California to Santiago, Chile by car? Uh, nope?
June 14, 2016 3:11 PM   Subscribe

A family friends daughter & brand new husband (in their early twenties) are planning on driving down from Cali to Santiago, Chile. Yes, for serious. in one of those hippie WV vans. I'm worried they'll be kidnapped or something! Looking for some stories/info/advice to hopefully make them rethink how they might do this trip.

I don't know much about this, besides their mom being really concerned, the dad thinks its awesome (they are divorced) and the young couple is hella bent on going. I was wondering if you guys had any more insight, maybe anecdotes or something in regard to this - both pros and cons. I've known the daughter since she was a little tiny thing, but haven't been much in touch for quite a few years now, but hearing of the trip got me pretty concerned. I hate getting involved in other peoples stuff, especially the kind that really has nothing to do with me, but this seems like a pretty hare brained venture to be frank. Was thinking of shooting off a fb message telling them to fly.

Reasons why not to go by car that I've come up with so far: its gonna be expensive as hell, dangerous and a reaally long ride (I really dont think they understand at all what the scale of this trip car maintenance?) I don't think either of them speak much Spanish or Portuguese, and the guy hasn't travelled too much outside of the U.S.

Am i overreacting? Should I stay out of it? What can I tell them??
posted by speakeasy to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Stay out of it. You have no role in this.

You are over-reacting. It's also not that remarkable of a trip. I know a bunch of people who've done it — some on bicycles.

If you want to feel better: Give them money. Give them the South American Handbook. Give them little travel things that would be nice to have (reading light, extra batteries, warm socks, rain ponchos, etc.).
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:20 PM on June 14, 2016 [17 favorites]

I dunno, I think you're overreacting? I met multiple people doing this when I was traveling in South America. Yeah, it's a long and crazy road trip but that's kind of the point, right?
posted by geegollygosh at 3:22 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Of course it'll be a long expensive trip - but the driving IS THE TRIP. Proposing flying is utterly missing the point. You may as well ask why they don't just stay home and watch TV!

People take trips like this all the time, not because it never occurred to them to fly, but because it's fun.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:25 PM on June 14, 2016 [14 favorites]

You can tell them about the Darien Gap so they can plan ahead for a ferry trip. It is actually impossible to do the drive without getting on a boat.

Otherwise, you ought to stay out of it. Lots of people say they're going to do trips like this. Fewer attempt, and fewer still finish. But it happens. And it's not necessarily dangerous, but yeah, its expensive. There were a couple kids who did that trip on Mopeds years back and documented the whole thing.

Also, "Hippy VW van" covers alot of models and in the world of Volkswagen vans. Regardless of the model, you could do that trip in far worse vehicles in Latin America; most VW models are pretty pervasive, and folks know how to work on them down there. Lots of spares available, lots of knowledge if you don't know what you're doing (which, they should if they're attempting a trip like this, but again, that's not your business).
posted by furnace.heart at 3:25 PM on June 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

They'll figure out whether it's a bad idea for them before they hit anything remotely dangerous.
posted by supercres at 3:26 PM on June 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

Ah. Here it is. Looks like most of their documentation of the trip is hard to find. But they did it, and lived to tell the tale.

Again, this is a relatively common type of trip.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:33 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you really want to do something, you could put together a "Because Aunt Speakeasy Worries" list of emergency contact numbers, location of U.S. consulate centers in the countries they'll be travelling through, etc., then wish them a great trip.
posted by northernish at 3:39 PM on June 14, 2016 [11 favorites]

Let's put it this way. How would you feel about someone you haven't spoken to in years getting in touch to scold you about your vacation plans? You probably wouldn't react very well now, much less when you were in your 20s, and it's hard to believe the person would be able to have much impact on you. If this woman isn't listening to her mother, why in the world would she listen to someone who is at this point essentially a stranger (even if you guys do have fond feelings for one another)? Agreed with those above who say this is not an uncommon trip -- I have friends who have done a similar one on bike, and yeah, it was long and challenging at times, but that was kinda the point?
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:49 PM on June 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

You should get them a copy of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' "The Idiots Abroad," and wish them well. It sounds like a terrific thing to do, and they should hurry up and do it now before they have stuff like careers, mortgages, young children, bodies ravaged by old age, et cetera. Send them a gift card to a travel outfitters' shop or just LL Bean or some such.

