February 18, 2016
About a year and a half ago, I rode my Super Tenere from Texas to Canada and back. Along the way, I met up with my friend Tom and we rode together for a while, going our separate ways in Montana and meeting up again on the way back down in Utah. On that trip, I had a GPS failure, and an aftermarket electronic item I had installed on the bike also failed. We joked at the time that the ideal setup would be “paper maps and an air-cooled 650” for simplicity. Little did I realize then that I would be taking an air-cooled 250 on this journey. And while I carry a few paper maps with me, I still rely on my GPS for a lot of my navigation.
For those following along that might be considering a similar trip, I thought I’d offer some insights into navigation that I’ve gained over the last several months, as well as some other small things I learned along the way.
GPS and Nav
First, if you are truly hard-core, old-school and savor the journey via paper maps, more power to you. It’s still probably the best and most satisfying way to go. On the other hand, if you’ve come to rely on turn-by-turn GPS instructions, you’re probably going to be frustrated and surprised in Central and South America. Somewhere in between is a good solution, and I’ve come to rely on a combination of technology to get me where I want to go rather than where Garmin thinks I should go.
If you use a Garmin GPS device, you may or may not have noticed that there is a lack of maps available for some parts of the world, including down here. Much of that gap has been filled by Open Source Street Maps (OSM). For free. Type a little information into a website, and within a short time, you have a custom file you can download and install on your GPS. This is certainly better than nothing, and works relatively well, but also has a number of failings. For example, it doesn’t even recognize cities the size of El Calafate or El Chalten in the list of cities. It also won’t always route you in the best manner, regardless of whether you have “avoid dirt roads” or “avoid tolls” or whatever switched on or off. Therefore, a little extra work is required.
In addition to the OSM maps installed on my Garmin, I use a combination of Google Maps and an app called Maps.me. Google Maps allows me to look at the bigger picture, zoom in or out and determine whether the road is paved or dirt, and gather wayoints along my route to force the GPS to take the route I want. In addition, maps.me has more detail, better off-road routing capabilities, and lists many more campgrounds and other facilities than the Garmin and OSM maps. It’s possible to download the maps from maps.me one country at a time so you don’t need wifi to use them.
I also use an app/website called iOverlander.com to find campsites and hotels that have secure bike parking.
For the most part, ATMs are plentiful and work well throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and are the easiest way to get money these days. Certain banks and credit card companies are better than others about not charging international transaction fees. I will leave that research up to you. I had no problem getting money from ATMs all the way until Chile and Argentina. These two countries dealt me two different problems, one (Chile) easy and one (Argentina) I still haven’t figured out.
In Chile, nearly all ATMs, regardless of which bank you are at, are operated under the Redbank name. Just like in the US, you insert your card and enter your PIN, and then are given a variety of choices, including “Balance Inquiry”, “Deposit”, “Withdrawal from Checking”, “Withdrawal from Savings”, “Withdrawal from Credit Card”, etc (in Spanish of course). If you’re like me, you already have this routine down: insert card, enter PIN, select “Withdrawal from Checking”, select or enter amount, take cash, take card, take receipt, go. However, if you do this in Chile, you will inevitably get a “Transaction Denied” response and no money.
Here’s the tip: At the Menu Selection screen, typically in the lower left corner, is a selection that says “Extranjero”. Which means “Foreigner”. You have to select this first, then it will take you to a new screen and you can select from where and how much.
Argentina is a totally different situation. Nearly every time I approached an Argentine ATM, the first time I inserted my card and selected a withdrawal amount of 1000 pesos (about USD$70), I got a message that said I had exceeded my daily limit. Each time after that if I selected a lesser amount (preset selections on the screen include 700, 500, 400, 300 pesos), I got a message that said I had “entered an invalid amount. Try again”. Of course, I hadn’t entered an amount; I had simply selected one of the choices presented to me. But I never did get any money. And I wasn’t alone. I watched tourists from the U.S., Germany, and Australia achieve the same result and leave frustrated and without cash in several cities.
Adding to this is the fact that there are no money-changers or Casa de Cambio places at any of the Chile-Argentina border crossings where I crossed, and no towns nearby. Which makes it even more important that you have Argentine pesos before crossing the border. As one follower mentioned previously, it is possible to exchange money at some stores, even at some gas stations. Example: in Gobernador Gregores, the bank refused to change my Chilean pesos for Argentine pesos, and sent me to the supermarket. The supermarket told me I could buy groceries with Chilean pesos but they would not exchange them outright. Eventually, the service station was the only place in town that would exchange them, and then at a horrible rate.
I carry a gas canister (iso-butane-propane) cook stove with me. In researching this trip, I read a lot of information on the internet that said not to use this type of stove, because gas canisters were not available in South America. Which is absolutely untrue. I saw canisters for sale in Cartagena, Quito, Lima, Mendoza, El Calafate, Punta Arenas and many other places, typically under the Doite brand name. Nearly every large city or tourist-based small town had an outdoor or camping store that sold Doite canisters. I must admit I didn’t buy one or use one, as I began my trip with two canisters from REI in the U.S. and these have lasted me this far. If you are traveling two-up or camp/cook more than I did, you may need more fuel. But it is readily available with just a little planning. It remains to be seen if I can find canisters in Africa, but I will find out next month in Cape Town.