By on September 21, 2010

Jonatas writes:

I’m getting serious about taking a little road trip. Something I’ve long wanted to do. I want to drive from my current home in S. Florida to my hometown in Brazil, hopefully seeing amazing places and meeting amazing people along the way. Since it is a road trip, having the right car/truck is the most important thing to have. I’m looking for something relatively cheap, reliable, economical, and somewhat common in most countries to make for easier maintenance and attract less attention. I don’t think I’ve yet found anything that checks off all the boxes but I keep finding myself looking at late 80’s, early 90’s Toyota 4Runners as they’re sold under the Hi-Lux moniker in most latin american countries. I’ve also looked at Subaru Outbacks from the 90’s but reliability seems to be an issue as well as parts availability. Land Rover Defenders are either too old or expensive. Any other possible vehicle suggestions?

Sajeev answers:

Buying a vehicle in America really narrows down your choices. Sedans, Wagons, Crossovers, and pretty boy trucks are unacceptable and might put your life at risk. So you only have a couple of choices, I am torn between the Toyota Tacoma/4Runner and the Ford Explorer/Ranger. I would like to recommend the Chevy S-10, but I’m unsure of parts availability south of the border. The Ranger wins for me because of the lower asking price, availability, and relative ease of repair. But the Toyota is a better choice once you leave Mexico…I don’t know how US-spec Ford friendly Central and South America are, should you have a breakdown. I mean will have a breakdown.

Whatever you buy, it will need new rubber (tires, belts, hoses), a tune up, heavy-duty shocks (unless you like unnecessary pain), a brake job and fresh engine oil/coolant, at the bare minimum. Good luck, and don’t be afraid to chicken out by flying the friendly skies in lieu of a life-threatening road trip.

Steve answers:

Forget about a car. You need to visit Farago’s site and figure out the right firearm. You have to go through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina to get to Brazil. A few of these places are safer than Florida. The others are just barely safer than Detroit. Actually that’s not entirely true since drug wars, carjackings, kidnappings and martial law are painful realities in many of these countries.

I would buy an older VW Golf from the mid-90’s. Replace the Golf name with ‘Caribe’ on the back. Get everything in tip top shape and make sure you carry two spares, oil, coolant and some extra gas. If you must have something more Jeep like I would consider a 4WD Tracker or Vitara/Sidekick hardtop. Not because they are particularly worthy in any way. But probably because by the time you get to Costa Rica, you may be all too ready to unload the car and take a quick flight. Small 4WD vehicles go for a very healthy premium in Central America. You can take a four figure profit. Fly to Rio. Enjoy the sights and relax.

TTAC’s voice of reason in Brazil, Marcello Vasconcellos, answers:

Hi, I hope you have a nice safe trip! If you’re going to drive all the way from the US into Brazil, I’m guessing you are going to via Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and then into Brazil. This is the most common route as driving from Colombia into the Brazilian Amazon is very difficult. Roads are almost non-existent and the infrastructure simply isn’t there.

As to type of vehicle a pickup or SUV is probably the way to go, though if you stick to the main roads a 4×4 system is not really needed. In Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, probably any Japanese make will blend in. In Brazil however, most Japanese brands are unknown. If you want to blend in, a Toyota Hilux seems like a good idea. But keep your mind open and realize a Nissan Pathfinder or Frontier are also well-known down here and there are Nissan dealerships in most major towns. Also think of a Ford Ranger. In Brazil they’re a dime a dozen. In fact when Ford started selling them down here they were imported from the US and don’t seem to be any worse for wear. Finally, consider a Mitsubishi Montero (sold in Brazil as Pajero, though that’ll will get you some strange looks in the Spanish speaking countries).

Bear in mind that all of these trucks are considered luxury cars in Brazil. All, no matter how old, will draw eyes. Especially if they run on diesel. Diesel would probably be the engine to choose as any road side mechanic will have taken a crack or two at this kind of engine at one time or another (results though will vary). You’ll also not have any trouble in Brazil where cars run on a veritable cocktail of fuel known as Brazilian gasoline. In it, ethanol content runs anything between 19 and 27 percent. Legally. IF you choose a gasoline car, remember that.

