Slow down, get local, and get way, way off the beaten path
A dog is the ideal road trip buddy. They don’t question your schedule, sightseeing priorities or new acquaintances – at least not in English. They make the loneliest hotel room feel like home. And a fearless canine companion is the back-up you need to stretch a little – to explore, to get lost and take a few risks.
If you’re ready for a big break, mind-blowing vistas, and the perspective that comes from a deep-dive into a different culture, it’s time to dust off your high-school Spanish, pack your car-camping essentials (plus a bag for the dog), and head out on a leisurely tour of Central America.
Three great destinations, and one to avoid
Grenada is a hip metropolitan city on Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. While you’re there, take a boat tour to Isla Ometepe, known for its twin volcanoes and freshwater sharks.
Looking for history with a view? The city of Suchitoto is an old revolutionary hideout perched above stunning Lago de Suchitlan in the highlands of El Salvador.
If you only see one pyramid on your trip, drive to the Peten jungle of northern Guatemala and hike the Tikal ruins, once the center of Mayan civilization.
- but -
Save Belize for another trip. Due in part to well-publicized dog attacks, many people in Belize are terrified of dogs. Entry requirements range from strict (if you’re lucky), to prohibitive and arbitrarily expensive.
Under-pack and Over-prepare
Navigation, safe sleeping spots and packing are the holy trinity of #vanlife planning. Get your phone unlocked and make sure you have a voice and data plan for your destinations, but don’t rely on your phone for navigation. For that it’s time to go #analog and pick up a fat stack of Lonely Planet guidebooks. The genius of the maps in Lonely Planet is that they only show major roads, roads that you won’t break an axle on. Your phone, when it does work, will show you everything, and that can get you broken down or seriously lost. Or both.
Speaking of lost, you are going to get lost. A lot. “Can you help me” is a magical question. You’ll find that most people are kind, but you still need to observe basic safety guidelines. When you ask for help, you want to be pointing to the map page in your worn Lonely Planet guidebook, not to the screen of your shiny new iphone.
Parking versus housing is a key #vanlife safety issue. Baja, Mexico is an example of an area that is beautifully set up for camping, with safe, friendly campgrounds. Vendors stop by on a regular schedule with empanadas, fruits and vegetables, propane and potable water. Grab a copy of the Traveler's Guide to Camping Mexico's Baja: Explore Baja and Puerto Penasco with Your RV or Tent to get a sense of how easy it is to #vanlife through Baja.
Unfortunately, camping is less popular throughout the rest of Mexico and in Central America. Your van will probably feel unsafe and exposed, and it is generally too hot to sleep with the windows rolled all the way up. In these areas, think of your van as an emergency backup bedroom, rather than your primary domicile. However, this shouldn’t deter you from exploring, even on a tight budget. You’ll average $30 a night to rent charming and picturesque rooms or casitas, while meeting great people.
You may be driving a van, but packing for Central America is similar to packing for Venice. Expect the most interesting cities to have narrow cobbled streets and extremely limited parking. You’ll either have to locate the one central parking garage, or leave your van on the outskirts of town. Bulky duffles or wheeled luggage are a complete non-starter.
Your #vanlife essentials
Pack a large, lightweight, water-resistant backpack with your dog-care items (we like the Matador Beast28 Packable Technical Backpack). After you park your van, toss a change of clothes and toiletries in the bag, and get ready to explore the town (and find a dog-friendly hotel).
- An elasticized leash worn around the waist (like the Ruffwear Roamer) is a comfortable option for both you and your dog. As a bonus, when you have a dog attached to your waist no one will pick your pocket or steal your bag.
- A lightly padded, portable dog bed like the Ruffwear Highlands™ Bed (which stuffs down to 12” x 4”)
- Your dog’s regular food (if you’re not sure how much to bring, track your dog’s consumption for a few days to use as the basis for an estimate. Pack extra food if you plan on daily hikes and beach romps)
- Collapsible dog dishes
- Poop bags
- Ball or toy
- Matador Droplet XL Dry Bag for a change of clothes, or the muddy stuff that needs to get washed in the sink
- Emergency bottle that can be drunk neat (more about that later)
You’re going to kill some trees
Every time you hit a border, expect to be asked for photocopies of all of your documents. Purchase a big folder with dividers and make 20 copies of everything you can think of. Check the USDA website for updated information and country-specific forms.
- Health Certificate from a veterinary office (when you are returning through Mexico you may be sent by the border agent to a vet near the border to get an updated veterinary certificate)
- Proof of vaccinations and rabies certificate
- Proof the dog is on flea and tick medication (pack extra flea and tick meds. If you have to you can dose the dog in front of the border agent)
- Car title (you must have an actual copy of the car title with you at all times, plus the 20 copies)
- Car registration
How great stories are born
At least once on your trip you’ll have a truly bad day when you got shaken down at the border for a mordida (bribe), you’re starving, the first two hotels you try don’t take dogs, and you would kill for a shower. That’s when you need the emergency bottle buried deep in your Matador Beast28. Feed and water the dog, unroll the dog bed, and pour yourself two fingers of whiskey, neat. Take a deep breath. And then walk back into town and find a taqueria. You may be sleeping in the van tonight, but you can still have a great evening.
For this post Matador is indebted to the expertise of Sheila Moon, a former bike racer and designer now living in Todos Santos, a small coastal town and artists’ colony in Baja, Mexico. Sheila’s essays (and photos of her dogs) can be found on sheilamoon.com.