The Pan-American Highway: Crazy, Amazing and Totally Freeing

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The sun was just beginning to set over the Bay Of Conception when Mike, Bruce and I took a rather inconspicuous turning off of the route 1 Highway and rattled our way down a dusty, winding road towards los cocos beach; Mike being my husband and Bruce being our trusty 1982 Chevy van. A cold front had hit Baja California and as we trundled onto the beach we could see other overlanders wrapped in blankets, beginning to build their fire pits for the evening. We drove to the far end of the beach, not our favourite spot but meant we were catching the last few rays of sunshine after our long drive from the pacific coast and as the sun started to dip it cast a magical orangey-pink light on to the mountains directly across the bay. 

I sat in my camping chair, Mike pottering about behind me getting the van unpacked for our stay. I watched the crystal clear waters slowly retreat from my feet and a smile crept onto my face. Arriving back to our favourite beach in all of Central America felt amazing; a sense of achievement, memories earned and life well lived. It has been 9 months since we were last here and while the time has passed we have driven 14,000 miles, crossed 14 borders and had the adventure of a lifetime.

It feels like forever ago that we set off to drive from San Francisco, where we had been living for over a year (we are originally Londoners) to Panama. Who even were we back then? A couple of total novices in the world of van life! We had done minimal research, just enough to get us across borders and hadn’t even heard of the app iOverlander. But we had an idea; a dream really, bought ourselves a van that turned out to be the comfiest and most reliable van anyone could have asked for and set off to make our dream a reality. Armed with real life maps, yep, we didn’t even know we could download them from Google, we somehow found this hidden beach and fell in love with it’s quiet charisma and the happy chappy Mexican boys who would bring us giant chocolate clams everyday, turning them into fresh ceviche served up in the shells. We spent days snoozing in the hammock we had strung up under a big palapa and afternoons strolling the bay looking for sea treasures. Giant conches, a turtle shell or the odd dried up starfish. Swimming, sunbathing, long lazy lunches and if you go at the right time of the year (and bring SUP boards) paddle out whilst juvenile whale sharks swim beneath you. The Bay of Conception in Baja California really is some kind of heaven. We found it really hard to pull ourselves away from there, I totally see why people get stuck, but the greedy urge to see what else Central America had to offer got us moving and continually kept us moving from that point on. Back then we could not have imagined the scale of adventure we were about to have. 

During our trip we climbed the highest peaks in Central America and felt a volcano erupt beneath our feet. We skinny dipped in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean ocean and watched our footsteps light up in blue phosphorescence. We slept by fires under the stars, learnt how to free dive and watched baby turtles hatch by the thousands. We stood in forests surrounded by millions of butterflies, cliff jumped off waterfalls, touched baby whales and camped with flamingos. We surfed coastlines, learnt to speak Spanish, climbed ancient pyramids and lived in a tree house in the jungle.

We endured hurricanes and earthquakes, got stuck between borders for a night in no mans land (not recommended) and one of us (me) sat on a scorpion. Don’t worry though, it wasn’t deadly and I am not allergic. So although I went numb from my waist to my knee, had a very sore butt cheek and a fizzy mouth that tasted like metal for 2 days, I actually felt a bit euphoric and took myself off to Pranama Yoga (Costa Rica) and had quite an enlightening class. I digress; yes driving the Panamerican highway is the real deal. Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The most beautiful, rugged, wild, colourful, rich in ancient cultures group off countries we have ever visited and driving through them only enhanced the experience. It was incredible. And although the world’s perception of C.A being the bad boy of the Americas does hold some truth; the police can be corrupt and it is scary being stopped by them and there are a lot of guns which can feel un-nerving, we, in all honesty we had minimal troubles. In fact we were shown kindness unlike any country we have ever travelled too. On various occasions when somebody thought we weren’t safe to sleep in the van, we were taken into their homes and treated like family. Babies were thrust onto our arms, and dogs jumped into our laps. We were cooked meals and offered bedrooms. We even once accidentally knocked off a piece of someone’s roof in Mexico and instead of getting angry with us the owners burst out laughing and invited us in for a beer whilst some of the local old boys climbed onto each others shoulders to hammer it back on. They even let us stay there for free!!

So if you are considering this adventure, I hope I have convinced you in some way to say YES. Driving the Panamerican highway is a crazy, amazing and totally freeing adventure and one my husband and I couldn’t be more thankful for. Here are our top 10 highlights should you decide to go (which you should, Tomorrow!)

1. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Pierre’s place in San Marcos is a van paradise set in a beautiful garden on the edge of a crystal clear crater lake surrounded by volcanos and the most scenic sunsets in all of Central America. You can hop on boat taxis from his dock to visit the other towns around the lake.

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2. Climbing Volcano Acatenango to watch Fuego erupt, Guatemala.

A 2 day hike up a very steep dormant volcano next to a volcano that erupts every 6 minutes. The hike is gruelling, like pure pain, but watching, feeling and hearing a volcano erupt is life changing. Also the sunrise views from the top are epic!

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3. Stroking Baby Whales in San Ignacio bay, Mexico.

The most insane, surreal moment of our lives. We had heard that in this bay, where grey whales migrate from Alaska to raise their young, the mama whales are known to actually lift their babies up to the boats using their fins to introduce them to the people on board. I didn’t quite believe the hype but when we were in a tiny wooden boat with 8 other people in the middle of the ocean with whales coming at us from all angles and a baby whale swimming his nose into my palm my mind was changed. It was so bizarre and wonderful making eye contact with these giant creatures as they come up so near to ‘peep’ at you. One of the top highlights of the trip for sure. 

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4. Watching baby turtles hatching by the thousands on Ostional beach, Costa Rica.

Mother turtles come here by the hundreds to lay their eggs, so you can imagine how many thousands and thousands of baby turtles hatch here. Watching as they all started to poke their tiny heads out the sand and helping them get to the sea safely felt really rewarding.  Go tiny turtles, Go!

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Costa Rica turtles

5. The Monarch Butterfly Migration, Michoacan State, Mexico.

High up in the mountains near a sleepy, catholic town these butterflies migrate by the millions from Canada every year. They settle in the Oyamel Fir trees, a 2 hour hike higher from the village. At midday when the sun is at its warmest they lift up into the sky and swirl all around you in an incredible dance. Orange wings against a bright blue sky. Magical!

butterfly migration mexico

6. Learning to Free Dive in Utila, Honduras.

21m, one breath. That is what the free dive school in Utila claims and after our 3 day course, that is exactly what Mike did. Using the breathing techniques they taught us he held us breath for 4.5 minutes. It was an amazing experience learning what our bodies are capable off in the water and doing so over beautiful coral reefs and shipwrecks only enhanced the experience. Honduras has some really incredible sea life.

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7. Wandering the streets drinking Rum in old colonial town, Grenada, Nicaragua

Beautiful, colourful Grenada. Shabby chic at it’s finest. This was one of our favourite colonial towns in all of C.A. It had an amazing nightlife, unrivalled Nicaraguan rum and a really fun energy about it. Lots of places to spend lazy afternoons sat outside in the streets having a lovely time people watching.

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8. Island hopping in Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

Scattered across a series of islands dubbed ‘the Galapagos of the Caribbean’  due to it’s biodiversity, Bocas is built on the water with residents living in colourful wooden houses on stilts. Water taxis take you between the Islands, some of which give the Maldives a run for their money in the white sands, turquoise water stakes. Lobster with a creole flare is the dish of choice and snorkelling, diving, surfing and jungle trekking are all on option for your daily activities. 

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9. Scuba diving the Cenote caves in Yucatan, Mexico

The crystal clear water is different in these limestone sinkholes. There is no salt, so your buoyancy feels completely unusual. You just sink. The water is so clear that you can see like you are on land, the only obstruction to your view being the eventual edge to a cave. Diving down deep and gliding through the maze of stalactites and stalagmites whilst the sun dances through the water from high above is a real trip. It was like being suspended in some other kind of universe. 

scuba diving Yucatan, Mexico

10. Beach camping with other overlanders in The Bay Of Conception, Baja California.

Eating fresh chocolate clams as they are pulled out from the sea, making fires, falling asleep to the sound of the ocean, being surrounded by the coolest community of people, whale sharks, bbqs, fishing, hammock life, canoeing. White sand, clear water, no wifi. The perfect way to get away from it all. 

Beach camping Baja California Beach camping in The Bay Of Conception

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To see all the other magical places we visited on this trip (and there are a lot) you can follow us on our Instagram @sanfran_to_van and please send us messages. We love keeping in touch with our van community. Ella 🙂 

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