’s just made for an exploratory road trip.
5. Any suggestions for no.5?
Leave a comment if so.
I’ve also heard good things about the Carretera Austral in Southern Chile - a pretty remote road trip past glaciers and through forests and fjords that involves catching regular ferry rides. Or how about a trip up the West coast of Mexico with all those amazing surfing beaches? Or perhaps what is known as the “Ruta del Che”, which follows in the final footsteps of revolutionary Che Guevara from Santa Cruz to Vallegrande in Bolivia. Remember that the most South American road tripper was Che Guevara - check out the book the Motorcycle Diaries for some inspirational tales of his early trips around Argentina, Chile (and Bolivia if I remember right).
Where not to take a road trip
Colombia is a bloody nightmare - mainly because the drivers are truely awful - it’s just a really unrelaxing country to drive about. Once I saw three accidents in just one day in Colombia. Colombians are great people, but put them behind a wheel and they all become lunatics. Plus you’ve got to worry about safety issues (though this is an increasingly less of a problem in the country) and where is safe to visit.
Cuba is a place where a lot of people fancy taking a road trip. There’s this glamourous image of cruising about in old 1950’s hire cars, but the reality is that the signposting is awful, and good luck finding any decent maps. You will almost certainly regularly get lost, but probably have a great experience if you don’t really care about all the difficulties and complications of taking a road trip in Cuba.
Practical advice about car hire
Picking up a hire car in one place, and returning it in a different place is, from my experience, very expensive in South America. It’s much cheaper to return the car hire to the same place - why I don’t know.
If you’re looking for car hire, one company I find very good value is called Localiza - they do car hire just in South America, but have offices all over the places and are normally better value than the more global companies such as Avis and Hertz.
If you are travelling at a time that is not high season, don’t bother booking a hire car in advance. Every time that I’ve pre-booked a hire car in Latin America, I’ve gone to pick up the car and the company has created some reason for them not honouring the quoted price. I always end up pissed off and shopping around once I arrive. Save yourself the hassle and just sort it out when you arrive at the airport - you’ll find all sorts of companies that you’ve never heard of that are far cheaper than the global brands, and be sure to check local travel agents (many are found in airports) as they often have the cheapest deals.
How to road trip the whole of Latin America
A remarkable number of people spend anything upwards of a year travelling around all of Latin America. If you’re planning such a trip, there’s essentially only one way of doing it - start in Mexico, drive South to Panama City. From there, head to Colon, on Panama’s Caribbean coast, and put your car on a boat to Cartagena in Colombia (there’s no road connecting Panama with South America, so you’ll have to put the vehicle on a boat).
From Colombia, head down the West coast through Ecuador, Peru, maybe Bolivia to Chile. Keep heading down the coastline of Chile, then at some point you’ll need to cross the Andes into Argentina (there’s lots of crossing points). From Argentina it’s simple to drive to Brazil, and head North up the coast in Brazil, ultimately reaching Belem, which is at the mouth of the Amazon river. From Belem you’ll need to put your vehicle on a river boat and travel with it for about 10 days upstream to Manaus. Here the road starts again (note - there’s currently no roads connecting Manaus with the rest of Brazil - ignore the out of date maps that suggest there are) and driving North into Venezuela isn’t difficult. You can then cross back into Colombia, and figure out what the hell to do with your vehicle (probably ship it back to wherever you came from).
Rather than looping anti-clockwise around South America as described, you could do it in reverse order - take into account the climate and the avoidance of winter in Argentina and Chile, and the rainy season in Peru if possible.