Archive for July 2016

What if I’m Not a Mechanic?

The clicking noises coming from the wheel of our Land Rover had started the day before. We were driving through Chobe National Park in Botswana, and for the rest of the day I tried to convince myself that we had a branch stuck in the wheel. I didn’t want to actually check because I didn’t want to find out that we actually had a serious mechanical problem brewing.

As we were leaving the park the noise got worse and worse until finally I decided we had to stop before the wheel fell off or something. I suspected a problem with the wheel bearings and, since we had a spare set with us, I took apart the wheel only to discover that the bearings looked fine.

Out of ideas, I got out our trusty satellite phone and called up the Land Rover guru back in Superior, Colorado, who had helped us put together our vehicle for the trip. He patiently explained that there are actually two wheel bearings in each wheel, and described what I’d need to do to replace the other one.

I worked the rest of that afternoon and into the evening with Jen keeping a fire going to keep the lions and hyenas at bay. I finished the job the next morning. A few tour vehicles drove by and all of them stopped to ask if we needed help. At least we knew we wouldn’t be stranded there forever if I couldn’t get it fixed!

Witt fixes our wheel bearings in Botswana

Witt fixes the wheel bearings on our Land Rover in Botswana

Overland Vehicle Maintenance Strategies

An oft-cited, and legitimate concern for aspiring overland travelers is vehicle maintenance, and especially repairs. Being on the road a long way from home means that you don’t have your local, trusted mechanic just down the street. Apart from recommendations of other travelers, there’s no good way to tell whether a mechanic is competent or honest. On top of that, as soon as the repair is made, you’ll likely leave town never to be seen again so it’s tough to return if the problem hasn’t been fixed properly. This is known as the “taillight warranty” — good as long as they can see your taillights. Unscrupulous mechanics everywhere have been known to take advantage of travelers this way.

If you’re not an enthusiastic backyard mechanic, all is not lost. Here are some strategies for avoiding the need for repairs in the first place and getting them done right when need arises.

Get a Reliable Vehicle for Your Trip

Cruising down the coast of Ecuador in a 1970s van with surfboards on top and bluegrass pumping through the speakers may sound romantic (or maybe it doesn’t), but remember that the older the vehicle the more maintenance it’s likely to need. If you are prepared repair it yourself, an older vehicle can be a good choice. Everything is simpler. Both you and a local mechanic should have an easier time repairing it. Lack of modern computers and electronics means that you’re less likely to suffer a failure that only a computer can diagnose. Plus (for some makes) parts can be easier to find for an older vehicle.

But if the thought of being stranded on the side of the road with a bad fuel pump is something you’d prefer not to think about, it may be worth considering a newer vehicle if your budget allows it. Modern cars are amazingly reliable, and a late model of pretty much any brand is likely to complete an overland trip with no maintenance issues at all.

Make Sure it’s in Top Shape Before Departure

Take your car to a mechanic before you leave home — preferably to “your” mechanic whom you’ve worked with for awhile. Tell him what you’re planning, and after he retrieves his jaw from the floor ask him to give the car a thorough going over. Replace anything that looks worn, even if normally you’d wait till the next oil change to fix it. Take a look at the owner’s manual and see what scheduled maintenance items are coming up. Fuel filter? Flushing the radiator? If it’s a significant milestone like a 60,000 mile service it might make sense to do it ahead of time.

While you’re talking to your mechanic, ask him to demonstrate a thorough inspection. Take notes and learn what things to look for. Ask about things that commonly fail on whatever model of car you have. For small, lightweight items like electronic sensors (or wheel bearings) it might be worth carrying a spare.

Regular Inspections and Maintenance

Getting a tune up in Zambia

Our Land Rover, “Rafiki”, gets a tune up in Zambia

Once you’re on the road there are several things you can do that will reduce the likelihood of breakdowns. Just like at home, stick to a regular maintenance schedule. You’ll learn to say things in the local language that you never would on a regular holiday. “Cambio de aciete, por favor” isn’t really all that useful at the Grand Fiesta Americana Hotel bar, but it will come in handy on an overland trip in Latin America.

If you’re traveling quickly, you’ll need oil changes frequently. Don’t ignore them. Get in the habit of checking filters and fluids regularly. Some advocate a daily inspection, but if you’re driving a newer vehicle once a week or once a month should be enough.

Drive With Mechanical Sympathy

Crossing a bridge in northern Angola

Crossing a rickety bridge in northern Angola

I can’t take credit for this phrase, but it’s perfect. Drive your car as though it were your friend — because after you’ve lived in it for a few months, it will be!

  • Accelerate and brake more gently than you normally would. This is easier on your brakes and transmission, not to mention being safer.
  • Take speed bumps and rough roads slowly. Even if you’re driving a tough 4×4 truck, constant hammering will eventually break something.
    • The occasional exception to this is when driving on washboards or corrugations. If you’re on a straight road free of big obstacles like potholes, a higher speed can make the ride easier on you and your car.
  • Use low gears when descending steep hills. Change down early and at low speeds to avoid jerky, high-rpm shifts, especially with an automatic transmission.

Keep in mind too that your overland vehicle is probably at or near (hopefully not over) it’s factory recommended maximum weight. That means all of the components, from the tires through the drive train to the engine, are already working at or near their design limits. Back off, swallow any macho pride that you may have, and your truck will thank you!

Pay attention to the sounds your car makes. When you hear a new vibration or noise, check it out. Hopefully you just need another tie down strap for your stuff in back. But noticing an impending mechanical problem early can save you from being stranded and may reduce repair costs.

If Something Does Go Awry

Tire issues in Cameroon

Tire issues in Cameroon

If you travel long enough, you’ll eventually find yourself in need of repairs. It’s great if you can repair it yourself, but if not you’ll need to find someone to help. Here are some tips to maximize your chances of getting the work done right the first time.

Get Recommendations

Try to get recommendations for a good mechanic, especially if your car needs major work. Post to an overlander’s social media group such as Overland Sphere, Pan Am Travelers (both on Facebook) or the Horizons Unlimited bulletin board. The iOverlander app and website has a category for repair shops where travelers can leave reviews. If you’re staying at a campground frequented by overlanders, ask the proprietor for recommendations. He may know of a local shop that has experience working on foreigners’ vehicles. Since he’s local the shop will want to keep getting referrals from him so you are more likely to get good service.

Oversee the Work

Calvin's shop near Oaxaca, Mexico

Unlike shops in the USA, in most places you’re allowed to go back into the shop and watch the work being done. Even if you haven’t a clue what’s going on, your presence might encourage them to do a better job. Remember, they don’t know that you’re not a master mechanic yourself!

Use Dealerships

If you have a newer car, a dealership is more likely to have the computer diagnostics and specialized tools needed for later models. Going to a dealership, though, is unfortunately not a guarantee of a a good outcome.

Do it Yourself

Witt fixes the wheel bearings

Even if you don’t have a lot of know-how, don’t be afraid to try repairs yourself. Google the problem you’re having, and you’ll probably find a backyard mechanic with a Youtube video on how to repair it. Bring a basic set of tools with you. This is especially true in a camper, since you’re more likely to need to make minor repairs to the RV systems than to the vehicle itself.

During our travels in Latin America, I always took our van to a shop for oil changes. Without the tools to collect and properly dispose of the used oil, it was easier to have the work done by a professional mechanic. I always hung around the shop during the service. I also tried to remember to check the oil shortly afterward in case they forget to tighten the drain plug or something.

During our trip through the Americas breaking down was the biggest stress factor for me, especially early in the trip. We had a number of fuel-system related problems that even caused us to question our whole trip a couple of times. Eventually though, with the help of local and expat mechanics along the way, we got everything sorted out. After that we enjoyed 18 months of completely trouble-free travel. Prepare your car beforehand and take good care of it on the road and you’ll be rewarded with a reliable home on wheels.

Calvin helps diagnose our engine issues near Oaxaca, Mexico

Calvin helps diagnose our Sparksmobile engine issues at the Overlander Oasis near Oaxaca, Mexico





Our Road Life

Welcome back!  This is our second installment of From the Driver’s Seat, our weekly series where we inspire you by introducing you to *real* overland travelers.

