If you’re anything like us, you love a good road-trip. But do you love road-trips enough to venture on one for an entire decade? Possibly not. Well, we’ve found a husband-and-wife duo who do. Journalist Karen Catchpole and photographer Eric Mohl, have literally spent 10 years on the road, having left their NYC home for a life of adventure (and a lot of driving). Lucky for us, we had a chance to catch up with the couple themselves, to find out exactly what being the co-creators of their epic trip, the Trans-Americas Journey, entails.
For starters, it features two years in the U.S. and Canada, 18 months in Mexico, three years in Central America, and an indefinite amount of time exploring South America. And the couple, currently based in Chile, aim for it to be the ultimate overload road-trip. So, it’s all about avoiding highways and focusing on small back roads to really see North, South and Central America in an authentic way. Obviously we dig this sort of travel here at Intrepid, so we couldn’t resist a catch-up to find out Karen and Eric’s favorite destinations, crazy anecdotes, advice for travelers, and a whole bunch more. Here’s what we learned…
What made you embark on such a journey through the Americas?
Eric and I returned to NYC in 1999 after more than four years of backpacking through South and Southeast Asia and we immediately began planning our next long term travel project. Okay, first we got jobs. But then we started planning. Our focus was on Africa. Then the attacks of September 11 happened; we were living in an apartment three blocks from the Twin Towers. We’d just been in Pakistan and our government’s vague vow of revenge was alarming. When the US divided politically into so-called “blue” states and “red” states we began to feel like we didn’t understand our own country anymore. We questioned why our trips were always so far from home, decided to put Africa on hold (we’ll get there someday), and we shifted our focus to the Americas.
A road trip seemed the natural and best way to explore North, Central, and South America and so the Trans-Americas Journey was born. Note the “s” after the word American. That’s not a typo. The truth is that everyone from North, Central, and South America is American – not just those of us from the US. We believe it’s important to be respectful of your global neighbors and it’s important to understand how you fit into the greater global scheme of things. We also believe travel is the best (and most enjoyable) way to learn that.
What’s the longest you’ve spent in one place? And the shortest?
The place we’ve spent the most time, total, is Medellin, Colombia where we’ve spent nearly five months over multiple visits. Why? Well, Medellin is not the most compelling tourist destination – outside of a handful of restaurants and museums and one awesome annual festival there’s not a lot for visitors to see and do in Medellin and it’s certainly not the first place in Colombia that we’d send travelers to.
However, we love the “big city with a small town attitude” vibe and Medellin also has great weather. So we used the city as a base to sit tight and focus on work. The Trans-Americas Journey is very much a working road trip and we often need to get off the road in order to focus on work for a while so we can meet deadlines, send story pitches, edit photos, work on our travel blog, plan and research future travel, etc.
There have been many places where we’ve spent just one night either because we were simply just passing through or because the place turned out to be less compelling than we’d anticipated. Sometimes even popular travel destinations fall into that category. For example, we arrived in Santa Marta in northern Colombia one afternoon and we were gone again less than an hour later. We just didn’t feel compelled by the place, though many travelers love it, so we moved on to a much smaller beach town nearby.
You must have some crazy stories. Tell us a few anecdotes from the road!
Honestly, after 10 years of doing this we don’t consider much to be “crazy” anymore. However, here are a few road stories that run the gamut of “crazy” – from annoying to delightful.
We recently got a flat tire. No big deal. This is a road trip after all and we’ve had 10 flat tires so far on our journey. However, THIS flat tire occurred in the middle of the vast Pocitos Salt Flat at more than 12,000 feet in a remote area of northern Argentina. Have you ever tried changing a tire at 12,000 feet while surrounded by salt?
There was also that time we weren’t allowed to enter El Salvador… When we were in Central America many of the CA countries had banded together to create a special group visa that dictated a finite amount of time that could be spent in member countries IN TOTAL. Honduras was not part of that group of countries because of recent political upheaval, and we made the mistake of believing Honduran officials when they told us that we would not have any problem with the time limit mandated by the joint CA visa rules if we crossed from Honduras into El Salvador. They were wrong and El Salvador officials did not let us in. We had to return to Honduras, then leave Central America (we chose to fly home for an overdue visit). Note: if you are planning a trip in Central America, check out current visa requirements and restrictions unless you want to spend the night sleeping in your car in the filthy no-man’s-land between Honduras and El Salvador. (BTW, we did eventually get into El Salvador and we loved it.)
