Brazil to Canada? Overland? Check!

Gray whales approaching tourists in Baja © Craig Fast

It’s over. Mission accomplished. As planned, we have travelled from Brazil to Canada, via Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and the USA, without, I repeat, without boarding an aeroplane.

Our rather erratic meanderings (the plan was to generally head north…) meant we covered 33,386km. That’s the equivalent of more than four fifths of the distance around the Equator or approximately from the South Pole up to the North Pole and back down to the Equator again, as the crow flies. In other words, much farther than was necessary to simply reach Canada overland from Brazil. But travel shouldn’t be about getting from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible. It should be about savouring the journey itself, taking in the views, tasting the foods and meeting the people. It’s also about stoicism, resilience and learning to ignore your budget.

Bleak desert road in South America © Craig FastOf our 207 days on the road, we spent 570 hours on the move; of those, 433 hours were spent on roads, 64 on rail and 73 on water. That adds up to some very numb bums. Central and North American transport brought welcome relief to the endless buses of South America (271 hours on 31 buses including 12 night buses). The relatively compact and watery nature of Central America meant shorter bus journeys (although poorer quality buses), more boats and no night buses. North America brought with it the train, by far the most agreeable form of long distance transport, in my ever-humble opinion. Amtrak and VIA Rail are grossly underappreciated and underused in the USA and Canada, which is all the more surprising as Greyhound buses (the only alternative as far as public transport is concerned) are the most abhorrent form of transport in all of the Americas, if not the world.

The longest journey as far as time is concerned was the yacht from Colombia to Panama; 48 hours to cover approximately 400km. It was also the most painful (vomiting over the edge into a churlish Caribbean sea) and the most rewarding (it took us to the San Blas Islands of Panama where we spent three blissful days snorkeling, sunbathing and eating fresh lobsters). As far as distance covered in one journey, the longest leg was from Jasper to Winnipeg, Canada: 1,706km over 22 hours, by train.

Horseriding along a sandy beach in Manzanillo, Costa RicaUnusual forms of transport experienced include the many ascensors in Valparaiso, a Pulmonia (a kind of souped-up golf buggy that ferries locals and tourists alike) in Mazatlan, Mexico, a rip-roaring ride on a Ducati Monster through the hills of Boquete, Panama, a rickshaw between the border posts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua (totally unnecessary but very fun), cantering along a sandy beach in Manzanillo, Costa Rica, a chair lift (not wearing skis) to the snowy slopes of Blackcomb, BC, and a zipline in Manitoba, Canada.

Plushest forms of transport were the luxury private motorboat used to carry us across the Caribbean from Belize City to St George’s Caye Resort, Sleeper Tourer class train from Vancouver to Winnipeg with VIA Rail, and a kayaking and camping trip in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, with motorboat support, chef, port-a-loo and tents with skylights.

It wasn’t all about the road. We did stop occasionally, sleeping in 114 beds over 207 nights: an average of 1.8 nights per destination. That includes 15 night buses, one overnight ferry, three night trains and five nights on a yacht. In other words, utterly exhausting.

As expected, many of the most memorable experiences of the trip involved transport in some form or other. Not to diss the museums and restaurants, but whilst eating fresh prawn ceviche on a Peruvian beach with the sand between your toes is hard to beat, touching a wild baby grey whale from a tiny motor boat in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico, really does take gold. Likewise, if I had to choose to between hurtling on a bicycle down the world’s most dangerous road, in Bolivia, or pottering around Buenos Aires’ remarkable antiques shops once more, I’d take that deliciously stomach-churning rush of movement every time.

Would I do it again? Not a chance. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. Do I recommend the experience? Oh yes.

See related features and images
The Ten Commandments for night bus travellers
How to travel between Colombia and Panama 
Images: Panama – San Blas Islands (Kuna Ayala)   
Video: Riding an ascensor in Valparaiso, Chile  
Review: The Family runs wild at La Patita de Manzanillo, Costa Rica, an outside-in house  
Ziplining in Manitoba, Canada: Hy-Wire Zipline Adventures  
Review: St George’s Caye Resort, Belize  
Sea kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico  
Images: Mexico – Baja whale watching  
The world’s most dangerous road, by bike and bus

8 Responses to “Brazil to Canada? Overland? Check!”
  1. Daniel says:

    271 hours on 31 buses—and 12 night buses. What an incredible feat — and that was just your time spent on buses. Amazing. I’ve never touched a whale but I have eaten prawn ceviche on a Peruvian beach with the sand between my toes — and can agree that it’s a life-changing experience!

    • Hi Daniel, It was EXHAUSTING!! So worth it though. I highly recommend overlanding the Americas if you’re heading that way on your trip. Also, add touching a grey whale to your bucket list – I promise you won’t regret it! I’ve done 29 things on your list and reading yours has just inspired me to make my own list of things to do before I die a whole lot longer…

      Thanks so much for commenting 🙂

      • Daniel says:

        Great to hear, Emma! Kathryn and I have been flirting with doing just that through the Americas — starting with a drive across Canada. Of course, the drive is less eco-friendly but always something that we’ve wanted to do!

      • I would love to do that! And as far as the environment is concerned, driving is far better than flying, of course. And you get to go at your own pace. Let me know how it goes…

  2. oliver fisher says:

    How much did this trip end up costing? it sounds like such an amazing trip. I will hopefully doing something like this after i end university or even take a year off to do it.

    • Emma says:

      Hi Oliver, I set off on year travelling with about £8K in the bank, inlduing flights to India (return) and Brazil, back from Chicago. Because I’m a travel writer, I got some press stays in hotels well beyond my budget along the way which made the times where I had to slum it a lot more bearable. Travelling overland from Brazil took Canada took seven months, and the longest I stayed in one place was about a week in La Paz. If I did it again, I’d take much more time over it… Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

  3. Kate Norris says:

    Hi Emma,
    5 years later and your blog is still being read! I’m researching my next trip and was looking at Brazil through to Mexico starting next September. Did you start in October? How was the weather for you? So confusing reading up on the weather for each country to find the perfect time to start.
    I’m hoping to have enough budget for 8 months. Do you think this is a good amount of time? 5 months in SA and 3 in CA? Thanks for your advice!

    • Emma says:

      Hi Kate,
      Thanks for getting in touch – glad my blog is still of service! Yes, I started in Brazil in October and the weather was fine for our trip. We only spent three months in South America and a couple in Central America. It felt a little rushed, but we had a lot of ground to cover. So your 5:3 split sounds good. The most important weather timing for us was for the sea crossing from Colombia to Panama and we only just made the edge of the good season for this.
      Have a great trip!

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