This week we meet an American family of four who have traveled overland from California to Chile.  It’s fun to read how their travels have positively improved their lives and their bonds as a family.

They offer some amazing insights.  Here’s just one of them:

“If you want it, go get it. The world is beautiful. The people too. Don’t let fear get in the way if this is your dream.”

So grab a mug of your favorite beverage, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride…


Tell us about yourselves.  What are your names, backgrounds and where are you from?

We are Karie and Simon, and our kids are Ty and Jamie. We live in California and by all accounts were pretty “normal” before we left the trip – just working jobs that took up too much of our lives and living for the weekends. And then we quit our jobs and overlanded to South America over 18 months.

Ng family in Quilotoa, Ecuador


What inspired you to do an overlanding trip?  What are the steps that you took to turn the dream into reality?

Looking back it was really a snap decision. We had always loved camping road trips, so one day I was at work and daydreaming about our next destination. I started looking into driving to Baja Mexico. Then I discovered there was a ferry that connected Baja to Mainland Mexico. The rest is history.

We started a savings plan right away and originally it was a 10 year plan. The 10 year changed to 7, 5, and then 3. It was so hard to wait when our minds were already made up. We did wait until after I was pregnant with Jamie and until he turned 9 months old.

What was your biggest obstacle (real or imagined) to embarking on your trip?  Did anyone try to talk you out of it?

One obstacle was money, obviously. Money turns out to be as important as I imagined it to be, but how much money is enough is completely relative.

The other was safety. And yes it was real in my opinion, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. I mean we travelled with two kids so we were hyper-vigilant about safety and we still did it and were safe.

Yes, I would say half the people we knew tried to talk us out of it. Especially because we had kids, they thought we were just foolish to take on this trip. It was not easy to hear because it fed our own fear and doubt. But people meant well. They just didn’t understand and couldn’t relate, and that was ok.

What kind of rig do you have?  What do you like or dislike about your current setup?

2003 Ford E350 modified by Sportsmobile.

Things we loved: strong and reliable 7.3L PSD engine; small footprint for narrow streets. Things we disliked: the pop-top became a pain in the butt to set up, level, and undo, every time we wanted to move the vehicle; kind of small for a family of four plus eventually a dog that we adopted in Peru.

Ng Sportsmobile in Chacala, Mexico

Where have you traveled (so far) with your vehicle?  

We drove south from California and reached almost the end of the road in southern Chile, in Tierra del Fuego.


What have you learned from your travels?  Have you experienced any unexpected revelations along the way?

Our relationships with each other and with the kids became really tight. It’s hard to imagine that had we continued our corporate lives, then we wouldn’t have been as close? But it was definitely a process through ups and downs. Being with anyone 24/7 while facing the kind of challenges that one does on the road can bring out the best and the worst.

We became tougher, as in, we really don’t “need” as many conveniences as we thought we did anymore. We are back home in California living on a farm, and we are still washing our dishes outside using a bucket. We don’t have a stove either or laundry machines. And our “house” is smaller than the standard hotel room. Had we not gone on the trip, this lifestyle wouldn’t fly with us.

Ng Kids in bathtub

How has traveling with kids been challenging?  How has it been amazing?

Being full-time parents is the toughest job in the world no matter where you are. But our babies grew from 9 months and 3 years old, to 2 years and 5 years old, on the road. I believe the experience has changed them fundamentally even though they may not remember the facts. As parents we gained so many memories and, as you know, memories are priceless. So yes, it is beyond amazing.

Baby in Backpack

How do you fund your travels?

Good old-fashioned savings. Yes, it is boring, but what else? We started living very lean and puting away every cent we could. We met some people on the road who had bigger budgets than us, and some with significantly smaller budgets, and yet we were all doing the same thing. Financially, overlanding is very reachable goal. But there are sacrifices, you can’t have it both ways.

Sitting on side of Rio Alumine, Argentina

What future overlanding plans do you have?

Since we have been back, we started a farm. Before the trip, we were already concerned with animal welfare and the environmental damage from industrialized meat production, but it was the trip that really gave us the courage to start a farm business. We will commit to this for 5 years and see where it takes us. When overlanding fits into our lives again, we dream about the circuit from Southeast Asia, to China, Mongolia, Eastern Europe, Europe. New Zealand and Australia would be beautiful and easier too.

What was the biggest misconception about overlanding that you had before your travels?  

How common it actually is! I mean, it is still a huge leap of faith. But once you take that leap and get on the road, you will discover so many like-minded people who have done it, are doing it, will be doing it forever. There is a big community of overlanders who will offer help and friendship. And these are not crazy people. They are teachers, graphic designers, bankers, engineers, auto mechanics….just ordinary people making extraordinary choices.

Cusco Campground

What else would you like us to know about you and your travels?  Do you have a travel blog?

What piece of advice could you offer to aspiring adventurers?

If you want it, go get it. The world is beautiful. The people too. Don’t let fear get in the way if this is your dream.

Ng Sportsmobile in Atacama, Chile

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Karie, Simon and their kids are just getting settled back in after completing their travels.  They have bought some land in northern California and are starting up a pasture-based livestock farm.  You can read more in this blog post on their website about their plans and how their travels were instrumental in illuminating and solidifying their dream to own a farm.

Thanks so much for joining us today!

Bookmark this page or, better yet, join our email list so you’ll be sure to see our updates.  Also, please let us know in the comments if you would like to be featured in this series.

Stay tuned for our next installment of From the Driver’s Seat!

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

A Comparison of Overland Navigation Tools

One of the best things about overland travel is that you almost never drive the same road twice. Leaving behind the daily commute where you know every pothole by heart in exchange for exploration around every turn is exhilarating. Getting from A to B along roads you’ve never driven before will become a part of your daily routine while traveling, and it’s important to put some thought into how to do that before leaving home.


Navigation in Gabon

There are lots of approaches to navigation. Some travelers use paper maps almost exclusively, but most use some kind of GPS device. Many people use dedicated GPS devices such as those made by Garmin. With turn-by-turn directions and an interface designed to be used while driving, these devices are tailor-made for the purpose.

Garmin maps are available for destinations around the world.  It’s best to download the maps you want while you have access to a super-fast internet connection.

Another approach is to use a smartphone or tablet for navigation. (Of course this works best if your tablet or phone has a GPS receiver inside it.  Some tablet models do; some don’t.)  It’s always good when you can use the same item for multiple purposes, and using a device that you would probably have with you anyway is a great way to cut down on extra gadgets. However if you lose or break your phone or tablet you’ve lost your navigation device too.


Copyright: <a href=''>Image by StockUnlimited</a>

If you go with a phone or a tablet, you’ll of course need a mapping app. For our trip through the Americas, we used Pocket Earth Pro on our iPad for in-car navigation. Pocket Earth uses Open Street Maps, which you’ll hear a lot about when you’re researching this topic. Open Street Maps (OSM) is not a device or a product, it’s just a database of road networks around the world. Many different apps use OSM data, so if you’re choosing between apps that use this dataset, don’t worry about the quality and coverage of the maps — they’re the same. You’re only deciding which features and interface you like best.

We had a copy of Pocket Earth on our phone that we used when walking around cities and towns where we didn’t want to carry our tablet. It was great for marking where we parked so we could find our way back easily! is another app that many travelers use that also uses OSM data.

Keep in mind that if you’re using your tablet or phone for navigation you’ll want a way to keep it plugged in while driving. Constant use of the GPS requires a lot of power.

Turn by Turn Directions

Copyright: <a href=''>Image by StockUnlimited</a>

Travelers we spoke with during our Pan American trip reported good luck using the audible directions provided by devices and apps. Since Pocket Earth doesn’t provide turn-by-turn directions without an internet connection, we interpreted the map ourselves. Driving and directions is a perennial source of arguments, so it’s important for the driver to recognize that the navigator’s directions are only as good as the maps they’re reading. Similarly, the navigator has to understand that the driver will sometimes miss turns due to traffic or conflicting road signs. We drove through a few towns where one-way streets weren’t labeled as such on the map we were using.

