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1800 words
Rob F. Sanderson
724 Edgewater,
Portage, WIS

Address any correspondence
Regarding this article to:

R.F. Sanderson
PAG Limatambo
Lima, Peru

Your Motor Trip to South America
Rob F. Sanderson

          A good many US motorists are thinking about an automobile trip to South America on the new Pan American Highway when the war is over and they have lots of tires and gas and money saved during the war.

          Assuming highway construction is completed this is undoubtedly a good idea for while such a trip will greatly improve the inner man of all who go. North Americans are world conscious only in a very abstract way because they live in such a big country and can do all the traveling they wish from snowy mountains in summer to sunny sand beaches in winter without leaving their own country. Thus their ideas about other countries are in general the geography-book type of ideas, while in order to really appreciate what other countries (peoples in particular) are like there is no substitute for going there yourself to see about it.

          Having traveled habitually from Panama to Argentina, living in countries in between, I have found out quite a bit about life and travel in these countries. It is impossible to tell about this so you will get a really first hand idea - you will have to go yourself to do this. But there are a good number of things I can tell you which will help a lot in planning your trip so you will have a better idea what to expect and what to bring.

          Not that there is any mumbo- jumbo about traveling in South America. On the contrary all you do is go there; anyone can do it. But one thing the North American tourist must get over is the idea that touring South America will be like driving to Los Angeles for the winter over U.S. Highway 66. Very definitely there will be little resemblance. Unless I miss my guess on the condition of the roads and the accommodations available when the war ends, it will be a more appropriate trip for four big strong men in a jeep.

          The things to see will more than make the trip worthwhile. South America is a geographic wonderland. Her Andes have a grandeur unapproachable in the Western Hemisphere. There are jungle waterfalls that make the Falls of the Yosemite look like an eave spout. The continent is full of dense forests of mahogany and balsa, monkeys, alligators, tapirs, huge rivers, picturesque tribes of Indians ranging from headhunters to picturesque pastoral Indians.

          As to travel hazards, by no means do I wish to infer that such a motor trip will suffer personal violence in the Wild-Indian sense. Very likely nobody will suffer personal violence in any respect. What the traveler will suffer is a great deal of personal inconveniences, and at worst return with a case of malaria or typhoid fever.

          The biggest idea to grasp is that even though a six lane super highway is laid all the way from Texas to Cape Horn, you still cannot see South America like you would visit our own Black Hills or Yellowstone Park. For the countries enroute simply do not have adequate road systems of their own by which you can see each particular country.

          A similar situation can be imagined like this: in the year 1850 somebody gives your great grandfather a seven passenger Buick Super, tells him there is a concrete highway from New York to San Francisco, and to get going. Grand pappy climbs in and in a phenomenally short time rolls through St. Louis and Denver to San Francisco. Everybody marvels at the accomplishment and he has wide prestige from his rapid coast-to-coast journey. But: there was no road to Mammoth Cave so he did not see it; the roads through the Ozarks were impassible because of heavy rains on the dirt surface; if he wanted to see the Black Hills or Yellowstone Park he would have to take a several week side trip on horseback; no road went anywhere near Grand Canyon. His only advantage over the same trip by train was that he could stop his vehicle to photograph arty buffalos along the way if they happened to be visible from the road, and when he got to San Francisco he did not have to hire a taxi.

          Some day South America countries may have good roads, but the era is not yet here. Road building is very expensive in most areas because of mountainous terrain or dense jungles. In Ecuador, for example, there is a road from Quito the capital to Guayaquil the largest city. But nobody uses it. Unsurfaced, it is impassible during the rainy season from October to April. Landslides are a constant hazard, and the roadway is so narrow and steep in many places that even jeeps have turned over on it. Under the best circumstances it is a harrowing three-day trip by car, although only 18 hours by train or one hour and ten minutes by plane. And everywhere the most scenic locales are unattainable by car, although in a jeep you could likely see about as much as you would care to see.

          For most part the road follows the path of least resistance, which in most cases is not the most interesting route. Traveling through flat jungle areas where tall trees screen the roadside will be extremely monotonous as there is no change of scenery and no habitation for hundreds of miles. The real jungle is so dense you cannot hope to walk through it, let alone see anything, and except for captives in the little pueblos or an occasional one running across the road you may not even see a monkey.

          After weeks of this sort of travel you suddenly arrive in a city such as Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, as metropolitan as any North American city. After the rigors of your safari this will be comparable to paddling your own canoe all the way from Chicago down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers only to be expected to arrive in New Orleans in formal or at least deluxe city attire in order to be welcomed into the better hotels and restaurants.

          Nonetheless the trip will not be without its charm and profit. In face of all I have said, my advice is still, “Go ahead”. Nothing I know of could compare with such a trip, and surely no one could spend a few months more profitably. So assuming you are yet undaunted, let’s plan the trip.

          Some weeks ahead you must start to be vaccinated for various diseases. Shots for typhoid, yellow fever and smallpox are absolute musts for South America knows no careful public health service like our own. Leprosy is common in many areas, outbreaks of bubonic plague have occurred recently, and even in capitol cities I have seen active cases of small pox at large in the streets.

