After about 3 months of intensive search we have finally got what we wanted. Here is our beauty:
1996 Nissan Pathfinder XE - the right model name indeed!
4-wheel drive, manual transmission, 3.3L V6 engine, high ground clearance, 4-wheel ABS, dual airbags, CD player, air conditioning, and only 70,000 miles, which for a Nissan is just a warm-up. We did not want a car that stands out, so this one is just right, older style, looking somewhat used, while at the same time promising to be extremely reliable (or so we hope). The 1996 was some sort of a magic year in auto industry when many manufacturers "got it right". According to the Auto Information Services the 1996 Pathfinder is a 100% "green" car, which means the it has had a low frequency of reported problems, and that the cost to repair those problems is also low. By the way, the same goes for Toyota 4Runner & Isuzu Rodeo of the same year. You can check it out on MSN Autos by selecting a car and clicking on the reliability tab.
We have made a few upgrades: tinted windows to protect the inside of the car from heat and curious looks; K&N high flow air filter and Magnaflow muffler to add a few horses, what will help pull the car up the Andean mountains; and auxiliary Hella Micro FF high beams to better see the cows and donkeys that occasionally cross the highways in the dark.
All the oils including transmission, front and rear differentials and transfer case have been changed to synthetics. High mileage Amsoil synthetic engine oil and filter are supposed to last for 25,000 miles, which is enough for the trip. The radiator has been pressure checked, new thermostat and hoses installed and filled with new fluid, as performance of the cooling system is critical on mountain roads. New tires, wheels balanced and aligned. New NGK Iridium spark plugs and ignition wires, engine timing checked. Breaks checked, wheel bearings repacked and lubed with synthetic grease.
Tip #1: Take a spare oil filter (or a few). This will save you a lot of trouble if your trip turns out longer than estimated. In our case the 25,000-mile engine oil started looking ugly at only 11,000 and we had to change it. Also if you are using synthetic oil and your car is not overloaded, you may want to grab some of that too: at least in Peru synthetic oils costs double compared to the USA.
Tip #2: If traveling in Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, or Andes between Chile & Argentina in winter, consider taking snow chains. On some roads in bad weather motorists are required to have tires with spikes or put on chains. 4WD vehicles are not exempt from this requirement. If going to a popular skiing resort, you might be able to rent the chains, but such service will not be available in remote areas. Purchasing chains locally also might be a problem (we could not find the suitable size, because our tires were slightly wider than normal). Do not forget that all wheels of a 4WD vehicle must be armed with chains. If arming only two wheels, you must switch to the 2WD mode.
Security & Safety
No matter how alert you are, you will probably not be able to completely avoid dealing with some sort of security issues (loss, theft or damage of your belongings, etc) sooner or later on the trip. The essential piece of advice is, therefore, to leave at home everything you would absolutely hate to lose, and have a "Plan B" in case any of the things disappeared/ got broken during the trip. As one of the travel books has correctly said, you should return a better person from the trip, not a bitter one!
There are plenty of personal and car security-related resources on the
Internet, therefore we will only provide a brief summary of the most valuable
(and not so valuable) ideas.
Documents and money:
1. A dummy wallet with a small amount of cash, an expired driver's license and a deactivated credit card to be given away if threatened will make you feel much safer in unfamiliar places, especially at night.
2. Most robbers know about the popular hidden belt or neck wallets, so if you plan on hanging out in higher crime areas, you might consider a hidden dummy wallet as well.
3. The main credit card, cash reserve and passport should be creatively tucked away. Very often it is much safer to leave these items in your hotel room, especially when going out at night.
4. Emergency credit card and money should be hidden in a separate place (possibly in a well hidden spot inside your car), where it would remain safe even if the robbers stripped you.
5. If the credit/debit card which you use during the trip is linked to your bank account, you may consider moving the main part of your savings to a different account. This way, in case your card got stolen or duplicated, the robbers would get access only to a small portion of your money. The account dedicated for travel expenses can be replenished via Internet as needed.
6. Have account numbers and phone numbers of your credit cards written down and stored separately (or email them to yourself) so you could deactivate them quickly and easily in a case of theft.
