The scenic Pan American Highway is the longest road in the world stretching around 15,000 miles from Alaska in North America all the way down to Argentina in South America.
Last year we finally ditched our comfortable lives in LA and set out on a journey of a lifetime to travel across the Pan American Highway for 15 months.
We learned so much along the way about things that can help you make this trip easy (and things that can go horribly wrong).
If you are thinking about driving the famous Pan American Highway, here are some tips and things that you should know before heading out on the Pan American road trip:
- Pan American Route & Map
- How Long Does It Take
- How Much Does It Cost
- Crossing The Darien Gap
- Best Vehicle For PanAmerican
- Do You Need A 4×4
- Highlights Of The Trip
- Pan American Dangers
- What To Bring
- Car Insurance
- Currency & Credit Cards
- Must Have Phone Apps
- Cell Service
- Traveling With Pets
- Other Tips
Pan American Route & Map
The Pan American route is a network of roads that start in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and from there travel south through both North America and South America until it’s ending point in Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s known as the longest road in the world because it connects two continents north to south.
The Pan American Highway is approximately 15,000 miles long and passes through 14 countries along the way.
In North America, the Pan American Highway passes
In South America, the Pan American Highway passes through: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
Although the actual Pan American route mapped out is around 15,000 miles long, nobody does the exact route without venturing into many detours and side roads. On average, most people end up driving around 30,000 miles during their Pan American road trip.
In fact, during our trip across the Americas, we spent very little time driving the actual Pan American Highway because most of the time we were crisscrossing into various attractions along the way. Some of those side destinations often include Belize in Central America and Bolivia in South America.
While some people try to start off their Pan American road trip in Alaska, it’s so remote and far out of the way that most people start their trip in Canada or the US.
When we set out to venture down the Pan American highway, we started off in California. We had already spent considerable time exploring Canada and US and we wanted to venture into some new countries starting with Mexico.
How Long Does It Take
A trip across the Pan American highway can really take as long as you have time (or money) for it. Most people that we met traveling along the Pan American highway do it anywhere from 9 months to 2 years. We ended up spending 15 months on the road traveling from California to Southern Argentina.
If you are short on time, it’s best to plan the route ahead of time and focus on seeing the main highlights. On the other hand, if you have all the time in the world, you’ll probably find yourself venturing into lesser known areas and go more “off the beaten path”.
We tried to take it slow and see everything under the sun during the first 9 months of our trip but traveling in this style started wearing on us after a while. We felt like we spent more time “living” in these countries and trying to stretch every last penny than seeing all of the best highlights and enjoying the destinations like we would have if we were on a vacation.
When we got to South America, we switched up our approach and only traveled to the main highlights. It worked better for us since we spent less time exhausting ourselves driving to random little towns and we spent more time exploring the top locations.
Again, this just depends on your travel style. We just wanted to see all the top highlights and sooner than later return back home to our old lives in the US.
How Much Does It Cost
The cost of driving the Pan American Highway is highly dependent on your comfort level while traveling. While we try to travel pretty cheaply, we always leave a little room and budget to splurge on things that we love (like cheese and wine).
On average we spend around $2000 in travel expenses per month between the both of us. The biggest expense for us is typically food followed closely by gas.
We cook most of the meals in our campervan and seldom splurge on restaurants but we also don’t eat ramen noodles like college kids. Eating healthy and yummy food to us is a priority but that often comes with a steep price.
Since we travel in a van we rarely pay for campsites or hotels, only on special occasions when we feel like taking a break from van life or when our families come to visit.
The biggest one-off expense of the Pan American highway for us was shipping our van across the Darien Gap which cost us $1100.
The most expensive single activity of this entire trip was visiting Machu Picchu in Peru. The cost to visit the Machu Picchu ruins is around $250 per person to cover a train ticket, a bus ticket and an entry ticket to get into the ruins. The good news is that we found a cheap workaround from a back entrance that can save you a lot of money. To read more on that check out our Machu Picchu Travel Guide here.
Crossing The Darien Gap
Although the Pan American highway is known as the longest road in the world, there is a section between Panama and Colombia that is not drivable. This section is called The Darien Gap.