Now, thinking out of the box and if you are freakishly worried about blending in, just buy any Ford, VW or Fiat sedan or station wagon. In Mexico. Just make sure they are also available in Brazil. They’ll call no undue attention. I’ve heard that cars there are not so expensive. Are you going alone or just a spouse¿ Any Fiat Strada or Volkswagen Saveiro will also work out fine.

Hope to have helped!

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to [email protected], and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.

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24 Comments on “New Or Used: Making A Run For The (Brazilian) Border Edition...”


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    A neighbor of mine drove from Eugene to Argentina in a VW Bus; no parts problems. But he was an excellent mechanic. And he sold it down there.
    It’s something I always wanted to do, but I think I waited too long.

  • avatar
    findude

    Sounds like an excellent trip.  20-30 years ago the easy answer would have been a Toyota Land Cruiser (any vintage). Now I’m thinking it’s a Ford Explorer or a Jeep Cherokee Classic. While it’s a good idea to get a vehicle that blends in well, an American license plate will stand out like a sore thumb no matter where you go. You want a dirty, somewhat scarred 10-year old vehicle that is in excellent mechanical condition. I also recommend running your idea by the consulate offices for all the countries you plan on driving through–there may be reams of paperwork.
     
    Good luck with the Darien Gap.
     
     

  • avatar
    manazo166

    Great article. I am in the planning stages of organizing myself and 2 friends to drive from the Mid-Atlantic region down to Venezuela (I am from Caracas). Two years ago I was part of a 5 car, 15 person expedition into the Gran Sabana reaching the border of Venezuela and Brazil and then turning around to attempt reaching Angel Falls. Some parts of the trip were amazing, others not so much. Some 10 mile stretches of road took us 6-8 hours to complete. Hell, that was the whole point of the trip. We camped in amazing places and had a tremendous time seeing the lack of human footprint in the wild.
    Vehicles used? The ONLY vehicles taken were Toyota Land Cruisers from the 90s with lockers, lifts, etc etc. There was actually a “Machito” that was part of our caravan. Essentially a 2 door Land Cruiser not available here in the US.

    Our biggest worry is to attract too much attention and suffer vehicle theft. Traveling through Colombia and into Venezuela will not be a comforting piece of the trip. Central America is great, the people are great, and the scenery is amazing. Often times people don’t know what they are talking about in Central America…
    Cheers and good luck! We plan to take off in 2012!

  • avatar
    dswilly

    I wanted to do this as a younger man. Instead I flew to Central America and ran around for 8 weeks then flew home.  Driving there is still intriguing. Some things to do your homework on. Taking a car into Mexico may or may not mean you need to leave with a car as well, not sure here but it keeps people form dumping junkers down there or driving as far as it will go then abandoning it and busing home. This was my plan with an old Isuzu trooper II, I was going to load it up with three friends and drive down to climb some Volcano’s and give the truck to a local and bus home. Also there is the Darine gap between Panama and Columbia which is not safely  drivable and requires ferrying your vehicle which could be pricey. If you did choose to drive the gap a serious 4WD is a must as well as an AK-47, this is pure smuggler territory.

  • avatar
    twotone

    Make sure to check out the scenic route through Bolivia on your way to Brazil.

    http://www.ssqq.com/archive/vinlin27b.htm

    Twotone

  • avatar

    I’d use a VW Beetle, with slightly oversized mud/snows on the back. I had a ’67 like that back in the ’70s and went off-roading, cooler on the back seat, quite often, with a buddy who had similar (his was a ’64 I think) and try as we did, we couldn’t get those things stuck. Anywhere! Mud, snow, sand, a ton of fun, and super reliable. I think in some of those places we went, the bus might have had some problems.

  • avatar
    Lemmy-powered

    Suzuki Sidekick — hardtop, white. You’ll most definitely want a chance at blending in, and this will help you with that. Make sure it has steel wheels and skinnier tires than Americans are used to.

