East West North South Lily
Lily and her husband have spent the last ~300+ days traveling the Pan American highway in her ’99 Toyota 4Runner down South America from Portland, Oregon. If you’re interested in traveling South America, Lily is a fantastic resource for planning the logistics and learning about what you might come across on the road. Find out more – interview with Lily below.
All photos above and below (C) 2015 Lily Feng
Meet Practical And Dreaming Lily
How did your trip come to be?
My husband and I met while he was backpacking through China, and I was a graduate student in Beijing. We shared a dream then, and ever since, to use our resources for experiences over things, and to see as much of the world as we can. Our lists of travel ideas were so long, and after we married and started jobs in San Francisco, our free time was so short. We took every opportunity to travel throughout the US, Asia, and Europe in the past 5 years, but the itineraries were always so hectic. We needed one long trip, to see all of the amazing sights we’d recorded over the years in Latin America – which neither of us had visited yet – at our own pace.
We both loved our jobs, but we still daydreamed about escape. We have an ever-growing travel playlist, which we’d listen to while driving around San Francisco, and on planes during our trips. One of our favorite tracks is by Nancy Sinatra, singing “You Only Live Twice” – once for yourself, and once for your dreams. By June of 2014 we were nearly burned out from work, but my husband’s client contracts were secured through the end of 2015, and I could leave my job to explore those dreams. We moved out of our San Francisco apartment in August, boxed up most of our possessions, and spent the next month at Andrew’s parents’ house in Portland, Oregon to conquer logistics.
What’s your vehicle/camp set up? Why did you choose it?
We are driving a green 1999 Toyota 4Runner Limited named Lucy. We found her on Craigslist the same week we temporarily relocated to Portland, had her inspected at Land Cruiser Northwest (LCNW), and bought her the next day. We liked how much more nimble, fuel efficient, and unassuming she was than a Land Cruiser, of which you can only buy luxury models in the States. The authors of our trip bible – LifeRemotely’s ebook “Don’t Go There. It’s not safe. You’ll Die” – also traveled in a 4Runner, so we knew it was a proven model. Lucy was very well taken care of by the previous owner, and LCNW could only find one hose to replace as a precaution.
To camp in the back, we removed the rear seats, and designed a cargo box system that doubled as a sleeping platform. We took the plans to the ADX Workshop in Portland, where two craftsmen helped us fabricate it from supplies we assembled from three hardware stores around the city. The box has two locking roll-out drawers in the back, two compartments with locking flip-up panels in the front, and flip-up wings on the sides. Knowing that most of our equipment is temporary (we plan to sell in Uruguay and fly home), we bought a fridge, some ice packs, two folding chairs, and a side table for camping that are all relatively cheap and expendable. The top of the cargo box is our sleeping platform, where we have two inflatable air mattresses, an air pump that runs off the D/C port in the back, and our zero-degree sleeping bags. We also have a small fan for hot weather, and an electric heater for the cold, which can run off the main battery through the inverter, or through our external jumper pack.
Why did you choose the Pan American tour from Portland to Patagonia? What was life like before you hit the road?
Vacations are very inefficient. We took many trips around the US, Asia, and Europe, and a big portion of the time and expense is in flying back home. Before our trip, we were working 90+ hour weeks for startups in San Francisco, and taking vacations at every opportunity. But even those were hectic, because the logistics were a nightmare. We tried to cram in as many sights and activities as we could. The problem was that we had schedules – other people paid us to be in certain places at certain times, for reasons we didn’t totally agree with – and the best we could do was to fit our own lives in between. We’re very dedicated (even obsessive) workers – a quality we admire in each other – but we have dreams too, and those weren’t getting the time they needed. Andrew solved this problem for himself the year before, by leaving his company and becoming a consultant who could dictate his own schedule. I had to find my own escape.
We’re both pretty nerdy. The only item we hung on the wall of our San Francisco apartment was a white board, to keep track of all our goals together. The apartment was as much an office as it was a home, so our work followed us constantly. On the right side of that board was a list of trip ideas, which we would cross out with every completed trip, and rewrite on every New Year’s Day. It helped us keep our lives in perspective. Time could fly very fast, and opportunities were fleeting. Over our five years in that apartment, our list gained more and more destinations in Latin America. We connected the dots and discovered it would be far more efficient, and cheaper, to simply connect those dots in a single trip. A trip without an end date. No schedule. For our goals, it just made sense.
We also knew there would be amazing places around those dots that we hadn’t yet heard of. If we just flew to all of the major destinations, we’d miss everything in between. There are no rails through Central America, so train travel was out. We aren’t interested in cruises, and those only stop at major ports anyway. We don’t know how to sail, and even if we could, sailboats are really expensive and we’d be somewhat limited to coastal cities. Many of our destinations are farther inland. Could we drive through some of it? We’d have to rent cars in each city, along with all of the risk and liabilities those entail. Rental cars are really expensive, and you have to return them on time. We don’t want a rental agency to dictate our schedule either. What if we drove our own car? What… that’s crazy. Can you even do that? We’d heard of the Pan-American Highway, but we didn’t know how complete it was. Was it really a highway, or just a bunch of connected dirt roads? We did a little research, and found LifeRemotely’s blog and ebook. It proved to us that the trip was not only possible, but relatively cheap to do. But there’s no way we could survive, right? Andrew took Spanish in high school but couldn’t remember much of anything. I spoke Mandarin and English. Zero Spanish. I didn’t even know “si” meant “yes” yet. It would be a huge logistical challenge, but no other way made sense for everything we wanted to see.
