From unexpected situations to unforgettable moments

| Johan van Rijswijck

Since 2008 I have organised various car trips with Sapa Pana Travel. For these trips, we shipped cars to Latin America to make unforgettable journeys. As I made more and more of these trips, I learned that unexpected, in some cases difficult situations ended up creating the most special and unforgettable moments. It is moments like these that make travelling fascinating and give you memories you will never forget.

A memorable mud bath

On the first trip, I drove with a group of 25 convertibles from Belém in the north-east of Brazil, across the Amazon to the south. A journey of 13,500 kilometres where we ended in Ushuaia, the Argentinian city on Tierra del Fuego, which is considered to be the southernmost city in the world. For me, this was the first journey to cover such a long distance over land. I did not only see the landscapes change but the people as well. We started in the dense tropical jungle of the Amazon basin and ended in the sub-Antarctic landscape of Tierra del Fuego. It was certainly not always an easy trip. We started with 4,000 kilometres of unpaved roads right through the Amazon. These roads turned into mud baths after one shower. This immediately became a struggle for the travellers and sometimes it was really hard. However, when everyone reached the finish line in Ushuaia, almost everyone mentioned this first stretch as the most memorable part of the journey.

Your car will be repaired while you play billiards

In total, I have spent quite a few hours in Latin American garages. Usually, this was during my inspection trips where I had no technical back-up. In some cases it was also during trips, to relieve the technical teams. It sounds annoying, but my experience is the opposite. It always results in nice and surprising situations, where you get in touch with the population. I visited professional garages, where the mechanics spontaneously dropped everything out of their hands to help us, just because they liked what we were doing. And sometimes I was in a small garage at home, where we could have a cup of coffee with the rest of the family while the mechanic was working on our car. However, the most special place where my car was ever repaired was in the Amazon. My car was repaired in a garage annexe pool bar.

Waiting with a royal meal a breathtaking view

During our first car trip in 2008, we stayed in the picturesque village of Cafayate, famous for its vineyards. I had told the participants about Bodega Colomé, a unique winery high up in the Andes. The food there is delicious and the road there is breathtakingly beautiful. The route is unpaved but easy to drive. The road takes us through the Quebrada de las Flechas, a rough and rocky mountain landscape. The mountain points in this area contain many minerals and metals, which makes almost all shades of red. With a few cars, we went on our way. We only had about 120 kilometres to go, so we had the time and were able to enjoy the spectacular landscape along the way. 

At a certain point, I took a turn and was able to brake just in time for the Audi RS4 convertible. The left front wheel inexplicably ran off. It turned out to be bad luck, it could have happened anywhere. The luck was that we drove slowly and in loose sand, so the car had little further damage. Anyway,  a car on three wheels is, of course, difficult to drive. According to our calculations, we were living in 2008 and had no navigation at that time, we had to be about 15 kilometres away from Bodega Colomé. Via our satellite phones, we made contact and explained the story. "No problem," we heard on the other side of the line. "We have a semi-trailer here, so I will ask mechanics to drive up to you and pick up the car. We have a garage here so we can see if we can repair the car." Within half an hour two friendly mechanics arrived with a semi-trailer. The car was loaded and we all drove to the bodega.

Bodega Colomé

Bodega Colomé is located just over 3,000 metres above sea level, far from civilisation. The vineyard is known as the northernmost and highest vineyard in Argentina. They make sublime wines there, such as the Malbec Altura Maxima which has won many awards. They also keep cattle and produce many vegetables. The farm, which has 7 very comfortable guesthouses, an excellent restaurant and a museum, is completely self-sufficient.

Upon arrival at the bodega, it turned out that they had a fully-equipped car garage with a bridge, where two very skilled mechanics were working. While the mechanics went to work, we were served a delicious lunch prepared from ingredients that all came from the Colomé estate. After the extensive lunch, it turned out that the car still needed some work. They suggested that they would take care of the car the next day. We still had a day off so this was no problem at all. The next day we went back to Bodega Colomé. Here we spoiled ourselves with another lunch to make our mouth water, after which we all drove back to Cafayate, including the Audi RS4, which was completely patched up again.

My favourite petrol station

Where in the Netherlands I always try to postpone refuelling for as long as possible, on my travels I can often enjoy a stop at filling stations. Often the more remote the more enjoyable the rule is. It is then a real stopping place for people, where they not only stop to refuel but also to eat, rest and have a chat. And when you arrive in a car with a foreign license plate, it attracts attention.

