My Road Trip Through Central America

October 29, 2013

Throughout my backpacking trips in Asia and Latin America I have used all sorts of transportation, from buses and trains to tuk-tuks and air balloons (okay, just one air balloon) but what I hadn’t yet done was travel by car.

Until a couple of weeks ago that is, when I had the opportunity to join my friend Wout on a Central America road trip. Wout and his girlfriend Lucy had purchased a 1983 Subaru in Panama which they drove all the way to Honduras. They left it there for a while for repairs, but Wout and I were going to pick it up with the goal of driving it through Honduras, through Guatemala, and finally to Barra de Navidad in central Mexico (where Wout and Lucy had a temporary base). We were going to do all that in just a couple of weeks.

In hindsight, this plan was kind of insane. But we’ll get to that.

A fiesta in San Miguel Chicaj

Whenever I travelled by bus or train in the past, I often lamented being stuck with whatever places the buses go. It can sometimes feel like travelling through a prescribed ‘tunnel’ of convenient bus connections, not having much choice to go off the beaten track. This is why I was curious to find out what it’s like having your own transportation.

Sure enough, we went off the beaten track quite a bit. The roads in Honduras can be an unending carnival of potholes and barely visible speed bumps, so just navigating your way there can be a bit of an adventure. Locals would smile when they saw two gringos pass by in an old piece-of-shit car. It was great.

In Guatemala we drove to a small town called San Miguel Chicaj as we’d read there was a fiesta that week. We were the only tourists there and had a great time checking out the flea markets and fun fairs.

A lot of the roads in Guatemala are actually very good, and we made great progress towards our next destinations. Encouraged, we thought it would be a piece of cake getting from San Miguel Chicaj to the capital city. It was the main road to the capital after all, and on the map it looked like the same type of road we’d driven before.

Well, that supposedly swanky main road looked like this:

This particular section actually was pretty wide and straight, and not a big deal. A bit further on it was like we were seriously off-roading it, and I was relieved our car had a four wheel drive as without it we might not have made some of the steeper hills. Occasionally we were in a ‘who blinks first’ stand-off with a chicken bus, as the road was sometimes barely wide enough for two cars.

After 2 hours the road began to widen, and it became apparent that this hilarious dirt road was still in the process of being upgraded to an actual paved road. We spent the next 2 hours driving through construction sites.

All of this is good fun. On a road trip like this you get to see the countryside; you can stop wherever you want; you can put your own music on the stereo instead of hearing only the sound of that bad movie playing in the bus; and of course you get to be on an adventure together. (We also easily could have taken another 2 backpackers with us, if our backseat wasn’t full of boxes and spare parts.) I was almost ready to endorse this kind of travel wholeheartedly.

But then… things became a little painful.

Our car was not in the prime of its life and it was beginning to show. The oil gauge dropped unusually quickly, so we had to refill the oil all the time (not a good sign). We had to refill the brake fluid, and the fuel gauge seemed to be getting unreliable as well.

Then… the engine began regularly shutting off. While our goal was to only drive during the day for safety reasons, at one point in Guatemala we didn’t make it to our next town before dark. The engine shut off in the dark on a mountain (and not at the top so we couldn’t just glide down), which was super stressful. Fortunately with the help of some friendly Guatemalans, we got it running again.

It was a harbinger of what was to come. For the next few days we constantly had ignition issues. When we finally got to Mexico, the ignition constantly failed which was extra terrible as we had to stop and start constantly in traffic jams in Tuxla.

Over the next few days, the car went from repairman to repairman. Every time it seemed to be finally fixed, but each time we celebrated too soon. I was seriously doubting the car would make it at all, but we were determined to get it to its destination (at this point, mainly so that my friends could just sell it there).

By the way, if you plan on driving through Central America, you should also know that borders can be more of a hassle, as you need separate permission to bring your car into the country. We had a bunch of bureaucratic issues with this a few times. One crossing took us 5 hours.

Next we had to get a tire changed. And then it felt like the brakes were getting less responsive (not good at all), which again we had to get fixed. We did get the ignition issue dealt with at last, so it seemed like we were finally good to go again. We joked that almost everything about the car had broken down at this point except for the gears.

When we got to Zihuatenejo in Mexico it all hit rock bottom. Just as we parked the car, we heard a horrible CRRRNNKKKKKK noise… and with that we’d lost… the gears. Miraculously it did break down at just the right time (in a town and not on a random road somewhere), but it was where things ended for our Subaru friend. Fixing the gearbox would be prohibitively expensive so Wout ultimately sold the car for scrap to this happy shirtless man. We did the last 6 hour lap by bus.

Wout negotiating the sale

In hindsight we probably should have dumped the car halfway through when our troubles became much worse, but when you’ve already come so far, you become pretty fixated on making it all the way. It would have been cool to have made it to Barra de Navidad, but we got close enough.

Making friends at a Taco stand in a small town along our route

In the end I’m very glad I went on this road trip and glad that Wout invited me along. Without it we would not have been to a random town in Mexico, playing pool in a dingy fluorescent-lit pool table joint alongside an off-duty mariachi band. We would not have been to small roadside villages where taco ladies treat you with wide-eyed amazement. There were constantly little moments along the way that made it totally worth it. If you are thinking of going on a Central America road trip, I can wholeheartedly recommend it… but maybe bring a better car than we did!

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3 comments

  1. Alexandra Reply January 18, 2017 at 4:20 am

    Ah I love this! I know this post is from years ago, but it’s so interesting to read stories of people traveling in Latin America by car. I just drove my car down to Southern Mexico and have always wanted to do the whole Pan American highway… or at least all of Central America. I’m still considering it but not so sure because although my car is in fine shape, it is pretty low to the ground and I don’t know if it can handle another six countries worth of topes and potholes! But I agree that the chance to stop in small towns that would be a pain to get to by bus has been such a different and exciting experience!

  2. Taylore Reply March 23, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    Hey,
    I am definitely thinking about making this trip from Texas to Panama over a 3 month time span.

    How many countries did you all visit and how long did it take?

    • Marek Reply March 28, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      Hey Taylore. We went from San Pedro Sula in Honduras to Guatemala and Mexico, ending near Puerto Vallarta where my friend was living at the time. I can’t remember the exact number of days but it was maybe around 10 days. We were moving quickly as we had to be at our end point by a specific date, after which I continued travelling around Central America using buses. It sounds like 3 months is perfect… I’d say you’ll be able to easily explore every country along the route fully.

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