If something terrible happens, do you want to sit around and say "Good thing I had an argument with them before they left, then!!" (as you are not going to put them off the idea; there's just no chance in hell)...?
posted by kmennie at 3:54 PM on June 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

A few years ago I went to a slideshow and talk by a couple in their early 20s who had just biked from Sao Paolo Brazil to Petaluma California. They said Mexico was a little sketch, and the U.S. was a little sketch, but in South America they always felt safe and welcomed, especially in the poorer parts.

Driving sounds like a kickass fun experience. Might be a little different because by dint of owning a car they're instantly in a different social class, but generally people are super cool, and love adventurers.
posted by straw at 4:08 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

My grandmom called me last year to tell me my 20 year old cousin was (gasp) going to bicycle across the USA, through the Rockies. Alone. In the fall. This was unacceptable! She spent the whole summer concerned about his plans. Nevermind that I had biked across a 120F desert in July when I was 20 and lived to tell the tale.

I dusted off the ole' Facebook password, reached out to my cousin, and told him to let me know if he had any questions. A couple months later, he let me know that he would be starting his tour in my city, and could he ship his bike out to my place and stay with me for a few days? We spend a week running around getting him set up. Bear safety, sleeping pad, bike bags, p38, and so on.

That week was so much fun for us. Even if I had told him not to do it, he still would have have had his amazing coming-of-age adventure, but he wouldn't have been as well-prepared. We worried about him, but he was not to be stopped and we knew better than to try.
posted by aniola at 4:25 PM on June 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Pretty sure they won't "be kidnapped or something" (seriously it's not likely to happen and they won't listen to you on this unless you're a global security expert or something, and because this is your primary concern I'm going to assume you're not).

However, do they know about the Darien Gap, which divides Central and South America? There are no roads between Panama and Colombia. While it's possible to use a container ship to transport a vehicle across the gap, it's not cheap or intuitive to do. The Darien Gap is the real reason this is not actually a thing for any but the most intrepid travelers.

However, if they have the money and planning skills (including language) to arrange shipment of their vehicle (or some other plan to get around the gap), sure, why not?

This is a perfectly reasonable trip to take in terms of safety. It's not Disneyland or even Paris, but they're not going to die. They will probably get dysentery, experience car trouble, fight constantly, find themselves in a few sketchy situations, and spend more money than they thought they would. But, again, they're not going to die.
posted by Sara C. at 4:30 PM on June 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

They'll probably be fine. The language thing is. . .not great, but hopefully they are quick to pick it up and will practice a bunch before they leave. The biggest thing it that it will be *way* more expensive than they think (gas gets pretty expensive in some places! Like $6-8 a gallon).

Also, they'll need to pay for a vehicle visa and usually an inspection / fumigation (so bugs don't cross borders and infest other countries) at each border, which is not cheap.

The Darien Gap is not going to be cheap for them either. Here's a link to what they'll have to do. If they can't find another car to ship with them, they'll have to pay for the whole container, around $1400. This is why a lot of people do this trip on motorcycles -- it's way easier to get a bike across than a van.

Having been a part of a two bus caravan from California to Guatemala, and having traveled extensively in Central and South America on my own, I can tell you they are probably safer than you think. But you won't be able to talk them out of it anyway. It will be a good learning experience for them.
posted by ananci at 4:49 PM on June 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Plenty of people live in Mexico. You hear about all the crime, but not about the millions of people who live there just as you live. They go to work, go to school, hang out with friends. It's not a constant gun fight. The trip will likely be more expensive than they think, but then many trips are. Border crossings are going to be a huge pain in the butt, but again it's doable.

Also, if you plan to contact them then you should consider adjusting your tone. Do you really believe that they haven't looked at a map? They don't know how long the trip is? Are you suggesting that they don't know that planes fly to Santiago? You may have known her since she was a child, but she is not a child any longer.

