We reached out to Natalie – traveler, amateur photographer, and Vanlife aficionado – to learn more about her road trip to Guatemala, living part-time in a van with her partner and dog and her recommendations for women wanting to make a similar trip.
What was the route for your road trip to Guatemala?
We left our home in Quebec, Canada early on a frigid January morning. We pointed our camper van, ‘Slow Sally’ due south with an ultimate destination of Guatemala. Upon emerging from the snow and freezing temperatures (somewhere around South Carolina), we slowed our place and meandered through the southern US, Mexico, and Guatemala.
How long was your trip?
In total, our trip was 4.5 months long. Within that time, we drove all the way to Guatemala and back – an estimated 17,000 kilometers (10,500 miles). We’ve met people who have completed similar road trips in less time but if it were up to us, we’d choose to make it longer, creating an opportunity to spend more time in each destination along our route. After all, it’s about the trip… not the destination!
What is the estimated cost of the trip?
This is a question I get asked all of the time and it’s a difficult one to answer. Generally, the expenses that we incur while on the road are very similar to our expenses when we are living at home. While we’re on the road, we save money on things like groceries and eating out because the cost of living is much lower in Mexico and Guatemala. We also save money by keeping the heat in our house very low while we’re away during the winter months, canceling our Internet plans, etc. Those savings tend to be negated by travel-related expenses such as travel insurance, occasional camping fees, fuel for the van and the administrative costs associated with crossing borders.
Why did you choose to travel via camper van – road trip style?
We choose to travel in a van because it’s the best way to go on adventures and bring our dog Walter along for the ride. In the past, most of our traveling was via air and we spent a lot of time exploring Europe and Central America. However, when we decided to start traveling long term, we couldn’t bear the idea of spending so much time away from our best furry friend. It was at that point that the idea to undertake an international road trip was born.
What type of vehicle do you need for a trip like this?
You can do a trip like this in just about any type of vehicle. In 2016, before we purchased our campervan, we traveled to Guatemala and Belize in our Toyota Matrix hatchback, which we renovated to allow us to sleep in the back. We’ve met people travelling the same route in everything from a sedan with a tent for sleeping to rugged overland vehicles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It really comes down to how much comfort you want/need and how much money you want to spend on a vehicle. If you’re planning to travel for less than 6 months and it’s a “once in a lifetime” kind of trip, I would strongly recommend modifying whatever vehicle you have instead of buying one specifically for the trip, particularly if your budget is limited.
What were your favorite destinations?
We have SO MANY! To keep the list to a reasonable size, I’ll choose my 2 favorite destinations in each country that we visited:
- Durango and the Million Dollar Highway, Colorado: Amazing hiking and gorgeous mountain views
- Cape Hatteras, North Carolina: Endless beaches, windsurfing, and seafood
- Guanajuato (City), Guanajuato: Gorgeous colonial city with beautiful architecture and a fascinating history
- El Potrero Chico, Nuevo Leon: World-class mountain climbing in a rugged canyon on the outskirts of a very traditional little Mexican town
- Lake Atitlan, Sololá: Beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes (some active) and several small Mayan communities
- Acul Village, Quiche: Excellent hiking in the highland hills, through small Mayan villages and pastoral settings
Tell me your favorite part of traveling in a van.
Traveling in a van means being blessed with a very flexible itinerary; there’s no need to book flights, buses or hotels in advance. Having our own vehicle means being able to reach places that are off the beaten track or unknown to other tourists. Living out of a campervan also means that we have our own mini apartment with us at all times, allowing us to ‘come home’ after a long day of experiencing new cultures, environments, and climates.
Tell me your least favorite part of traveling in a van.
I don’t like getting caught in cold rainy weather while living and traveling in the van. It often means being cooped up inside for long periods with mud and water getting tracked inside with every outing.
Foods You Must Try
Generally, I would recommend trying whatever the local cuisine, no matter where you find yourself. Don’t be scared off by the street food… it’s often the most authentic and a very traditional way to experience food in Mexico and Guatemala (not to mention the cheapest!). Mexico has some my favourite foods; here are a few dishes you shouldn’t miss:
- Tacos – delicious anytime, anywhere!
- Pozole – traditional Mexican soup, often very spicy
- Tamales – dough with various fillings, wrapped in corn husks
- Chilaquiles – fried corn tortillas covered with salsa, cheese and often an egg (my favourite breakfast dish)
- Oaxaca cheese and mezcal liquor – specialties of the Oaxaca region
Things to know before you embark on an international road trip
- Take what you read about international destinations (particularly in Latin America) with a grain of salt. It’s always important to take precautions however the dangers and threats to travellers are often exaggerated, especially (in my opinion) as they relate to solo female travelers. When you’re researching a destination, rely on information from people who visited that destination or completed a similar trip. That might mean talking to someone in person, following their blog or vlog and finding online resources (e.g. FB groups, websites) for travelers to specific destinations.
- Do your research in advance and understand what is required to cross borders. In the Americas, only the Canadian and American border crossings are straight forward. Crossing into any country south of the USA requires a lot of steps and is more complicated, particularly if you are importing your vehicle and/or traveling with a dog or cat.
- Set a budget ahead of time and make sure that you have enough money available to cover anticipated costs as well as unforeseen ones such as vehicle repairs, an emergency flight home, etc.
- Just go! You’ll never be 100% ready. Do some basic research and planning and then get on the road. I assure you, you’ll learn as you go!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Natalie is an adventurous Canadian traveling with her partner Marc and their 70-lb adventure mutt, Walter. Their little threesome is a family of wanderlust souls, spending almost half of each year traveling through North and Central America in ‘Slow Sally’, their vintage Roadtrek van. They love visiting places where the food, culture, language, climate, and architecture are totally foreign. Their van ‘Sally’ has been the perfect adventure vehicle for getting them to the core of these places and allowing them to explore to their heart’s content. Interested in Natalie’s 2019/2020 travels, road trip advice, and Vanlife content? There’s lots of information available on their website: www.slowsallygoestoguatemala.com.