If you’re traveling solo (dogs don’t count — they can’t read maps) you may want to consider something that features offline turn-by-turn directions so that you’re not constantly stopping to check the map, or worse yet trying to read it and drive at the same time.

If you think having your partner read directions to you could lead to arguments, again look for something with turn-by-turn directions. You’ll be in the car with your travel partner a lot and it’s better to yell at the dis-embodied computer voice than the person you’ll be sharing a tent with that night!

Online MapsCopyright: <a href=''>Image by StockUnlimited</a>

Google Maps is ubiquitous in the US and Europe, and in my experience its estimates and routes are spot-on at home. While we didn’t use Google maps often, we did occasionally use it for planning and found that the time estimates could be off by as much as a factor of two.  The challenge for using online maps is ensuring that you will have a cell phone connection when you need to use the software.  It’ll probably work well near population centers, but coverage may be spotty or non-existent elsewhere.

Paper Maps

Copyright: <a href=''>Image by StockUnlimited</a>

Paper maps serve two purposes. First, as a backup to fragile electronics, and second as a planning tool. It’s always fun to gather around the picnic table with other travelers and compare notes and recommendations about where to go and what to see, and nothing beats a paper map for that.

For our Pan American journey we had two large-scale maps that covered the whole of South America. We found these maps to be too large of a scale for effective planning because we couldn’t accurately mark that great beach that someone recommended. We talked with other travelers who had country-scale maps and those seemed much better suited to that purpose.

In Africa we used the Michelin maps that cover the continent in three sheets. These were good for navigating between cities and towns, but were useless inside cities. During our travels in 2004 we found them to be outdated in some areas. The map in one case showed a big, red road that we planned to take through the Republic of the Congo to Pointe Noire.  We spoke with locals, though, and learned that the road was overgrown by jungle and that another newer road that wasn’t on our map was better.

Motoring clubs in some countries produce useful tourist maps that can be purchased at gas stations and sometimes at toll booths.

When The Road Isn’t on the Map

Navigation in Brazil

This doesn’t happen often, but it’s fun when it does! Our friends from Brazil recommended a side trip through a remote national park in the highlands of their country, and we discovered it isn’t in the Open Street Maps dataset. I did find it in Google Maps, and was able to use to painstakingly drop waypoints along the road, export them to a GPX file, and import them into Pocket Earth. We did this for part of our trip across the trackless Salar de Uyuni as well.

Asking Directions

navigation from Cape Town

Especially if you’re traveling through a city without a GPS or a good paper map specific to that city, you’ll often need to ask directions. This can sometimes be a slow process. The first challenge is the potential language barrier. In rural areas especially, it’s good to get multiple opinions. In some places people may not have even been to the next town down the road, but pride (and the desire to be helpful) demands that they answer your question. It’s better to ask a neutral question such as, “Where is the road to Guadalajara,” rather than pointing and asking, “Is that the way to Guadalajara?”

No matter what method you choose for navigation, you’ll probably get lost occasionally. This can be stressful, but in the end it’s all part of the adventure!


And Off We Went

Welcome to From the Driver’s Seat!  It’s our new series where we are spotlighting *real* overland travelers who are either currently on the road or have just returned from an overland trip.  Our goals are to provide some differing perspectives on traveling overland and to showcase the variety of people who decide to do so.

Our first set of travelers has demonstrated fantastic resiliency as mechanical issues have thrown them multiple curve balls.  Through it all they are still loving their adventures and are quick to encourage others to do embark on their own.  We were fortunate to spend time with them in Arequipa, Peru, where we quickly bonded and we shared some fun adventures.  I know that you will find their story interesting too.

So grab a cup of your favorite beverage, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride…


Tell us about yourselves.  What are your names, backgrounds and where are you from?

Matt Tupy: Originally from Canada – Retired from Canadian Armed Forces, Hotel Manager, English Teacher – 59

Michelle Tupy: Originally from Australia – English Teacher, Ghost Writer and Content Writer – 44

Emilia Tupy: Originally from Australia – Enjoys singing, playing computer games – 11

Matthew Tupy: Originally from Australia – Loves Michael Jackson, zombies and computer games – 6

The Tupy Family

What inspired you to do an overlanding trip?  What are the steps that you took to turn the dream into reality?