One of my most favourite petrol stations is undoubtedly Tapi Aike. If you cross the border at the Torres del Paine national park in desolate Patagonia, this is the first petrol station you encounter in Argentina. It is also the only petrol station on the way to the Argentinean town of El Calafate, the base for a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier. The windows of the little store are completely filled with stickers from travellers from all over the world. There is also a very large sticker of Sapa Pana Travel on the window. I think I even saw our sticker when Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman from The Long Way Up visited this petrol station. The people there are really having fun in their work. I remember the fun we had when we had a cup of coffee there.

PSV souvenir

At another time in Chile, I met a pump attendant who started talking passionately about PSV, his favourite football club from the Netherlands, when he understood that I was from the Netherlands. Coincidentally, this happens to be my favourite club as well and I also had a PSV souvenir with me. Of course, I then gave it to him as a present.

Every disadvantage has its advantage

The challenging and at the same time beautiful thing about road trips is that you can never predict exactly how things will turn out in advance. Even if you prepare everything so well, you simply don't always have everything under control. For example, during the 2010 inspection trip for the Panamericana Roadtrip between the Colombian towns of Pasto and Cali, I ended up in a traffic jam due to a landslide. Certainly, in a period of rain, this type of landslide can occur. In that case, a stretch of road has become impassable and will have to be repaired before one can continue. Generally speaking, such a thing happens fairly quickly. You don't understand where people come from, but in no time at all, there is an army of people to make the road passable again in the shortest possible time. However, it always takes a few hours and, of course, no one knows exactly how long. Now, the great thing about this type of situation is that it is accepted in Latin America without sulking. People make a virtue out of necessity and get out to chat and stretch their legs for a while.

Of course, we were a sight to see with our fully stickered classic Volvo from 1968. Behind me was a bus full of students. They quickly spoke to me and my co-driver asking what we were doing. When we told them that we were from the Netherlands, they asked if we had Dutch music. Luckily I had a CD-ROM (it was 2010, so we were still using it at the time) with Dutch hits. In their turn, they showed us the Colombian salsa and vallenato and soon, we were the centre of a kind of open-air disco. In the car in front of us was a young family with two children and a friendly grandfather. They loved my Amazon 123GT and wanted to be photographed with it. They also asked me to take a picture with them.

As we stood here chatting like this, I was approached by a timid old gentleman, a bus passenger of the bus behind me. He had understood that we were on our way to Cali and he asked if he could drive with us because then he could be with his family more quickly. I told him that I would be happy to give him a lift if he would guide us to our hotel in Cali in return. You have to imagine that at that time we were not driving with navigation. In preparation for the trip, we had made our draft route book, which we would check during this inspection trip. Because of the delay with the landslide, we knew for sure that we would arrive in the city of millions in the dark. Despite an itinerary, finding our way in such a chaotic South American city is a huge task. The man thought this was an excellent deal. As soon as we could get on, the gentleman took a seat in our backseat and we happily drove on to Cali. After we reached the city, we drove to our hotel with the help of our passenger, where he said goodbye with a big smile.

Getting started yourself

I could talk for hours about border crossings alone. Earlier I wrote a blog about the ten most beautiful border crossings in South America. Kasani, the border crossing between Peru and Bolivia on Lake Titicaca is considered a colourful palette of teeming people, where there is always something to see or do. Because clearing cars always requires a bit more administrative work than just stamping a passport, it sometimes takes a bit more time. Clearing the cars had to be done in the back of a small souvenir shop. The manager of the shop who was also officially in charge of the administration concerning the import of the cars. He found it complicated in the first place, all those European license plates. Secondly, he wanted to focus more on his company's customers. He therefore asked if I did not want to do it myself and so I took a seat behind his desk and then prepared all our cars myself.

LatinAmeriCar - Exclusive car trips

Based on these experiences we have created a special series of car journeys with Sapa Pana Travel, called LatinAmeriCar. During our exclusive car trips, you will drive a route through Latin America in your own or rental car. During these journeys, you will always have back up from an experienced team of guides and an expert technical team who have had these kinds of experiences themselves. It is a true adventure where things don't always go as planned, just because we don't always have everything under control. However, with our people, you will have the optimal support to bring this adventure to a successful conclusion, so that you will cherish this experience for the rest of your life!

More about LatinAmeriCar

Would you like to join us on one of these exclusive car trips? Then take a look at our page of LatinAmeriCar. Do you have questions about a unique and round trip in Latin America, would you like a tailor-made travel proposal or would you like to make an appointment at our office? Feel free to contact us. Send an e-mail to or call us on +31 73 610 62 04. We are happy to help.

More about LatinAmeriCar