The content of your car is at much higher risk than the car itself. It is not very likely that professional car thieves would get interested in an odd-looking, geared-up tourist vehicle, often of a locally unpopular brand. Yet, the streets of every town are full of crooks eager to make a quick buck by snatching your belongings. Tourists' vehicles are particularly attractive as they are likely to contain cameras, laptops, other cool gadgets, money or possibly passports which could be sold in the black market.
First of all, focus on reducing possibilities and reasons for robbery:
1. It is best to leave your car in a guarded parking lot at all times, night and day.
2. Do not assume that a street full of people is a safe place. Two break-ins into our car were attempted on busy center streets in the middle of the day.
3. Do not hope that noting will happen in "just 5 minutes". Both attempts to break into our vehicle happened in less than 5 minutes after we stepped away.
4. Do not leave any valuable things in plain view (camera bags, laptop cases, backpacks, bags, etc). Even the things that look useless to you (an old backpack on the back seat) may appear tempting to a thief - maybe there is something valuable inside it.
5. Even an old beat-up car stereo may be a reason for a break-in, therefore either remove it or at least take it out of sight (cover it somehow) every time you leave the car.
6. Try to stay within the range where you can still hear your car alarm in case it goes on. You are the only one who cares about it. Nobody else will pay attention.
7. Do not forget to add all the usual deterrents: wheel locks, spare tire lock, steering wheel lock and gas cap lock.
8. We bought an aluminum lockable "safe box" and bolted it down to the body of the car in the trunk (chose aluminum to minimize the weight). It was meant for storing valuable items, like cameras and laptops, but did not turn out as useful as we hoped: despite being quite thick, aluminum is still too soft and the box could easily be opened using a crowbar. Therefore the safe box ended up just taking up the room of the trunk.
Your car should have at least one alarm system with keyless entry. A standard alarm system will protect the things inside the car (provided you are close enough to hear the siren and rush back to the car), while keyless entry will enable unlocking the doors in case the thieves jam the locks (this is exactly what happened to us - after two break-in attempts all three locks no longer work), or if the lock cylinders freeze up in cold and humid weather.
Our car has Alvital alarm & keyless entry system made by Directed Electronics
to which we made some modifications:
i. Instead of the standard 120db siren, installed a 140db one. Disappointingly, it is hardly any louder, but at least it sounds different than the alarms of other cars.
ii. Added a high-pitch mini siren inside the car. These sirens are advertised as "pain generators", causing "unbearable ear ache which forces thieves out of the car". We had a chance to test the "pain generator" on our own ears and could only say that the sound was very manageable. It might not be the most enjoyable experience, but it is certainly not loud enough to force a person out of the car. Yet, it does add extra noise.
iii. Reduced the sensitivity of the shock sensor, as we did not want the alarm to react to every passing by bigger vehicle. Shock sensors (the most popular) are far from perfect. If you make them very sensitive, they will react to everything (wind, cars passing by, etc), and if you make them not sensitive, you'll get an alarm too late, after the damage has been done (after a window has been smashed or a lock broken). Try checking the Internet for better options that might have appeared. Sensors of evil thoughts would be ideal!
You will most likely find a standard security system to be one of your
best investments. Yet, it is not enough. Alarm installers do not tell you
that standard security systems are usually installed in rather predictable
& easily accessible locations, well known to most professional thieves.
Therefore we added a combo immobilizer and an anti-carjacking system Black
Bug made by Altonika. This system has several important features:
a) It is controlled by a little tag which wirelessly communicates to the "brain". The operation is completely hands-free: to start the car you only need to have the tag in your pocket. If the system does not detect the tag, it assumes that the legal owner is not in the car and activates the alarm sequence.
b) The relay that disables the fuel pump of the vehicle is mounted in the engine compartment. It looks like a standard automotive relay and receives encrypted commands from the "brain" via standard car wires. There is no separate wire going from the "brain" to the relay. This makes it difficult for the thieves to find and disable it. In addition to this, we added hood locks which are supposed to prevent the access to the engine.
c) The relay is "smart" and emulates vehicle malfunction. It cuts and restores the power to the fuel pump, then cuts it again, until the car stalls. It allows starting the car a few times but eventually completely disables the fuel pump. A thief will be very disappointed when his newly stolen car will "break down" after a hundred meter-ride.
d) If threatened, you can calmly surrender your car to the bandits knowing that they won't go very far without the wireless tag, which remains in your pocket.
