2007 Mexico & Central America
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9,554 miles, 6 countries and 16 border crossings in 41 days.
by Bill Swails
The plan was to drive from EarthRoamer Headquarters in Broomfield, Colorado to Costa Rica and back in six weeks. On paper the plan looked crazy – and indeed it was! Our goal was to pack as much adventure, photography, and EarthRoamer Xpedition Vehicle testing into a 41 day time span as is humanly possible. We would drive long and hard on “drive” days so that we could cover a lot of distance, but still allow plenty of time for exploring, photography and adventure at key points along the way.
With a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short amount of time, we decided early on that Guatemala and Costa Rica would be the expedition focal points. We tried to keep the plan as flexible as possible, but several milestones had to be met. First, border crossing timing between the US and Mexico, and Mexico and Central America had to coincide with our insurance coverage periods. Second, we had to be at the Guatemala City International Airport by noon on April 21st to switch XV-JP drivers. Other than that, we were free to explore as we pleased.
After months of preparation, the expedition began on April 12th at EarthRoamer Headquarters in Colorado with me leading the way in a production EarthRoamer XV-LT and Eric Rexroth driving a prototype EarthRoamer XV-JP. After several long, grueling days of driving to and through Mexico, we finally slowed the pace a little and explored San Cristobal in Chiapas, Mexico before crossing the border into Guatemala.
|click to open a photo gallery of part 1|
The border crossing into Guatemala proved to be one of the easier border crossings of the trip with only minor paperwork difficulties. The driving that had seemed so crazy in Mexico was absolutely tame by Guatemalan standards. We quickly learned to kick our driving skills up a few more notches and actually learned to enjoy driving like Guatemalan chicken bus drivers. Visits to the incomparably scenic Lago de Atitlán, the Mayan market extravaganza Chichicastenango, and the amazing colonial town of Antigua marked the end of the first 10 days of our journey. After a small struggle to find the road out of Antigua (the third time was a charm) and a chaotic, police escorted drive through Guatemala City, we finally arrived at the airport for our driver exchange. Part 1 of the trip was complete and it was time for Eric to turn the steering wheel of the XV-JP over to Kyle.
|click to open a photo gallery of part 2|
After giving Kyle a few tips on Guatemalan driving techniques (drive offensively!) we were on our way. With three different maps showing three different approximations of the unsigned streets of Guatemala City, we did our typical big-city zigging, zagging, circling and backtracking and made our way in the generally correct direction out of the city. After a couple of hours we were again battling truck and chicken bus drivers on the major road that leads to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Part 2 of the trip was a study in contrasts with the temples of Tikal as the clear high point and a failed 1 ½ day ordeal trying to cross the border into Honduras at Puerto Cortes as the low point. After several days of hard driving and seemingly endless border bureaucracy, we arrived at San Jose International Airport with a couple of hours to spare.
|click to open a photo gallery of part 3|
We picked up Michele at the airport to begin a week of sightseeing and wildlife photography. It was finally time to slow the pace down and enjoy the sights, sounds and experiences of Costa Rica. The trip had been mostly one long adventure-drive up to this point, so a week of relaxing, exploring and experiencing the best of Costa Rica was much appreciated.
Heading north and slightly west, we drove an extremely foggy mountain road complete with water crossing to our first destination, Volcán Arenal. The volcano was cloud covered for most of our visit but we were lucky enough to get a few glimpses during the day and a couple of night shots of the glowing lava flows. One morning it became shockingly clear that this wasn’t a Universal Studios exhibit when we were jolted by the thunder-like crack of a loud eruption that was immediately followed the sound of avalanching boulders. We then headed for the Pacific and spent the next several days between Puntarenas and Manuel Antonio National Park exploring beaches and rain forests. Manuel Antonio National Park offered the best wildlife viewing and photography with monkeys literally within feet of us. One brave monkey came down and stole a banana from a lady’s lunch!
This leg of the trip began with a “maybe we need to build an ark” class downpour on the way to Las Pumas rescue shelter where we would photograph and observe Costa Rican wildlife up-close. Then it was back to border crossing bureaucracy and long, tiring drive days. With our considerably improved border crossing skills and relaxed approach, the trip north was relatively straightforward. We decided to spend the bulk of our remaining Central America days on the south shore of Lago de Atitlán exploring back roads and immersing ourselves in the local culture. The highlights of this trip segment included a spectacular drive along an amazingly scenic coastal road in El Salvador, sumptuous sampling of fresh seafood along the coast and meeting friendly Mayans. The low points were getting hassled again by Nicaraguan Federal Police and the threat of banditos at Lago de Atitlán.
The final leg of the expedition marked our return to Mexico and the long drive home. After a rough start complete with a harrowing hydroplaning incident in a torrential downpour at night, midnight harassment by Chiapas police, and a terrifying loss of steering control due to a broken aftermarket Jeep suspension component, we were more than ready for several days of rest and relaxation on the perfect beach. At Playa Zipolite, we quickly forgot about the hardships of the journey by generously indulging ourselves in ocean swims, fresh seafood, copious quantities of cold cervesa, and long naps in our hamacas. Life was more than good!
After carefully planning our remaining time in Mexico to maximize beach exposure, we set ourselves up for a grueling drive schedule north to the border. We allowed ourselves only four days and three nights to make it from southern Mexico to the US border. Expecting an easy drive from Zipolite to Oaxaca, we were immediately presented with the curviest mountain road we had ever driven. Both EarthRoamers did a fantastic job chewing up the miles. Arriving just before sunset in Puebla, we set up camp for the night and planned a tricky route that skirted the southern boundary of Mexico City. Mexico City restricts traffic during the week based on license plate numbers and we would be faced with the potential of heavy fines if we entered the restricted area. After a circuitous drive to Toluca, we were on toll roads for the remainder of the long but fast drive to the border.
|click to open a photo gallery of part 5|
We crossed the border into the US around 6 pm on Friday, May 18th and were immediately amazed at how smooth roads could be. After passing through a brief, pathetic imitation of a checkpoint, we sailed on to Phoenix for a meal at a Marie Calendar’s restaurant and a night in a sterile hotel. Everything around us was shiny, smooth and clean, but we were dirty and rough after our 6 week odyssey. Still in a state of cultural shock, we began the transition from road-dazed gringos to the people we were before. “Gracias” evolved to “thank you” as the language we jokingly referred to as “Gringlish” evolved back to a legitimate English. Gone was the excitement, randomness and challenge of life on the road – we were back in the predictable world from which we came. We closed the trip at a launch party for the Overland Journal with the Overland Journal staff, followed by a two day drive back to EarthRoamer Headquarters. We were home. We were both glad and sad. We were glad to be home again with family and friends, but we were sad the adventure was over. We immediately began planning and dreaming about our next grand adventure… Africa?
Our mission was a huge success. Both EarthRoamer’s performed beautifully through all types of terrain and weather conditions. The only significant failure was a broken aftermarket suspension component on the Jeep – perfectly illustrating why we test our vehicles so rigorously. We find and fix the weak points so our customer’s won’t have to. Our rigs kept us comfortable and safe driving on-road, off-road and while camping. Driving and living out of our rigs for six weeks through many challenging conditions gave us a whole new appreciation for the design and quality construction that goes into every EarthRoamer.