If you want to say anything to them, then encourage them to learn Spanish before they leave on the trip.
posted by 26.2 at 5:01 PM on June 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well, if you want anecdotes: my sister and brother-in-law just did this. It took about 2.5 years (you can go faster or slower; that was their pace) and they loved it so much they plan to spend most of the rest of their life in overlanding travel situations. Some people love this. Some people don't. They actually never had a single problem beyond routine mechanical issues and boring, tedious but totally doable paperwork/visa/permit-type stuff.

If you want to search for more info about this: "overlanding" is the term, and there's an enormous world-wide community of overlanders.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:13 PM on June 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

An acquaintance of mine did something similar with his wife (lack of working languages and shipping their car and all) - his blog is here. I talked to him after part of the trip and it sounded, frankly, amazing.

Other people have some good advice of things to say when/if you reach out to them. However, reaching out only to list all the bad things that could happen to them, or how you think it's a bad idea, isn't going to work the way you want it to. Ask me how I know.
posted by Paper rabies at 7:13 PM on June 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

tbh the main thing i would usually worry about is FARC in rural northern colombia and iirc even they're out of the terror business these days. i imagine they will give up/run into insurmountable mechanical trouble way before the gap anyway.

really though it's none of your business what they do and you should probably accept that, i think. you don't seem like you have a lot of (or any?) personal experience with travel in central or south america so idk why you think they'd find any demonstrable value in a generalized "omg don't do this, it sounds scary!" warning from someone who, as you've noted, they haven't spoken to in decades.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:36 PM on June 14, 2016

The US State Dept. issues travel advisories. They are experts at this,so read up and maybe send any useful information.
posted by theora55 at 7:45 PM on June 14, 2016

If I was planning a trip like this and a family-friend sent me a message warning me away from it, there is a very good chance I would spend the entire trip laughing and joking with my beloved companion about what a square said family-friend was. It would likely become an in-joke between us, and when we saw that family-friend in the future, we would shoot secret glances at each other each time that family-friend expressed an anxiety aloud.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:16 PM on June 14, 2016

I was initially thinking this question would be about the logistical concern with the Darien gap, but yeah your concerns about their safety are probably pretty overblown, and in any case this isn't your fight to fight. If it makes you feel any better, I spent 2 years in Chile and never felt particularly unsafe. As long as they make the right preparations and don't do anything monumentally stupid, they should be fine.
posted by Aleyn at 9:43 PM on June 14, 2016

I have no personal knowledge of this, but I've watched various episodes of the YouTube channel Kombi Life, wherein a UK surfer dude tries to do the opposite of this (from Chile to Alaska) in a VW van, and though it's a bit bro-dudey in places, it should give you a good idea of what they're in for, including larges swathes of Mexico, the aforementioned Darien Gap, and some interesting side trips in Guatemala.
posted by eclectist at 9:02 AM on June 15, 2016

I wouldn't do it in an old VW bus that's for sure. I owned a couple of them back in the late sixties and early seventies and they were the most unreliable cars I've ever owned. I'd maybe do it in a much newer one but would prefer something like what I drive now, a 2002 Toyota minivan.
posted by mareli at 10:43 AM on June 15, 2016

Oh, and if they're determined to do VW bus be sure to get them this book.
posted by mareli at 10:44 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Uuf..ok. feel better.
Have travelled in Chile (SO is from there), and have a few friends from the Americas (Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil) and a couple of them were a little unsure about the trip, but if this is the general consensus over here i'll stay out of it (promise), and see about rustling up a little travel gift.
Thanks guys!
posted by speakeasy at 1:27 AM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

One thing that is worth noting is that in a lot of cases, people who are from a place will overstate the dangers of that place when it comes to overseas (and especially American/Western) travelers.

When I was in India I had a fantastic time visiting friends and friends of friends during my travels. But almost every time, they would insist that the places I wanted to go were dangerous, my means of travel was dangerous, it was dangerous for me to be on my own in other cities, etc. It got to be where all I would see while staying with local friends was malls, clubs, local theatre productions, and the like. Which isn't a knock on my friends (they wanted to show me a good time!), but it can be hard to be an adventurous traveler and also take the advice of people who have a totally different idea of what traveling should feel and look like. Even if they are from the place you're visiting.
posted by Sara C. at 9:35 AM on June 16, 2016

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