When we managed a hostel in Cusco, we kept hearing stories of people traveling around South and North America so we decided to see if we could do it too. Once we sold everything from the hostel, we bought a Kombi and then took it from there. It was all somewhat fluid, but the easiest thing was just to take it one step at a time. I don’t plan any more than one or two countries ahead if I can help it.

We also asked one of our artist friends if she would mind painting some original designs on our van before we set off. This was a once in a lifetime, fun, adventurous kind of trip so we wanted our wheels to be representative of that.

Tupy Kombi as Clothesline

What was your biggest obstacle (real or imagined) to embarking on your trip?

Thankfully we have a very supportive group behind us – so everyone was pretty excited about the next leg of our travels. We had just spent two years in Peru before setting off, so our initial goal was to visit some of the areas we had been meaning to see in Peru such as Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, and Nazca first before heading up to Ecuador.

Any problems we faced were mainly due to vehicle repairs once we hit the road and we had to postpone our trip by six months due to these issues. That frustrated us to no end. We learned very early on that the vehicle had all kinds of problems, which unfortunately had been missed by our initial inspection. We spent way more than we had bargained for in repairs.

Mechanics working on Tupy's Kombi

What kind of rig do you have?  Does your rig have a name?  What do you like or dislike about your current setup?

We have a 1982 VW Kombi and so far she has no name. We tried, but the kids started disagreeing on the name, so we figured it was easier to ride around in the van with no name. It is not set up with beds or anything like that, so we don’t have the opportunity to sleep in it. Although saying that, we did spend one night in the van in the middle of nowhere on our way back from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco. We couldn’t have wished the sun to come up any quicker – we were cold and uncomfortable to say the least. A vehicle with beds would be a bonus and definitely cut down costs on the way.

Where have you traveled (so far) with your vehicle?

We purchased the van in Cusco and have driven through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and are preparing to head to Nicaragua. These are all stepping stones on the way back to Canada.

Tupy Family in Cusco

What have you learned from your travels?  Have you experienced any unexpected revelations along the way?

We have learned to take it slow and not rush. As we drive an older vehicle, it is better for us to break up a 500km into a couple of days than to try to do it all in one day. We are on our own schedule, so we just go at our own pace. The kids enjoy it when we travel slowly so we can get out and stretch our legs or grab a snack. We have learned that the kids really enjoy our travel days – they both get to sit back and relax and zone out for a while in anticipation of our next adventure.

How has traveling with kids been challenging?  How has it been amazing?

Our kids have quite an age gap – six years in fact – so they get on each other’s nerves, a lot! And then they have their moments when they are absolutely wonderful together. I love that our six-year-old son enjoys talking about the countries we have visited and that they both get to meet wonderful people along the way.

Emilia & Matt Tupy

Do you have a favorite travel experience that you can share?

So much of our trip has been fantastic – we have stayed by the beach in Ecuador, lived on a farm in Colombia, managed a hostel in Panama, and it’s not over yet. We do get really excited whenever we cross a country border. It just means any hassles that we might experience with border crossings or visas are over until we are ready to leave the country we are in. Then we forget about it for a while and relax until we prepare to visit the next destination.

Kombi in southern Peru

How do you fund your travels?

We work online as we travel. We did do a bit of a fundraiser to cross to Panama from Colombia as our money had disappeared on vehicle repairs but we are fortunate that I have good clients who don’t mind the fact that we work from abroad. As a ghostwriter and content writer for small businesses, I just need a good internet connection. Thankfully we have been able to get that in most countries we have visited. Coastal Ecuador was the worst as we kept on experiencing power outages.

Kombi in Shipping Container

What future overlanding plans do you have?

After we return to Canada, we have no plans. We might just do a Canadian trip or a US trip in the future; we haven’t really decided. But I think after traveling on the road for a year or two, we will definitely need some time to settle down and regroup. And I will need to finalize my travel notes and compile the book I have been promising everyone. Where in Canada we will settle though in the interim, we have no idea.

