Touring North, Central and South America in a B190

Road stories, questions about driving the B190, lessons learned
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Touring North, Central and South America in a B190

Post by skater »

Imagine taking your Airstream for a tour of North America. Sound great? Now how about Central America? And let's throw in South America while we're at it. Sheila Doorley and Jimmy Bracken (along with their Old English Sheepdog Francie) did exactly that! 44,000 miles (about 71,000 km), 514 days, from Chicago to Alaska and then to the southern tip of South America, in a 1995 Airstream B190.

Obviously this caused some interest among us B190 owners, so we put together a list of questions for them and they graciously sent the following answers. Many of the more obvious questions are already covered on their website, so our questions tended more toward the mechanics of the trip, which are interesting enough!

Sheila and Jimmy would like to write a book about their experience, and they're looking for advice on how to proceed. You can contact them here. What maintenance did you do to the van before you started on the trip?

Sheila: Well we bought the van a year before we left from a man in Virginia Beach through the internet. It is a 1995 and only had 38K miles on it. There was a lot of water damage to the headliner. We got a quote of $2,000 to replace this but instead Jimmy bought a roll of vinyl table covering from a fabric store for about $60 and replaced it himself. I made new curtains and we also replaced the mattress with a latex mattress from Ikea. Because we were bringing a dog we covered the carpet with linoleum floor covering. We then brought it to our friend who is a mechanic and he did a full check up on it. We got new batteries, tune-up, he lubed everything up to make it easy for us in case we needed to do repairs. Other than that the engine was perfect and ready to go. We also installed a solar panel. We bought a Kyocera 120 watt just like Steve Holm on recommended and Jimmy installed that himself also. The van was prewired from the roof to the electrical box so it was pretty easy to install. How did you handle maintenance during the trip? (I'm assuming you still performed oil changes and the like.)

Sheila: We got an oil change every 4,000 miles. After 2 months on the road we stopped in Toronto, where my brother lives, and went to his mechanic for a check-up. We needed new brake pads but other than that everything was fine. Then when we completed Canada and Alaska, about 18,000 miles, we stopped in Phoenix, where Jimmy's brother lives and had a lot of maintenance done before heading into Latin America. We bought a full set of new tires (Yokohama tires from Big O tires), new front ball joints, new brake pads again and the master cylinder needed to be replaced in the brakes also. We went to Camping World then. There was a fuse that kept blowing so they found the electrical short. Before this the water pump didn't work at all. Our fridge wasn't cooling properly either so they repaired that problem too. Once in Latin America then we just kept up with the oil changes. When we got to Panama we had to get a new RV battery (although it wasn't an actual RV battery, just a regular battery which we had to replace again 8 months later in Brazil), one of the rotors needed to be replaced and again we got new brake pads. Because of all the mountain climbing the brake pads wore down very quickly. We had them replaced three times throughout the trip. Also in Argentina we had to have the rotors ground down because they had become warped from the extreme heat. Was your van modified from stock in any way, such as an improved suspension, oil coolers, etc.? In particular, did you make any modifications for the poor roads?

Sheila: No, everything was the same, and for the bad roads, we just had to drive very slowly!" What sort of equipment did you take along on the journey? Any tools?

Sheila: Jimmy put together a basic general toolbox with hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, nuts and bolts, screwgun, socket set etc. We had 12ft jumping cables. Twice we had to jumpstart the van from the solar battery because we were in the middle of nowhere. We had extra long water hoses, electrical cords, 12 volt air compressor and that was it. Other travelers we met had really gone overboard bringing really specialized tools but we managed fine with the basic things. No matter where we were there were always mechanics in every town and village and these guys are like MacGyvers, even if they don't have the exact part, they will repair the problem. Once in Guatemala, one of the air cooling hoses snapped and we stopped at a mechanic who repaired it with some epoxy and different sized tubing he had for $7! We completed the trip with this same piece of hose. What tires did you have on the van?

Sheila: When we bought the van it had Goodyear tires which were fine until we got to Phoenix. We couldn't afford Goodyear tires again so we got Yokohama tires from Big O tires. We drove 44,000 miles and never had a flat tire the entire time. Did you track gas mileage, and if so, what was your average, best, and worst mileage?

Sheila: We averaged at 11-12 miles per gallon throughout the trip. Driving through mountains was tough so we probably were only getting 8 miles/gallon. How did you get back to Chicago from South America?