If you and your partners’ “road roles” were a Venn diagram, how would they overlap? How would they differ?
I plan most of the route, and navigate along the way. I research and book the AirBnBs and hotels in all of the destinations ahead, and I find most campsites. When we camp in the wild, my husband makes the fire and I do the cooking (which I love most), and we clean up.
I only drive maybe 10% of the time, and that’s usually on the really empty roads. City driving stresses me out. Especially when traffic is heavy and streets have no predictable signage. So my husband does most of the driving, and of course works for his clients every night, which supports our travel budget. He’s in charge of mechanics, though he’s mostly learning along the way. He also finds most of those cool in-between places and activities to see and do, and he stars them on Google Maps. I find the routes that connect those stars as efficiently as possible. One of his greatest frustrations is missing a star along the way, or not seeing everything that the star had to offer. My response is, try as we might, we can’t always see everything.
How does travel in the United States differ from Central and South America?
• Language: I couldn’t say more than “si,” “no,” and “uno, dos, tres” before we left. My husband learned Spanish for 2 years in high school, but never used it since. So I knew the language barrier would be high. We even considered naming our trip blog “wedonotspeakspanish.com.” Now that we’re in Argentina, the 15th country on our trip, our Spanish is still terrible but we’re surviving just fine. Props to Google Translate! It’s far from perfect, but with Google translations, the right body language, and some context, we can usually get our ideas across. I am learning the structure of Spanish through Duolingo, which is a great app. Although it needs offline support.
• Security: It’s most concerning whenever we leave Lucy out of sight. We have a system for carrying or locking down our valuables whenever we leave the car, to minimize our losses, but we hear smash-and-grab stories all the time. We feel fortunate that our car hasn’t been attacked yet, from the US all the way to Chile (knock on wood!), but my husband’s iPhone was stolen right out of his pocket during the 4:30 AM Easter procession in Ayacucho, Peru. (He knew he shouldn’t jump into crowds, no matter how good the photos might be!) We’ve heard so many terrible stories of laptops, cameras, etc. being stolen, so secured parking is a huge priority for us.
• Speed bumps: If I could quote myself from our drive through Mexico: “To create jobs for mechanics, Mexico invented the invisible speed bump.” Not only are they more dangerous than if there were none at all, but they cost us money in the wear and tear on our brakes, tires, and suspension. So many countries use speed bumps without proper paint or labels or signs!
• Road signage: Some countries just don’t use them at all, for street direction, stopping, danger, speed limits, or, again, speed bumps. The roads are just laid down. They’re not engineered. Really makes us appreciate the standards that the US and Europe adhere to.
• Night Driving: This is one of the biggest no-nos for PanAm overlanders. Pot holes, children, animals, speed bumps, hidden obstacles are all killer. Yet we only obeyed this rule strictly in Guatemala and Honduras. Most roads were fine to tackle at night at low speeds and high-beam headlights. Though we did make one major mistake on our route from Trujillo to Huaraz in Peru, which turned from a paved road into a washboard all-nighter. We survived, but the road was remote and desolate, and we could’ve run into serious troubles. We recommend to cross-reference Google Maps with OpenStreetMaps, and to check Google Maps’ satellite view before long drives. We’ve been surprised many times by the odd places where pavement ends, and there’s no indication of when (or if) it will ever start again.
• General uncertainty: As we sat in horrible traffic in Bogota, Colombia, my husband asked me what one word I would use to describe Latin America thus far. I thought for a bit and realized it was “Uncertainty.” We just don’t know what we’ll run into, and that’s both exciting and very scary, because we are so much more vulnerable to disaster. I guess that’s the adventure.
Do you have any safety tips for others looking to overland the Americas?
• Never put valuables in visible spots when leaving the vehicle out of sight, even if it’s for a minute. Have a hidden place for everything; or better, just carry a heavier backpack for a while.
• Don’t even let secure parking lots hold your keys. Insist on parking in a spot that doesn’t block other cars, and they’ll have no reason to hold them while you’re away.
• Use ugly bags with security features. The PacSafe purse I bought for this trip looks dirty and shabby, but its zippers are secured and it’s designed in a way that makes you want to keep it closed when you’re not using it. Nobody looks twice at it.
• When you go shopping or to restaurants, minimize your load and make a habit out of keeping tabs on the number of possessions that are with you. For example, if you have 5 items in your purse before visiting a local market, double-check before leaving that the number of things in your purse is still 5.
• Don’t lose focus on security. It helps to be a little paranoid. All of the horror stories we heard from our friends involved letting their guard down, or assuming a place was secure. Nothing really is here.
Take a photo of your five must have items for Pan American travel.
Laptop, moleskin note books, camera, iPhone, Charles Schwab ATM card
How do you stay in touch with friends and family while traveling?
Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and WeChat. I still have Skype video calls with my family in China, once a week.
What’s been the most beautiful site thus far?
This is probably the toughest question so far. We could not pick just one, but we almost could for each country:
US: the Narrows in Zion National Park
Mexico: Bacalar, the 7-color lake
Belize: the Crystal Princess in Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave
Guatemala: Sumac Champay
Costa Rica: Corcovado National Park
Ecuador: Cotopaxi National Park
Peru: Huascaran National Park, and of course Machu Picchu
Bolivia: the lagoons of the Southwest circuit
Chile: Valle de la Luna (so far)
Where are you now [June 9, 2015] and where will you be in one month?
Now: Mendoza, Argentina
In a month: Bariloche, Argentina (after returning to central/southern Chile)
Ever considered traveling the Pan American Highway?
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