    Back in 1994, I remember several members of my local police raised some dough, bought a NEW North-American-spec Defender, loaded it up with supplies and headed off to provide help in Rwanda. I had just come BACK from there and, while I applauded their spirit, I had a great laugh at the vehicle they chose: a blinged-out USA-spec Defender soft top, with alloys and big fat tires. I guess they figured “hey, it’s Africa, let’s take a Land Rover!”

    I doubt it got off the boat without being stripped bare.  

  • avatar
    twotone

    I met one of the guys who did this trip here in Denver a few months ago. 

    Around the world — 77,000 miles  in 2.5 years.

    http://www.theworldbyroad.com/

    Twotone

  • avatar
    ajla

    Armored Chevy Suburban 2500 4×4 with the 454ci engine.

    http://tinyurl.com/3ag2zlo

    • 0 avatar

      Good idea…
      The drug cartels need those to fight better against the Law Forces… they will appreciate the donation.!!!!
      On another view, 2 friends of mine made a similar trip, but they didn’t got into the US because there is no French Made cars in the country.
      They came to Mexico from Argentina on a 206 HDI, and returned safely home.
      The only place where they couldn’t drive was between Panama and Colombia, there are no roads, you will need to ship the Car/Truck and pick it up at Colombia.
      Here is their Blog page..
      http://www.americabienalsur.com.ar/
       
      Boa Viagem!!

  • avatar
    djoelt1

    I did a similar trip 20 years ago from SF to Quito Ecuador.  Drove a 1990 Fisher Hoo Koo e Koo which I built up with basic Shimano Deore components, Mavic hubs and rims, etc.  Everything field rebuildable.

    A good choice might be a Corvair – crossing the Darien jungle while pushing my transport, I came across an abandoned one with thick trees growing up through it about 100 yards from the stone marking the border between Colombia and Panama.

    But seriously, don’t over prepare here.  Buy something simple and durable with common tire sizes and common parts.  You can DHL anything to yourself in a few days to fix anything.  The DHL delivery truck found me on the side of a road in central Mexico, having tried to deliver the package to my hotel where I stayed the previous night, and getting word that I was headed to Guanajauto on a bicycle.  International shipping is your friend!

  • avatar
    NN

    Now that is an epic roadtrip!  I’ve got a bit of experience driving south of the border…Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Brazil.  There are practically three distinct automotive landscapes there, between Mexico, Central America, and Brazil.  VW and Fiat are popular in Brazil and Mexico, but not Central America.  That said, the models are often different.  Neither brands are reliable so I’d stay the hell away from them!
    Bottom line, I think your best options are most likely a 90’s SUV that is reliable and has a closed back that you can sleep in if necessary (plus can keep your belongings safe and dry).  4-Runner is the best option due to it’s durability.  They are common in Central America, more so than Brazil or Mexico, however, if you broke down in any of them, you would get top dollar selling it.  Then again, they are prized, so beware.  A first or 2nd generation Explorer is another option, cheap, easy to fix, and although not as popular in Central/South America you should be able to get parts, and you’re less likely of a target, except for your gringo plates, of course.  Also consider 1st gen Rav4, as well as Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Mitsubishi SUV’s…you find them all down south, so people will be able to fix them.  Did I mention anyways that no matter what you drive, pretty much any mechanic down there will be able to keep it running with a spoon, some horse glue and a piece of twine?  I broke down in Mexico once and a whole family dropped my fuel tank and replaced the fuel pump…mom held up the fuel tank, daddy changed out the pump, daughter passed the tools, $130 of my money well spent and I’m sure it was their biggest paycheck of the month.
    You don’t want a car…you need ground clearance for the terrible road conditions and the streams you will certainly be fording.

  • avatar
    th009

    I’ll second Marcelo’s suggestion: drive to Laredo, TX in a one-way rental car, cab it across the border to Nuevo Laredo and then buy a car (or truck) on the Mexican side.  Those Mexican licence plates will blend in far better than the US ones …

  • avatar

    Shame the US never got the Lada Niva as they are reasonably common in South America. Canada received them. They rude and crude but quite robust at least drivetrain wise. One of the only (if not the only) vehicles to be used on every continent including Antarctica. A stock Niva Marsh (rather like a monster truck) made it to the North Pole as well long before the Top Gear boys.