Unfortunately, even the combination of the latest and most elaborate electronic devices does not provide a 100 percent protection, but it significantly improves your chances of finding the car where you left it.
A few tips based on the experience gained:
1. A backup battery for the alarm system is a good idea on a lengthy trip. Cold mountain weather may eventually kill your main battery leaving the car unprotected.
2. Keep a spare key and a remote control somewhere outside the car (best attach it to the outside of the car - we found a good spot inside the bumper). This way if you lose the main set of keys or lock yourself out, you can still get into the car.
3. Remote control battery may as well die due to cold weather and frequent use. Have a spare one and put it in before your remote completely stops working.
Do not forget a fire extinguisher, emergency sign, main mechanics tools, repair manual, tow rope, jump starter, and first aid kit as these are required by law in some countries, or you may actually need them :)
We put in a 400W power inverter under a passenger seat to thave 110V AC power for our laptop and battery chargers. Laptops usually take about 75W (our old tiny Toshiba Portege 3110CT only draws 40W, but if you have a newer generation laptop with Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon processors, better test first because these are power-hungry) and battery chargers only take 10W, therefore, even a basic 100W inverter which plugs into a cigarette lighter socket would have been sufficient, but we preferred to have some extra capacity. Also, a little inverter like this would be a very nice addition to a portable jump starter - this way you would be able to power a laptop or a reading light all night in your tent without draining the car battery. If you think about using an electric kettle, a hair dryer, or any similar appliance, you'll have to put in at least a 2000Watt inverter (seen some made by Vector ), as these devices draw much more current than one would expect.
A word of caution: out of two power inverters that we tried, neither one functions well in hot climate: Coleman burned out on the 7th day of the trip & Xantrex shuts down nicely, when it gets too warm. Despite of having a built-in fan and ability to handle devices up to 400W, both units overheat and shut off while powering our 40W laptop. The only way out - roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning.
We also got a Magellan GPSMAP 60CS GPS unit in case the maps we purchased on Amazon.com were outdated or inaccurate, or if there were no road signs on minor local roads. Indeed, the road signs are sometimes missing or confusing, however, these problems can be eliminated by simply asking for directions. The paper road maps so far have been mostly precise, with the exception of the ones published by ITMB. Yet, for some countries ITMB maps are the only ones available. If you plan to explore a country extensively, consider buying the latest maps in local bookstores. The GPS unit has not proved to be very useful, because there are no detailed GPS maps for South and Central America. It is possible to purchase street level maps for a few capitals, but those are wildly expensive. This leaves a GPS user with the base map, which contains only major highways and quite frequently omits the ones that have been recently constructed. Finally, in several busy cities GPS did help us to find a way out by guiding to the nearest major highway, but we still think this unit was too much money for too little use.
Although photo camera choice is highly a matter of personal preference, we saw quite a number of travelers using the same camera as ours, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5. Up to know we have been very happy with ours. You can also take a look at the newer models DMC-FZ7, DMC-FZ30, and DMC-TZ1. Also here's an excellent web site for more info on digital cameras.
To stay in contact with the world and for cases of emergency, we got two GSM phones - Nokia 6310i (worked in USA, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile) and 6610 (worked in USA, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica). Both are multi-band and when combined, support all the frequencies that are in use all over the world (except Japan :-). Here is a link to a good article for travelers who want to stay connected at all times.
Electric kettle. This $10 thingy purchased in K-mart turned out to be the best investment we have ever made! When staying in hotels, motels, hostels or developed campgrounds, the kettle adds a lot of comfort and saves quite a lot of money. You will be amazed how many things you can prepare in the kettle: make coffee and tee the way you like it, cook soup, boil eggs, boil potatoes, etc. etc.. - the menu is limited only by your creativity and coulinary abilities :) Here is a link to a sample.
Tip #1: USA is the best starting point for such a trip because you can buy everything you need at the lowest prices, including the vehicle. As soon as you get into Mexico, the prices for most traveling-related items will double, and often you will have trouble finding what you need. Our Coleman power inverter failed on the 7th day of the trip, and we spend 5 days trying to find a new one. Prices in the RadioShacks of Mexico were three times higher as those in the USA. Al last we found one in Costco of Morelia at a reasonable price.