Lastly, sitting in the bar of our beach hotel in Tulum, Mexico we caught sight of a person who looked really, really familiar. Was it really our friend from New York City and his girlfriend, or were we imagining it? Nope. It was them. Randomly in Tulum at our hotel at the same time we were. Even better? He proposed to her at that hotel, so we were the first to see her ring.
You spent 3 years in Central America. If travelers have one week to visit the region, where would you advise going?
Nicaragua. It’s affordable, safe (of course, pack your common sense), and offers a lot of diversity in a small area including beaches, volcanoes, a Colonial city, surfing, great rum, great coffee, and more. The roads are relatively good as well, so seeing as much as possible in a one week visit is easy.
Favorite city in the Americas for culture?
Besides our hometown of New York City, it has to be Mexico City. There are world-class museums here of every sort, from modern art to archaeological treasures. There’s also a booming grassroots art scene in many neighborhoods, including street art and small studios with creators of every stripe. It’s also still very easy to see and feel why the city inspired artistic icons like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera whose Mexico City studios you can visits.
Even what you eat and drink in Mexico City is filled with heritage. And what other Latin American city offers a major Aztec archaeological site right downtown? Even if you didn’t visit any of those places, just walking down the street in Mexico City is a cultural immersion of the very best kind.
Favorite city in the Americas for food?
Everyone talks about Lima, Peru as one of the hottest cities in the Americas for food. The food in Lima (and in all of Peru) is wonderful. However, we think Bogotá, Colombia is really, really exciting right now in terms of food and drinks including the addition of restaurants from two Michelin star chefs, the established Colombian stars, and a huge tide of rising stars. We literally spent weeks in Bogotá just eating, drinking, and meeting chefs and bartenders.
Favorite destination in the Americas for nature?
Of course, the Galapagos Islands are amazing, but the one place that’s blown our minds most recently is the Pantanal region in Brazil. It’s an enormous area that is flooded for half of the year. This creates an unusual eco system which is home to all kinds of critters, including one of the highest concentrations of jaguars on earth.
We spent years hoping for a glimpse of a jaguar in the wild but we didn’t see one until we visited the Pantanal. And not just one. Over the course of a couple of weeks spent in the northern Pantanal and the southern Pantanal we saw eight different jaguars including a mother and two cubs on a riverbank, a huge male while we were hiking, a young female spotted from a vehicle and more. We would never guarantee a wildlife sighting but if it’s jaguars you’re after, the Pantanal in Brazil is a good bet.
Favorite destination in the Americas for the people?
Colombia and Mexico are tied in our hearts as home to the proudest, most hospitable, most generous, and most gracious people we’ve met on our journey so far. Our butts have been saved and friends have been made in both countries. Even when we’re in wonderful new places, we often long to return to be with the incredible people in Mexico and Colombia.
Most underrated city in the Americas?
We were stumped when we tried to name one specific underrated city, but we can say that the central highlands of Mexico contain many underrated and under-visited cities including Zacatecas and Queretaro which are both full of gorgeous Colonial architecture, great art, great hotels, and more.
El Salvador is not necessarily underrated because it’s so often not even considered or rated at all. However, our 66 days in El Salvador were pure pleasure and we were so pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the country (beach, volcanoes, coffee country) and the power of the country’s recent history as well as the El Salvadorans’ ability to rise above it.
What advice would you give those wanting to embark on an adventurous road trip of their own?
Choose your vehicle based on WHERE you will be driving, and not just the terrain. If you plan to road trip outside the US, research which vehicles are sold in the country or countries you will be driving through so that you can gauge the availability of mechanics who can work on your vehicle and parts. This is VERY unsexy, but breaking down in a country where replacement parts for your vehicle aren’t available is no fun at all. Also research the availability, price, and quality of the fuel where you will be driving.
What advice would you give those wanting to embark on long-term travel?
First, decide what kind of travel you want to do. Are you well bank-rolled and able to simply wander and enjoy, or will you want or need to work as you travel? Do you want to focus on cities or nature or food or all of the above? Do you want to include volunteering in your travels? You’ll be surprised how much these decisions affect every other aspect of your trip planning from what you pack to where you go.
Image Credits: All images c/o Eric Mohl.