Over two years have passed since I left the Canary Islands on a sailboat, headed towards America and things are still running smoothly. I recently arrived in Colombia in La Caracolita, the Little Snail, as I like to call the vehicle that I purchased in Mexico City in May of 2020 and which has slowly but surely taken me as far as Cartagena de Indias, the city which, for many of us travelers driving along the Pan-American Highway, constitutes the doorway to South America.
If you are driving from North America southbound, as I am, there are several countries separating Mexico, which is still considered North America, from Colombia, in South America. Some people are unaware of the existence of such countries, like the taxi driver in Cartagena who recently asked me if Mexico borders with Colombia, unknowingly wiping all of Central America off the map. Each of the Central American countries have their own unique culture, history, climate and geography, which is how I justify having spent over a year in that region that looks so tiny on the maps we usually see but which is so rich and diverse in real life.
This whole story started in September of 2019, when my six-month contract at the Embassy of Ireland in Madrid came to an end. I used the time I worked there to save as much as I could, because a desire, almost a plan, already existed in my mind to find a sailboat willing to take me across the ocean from Europe to America. That desire was born almost a year earlier from a casual encounter in Livingston, Guatemala. While I was staying at a Guatemalan friend’s house, I met a group of young French people who had just crossed the Atlantic on a sailboat. It seemed like a dream to me, a romantic and unfeasible adventure; and because I have a tendency towards adventure, when I got back to Europe, I started to research sailing as a means of travel. The internet taught me that not only is it feasible, it is also quite common and that there is a group of people who choose this means of transport in order to avoid contributing to the pollution caused by air travel and as a form of protest against the tax exemptions enjoyed by international air transport.
I don’t own a sailboat, so I needed to find somebody who did and who was willing to have me onboard as crew. After a series of adventures in the port of San Miguel de Tenerife, where I met Gesa, the German girl who would become my partner in crime on the sailing leg of my journey, we met a French captain who offered to take us as far as Martinique, in the Caribbean. But first we stopped in Cape Verde, the magical archipelago where, due to unforeseen circumstances, we abandoned our first sailboat and boarded Lullaby instead, the 40-foot French sailboat that belongs to Pascal, who was en route to Dominica, another Caribbean island which, although geographically close to Martinique, could not be culturally more different from the French island.
My first instinct about the transatlantic crossing was right: it is a dream journey. Not seeing land for some time gives you the opportunity to dive deep into nature, yourself and, of course, the sea. We arrived in Dominica on the 19th of December of 2019, ecstatic to reach land. The plan was to go our separate ways once we reached the Caribbean; however, after two weeks together out at sea and a month exploring Dominica, Pascal and I decided to continue traveling together. My aim was to reach Mexico and he didn’t have a fixed course, so he agreed to take me as far as my destination, on the condition that we stopped in Cuba. We spent the next three months sailing across the Caribbean Sea, exploring the islands and ignoring the budding pandemic, which we were entirely unaware of. We went to Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, until we finally reached the mainland of the American continent in March 2020, arriving in Livingston, Guatemala, the same town where, almost a year and a half earlier, I had begun to dream of this journey.
When I arrived in Guatemala, I was so in love with the sailing lifestyle that I wanted to buy a sailboat. However, my limited budget and common sense led me to realize that it was probably more appropriate for me to purchase a land vehicle. That is how I ended up buying La Caracolita. My friend Alfredo, a native of Mexico City, was my practical and spiritual guide during the process of purchasing and transforming the van. The vehicle is a Nissan Frontier 2007 that used to belong to Bimbo, the multinational baking company; after buying it, the refrigerated box previously used for delivering bread had to, somehow, be turned into a home. The countless YouTube videos we watched, Alfredo’s limitless creativity and our determination allowed us, in little over two months, to build something decent: a space with a bed, water tanks, a kitchen, cooking gas, a shower, a solar panel, electricity, light and the most important thing: a huge desire to begin our journey.
So, on the 17th of September of 2020, we left Mexico City, southbound. Things were complicated in the beginning: the car had been cheap and had many mechanical problems. We spent a large part of the first two months in mechanics’ garages, trying to convince La Caracolita that she really did have the power to drive across the continent. Luckily, we came across some extremely skilled, patient and generous mechanics in Mexico and Guatemala who not only repaired the car, but also offered us accommodation, fair prices and moral support.
The pandemic was another obstacle: Alfredo and I began to drive across borders when overland travel was still very restricted, despite air travel being fully open in most countries, in accordance with a set of migratory and health policies that we never fully understood. That is why we decided not to attempt to visit some countries, like Belize and El Salvador, while in Guatemala we had to juggle complex travel requirements in order to manage to cross the border into Honduras and from there to Nicaragua. The constant worry over travel restrictions prevented us from fully enjoying that part of the trip, although we did explore many beautiful places and even started a few projects: we took medicine donated by Alfredo’s friends and family to a rural and very remote community in Chiapas, in the south of Mexico; and we started to put into practice an idea born from my friend’s love of Mesoamerican traditions, which involved creating a database of traditional drinks of the American continent. It was also a good excuse to taste all the different alcohols ourselves.
When we got to Nicaragua, Alfredo realized that it would be complicated for him to continue traveling: Costa Rica’s land border was closed to overland travel, although the country was fully open to international air travel, and it didn’t seem like the land border was going to open anytime soon. So, my friend decided to return to his beloved Mexico, with the intention of continuing the trip at a later stage. I stayed in Nicaragua with the van. After spending some time in the south, on the island of Ometepe and in Managua, the capital, I found the oasis I needed to wait out the pandemic: a small coastal town on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast called Las Peñitas. I went there to buy a surfboard I had found on Marketplace and ended up staying for either six or eight months, the leisurely pace of life by the beach allowed me to me lose count.
I found a hostel where the owners let me stay in the van in exchange for a few hours work in the garden. I thought I would stay a short while, until the Costa Rican border opened, but time went by, the mango leaves I raked up every day stopped falling and gave way to the leaves of the jocote trees, the jocote fruit, the mango flowers and back to the start. Although I wasn’t paying for accommodation, my savings had dried up by then and I needed to generate income. For years, I had been doing freelance translation work, without ever earning enough to make a living off it. My stable situation in Caracolito Hostel allowed me to take the time to find new clients and work on more projects. I began to do remote simultaneous interpretation, text revision and to teach online language classes.
After many peaceful months in Las Peñitas, where I learned to take things as they come and appreciate the little things in life, Costa Rica opened its land border. I mentally prepared for the continuation of my trip, said goodbye to the friends I had made and set off again. I drove to Costa Rica and spent a couple of months there, exploring different parts of the country, trying to get a feel for the culture and the nature while I thought about how I would get past the Darien gap, the dense swath of jungle that separates Panama from Colombia and Central America from South America. There is not what can be called a safe road that cuts through this area, which is why the option of transporting vehicles by cargo ship exists. The shipping process is costly and involves a lot of paperwork, but in the end, I decided to go for it, in order to reach the South American continent and continue my journey.
I found a couple who wanted to ship their vehicle from Panama to Colombia at the beginning of December, so, in late November I drove across the border into Panama and spent a few days driving through beautiful landscapes and dodgy roads towards Panama City, the country’s capital. When I got there, I started the bureaucratic process of loading my van, together with another vehicle, into a container which would, in turn, be loaded onto the cargo ship that would then set sail to Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. While my dear Caracolita learned to swim in the Caribbean Sea, I spent a week exploring Panama City, a lively city full of contrasts. Then, I hopped on a plane to Cartagena, where my unharmed van welcomed me happily, engine roaring and delighted to begin the next leg of the journey: South America.