  • avatar
    TokyoPlumber

    Here’s a link to an excellent blog written by a guy who attempted to drive from Los Angeles to the tip of South America (Ushuaia, Argentina) in a 1980 Mercedes Benz 300SD Turbo Diesel:
     
    http://www.drivetosouthamerica.com/index.html
     
    Within a few hundred miles of Ushuaia his car suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure and he was forced to abandon it.  He finished his journey in a rental car (much to his displeasure!).
     
    The blog has a lot of good information about what he learned from his journey.  As far as vehicle selection goes he offers the following basic advice:
    – Choose a vehicle with a gasoline engine rather than a diesel engine.  Gasoline is more widely available in Central and South America.
    – Four wheel drive is not absolutely necessary.  He had no significant problems getting stuck on bad roads in his rear wheel drive sedan.
    – Upgrade your vehicle’s suspension system (and take spare shocks, springs, etc…) so it can handle the pounding from poorly maintained roads.
     
    If I was going to drive from North America to Brazil (or Argentina) I’d probably choose a two wheel drive Mark II Ford Explorer two door with a five speed manual transmission.  Parts should be available and repairs doable most places on route.  And the enclosed body would offer a more secure cargo / sleeping area than in a small pickup truck.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    You can avoid the foreign plates problem everywhere by arranging one-way rentals for each country.  Then send us a report on your rental experiences!

  • avatar
    tulsa_97sr5

    If you go with the late 80’s – early 90’s 4runner stick with the 4cyl 22re + 5 spd manual.  The 3.0 6cyl they used up through 95 is notorious for having poor mpg and blowing headgaskets.  Plus parts should be a lot easier to find.
     
    Sounds like fun!

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    Thirty years ago, my retired parents spent three months every winter wandering all over Mexico in a pickup/camper. They were treated well and never had a problem. Today, with the drug wars, it would be a bad idea. You would be wiser to start in Washington state and drive though British Columbia and the Yukon into Alaska. All you have to worry about up there are bears and moose.

  • avatar
    M 1

    The Tacoma/Hilux choice is solid. I am selling boatloads (literally) of spare parts for those into S. and C. America, both diesel and gas (but turbos, not so much). They’re everywhere. Parts won’t be a big issue. And if you stick to 1983 1/2 or earlier, no electronics. Win-win.

  • avatar
    musiccitymafia

    What about the 4 door ranger they sell in Mexico?

  • avatar
    John R

    Being Panamanian and having lived in Colón until around the age of 10 and been back to visit a handful of times I feel like I should chime in. Also, my parents still live in Panama (Panama City) and rock a 2006 Accord 4-cyl and have had exactly zero problems getting it serviced if that is meaningful.
     
    Right. I will say almost any simple Japanese rig should be serviceable, but the Euros do tend to stick out, though. Older garden variety USDMs don’t turn heads and are easy to get fixed, but I didn’t see too many Chrysis-mobiles outside of Jeep Wanglers down there. If you were to get a Wrangler – the older the better. I imagine they might stick out once you leave the relative affluence of Panama City and go further south.
     
    If it were me, a mid to late 90s Taco/4runner or Trooper/Pathfinder might be my bet.
     
    Oh, this might be informative also; last year around this time I did see a mid-2000s Explorer with Ecuadoran tags in Delaware. Go fig.

  • avatar
    thecavanaughs

    I was sitting in a cafe in Belize last month when I struck up a conversation with a fellow who had just driven there from Texas. Now- this guy was hispanic and a fluent Spanish speaker. The plates on his car got him pulled over SIX times while driving through Mexico- with each police officer or Federale demanding 500 American Dollars to avoid being dragged down to the station. At no time did he feel unsafe- but his trip was slowed down considerably. In addition, despite being skilled in both Spanish and negotiating in general, he averaged 75-85 dollars final bribery price for each officer- for a rough total of 500 USD in bribery to drive through the country. Had he been a gringo with Espanol muy mal, it would have been a lot pricier than that. This information is about 6 weeks old and it was just one guy’s story, so take it for what it is worth.

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