Drive to South America

Name: Elliott Kim
Home Town: Los Angeles, California, United States
Age at time of trip: 23

Road trip destination: Los Angeles, California to Ushuaia, Argentina

Vehicle: 1980 Mercedes Benz 300SD Turbo Diesel

Date left home: June 1, 2007
Date arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina: August 14, 2007

Motivation for taking the trip: I didn't want to be just another college graduate that backpacked through Europe. I wanted to set a goal that I thought was reachable but also hard enough that most would consider it to be otherwise. I wanted to do something that very few had ever done, and see some cool sights along the way. Basically, I wanted to something different.

At the end of the day, the trip answered just one question I had in mind, really: do I need to keep trying?: keep trying to become a better person, keep trying to get better grades, keep trying to save the world, even if I could save only a piece of it? Everyone runs into doubters of every form in their lives (including themselves) and I wanted to prove that I am capable of being something more than that.

Essentially, it was a big test to see if my willpower would be enough to overcome a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And upon reaching Ushuaia, I knew that it was the end of a beginning of a much harder lifestyle I set out for myself. If I had failed, it would have been the beginning of an end of reaching for anything worth the utmost of my resilience.

Oh, and by the way, not too many people tell me now what I am and am not capable of doing anymore...

Money spent on gas: $1,874.01
Cost of shipping vehicle from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia: $1,335
Total cost of trip: close to $10,000

Preferred Guidebook: Footprints guides for Central America and South America. I thought Footprint's had more of the relevant information than Lonely Planet: a brief story of each city/attraction you go into, border crossings, and for South America, a few tips on driving there.

Worst border experience: Gotta be Panama/Colombia. It took me 10 full days to get my car shipped around the Darien Gap, as well as a lot of headache and a lot of money. If I had to choose a worst border experience by land, I would have to choose Colombia/Ecuador. Not because of anything political. In fact, it was one of the easiest border crossings. But the electricity went out for hours and I drove through the night to make up for it and that wasn't a great experience.

Hardest part about roadtripping alone: There are several pros and cons to flying solo. Simply the coolest part is being able to set your own schedule. Even if you go with your best of friends, you will likely run into logistical issues. I was able to sleep wherever I wanted, eat whatever I wanted, pick up things whenever I wanted.

The other coolest thing is that I can proudly say that I did it all on my own. Everything. The planning, driving, financing. I received no secondary help whatsoever for the entirety of the trip (which is a big distinction from the help I received from indigenous personnel along the way in individual towns), and that's something I can easily look back on and say I did it on my own and no one can take that away from me.

There are hard parts, though. The hardest part during the trip was that there simply were too many moments of being solitary. I did become lonely along the way and it became harder and harder to get to know new people, leave them behind and repeat for 3 months. Music kept me company for a while but it's no substitue for someone to talk to and someone to listen to. That was easily the hardest thing. Next comes navigation, but that is not nearly as hard as not having company.

The hardest part now (after the trip is over) is that I still have no one to recall those memories with. I've lost all reasonable means of contact with people I had come to know, and it's hard to relive those precious memories without someone who was there with you the whole time. That's gotta be something that I would probably regret if I had a choice in going solo or not.

Obviously, I tried my hardest to recruit someone to go with me, but that didn't pan out. And after having planned it for about a year, and it having consumed every drop of energy for 2 months leading to it and 3 months of executing it, I knew I had to go no matter what, and flying solo was part of that no matter what.

Scariest thing that happened to you: Being robbed of my money belt in Colon, Panama, just 100 meters from my hotel. The money belt had my passport (which I needed to get out of the country, and also to my vehicle in Cartagena, Colombia because a stamp proved that I had properly exited out of Panama), my Visa Credit Card, my Bank of America ATM card, driver's license, 2Gig memory stick, some $30 in cash, and $200 in traveler's checks.

But through a crazy set of circumstances, and after having a meeting with the mayor of Colon in his office, and paying off some shady characters, I got my passport back. I also had an emergency credit card and ATM card with different companies back at the hotel.

What would you pack differently next time: My car. I would have chosen a non-diesel, Nissan/Toyota made stickshift SUV. All the other things I think I got right... the GPSMAP® 60Cx was simply a great decision to look past the price tag and know that I would need it more than anything.

I feel like everything I packed in the car were perfectly chosen, and they all had a reason for being in there or not (clothes that I would feel comfortable about giving/throwing away, tools, oil and filters, extra 5 gallon tank of diesel, dictionary and sorts), but the car itself was poorly chosen. It really wasn't my fault, though... the information about the cars that people drive down there were inaccurate at best and I was led astray by a guy who said a 1980 mercedes diesel would be perfect because he lived in Buenos Aires a long time. He was dead wrong, they're no longer as prevalent.

If I had to choose a different route, I would have gone down the west coast of Mexico instead of the east coast. Not much out on the east, and I've heard that the west is simply too beautiful to pass up. I wanted to do a dry run to Texas because I had never driven further north from LA than San Francisco or further east than Las Vegas. And although I picked up a few more things along the way, I think I was too cautious in choosing to go that route.

But otherwise, not too many regrets about the way the trip was planned or executed. I spent a lot of time planning, and it definitely paid off.

Best piece(s) of advice for someone following in your footsteps: Plan as well as you can, but know that a billion things can go wrong and a million things will. If you know you do not have the patience (or the character to build up that patience along the way), then don't even try going on this trip.

Listen to the naysayers but don't dwell in their critism. They'll often provide more insight into the trip that you may have overlooked. Be opportunistic in that regard, but keep in mind that it's much easier to critic than to offer real solutions and for you to execute them, and that is often the hardest part of the trip.

Elliott's Website: