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Overland Travel Through Central America: 3 Lessons Learned

So far, I’m at about a quarter of the way into my trip to Tierra Del Fuego, aka “The Ends of the Earth”.  Common questions that pops up all the time is “Can you really drive all the way down there???” followed immediately by “Is it safe to do overland travel through Central America???”


Yes… and yes to both…  with some caveats.


Overland Travel through Central America is Not Uncommon


It’s not like I’m some sort of maverick.  As a matter of fact, it’s not only possible, but plenty of people do it and are doing it right now.


The most determined ones aren’t pansies like me.  They definitely don’t bop around in air-conditioned 4×4 SUV.  No siree.


The true slow-travelers make the journey on motorcycles and bicycles.  The hardcore ones WALK all the way!  How’s THAT for slow travel?!?


One of my reasons for travel is to get out of my comfort zone.  To explore and challenge my beliefs and conventions and hopefully become a better person as a result.


Sometimes all I ever hope to get out of it are stories to tell my grandchildren someday.


Here are the top three things that I’ve learned about overlanding in Central America that reminded me I was not in Kansas anymore:


#1 – Not All Police Officers Are Created Equally


Police in the USA, while not exactly pleasant to deal with, at least respect your rights.


In Mexico, you can forget about personal rights.  They will search you and your car, for no reason other than they can.  And with numerous roadside checkpoints throughout the country, the odds are high that they will.


For the most part, it is nearly unheard of that a Police Officer in the USA take a bribe.  The mere suggestion that they accept one from you can land you in jail.


As for bribes, Mexican Police have their tactics well-honed.  I ended up paying twice, just to be on my way.  I have no love for Mexican Police.  None.


Guatemalan Police, so far, have been a pleasure to deal with.  Police have recently begun to install checkpoints, a la  Mexico, but they’re not nearly the stressful affair that Mexican checkpoints are.


If I’m lost and need directions, I have no problems pulling over and asking a Guatemalan Police officer on the side of the road.  No way I’d try that in Mexico.


And forget about approaching a US Police Officer on the side of the road, unless you have both hands in the air and your shirt tucked in.  They’re trained to view every encounter as a possible threat, so they will be highly suspicious of anyone approaching them in an unfamiliar setting.


#2 – Not All Roads Are Created Equally


Back in the USA, I was used to driving with around with a GPS.  Either with a stand-alone model, or with a GPS-enabled smartphone with turn-by-turn directions, getting lost was near impossible.


To boot, nearly all roads and highways in the USA are clearly marked.  This includes Canada as well, where my GPS also served me well.


The further South I got, the more scarce road signs became.  Mexico was spotty in the signage department, but more often than not, I managed to find my way.


Guatemala?  Forget it.  Road signs are lacking in many parts and it’s not uncommon to be given directions in this manner:


“When you reach the sign with a girl in a bikini, turn right.  Go down the road and after about 5 kilometers, you’ll see a speed bump.  Go over it, and turn right.  Drive another 2 kilometers, and make a left at the Shell gas station, etc…:”


I thought hard about buying a GPS device, but in the end I decided not to purchase yet another piece of electronic equipment I’d cry over if I lost it or was stolen.


Instead, I ordered a Globetrotter Travel Map, which covers major Latin American roads.  This was before I learned that AAA has maps that they will provide for their members FREE of charge.  While the Globetrotter map is printed on thicker paper, the AAA map does the trick nicely.  I recommend you get both.


As for Mexico maps, I got a really nice one, also FREE, when I signed up for Mexican insurance (mandatory) through Sanborn’s Insurance.  Their Guia Roji maps are well-regarded, and it was the one I used most consistently while driving through Mexico.


If you take a GPS with you, instead of buying a map for every country, go to MapsNTrails or GPSFileDepot.com and download free maps for your device.  I may still buy a GPS map, even if used.  This PanAm driver swears by his Garmin 60Csx.


#3 – Not All Distances Are Covered in the Same Amount of Time


The USA Highway system is one of the greatest feats of engineering ever achieved.  I’m fairly convinced of it now.


Barring traffic jams, it is relatively easy to cover huge swaths of territory, at a fast clip, with minimal hassle.  It helps that the roads are in good to great shape, there are convenient on/off ramps, and lodging and fueling options are located at nearly every interstate exit.  The same also applies to Canada.


Heading South… fueling, meals and lodging become strategic decisions.


While Mexico has a good network of gas stations, there were loooong stretches of nothingness that would’ve been dicey to complete had I attempted to cross them with less than a full tank of gas.  Things get even more spotty in Guatemala.


As for food, I started longing for the fast food chains that I disdained back in the US.  In Mexico, there isn’t anything resembling a recognizable chain restaurant once you drive through the big cities.


It becomes hit or miss whether you’ll want to try the hole-in-the-wall restaurant or food shack on the side of the road.  “Thanks for offering Mister, but I won’t have seafood out of a paint bucket on the side of the road.”


As for lodging, I learned pretty quickly to seek out various motels and hotels along the way.  My ambitious plans to travel great distances in a single day were dashed once I was confronted with police and military checkpoints, ongoing construction, badly damaged roads, and slower-than-accustomed speed limits.


While towns may look deceptively close on the map, it would take me twice the time or longer to cover the same amount of distance as I would’ve in the US.  This made hotel reservations impossible, unless I scheduled my travel time very conservatively.


All these things taught me three things:


#1 – Be flexible and adapt, since each country has different rules than the ones you’re used to back home.

#2 – Having a good map is a great thing, since you won’t always be able to depend on GPS.

#3 – There’s never “too much planning” when it comes to lodging.  Know the alternatives along the way so you’re good to go no matter where nightfall catches you.


Overland Travel through Central America


What are your favorite tips you can share

about traveling on the road?




Keep tuned in and check back Mondays for business building info, Wednesdays for content related to expat life, and Fridays for tons of travel pictures as I do an on-the ground report spotlighting a travel destination.


I’d love a shout out on Facebook and if you sign up for e-mail updates.


Also, check out my Pinterest page about Antigua Guatemala, one of the prettiest colonial cities in the world and latest digital nomad destination I’m trying out.


* Photo @ Flickr by fdcomite

About Rich Polanco

Fan of dogs + all things tech. Love a great pizza. My goal is not to travel to every country in the world. I only want to get to know my favorite ones REALLY well. Check out the big bio here. Follow @RichPolanco and connect on Facebook.
Currently exploring: Guatemala.


  1. Rosalind Pattyn says:

    Hi Rich,

    So glad that I stumbled across your blog – we are planning in setting out to drive through Mexico and Central America, exploring down into South America when we retire in April next year. Right now we are working on downsizing and getting rid of all those things that bind a people to a house and stationary lifestyle – we are restricting ourselves to 2 suitcases each – if it doesn’t fit in those, it doesn’t fit in my car and it doesn’t go with us through the rest of our adventure. Somewhere along the line some place will choose us as the right places to settle to enjoy our retirement and enjoy as a home base for further adventures.

    Am looking forward to keeping up with your travels and finding out tips for driving through Mexico et al.

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