Adventure Travel South of the Border

Written by  Austin Johnson and Leah Cheney
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A few years ago, sitting at my desk job playing on the internet; I stumbled upon the blog of a couple traveling south on the Pan-American highway in a first generation 4Runner. The more I read, the more excited I became at the possibility of such a trip.  I went home and shared the dream with my girlfriend (now fiancée) Leah. That evening we became lost in the magic of an adventure of this magnitude, and our minds began to whirl as our future goals changed. Over the next couple of months, as the enormity of the trip sunk in, we realized that we would need a lot of time to plan and save to pull off such an endeavor. Leah was just about to start a two-year MBA program, and I was nearing a career change. We forecasted our budget, crunched the numbers, and realized that we could be debt free and have our required funds ready by the end of her MBA program. After a few months of intensive research and the beginning stages of saving; we were well on our way to our Pan-American Highway adventure that would take us from Denver to Ushuaia.

Adventure Travel South of the Border

Earlier that year I had purchased our 2004 Toyota 4Runner for camping, off-roading, and as my daily driver. Since the 4Runner is such a reliable and well-built vehicle, we knew it would be the perfect vehicle for an overland trip. As our budget allowed, I started to purchase the desired suspension and various other upgrades that we would need. Since the 4Runner had just over 100,000 miles, I rebuilt most of the front suspension and changed the stock front shocks to 2.5” Sway-A-Way coil-overs and SPC upper control arms. The rear suspension was changed to MetalTech4x4’s version of long travel suspension with custom built control arms. Since much of our driving would be highway, we decided that a tall, skinny tire would be the best option to help with fuel consumption while still performing well off-road. The tire of choice was the 33” Cooper S/T Maxx because of the unique size and the semi-aggressive treadpattern that would be able to handle any type of terrain.

Adventure Travel South of the Border

At times building an overland vehicle on a strict budget can get very frustrating; such as the large price tag on a rear bumper with a spare tire swing out. With prices hovering around $2,000, we had to discard the dream of the new beautiful steel bumpers.  Instead, I drew up some plans and custom made one specific to our needs, saving us $1500. I also made and installed a full set of drawers with easy access from the back that would also allow us to sleep inside if necessary, all the while keeping an extra seat for a third traveler.  We did invest in a Tepui rooftop tent, which has made for a very comfortable home in nearly all types of weather and has been by far one of the best investments we have made for this trip. I built and installed a 100W solar and dual battery system to power up our 43-quart refrigerator and to keep us self-sufficient in remote places. The build turned out to be a reliable and comfortable setup, and hopefully tough enough for the grueling 30,000 miles of paved, potholed, dirt and sand roads ahead.

Adventure Travel South of the Border

The 4Runner has been a great vehicle for us on this trip. Except for Mexico (which doesn’t sell 4Runners), we have felt confident that in the event we encounter a problem, we would be able to find and replace parts. We have come across all types of roads and all types of weather along this trip. The 4Runner has powered through every type of terrain with such grace that it almost makes the trip seem, dare I say, easy. Mudslides that have stood in our way, hundreds of miles of dirt roads & sandy beaches, there was even a road in southern Mexico that had in excess 300 speedbumps in 150 kilometers! All of which the 4Runner has made its way through with relative ease. 

Adventure Travel South of the Border

We have been to some pretty amazing places so far on this trip, but there are really a handful that stick out in our memory. In Mexico, Chichen Itza was a great visit. We also enjoyed just about every cenote that we dove into, especially the one in the town of Valladolid.

If you were to ask us what beaches we would recommend, well we would have to ask, what are you looking for? If you’re looking for the surf culture, then the Pacific beaches of El Salvador are for you.  If you’re looking to scuba and snorkel, we would point you in the direction of the Caribbean coast because of its clear blue water and tremendous reefs. One of the most clean and beautiful countries in all Central America is Costa Rica. The parks are very pretty and full of wildlife, the beaches are clean and free of trash, and the lakes are top notch since there are not hundreds of speed boats zipping back and forth all day long. The greatest city that crossed our path in Central America was undoubtedly Panama City, Panama. The cityscape is one of the most amazing scene from the docks of Panama Bay, which is south of the city off a small strip of land. This city was very clean and well planned, which is something every trip navigator will appreciate, although traffic is an absolute nightmare. 

Adventure Travel South of the Border

One of the best aspects of this trip that was unexpected was the relationships that we would forge with other overlanders. When you meet another overlander – the connection is automatic.  You immediately fall into deep conversation and form a bond as if you have known each other for years. It is these spontaneous relationships with other overlanders that has given shape to our trip. Prior to leaving, we believed that we would have a plan of what and where we would be a month out.  This view changed very quickly.

The best example is how we spent this past Christmas. We were headed across the border to Belize, when we started talking with another overlanding couple and, decided on the spot to join them for the Holiday.  This involved driving three days to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, where we celebrated with eight couples from eight different countries. We came together, shared our favorite dishes from home and shared stories until the early hours of the morning. Since then we have traveled on and off with these same overlanders.

Adventure Travel South of the Border

The only regret we have is that both of us should have taken our Spanish lessons more seriously. Don’t get me wrong, we have made it a long way with our broken Spanish, but we completely miss out on being able to connect with locals on a deep and meaningful level.  We have had to rely on our overlanding friends who speak fluent Spanish, or the grace of the locals with whom we are trying to communicate. 

Adventure Travel South of the Border

For those who dream of a trip like this, we have but one piece of advice for you... Do it! If we have learned one thing on this trip, it is that the world is continually changing and not always for the better. Experience it while you can, learn to explore and adventure will unfold at every turn, including learning a lot about yourself.  If you are afraid of what lies beyond our borders, let us tell you that we feel just as safe on the road as we would in any national park in the United States. People south of the US border have been friendly, helpful and generous.

A major topic around the overland campfire is the issue of bribes. We do our research prior to entering a new country; we try our best to follow the letter of the law and are respectful to any officer that we come across. We are firm believers that being polite and giving a big smile are all you need, and of course the proper documents to get out of any situation bribe free. Early in our trip we had the pleasure to meet a couple that has been on the road since the early 90’s; the best advice I took away from our lengthy conversations was that the best tool you have in non-ideal situations is time. As an overlander you must be patient, and willing to go with the flow.

You can follow their adventures on their website and Instagram site:

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