For environmental and political reasons, visitors are not allowed to travel into this section. The only way to get your car across the Darien Gap is on a ship. This ship typically takes a few days to get your car across from Panama into Colombia (or vice versa) and costs anywhere from $1000 to a few thousand depending on your car size.
There are a few ways to ship a car across the Darien Gap: RORO (roll on/roll off), container and LOLO (lift on/lift off).
We chose to go with a container because it’s the most secured way to ship. We heard a lot of theft happens during the RORO shipping since you have to give your keys to the port staff and the cars are left unattended.
When you choose container shipping, you drive your own car into a container which gets sealed before getting loaded on a ship. You get to keep the keys and the car is completely locked up until you go to pick it up on the arriving side.
If you decide to ship in a container, first you will need to find a shipping partner to share a container with in order to split the cost in half. We used the Pan American Travelers Association Facebook group and the Container Buddies website to see if anyone was shipping at the same time as us. We ended up shipping in a 40 ft High Cube container with another car and paid around $1100 each.
Once you find a shipping partner you will need to arrange a shipping agent who will coordinate everything for you. We shipped our van from Panama City to Cartagena and the two main agents for this route are Boris Jaramillo and Tea Kalalback.
We had originally contacted Tea and everything seemed ready to go when last minute she emailed us saying that we did NOT have a spot on the ship and we ended up losing
We then contacted Boris with Ever Logistics and he was super helpful and got us a spot on the next outgoing boat a few days later. His contact email is email@example.com.
Passengers are not allowed on this ship so you will need to arrange a flight into Colombia and a hotel while your car ships across. Once your car arrives in Cartagena, you will need to go down to the dock in Cartagena and get it out. This requires 2 days of running around Cartagena to pay various fees and get paperwork signed.
You don’t need an agent on the Colombia side, just a lot of patience while you run around the city getting paperwork done.
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Best Vehicle For Pan American
During our trip along the Pan American Highway, we have met people traveling in all types of vehicles – small sedans, SUV’s, motorcycles, vans, trucks with pop up tents, huge motorhomes, bikes, Unimogs, old and new, you name it. There really is no best vehicle and it really just depends on your travel style and personal comfort level.
We had originally planned to do this trip in our Honda Element SUV. We even converted our Honda Element by adding a bed, solar shower, fan, and fridge. But after a trial month of traveling through the US and
Instead, we got a Promaster van and spent 3 months converting it into a campervan. It has made our traveling so much more comfortable and we rarely splurge on hostels or Airbnb’s, saving us a ton of money.
Having a midsize van on this trip also helps us stealth camp just about anywhere. It’s especially helpful in cities where the cops are a little stricter about camping on the streets. Most people just think we’re a working van.
Many people choose to go with smaller vehicles that may be more nimble or get better fuel mileage, but you’re likely to end up spending just as much in monthly expenses since you will need to pay for campsites, hostels, hotels, and Airbnb’s more often.
If you’re worried about having car issues and not finding parts, you might want to look for cars that are sold throughout Latin America. These would include any car or SUV sold by Kia or Hyundai, Ford Explorer, Mercedes Sprinter, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Toyota 4Runner, or Jeep Wrangler.
There are many others sold in North America that are also sold in Latin America, like Toyota Land Cruiser, Ram Promaster (Fiat Ducato/Citroen Relay/Peugeot Boxer/Renault Master), Land Rover Discovery, and Mitsubishi Montero, to name a few, but all of these are sold in North America with gasoline engines whereas in Latin America they are only sold with diesel engines. If something goes wrong and you have to find parts for the engine/tranny of these cars, you’re probably going to have to ship the parts in from another country (speaking from our personal experience).
If you have a right-hand drive vehicle, note that you may have some difficulty traveling through Central America, especially in Costa Rica. It is illegal to drive RHD vehicles in Costa Rica so many people end up shipping their vans from Guatemala into Colombia, skipping most of Central America for this reason.
Do You Need A 4×4
A lot of people think that you need a 4×4 to do this trip. Although there are roads along the Pan American highway where having a 4×4 is helpful, it is not a necessity.