Sheila: This was one of the most stressful parts of the trip just because of the crazy paperwork involved. We had shipped the van from Panama to Colombia because you can't drive through the Darien Gap. Apart from the vessel been delayed that experience was OK and as straightforward as you can expect in Latin America. However, in Brazil the people are very laid back and everything is still hand written so the simple paperwork that needed to be done took them forever to do. We shipped with a company called Wallenius Wilhelmsen and then had to hire a customs broker separately. It took 3 weeks from when we dropped the van at the port in Santos, Brazil for it to clear the customs and actually be loaded on the ship. It's a RORO service so the van was driven onto the ship. Then it took another 2 weeks for it to arrive in Galveston, Texas. We stayed in a crummy apartment in Santos while this whole process went on and really had withdrawal symptoms from not been in the van. It really became our little home for a year and a half. We then flew from Sao Paulo to Houston with our dog (we had to hire a customs broker for the dog too!), rented a car and drove to the port in Galveston to pick up the van. It took only 20 mins to complete the paperwork at the port and have the van released! The officials there couldn't believe it took us 3 weeks in Brazil to do the same. The shipping from Panama to Colombia cost $2,000 and it was another $1,700 to ship from Brazil back to the USA. [Editor's note: The shipping of the van around the Darien Gap is an interesting adventure-within-an-adventure.] Did you share driving evenly, or did one of you do most of it?

Sheila: We shared the driving in North America but then once we got to Latin America, Jimmy did most of the driving and I was the co-pilot. We got lost a lot! Where were the people the nicest?

Sheila: I can't single out just one country as 90% of the time people were friendly everywhere. Colombians were really friendly just because they are so happy to see tourists coming to their country. Bolivians were probably the least friendly because they are so poor and once they see a white face, they resent you for what you have and they don't have. City people everywhere are always not the nicest so we avoided big cities as much as possible. Once in rural areas, people are helpful and nice and just curious about our van and travels. We didn't have any hostile situations apart from the police in some countries who just want to get a bribe. But we learnt to just pretend not to understand what they were saying and just sat it out until they got fed up asking for money and would let us go on. What country was your favorite?

Sheila: Again it's hard to pick out one favorite country. In Central America, we loved Guatemala, probably because we went to a small village in the mountains and lived with a Mam family for a week so we had a wonderful experience with the people. It's also a country that still has very deep, Mayan traditions kept alive more so than other Central American countries. In South America, it is tough to pick a favorite because every country has something fantastic to offer. We loved Colombia because it was such a surprise to us how beautiful a country it is and how friendly everyone was. We obviously were a little apprehensive beforehand. Peru is an amazing country with so much to do. Bolivia was a challenge (the roads were the worst there than anywhere else) but still a beautiful country. And Argentina is definitely up there with our favorites too. If you were going to take another trip like this starting next month, what would you do differently?

Sheila: There's a lot we would do so here's a list of things that would have made things more comfortable and a little easier. We had brought table and chairs to set up outside but realistically because we were parked mostly at gas stations, parking lots etc we ate 95% of our meals inside. So we wished we would have removed the pull out couch and replaced it with a table and 2 seats where we could sit and have our dinner from a table rather than off our laps. Once in Latin America, campgrounds were few and far between so we needed to be completely self sufficient. We managed fine with the solar panel, generator and RV battery but I think 2 more solar panels would have been better and have the fridge hooked up to the solar batteries also. Propane was also difficult to find. All over Latin America, propane cylinders are readily available but we had to find the distributor plant with the right connection in order to fill the tank. So we think that maybe removing the oven which we didn't use much anyway and replace it with a cabinet to house a propane cylinder would have been far easier. When we bought the van the man sold us a storage box that was mounted onto a tow bar on the back of the van. It was fine through North America but with the steep inclines and speed bumps in Latin America, it became really cumbersome and actually snapped off twice on us, once in the middle of La Paz, and then driving onto the ferry from Tierra del Fuego. We brought a lot of stuff that we never used, camping equipment etc so we really could have done without this storage box. Converting to a 4WD would have been a luxury but not a necessity. The worst roads were in Bolivia but everywhere else we managed fine without 4WD.

A GPS would have been good too!!!

Well, there you have it. Please be sure to visit to learn more about their adventures.

The discussion about their travel started here. You can see some pictures from their trip on their website and in the Gallery here.

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