What was the biggest misconception about overlanding that you had before your travels?

I thought it would be easier to find good mechanics than it has been. We sometimes have to take our vehicle to 2 or 3 mechanics before we can find someone who can help us service or repair the vehicle. That is in itself frustrating. The gringo prices that some try to charge too are super frustrating as well.

Kombi being towed

What else would you like us to know about you and your travels?  Do you have a travel blog?

I have a much-ignored travel blog at present which can be found at as well as a Facebook page of the same name.

What piece of advice could you offer to aspiring adventurers?

The kindness of strangers is so evident on the road. We have broken down many times, and we have had people push the van, tow the van, look at the van and even get in the van to show us the way, just to try to get us to the next city or beyond. So if you are hesitant about overland travel, don’t be. For the most part, people are genuinely friendly and will be curious about your travels and open to chat.

Tupy Kombi with people

So there you have it: The Tupy Family driving back to Canada from South America.   Aren’t they inspiring?  We feel very fortunate to count them as our friends.

Michelle is also the author of two published books, Love Alters: A Love For All Seasons and An Unexpected Kindness.

You can follow their travels via their blog, And Off We Went, and via their Facebook page.

Bookmark this page or, better yet, join our email list so you’ll be sure to see our updates.  Also, please let us know in the comments if you would like to be featured in this series.

Stay tuned for our next installment of From the Driver’s Seat!


Handling Police Stops

The Colombian police offer who had stopped us explained for the fifth time that crossing the double yellow line is illegal in Colombia (where isn’t it?) and that I had committed a “serious offense.”

Never mind the fact that a minibus had pulled halfway off the road to discharge passengers and that four local cars had pulled into the opposing lane to get around him before I committed my heinous act.

He asked me to get out of the car and led me around to the back, out of earshot of his partner. He somberly explained that our car would be impounded for two weeks and that my wife and son would be left on the side of the road. But all would be forgiven if I paid the fine on the spot.

Even Though Most Cops Are Honest…

It’s an unfortunate fact that not all police officers are completely honest. Some see a tourist from another country as an opportunity to generate a little extra cash. Sometimes this is just how things are done in that country, or perhaps the police force hasn’t been paid in awhile. Whatever the cause if you travel for long enough you will eventually be stopped for a bogus infraction.

In this article we share some of the strategies that we and others have used to identify and deal with illegitimate traffic stops. Before we get started though, let me say that in 2 years of traveling in Latin America we only experienced one bogus traffic stop. Nearly every police officer we encountered was friendly and professional.

Types of Police Stops

Sometimes people build an impromptu speed bump out of dirt in the road or string a rope across the road to stop traffic. This can be a little intimidating, because usually these people are not officials. We experienced this once in Southern Mexico. After we stopped we were asked for a donation to help an ill family member. Everyone who passed by was being stopped; it wasn’t just the tourists.

Many countries utilize checkpoints along the road for various purposes. In the United States motorists will occasionally encounter sobriety checkpoints where police are checking for drunk drivers. Other times they’re to make sure you’re not bringing fruit or veggies from one region to another.

Be Friendly and Respectful

Whenever we are stopped by someone in a uniform, there are a few things we always do:

  1. Put our electronics out of sight. We use an iPad for navigation, we usually have our cellphone handy, and our son is often using his tablet in the car. We try to make these items less conspicuous. We figure that the fewer obvious signs of wealth we display the better.
  2. Remove our sunglasses. Our goal is to look as friendly, innocent, and respectful as possible. Removing our sunglasses allows the officer to make eye contact with us and is hopefully seen as a sign of respect.
  3. Turn off the radio. This is another sign of respect and makes it easier to communicate.

The last thing we want is an annoyed or angry police officer. By showing respect and not exuding an air of superiority as a foreigner, we hope to avoid giving the officer any excuse to try to demonstrate his/her authority.

Assessing the Situation

Most often officials will ask you a few perfunctory questions. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Where are you from? Once they’re satisfied they’ll usually send you on your way. Occasionally they’ll ask to look inside your car. We always comply with this request and make it obvious that we have nothing to hide.