Our Promaster van is a front wheel drive. We have driven across some of the most rugged roads in Guatemala and through the sketchiest mountain passes in Peru with no issues.
We did get stuck in a swamp once and had to get pulled out…but that was 100% our own fault.
Instead, what’s really essential in choosing the right vehicle for the Pan American Highway is getting one that has high clearance, weighs as little as possible, has a good set of all-terrain tires, and isn’t oversized. This combination will get you to 90-95% of the places you want to go.
We’ve seen some really cool 4×4’s that can’t go off the paved roads because they’re so overloaded and top-heavy. We’ve also seen many Unimogs that can’t go off the main highways because they don’t fit in any of the side roads or campgrounds, so having a 4×4 doesn’t always help.
Highlights Of The Trip
Personally, we find it almost impossible to provide one single
We started our trip in Mexico and our plan was to spend 2 months there, at the most. After realizing how much cool stuff there is to see and do, we threw that plan out the window and we ended up spending 5 month traveling through all of Mexico.
We swam in turquoise waterfalls in La Huasteca Potosina, snorkeled in underground cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula and drove through remote mountain roads to get to some unreal hillside thermal pools, all for only a few bucks each at the most. Thinking of countries that left a lasting impression on us, Mexico is definitely on top of that list.
After leaving Mexico we ventured into Belize that offers some of the best snorkeling in the world. Although Belize technically is not part of the Pan American Highway, we just had to visit it.
Our main mission in Belize was to find the top snorkeling sites. While Caye Caulker is the “go to” fun party island that offers tours to some really amazing snorkeling sites (and unlimited rum after), our personal favorite was Silk Caye, a tiny island off the southern coast in Belize. Here we swam with sharks, eagle rays, octopus and other incredible sea creatures for half the price and half the crowds.
We continued along into Guatemala, one of Joel’s favorite locations. Guatemala is one of the least developed countries in Central America which means rugged jungle adventures, erupting volcanoes, remote pyramids along with some of the friendliest people we’ve met on this journey. Guatemala is also known for beautiful markets filled with colorful textiles. We have 5 blankets to prove it.
Another one of our favorites was Costa Rica. Costa Rica is known for its beaches, surfing and some unreal wildlife that looks like a scene from The Jungle Book come alive. While we certainly enjoyed searching for waterfalls in the jungle, our favorite part was seeing all the monkeys, sloths and macaw birds along the trails.
Overall we loved Central America, but at the same time, the heat and humidity
After crossing into South America, we didn’t really know what to expect of Colombia (it probably didn’t help that we just finished watching Narcos).
Colombia turned out to be one of the most diverse South America destinations with colorful colonial towns, lots of history, culture, amazing coffee,
One of my personal favorites of our time in South America was Peru (okay, so maybe I DO have a favorite after all). Besides visiting the world-famous Machu Picchu ruins, Peru is home to one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, incredible mountain hikes and a cool oasis city Huacachina hidden between giant sand dunes in the Peruvian desert.
And last (but not least) there is Patagonia, the most southern region of the continent. Known for turquoise blue lakes, unique caves and endless glaciers I couldn’t think of a better way to finish up a trip through
We could really go on forever sharing all about of our favorite Pan American destinations, but if you want to read more about our trip highlights, check out our Destinations page here.
Pan American Dangers
This is one of the topics that we get asked about the most and something that our friends and family were really concerned about when we started the trip.
And I’m not gonna lie… we were pretty nervous too.
While I can’t speak for everyone because sometimes just unfortunate things happen, during our 15 months of traveling the Pan American highway we had no major issues and we felt relatively safe.
One of the worst things that happened to us was getting my backpack stolen in Colombia at a Starbucks (from all places) while I was working on my laptop and not paying attention.
There are some areas, however, that are known to be more prone to crime along the Pan American highway and travelers should use more caution while driving through:
- Chiapas, Mexico. We always hear about the crime issues in Mexico due to the drug cartels, but neither we nor any of the hundreds of people we know that went through Mexico ever encountered an issue with cartel violence. Instead, it’s Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, where people have the most issues. This region has long been anti-government, anti-establishment, very poor, and many of the villages thrive on violently extorting money from anybody that passes through. We were held up by angry mobs demanding money for driving on the roads and asked for a “security payment” by an armed “neighborhood watch”. Our friends had their tires slashed and chased by locals demanding money at the threat of violence, and another overlander was attacked with wooden boards with nails. And the saddest of all, two European bikers were found dead and with their belongings missing while passing through this region. The cops and military don’t really go into this area so it’s sort of the Wild West down there.