Tip #2: If you plan to do a lot of reading and writing during the trip, have your own bright light, extension cord and a power strip. Lights in the hotel/ motel rooms in most cases are very dim.
Tip #3: If there is a possibility that you will take a side trip using some means of water transportation, get waterproof bags for your gear and documents. Of course, the risk is very low if you take a huge passenger/car ferry to/from Baja California. But if you are planing to go by water taxi or colectivo boat (a kind of a water bus) to places like Tortugero National Park in Costa Rica or Bocas del Toro in Panama, you will feel much safer if you protect your most valuable equipment and docs in waterproof bags. We've been lucky and have had no problems so far, but we met a traveler from Israel whose colectivo boat turned over on the way to Tortugero. The belongings of all passengers went to the bottom of Rio Tortugero (the River Tortugero) and had to be retrieved by divers. Needless to say, all the documents and clothes got completely soaked, while the electronic equipment - photo cameras, video cameras, MP3 players were damadged beyond repair... Luckily, this is very easy to avoid - go to the water sports department (rafting/fishing) in any sporting goods store, and you will see plenty of options how to keep your stuff dry.
Tip #4: Consider getting an MP3 player with an FM transmitter, because many roads will be too bumpy for a regular car CD player to work properly.
Below is the list of koodies that may interrupt a nice trip if one is
- malaria (if not addressed immediately, may cause kidney failure, coma and death).
- yellow fever (if not treated in a timely manner, may cause liver, kidney, respiratory and other organ failure, leading to death, of course case-fatality rate >20%).
- hepatitis A (serious liver disease than can lead to death, but fatal cases are rare).
- hepatitis B (can cause liver cirrhosis, cancer and death).
- typhoid fever (causes high fever, stomach pains, headache and sometimes rash; kills up to 30% of people who get it, if not treated typhoid strikes about 21 million people a year around the world and kills about 200,000).
- rabies (can cause pain, fatigue, fever and irritability, followed by seizures, hallucinations and paralysis .almost always fatal, if not treated within 24 hours from infection).
- tetanus & diphtheria (td) (tetanus causes painful spasms of all muscles and leads to "locking" of the jaw diphtheria causes a thick coating in the nose, throat or airway and causes breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis and death).
We decided to eliminate that 0.01% chance of painful death in the middle of a jungle and got all the shots that we could. Now we can tease mad dogs and try to tame vampire bats. Check out the www.cdc.gov Traveler's Health section if you need detailed vaccination & destination country info. For a good deal on travel vaccines always contact public health clinics, because specialized private "travel clinics" will charge you an arm and a leg. Here is the link to the clinic we found in Southern California.
International Driving Permit. We doubt we will need this one, as the US license worked in every country we have visited until now, but IDP is cheap ($10) and easy to obtain (5 minutes in your local AAA office), so we got them issued. It's like having an extra copy of your drivers license in case you get in trouble with local cops. There is also a special Inter-American Driving Permit required for driving in Uruguay and Brazil - another $10. We got that one, too :) Here is the link to the IDP application. May 7, 2006 update: our "spare" (expired) US drivers licenses have worked at every police stop. Real (non-expired) drivers licenses are safely sitting in our back pockets and nobody ever asked for the IDPs :-) July 31, 2006 update: Chile was the first and so far the only country where we were asked to show our IDPs.
Visas. Nice to see that countries are increasingly becoming tourist friendly. As Lithuanians, we need visas only for Canada (who wants to go there in winter anyway?), USA (got that one) and Brazil. Getting Brazilian visa is quite a challenge. First of all, they do not believe in overland travel and insist on seeing a detailed itinerary with a return plane ticket. Second of all, they believe that Brazil is the best place on earth and every visitor has a secret intention to stay there for good :) Even though we plan to enter Brazil from Argentina on purely touristic purposes and are not planning to go back to the USA, the Brazilian Embassy insists on seeing a valid USA visa, a confirmation letter from the USA employer, and a plane ticket reservation. Looks like we will have to be creative :)