Sometimes you just have to blindly say yes to things.
Even if you might end up doing something, well… totally pointless and stupid.
At least, that’s what I learned from my hellish road trip through Central America, which included some of my absolute worst days travelling.
Paradoxically, they were also some of my best.
Of all my travel experiences over the years, my Central America road trip is still one of my favorite to recount. And it all began so innocently…
I had never thought about traveling to Central America until I got a video call from my friend Wout.
I was in the UK for a couple of months at the time, taking a little break after 9 months of traveling Southeast Asia. My friend was in Mexico with his girlfriend at the time, housesitting for a few months after traveling from Peru all the way up.
After reminiscing about both our journeys, my friend made an excellent suggestion. “Dude, do you want to fly to Honduras and meet me there?”
He explained that he and his girlfriend had bought a car in Panama and had driven it to Honduras, where it had totally crapped out. While it was being repaired, they flew to the house-sit in central Mexico they’d already committed to. My friend was now looking for a buddy to help pick up the car and drive it all the way back to where they were staying, all the while his girlfriend looked after the house.
“It’ll be fun!” he said.
“It’s only 2,500km! And we’ll have like six days to do it, which is plenty.”
Eager to get back on the road, I agreed. I booked a flight to Honduras via Miami the next day.
A week or two later I arrived in the Honduran capital, San Pedro Sula, having done basically zero research on it at all. I later learned it was the city with the world’s highest murder rate apart from any active war zones.
Ignorance is bliss.
My hostel had arranged for a taxi to pick me up at the airport. I met my driver and found another person in the seat next to him. “Don’t mind him,” he said in Spanish. “He’s here for security.”
After a creepy drive through San Pedro Sula at night, I luckily got to a wonderful hostel where I could sleep well through my jetlag.
I met my friend at the bus station in San Pedro Sula the next day. We took a bus to a town called La Esperanza where the car — which my friend had purchased for $1000 from some random American traveller in Panama — was waiting for us.
And what a car it was.
Losing hope in La Esperanza
What I hadn’t anticipated was that we’d be doing this Central America road trip in a creakingly old 1983 Subaru. Not only was this thing thirty years old, it gave every impression of being about to fall apart in a final dying breath.
Amazingly, the Honduran mechanic had replaced the entire engine block with another one, at the cost of another $500 or so. The old faulty engine was still on the back seat, wrapped in black plastic. My friend was still hoping to sell it somewhere after the trip.
I told the mechanic we were planning to drive this thing all the way to Mexico. I asked if it would make it. The mechanic gave such a hesitant “… siiiii?’ that it inspired no confidence at all. Deep down, I knew this trip wasn’t going to be easy.
But… off we went.
The roads in Honduras were just an unending carnival of potholes and barely visible speed bumps (‘topos’ in Spanish). Every now and then one of us would scream “TOPO!!!” at the last minute as we still hit a bump at way too high speed. The car was janky AF, hard to shift gears in, and with an oil gauge that dropped suspiciously quickly. Rather than finding the root of the problem, we simply resorted to changing the oil every few hours.
And yet, I was loving it.
I mean, I was seriously concerned about our car, the roads, and basically everything, but at the same time I was having fun. Locals would smile or point when they saw two gringos pass by in a piece-of-shit disaster car. It felt like we were on a true adventure.
In Guatemala, we drove via a small town called San Miguel Chicaj where there happened to be a fiesta that week. We were the only tourists there — admiring the colorful costumes, the parades, and strolling the flea markets and funfairs. We stayed the night in Cobán, another town completely off the usual travel trail.
The roads in Guatemala were luckily much better than in Honduras, at least at first, and so we were making decent progress. Encouraged by the quality of the roads, we thought it would be just a piece of cake getting from San Miguel Chicaj to the capital city. After all, on the map it seemed to be the main artery leading to the capital. Road No. 5 was, we were pretty certain, a two-lane highway.
Well, it actually looked like this:
Believing these to merely temporary road works, we pushed on. But they were not. The entire road was still unfinished, requiring us to drive through endless dirt tracks and construction sites. I was relieved that our barely functioning car actually had a 4-wheel drive, which we had to keep engaged for the entire way. As there was only really one lane available, we were regularly forced into a big game of ‘who blinks first’ with a chicken bus or pickup truck.
What was supposed to take two hours or so took us a whole day. When we saw the twin volcanoes of Antigua on the horizon, we were elated, though arriving at our next stop completely exhausted.
Still: so far, so good.
Over the next few days, our car gradually lost its shit, with something else breaking nearly every day.
First, it was the oil gauge going haywire. We were possibly leaking motor oil. Not good, but we couldn’t get it fixed, so we simply bought more of the stuff at every gas station and topped it up. Our car gobbled up whole cans of the stuff.
Then we ran out of brake fluid. Why the hell was it suddenly out of brake fluid? Very not good.
Then the fuel gauge was acting all weird, nearly leaving us stranded without gas.
Slowly, this car was starting to feel like a real death trap.
Then… the engine began shutting off constantly. The ignition would constantly fail, so every time one of us had to jump out of the car and push. A few times the engine just shut off right in the middle of a junction, causing much stress and delay.
Finally… the engine shut off just as we were at the top of a mountain pass in Guatemala. Very very not good!
We really wanted to avoid driving at night for security reasons. But there we were — with a car that wouldn’t start, on top of a mountain, just as it was getting pitch dark and without any road lights. Luckily, we managed to flag down some truck drivers, who helped us push the car over the top of the incline. We then put it in free gear and drove with the engine off down the mountain through the dark, until we got to a small town where we could stay for the night.
Things just kept getting worse from there.
The ignition kept failing. One of the tires went out and had to be replaced.
It seemed like every part of this cursed car was falling apart.