- Peru Coast. We heard there are a lot of car break-ins, armed robberies, and well-organized scams along the Peruvian coast. It’s also one of the poorest areas that we saw along this trip so people are a bit more desperate. While traveling along the Peruvian coast we watched for any warnings left on the iOverlander app and we never left the van completely unattended. We personally had no issues but unfortunately, our friends were not so lucky and had a break in into their van and had all of their electronics stolen.
- Costa Rica. This one was really surprising since Costa Rica is basically the 51st state of the US these days, but Costa Rica is currently a hot spot for thieves and car break-ins. There are thousands of American tourists around every corner, and locals know that tourists carry nice, often expensive things in their cars as they move around the country. Many of the people we know had their cars broken into in Costa Rica, but they weren’t always necessarily only after nice things – our friend’s well-used swimming shorts were stolen right off his side mirror as he made dinner just a few feet away.
- Northern South America. From Colombia through the northern metros of Argentina and Chile, pickpocketing and petty theft
isvery common in cities. This is why you’ll see many people walking with their backpacks worn on their chest, and sitting at coffee shops with their bags held under their arms. While traveling in this area, just try not to walk on empty streets at night and never put anything into pockets that can’t be zipped or closed somehow. Since we spent very little time in the cities of South America and opted instead for the mountains and more remote areas, we mostly avoided these issues.
What To Bring
Most people that start the Pan American road trip will pack their cars to the max with emergency and “just in case” items but in reality you don’t need that much.
Personally, we don’t have a whole lot of stuff
Along with everyday necessities like clothing and kitchen utensils, here are some things that you should bring along on the Pan American road trip:
- Two water tanks. We keep one water tank for filtered drinking water and one for everything else like doing dishes and brushing our teeth that we fill up at gas stations. You could use filtered water for everything but it would be quite costly.
- One spare tire. We actually didn’t even use our spare tire once during our 15 months of driving down the PanAm road so you don’t need more than one.
- Basic tools. Flat/Phillips screwdrivers, an adjustable wrench, duct tape, flashlight, and pliers – the bare minimum in case you break down in the middle of nowhere. Otherwise, mechanics are everywhere and other overlanders usually carry a ton of tools in case you need to borrow one.
- Fire extinguisher. If you have a stove in your vehicle, you’ll be cooking in small quarters or outside and things can easily tip over and catch on fire. Our friends’ stove actually caught on fire but they were able to safely toss it out and put the fire out before it did any damage. Better to be prepared and keep a small fire extinguisher at hands reach.
- Tow strap. In case you push the limits of your car like we constantly do and need someone to pull you out. They’re super cheap and don’t take up much room.
- Headlamp. 95% of the time, we’re sleeping in places that don’t have much light. Look for one that is dimmable and preferably one that has a red light setting, which helps keep your night vision and doesn’t travel as far so you can be more incognito.
There are a few countries along the PanAm highway that require vehicle insurance for international drivers.
In North America the countries requiring car insurance are: Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama.
In South America the countries requiring car insurance are: Colombia, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
In Mexico and Chile we purchased our vehicle insurance online, but most of the time you can purchase the car insurance right at the border. Peru was the only country where we had to cross the border and drive into the next town to purchase it.
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Currency & Credit Cards
Most of the small businesses in Central and South America operate on a cash basis so for this trip, it’s very important to have a good debit card that won’t charge you crazy ATM fees. We love the Schwab Debit Card because it is free, charges no overseas withdrawal fees, and refunds any ATM fees that we were charged by other banks at the end of the month.
The Schwab Debit card comes with the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account – you can read more about it on the Schwab website.
At some ATM’s we have been charged up to a $10 fee to take out money in a single transaction. Getting this money back at the end of the month has been pretty sweet.