          A rather complete medical kit will be appropriate, certainly including such basics as remedies for tropical dysentery, a supply of quinine, generous disinfectants, a supply of carbolic soap for washing hands before eating and after visiting public places, a remedy to counteract fungus disease of feet and body, strong salve for infectious eczema, powder for body lice, a chlorine or iodine solution for purifying water, antidotes for insect bites, and liberal supply of vitamin tablets to supply dietary deficiencies.

          Your wardrobe must be versatile. In winter (from May to December) you may encounter freezing temperatures at altitude and likewise in southern cities like Santiago and Buenos Aires, which are the latitude of Oklahoma City and Memphis, cities which in winter sometimes chill their citizens into topcoats. An important factor to remember is that in all South America there is no dry cleaning service which you can depend on not to ruin your clothes, with the three exceptions of Bal boa, Rio, and Buenos Aires. Seersucker suits and other wash clothes are advisable in every instance they can be used. Durable shirts are essential as in some areas washables are cleaned by soaking the clothes, then rubbing them against bricks as this is cheaper than using soap. Regular camping khakis are suitable for side trips to the more out-of-the-way places.

          By all means take camera equipment and plenty of it. South America is a photographer’s paradise full of grandiose scenery, picturesque people and quaint village, unsurpassed pastoral scenes. Bring a liberal supply of film as locally prices are much higher, and if you do your own developing a tank and chemicals will come in very handy. As some countries prohibit photography and others require permits, be sure to familiarize yourself with local regulations and supply yourself with credentials.

          Any car making the journey should be in first class mechanical shape with five brand new six-ply tires, oversize of possible. A light car with high axle clearance is best. Take spare keys, keep the car locked at all times you are not in it, carry nothing secured to the outside as petty thievery is as common as the many mongrel dogs in the streets. A shovel, chains and towrope are as essential as gasoline. As water supplies along the way cannot be trusted a big canteen of drinking water should be taken on wherever available. A small canned heat stove for boiling water is a good idea, and remember that to kill amoebic dysentery germs the water must be vigorously boiled for twenty minutes. All the road maps from all the touring clubs and tourist departments should be obtained in advance, as they are usually impossible to obtain locally.

          Entering South America from Panama you will find Columbia well watered and lush. To reach Ecuador you cross a spur of Andes. South of Guayaquil Ecuador becomes increasingly barren and from northern Peru all the way south until almost Santiago Chile is an absolute barren desert which does not average two inches of rainfall per year. The length of this desert is about 2400 miles and except for the occasional river valleys which are narrow green strips going back into the mountains, the country is as desolate as the mountains on the moon.

          After crossing an Andes pass about three miles high (know how to adjust your carburetor) from Chile into Argentina pray for dry weather as her many roads are practically all unsurfaced and become bogs during rainy periods. Most of the pampa looks like parts of Kansas. In Buenos Aires you can have a big celebration as citified as in New York. On to Brazil you will have to Jungle-Jim your way through her southern border, cruise north into Rio and smaller cities.

          In Brazil you reach road’s end. You will have to go back the way you came or else hip your car home by boat for I know of no plans to build a highway up across the Amazon Basin into the Guianas into Venezuela, across Columbia and back into Panama. To go from coast to coast in South America you will have to start or end in Argentina at the narrow south end of the continent as through her into Chile winds the only passable transcontinental road. In the Andes sector during winter this is often unpassable.

          If you thirst for real first class adventure, behind the Andes on the east is a great jungle which can only be penetrated during the dry season be well-crewed light trucks carrying axes and shovels. Persons living in Corumba, Matto Grosso and Santa Cruz, Bolivia, tell me that a determined party might be able to get through this area in the months between April and October. This is the best region to play explorer if you want to see genuine jungle and plenty of it, but of course is no place for the motorist with his wife or kiddies in the back seat.

          In planning any trip to South America except possibly the most metropolitan centers where one always finds English-speaking people, a knowledge of Spanish is absolutely essential. Better allow yourself six months of tutoring or night school for this accomplishment. Getting about South America’s rural areas without a working knowledge of Spanish is like trying to get around in the US knowing only Chinese. No one thing can spoil your trip quicker than linguistic inability in the countries you visit, and all the countries speak Spanish except Brazil, which uses Portuguese but understands Spanish. Latins are very patient and make every effort to understand even very poor Spanish, which is the type, if any, most North Americans speak.

          When you return from your auto tour to South America you will be a better, more contented man. It is a sure cure for all who complain about high US road and gas taxes, and will certainly quiet the chronic squawker about the over-abundance of US filling stations, tourist courts, and billboards. You will be able to look with genuine appreciation upon the streaming lanes of Sunday traffic between New York and Philly, Chicago and St. Louis. Instead of the chronic map-pourer-over you once were, you will find yourself a contented evening reader of the local paper. You will trade in the battered vehicle which took you into the romance of another continent, and be satisfied to drive the new car through the park on mild evenings. The inner man will be content.


© 2003 Chronicles of Bob