As classic victims of the sunk cost fallacy, we kept trying to patch up these things every time anyway.
We met mechanic after mechanic, each time feeling like now we had it fixed, only to be disappointed again a few hours later. The bill for these repairs kept adding up. We now made progress at a snail’s pace, with central Mexico feeling dauntingly far away.
On the Guatemala-Mexico border, we were in for some more difficulties. It turned out the car’s paperwork wasn’t in proper order at all. We needed some document or other from the previous owner, an American who’d gone totally AWOL in Panama. We spent five excruciating hours at the border office trying to sort this whole thing out.
Since the border office was going to close, we were finally told we could enter Mexico. But… not without paying, as I recall, several hundred dollars for some carnet de passage. We’d also have to report at some other government office the next day and submit the missing documents. Until then, we were basically driving through Mexico with an illegal and unregistered car.
But since that dude in Panama was not responding to any messages, we just kept driving with a car that technically wasn’t supposed to be in Mexico. What could go wrong?
A few hours into Mexico, we were stopped by heavily armed police forces wearing rifles and bandanas. I was obviously worried they’d ask for our car’s documents, as we’d have some explaining to do. As soon as the officers got a look through the windows, they commanded us to get out of the car right away.
They immediately started searching the whole car, one officer finding a big bag containing green herbs and holding it up for the other to see. Then… they saw our backseat, which had this huge thing on it wrapped in black plastic tarp, pretty much 100% looking like a cadaver in a body bag. We looked suspicious AF.
We explained the cadaver was in fact just our spare engine (like you always take on a road trip, right?). The agents then went through every inch of our car, feeling their way behind door panels and looking under the trunk’s floorboard. The herbs were, in fact, my friend’s cooking herbs, which for some reason he bought in a very large quantity.
When the cops realized we weren’t driving a dead body around, they let us go. Luckily, they never checked our car’s papers.
So far, despite the difficulties, I was still more or less enjoying the adventure. Our near run-in with the cops made for a fun story at least. But all the car breakdowns, border issues, getting lost, and finding mechanics in some godforsaken town was really starting to wear me down. Things had been 10 times more stressful and tedious than I’d anticipated. To top it off, a huge hurricane had blown through a part of Mexico, damaging roads and bridges in our path, slowing us down further still.
Honestly, by this point, I was getting super cranky and frustrated. I just wasn’t going to drive anymore. We needed a break.
In the seaside town of Puerto Escondido, we booked ourselves a hostel with a swimming pool and had ourselves a rest.
We had a fair bit of debate over whether it was still worth trying to keep our piece of shit car alive. It would have to see another mechanic again in Puerto Escondido. And my friend was now something like $2000 in the hole with this thing and all its repairs and the border fees. I actively started to fantasize about just getting a bus to our end destination and dumping this thing.
But that seemed a little too easy. We really wanted to finish what we’d started, just so we could say we had. So we decided to continue the next 1200 km, after which Wout could look into selling the car from the comfort of his house-sit assignment.
We got back on the road and finally made some good progress. The car was seemingly in better form now than before. We drove past the city of Acapulco through desert landscapes and past the biggest wind farm I’ve ever seen in my life. We stayed the night in some resort town where only Mexicans stayed.
Finally, we made it to the seaside town of Zihuatanejo, still 6 hours from our final destination. I stopped the car in front of the hostel we’d booked, just one day’s drive from completing our journey. I tapped the car’s dashboard and thanked our clunker for having done so well that day. I joked that almost everything about the car had broken down at one point except for the gears.
And then — I shit you not — I shift the gear to put it in stationary and I hear a horrible CRRRNNKKKKKK noise… and with that we’d lost… the gears. The gearbox literally broke through the car’s rusty floor. I could see the street below us.
That was it. I was done with this cursed vehicle. Finally, we agreed we needed to ditch this thing, call it a road trip, and grab us some cold beers.
We were parked in a street near a shirtless man with a big belly who was sitting by the curb. “Hola, quiere comprar un carro?”, we inquired, not very seriously.
To my amazement, he was interested. So this random dude called in his mates and they all looked at what they could scavenge from it. There were some tools in the trunk they definitely wanted to be included. They’d give us $100 for the whole lot. We agreed.
And that’s how we dumped our totally illegal car in Mexico, where it was probably going to be stripped for metal.
Should we have gotten rid of that car way sooner, maybe somewhere in Guatemala? Definitely. Then again, we’d have missed out on an amazing adventure. As 100% frazzled as I was from the constant problem solving and car breakdowns and everything, it had secretly also been amazing.
We ended up in a lot of places few travellers ever go. Friendly locals were always there to help us get directions. We met some fun mechanics along the way, one of whom let us check out his sweet rifle. Things were frustrating a lot of the time, but it made the victories also feel all the sweeter.
By chance, we ended up at a fiesta in a town in Guatemala and an independence day celebration in Comitan in Mexico. In some random town, we played pool in a dingy fluorescent-lit pool table joint alongside an off-duty mariachi band. In some truck stop somewhere, we befriended a taco stand lady who was so surprised to see any gringos, then promptly tried to betroth me to her daughter.
Our journey had been completely pointless: we had lost so much money on the car, the repairs, and the papers at the border, before arriving at the house-sit in Mexico empty-handed.
We never got that clunker to Barra de Navidad, completing the last 6 hours of the journey in the blissful comfort of a bus.
But it had still been completely worth it. It didn’t matter or not if we achieved our goal, which was ultimately irrelevant. It had just been a perfect excuse for a hilarious road trip across Central America.
I was glad I had spontaneously agreed to do this trip — because if I’d known what car we’d be driving, I might not have done it.
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Thank you so much for sharing this hilarious story!! No doubt, a great adventure. My chin fell when i saw the road N5 😀
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!
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?
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.