For this trip, you will also need a VISA credit card. Most businesses in Central & South America only accept VISA or Mastercard, but some countries like Peru only accept VISA (when they accept credit cards at all).
Must Have Phone Apps
We really couldn’t have done this trip without our favorite phone app iOverlander. For us, this app was a total life saver.
The iOverlander app was created by other Pan American overlanders as a place to note all the best campsites, attractions, gas stations, laundry spots, and other useful places while traveling. Over the years it has grown extremely popular and is based solely on reviews left by other travelers.
There are also a couple of map apps that can make life on the road so much easier. Google Maps is great because the roads are pretty up-to-date, it gives you accurate driving time estimates, and you can download the map sections ahead of time to use when you’re offline. We also like using Maps.
We also recently found out about the app WiFi Map. WiFi Map lists tons of open WiFi networks in the surrounding areas and for someone like me who works a lot online, this app is super helpful.
A few years ago I signed up for Google’s Project Fi cell phone service and it has been a total game changer for traveling. Instead of purchasing local cell phone chips in each new country, Google Fi automatically connects your cell phone to the local cell providers so you never lose reception while traveling, all at full LTE when available.
We pay around $80 per month for Google Fi service that includes “unlimited” data up to 15 GB for the two of us. The data is still unlimited after 15 GB but it’s much slower.
We use just about all of 15 GB of available data every month. But we also work online, stream shows and slightly obsess over Instagram so most people tend to use a lot less than that. It actually says on their website that less than 1% of users use all 15 GB of the available data so THAT makes me sort of question my life choices.
Traveling With Pets
If you have a pet, you may be wondering if it’s possible to do this trip with your furry little friend.
During our trip along the Pan American highway, we brought along our indoors cat Minka. We made some special arrangements for her in the van but overall we found that traveling with a pet through Central and South America is very easy.
It took her a couple of months to get used to being in new environments every day but now she absolutely loves it. As soon as we stop she hops out of the van, runs around a bit, eats some grass, looks at the farm animals from the distance but mostly just naps. She has traveled through 15 countries in our van and every new place is like a new adventure for her.
Many of the people we’ve met during our Pan American road trip travel with pets – mostly dogs, some cats, and even a couple of guinea pigs – and everyone manages just fine. There are some restrictions on dogs in many of the national parks of South America so it does limit you a tiny bit, but overall it’s not that difficult.
While most countries don’t really care that we have a cat at the border crossings, some countries are tougher than others. The hardest countries for crossing with pets are Belize, Panama, Colombia and Chile, where they want some kind of paperwork to be done before entering and/or charge a fee for entering with a pet.
Before crossing any borders check iOverlander for any requirements. All of the information in iOverlander gets constantly updated by other travelers so this has been our best resource for border crossings with pets.
I also joined a Facebook group called Animal Travelers specifically created for people that travel with pets. It’s a great place to ask questions about traveling with pets especially for flying and specific border crossings.
Here’s a few tips that we learned (sometimes the hard way) that can really help make life easier on this trip:
- Make copies of car registration, passports, driver license, and any other important documents and keep them tucked away somewhere safe. Also, make sure to scan and keep a backup online like on Google Drive.
- Apply for an extra license before leaving. This was a big one for us that we easily overlooked. After my wallet was stolen in Colombia and Joel lost his wallet in Ecuador, we were stuck without driver’s licenses which we needed to drive, pay for groceries and cross borders. We didn’t have any extras so we ended up making laminated copies out of the scans that we had backed up. Thankfully they’ve worked so far at every border and checkpoints!
- Join the Pan American Travelers Association Facebook Group. This is a public group with 20K+ members that are traveling the Pan American highway, have done it in the past, or plan to do it. If we have any concerns or questions that we can’t find answers to anywhere else, a lot of times we find them by searching this group or by posting a question in it.
The idea of traveling in a car through 14+ foreign countries can seem pretty intimidating (at least it did for us), but during our trip, we met so many amazing travelers and overlanders who helped us out with questions and tips along the way.
We hope this guide can do the same for you but if we didn’t cover something fully or if you still have any questions on traveling the Pan American highway, don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments below!
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