If the officer says you’ve done something wrong your first objective is to figure out if the infraction is legitimate or not. Don’t automatically assume that the infraction is bogus. Travelers are subject to the laws of the country they’re in, and if you’ve really broken the law you’ll have to accept the consequences.

Assuming that you’re somehow above the law because you’re a foreigner shows a lack of respect for the local culture and reflects badly on travelers in general.

There are a few things to look for in determining whether the infraction you’re accused of is legitimate. Specific violations, such as not having your headlights on where daytime headlight use is required, are probably honest.

Bogus infractions tend to be for subjective violations. Crossing the yellow line, even though you did so to avoid the donkey cart, or the tint on your windows being too dark. In a bogus stop, there won’t be any mention of an official ticket.

Often the officer will present a dire situation, then offer an easy way out. Drive to a city 2 hours back the way you came to pay a large fine and get your drivers license back in two days’ time, or pay him a much smaller fine directly and be on your way.

Pay attention to mannerisms and body language. Straightforward, matter-of-fact behavior indicates honesty.

Strategies for Dealing With an False Accusation

We believe that it’s important to comply with the law if you’ve really done something wrong. We also believe that giving in to a bogus fine should only be done as a last resort. Otherwise travelers are seen as a source of easy money, making it more difficult for others. Here are some ways to avoid paying a bogus fine or bribe.

Pretend you don’t speak the Language.

This is a popular tactic, and people report success using it. Pretend you have no idea what the officer is saying, and eventually they get frustrated and let you go. This could probably work with legitimate as well as bogus stops.

We always try to show respect and assume that the officer is honest until he proves otherwise. Therefore we start out by communicating as best we can in the local language. If the officer does prove to be corrupt, we’ve already tipped our hand to whatever language abilities we have.

Ask to go to the police station.

If the officer is trying to extract a bribe, he won’t provide a receipt or ticket and he will want to conduct the transaction on the spot in cash. Asking to go to the nearest police station is one way to indicate that you’re onto his game that you won’t be paying his bribe. The request will be refused, but at this point you need to convince him that you’re not going to be an easy target.

Tell the officer that you don’t carry cash

This can be used in conjunction with the previous tactic. You only carry credit cards, and you’ll need to go to the police station to pay your fine.

Don’t hand over original documents

You’ll often be asked for your drivers license and/or passport. In most cases the officer inspects them and hands them back. But if the officer is corrupt he can use his possession of your driver’s license and/or passport as leverage.

We made laminated color photocopies of our drivers licenses and kept the originals in our safe. The copies were never questioned, probably because our copies looked so much like the originals.  (Be careful, though. Showing copies of legal documents is illegal in some places, including in Mexico.  If you aren’t sure, don’t do it.  Just because we didn’t get caught doesn’t mean that you won’t).

Passports are even trickier. Even honest police will ask to see the original, and refusing to hand it over can be seen as a lack of trust and respect. We always handed over our original passports and never had a problem getting them back. We do know travelers that refused to hand over their original passport. They would show it to the official to prove that the copy was accurate, but it never left their possession.

Waiting them out

The best tactic that we’ve found is to play the waiting game, combining some or all of the above tactics. Act like you have all the time in the world. We’ve found that eventually the officer will let you go just so he can find an easier target.

On the side of the road in Colombia, I told the officer that we needed to accompany him to the police station to address the infraction. He declined, saying he couldn’t leave his post. I asked if there would be a receipt given, and he said no. At that point he knew that we had called his bluff and after about 20 minutes of “negotiating” he finally let us go.

Receipt or Not?

There’s a gray area too. If you’ve been stopped for a legitimate offense, you’ll sometimes be given the choice of paying the full amount and getting a receipt, or paying a lesser amount and not getting a receipt. It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here, and while it’s tempting to save your cash for a beer later, keep in mind that bribing a police officer is illegal pretty much everywhere. However unlikely it may be, paying a bribe could land you in serious trouble.

Want to read more? Here’s another firsthand account and how the travelers involved handled the situation.