On a trip along the Pan American there is no special documentation required apart from the stuff you would normally take on any biking vacation. Most of it is pretty obvious but the following is a list of what we had with a few useful tips and reminders.
Passport – must have at least 6 months validity left at the time of entry into any of the American countries. It’s worth just checking this if you’ve had your passport a while! Make sure someone at home has all your details (passport number etc) in case you lose it and need a replacement.
Visas & Temporary Vehicle Import Permits – There are no special visas required for any of the American countries provided you are staying for less than 90 days in any one country. You will be granted a minimum of 30 days at the border – check if you want to stay longer and ask for the 90 days if required. Keep a close eye on your expiry date, as there can be hefty fines if you overstay your visa. Note too that you will also receive a temporary import permit for your bike. This is issued at the border to ensure that the bike is entering the country for your personal use only and that when you leave the country your bike leaves too and has not been sold without paying the customs duties. CHECK THAT THE TIME LIMITS FOR YOU AND YOUR BIKE ARE THE SAME. It’s easy to assume that just because your passport is stamped up for 90 days you have been granted the same period for the bike. The visa & permit are issued by different desks at the frontier and may not have granted the same durations. We heard of this happening to a Danish chap in Guatemala – he had 90 days in his passport; the bike had a 28-day temporary import permit. On attempting to leave the country, he was found to have stayed 2 days over his permit on the bike and it was confiscated at the frontier. He had to take a bus back to the city and it took 6 weeks and a $2500 fine to sort it all out!
Carnets de Passage – We did not need a Carnet de Passage for our bikes for any of the countries we visited. A simple Temporary Import Permit was issued at each border crossing as stated above. The only country where we had problems was Ecuador, where a Carnet was asked for at the border. We didn’t have one and at one point it looked like they’d let us in but not the bikes! However sympathetic Customs officials helped us bend their rules and we were given a letter from the chief of customs waiving the Carnet requirement and allowing us to stay in Ecuador for 28 days. In the office there was a book logging all vehicles crossing at the border. This registered 2 other bikes that we’d met back in Peru who had crossed in the few days before us. We knew they had no Carnets, so it must be a fairly common occurrence.
Driving License & Vehicle Logbook – A full UK driving license is fine for all the countries we visited. You will need to present this at border crossings and at any police/military roadblocks as personal ID along with your vehicle logbook as proof of ownership for your bike. We had 6 copies made of our licenses – colour copied & laminated and 6 copies of our bike logbooks, again colour copies. We used the copy documents every time and not once did any official query them. This saves wear & tear on your original documents and you can also let any bent cops keep the copies if they threaten to hold on to your license (see warning below!). We did have International Driving Licenses but we never used them, as they are more bulky to carry than the normal driving license (they are about the size of a passport). They are a useful duplicate to save your real license, but require annual renewal and we’d recommend just making copies of your normal license as above.
Be wary at police checks! Sadly the police in Latin American countries are not the respected upholders of the law we take for granted at home and many are on the make (the notable exception being Chile). You may be stopped for speeding or some other pretence, given a hefty fine requiring you to return to the nearest city to pay it and then a deal is done whereby they can arrange something locally, on the spot, for a lesser amount. We ran across bent cops twice, both times in Northern Argentina on our way to & from Iguazú Falls. First time they took $60 from us for ‘no insurance’. The second time they tried to fine us for not having fire extinguishers on the bikes, but we had learned our lesson the first time and confronted the cops with the fact that we had no cash (see online journals chapters 04 & 05 for details) and got away Scot free. Another area notorious for bent cops is the coast road north of Lima in Peru. We were stopped numerous times on this route but the cops were OK, waved us on our way and wished us luck. Later we met Martin, an English chap on an XT660 who was stopped 3 times in one day – the first 2 times they extracted on the spot fines & by the third time he figured they were simply radioing up ahead that easy money was on the way so he refused to stop and they gave up!
Border Crossings – All of the border crossings in South America are free – no excises, duties or stamps require any payment. Peruvian customs smilingly suggested we leave a small present or a ‘souvenir from our country’. We pointed out (equally smilingly of course) that we were travelling light on 2 bikes with no room to carry any presents and that was that.
Central America was a different kettle of fish and each border crossing had different tolls and tariffs to be paid. Most were only a few dollars but some crossings can work out to be very expensive, especially of you are taking a vehicle (for example Honduras can cost up to $100 depending on where you cross). See our individual online journals for details of each crossing. As UK/EU citizens we had no special tariffs levied against us in any of the countries but we did hear of some countries charging extra for other nationalities (Australians & South Africans in particular should check with their FO).
UK citizens are granted a 90-day (3 month) tourist visa for the USA at point of entry. For Canada a 6-month visa is issued. Normally the visa is surrendered when you leave the country and a new one is issued when you re-enter. You can have as many visas as you like provided you leave & re-enter once the 90 days expire and providing you have a full time UK address. You may be asked to prove you have sufficient funds for your stay (e.g. by showing a bank statement copy – on entering Canada we had to go online to show the customs guys our bank balances). At land border crossings into the US you have to pay $6 for the US visa (this is already included in your flight ticket when arriving by air).
Insurance & Medical
Bike Insurance – Most of the time we rode with no bike insurance, as it was not a legal requirement for the country visited. It would also take a long time to arrange in each country and would probably be of dubious value in the event of any claim. The only countries where it was required were Costa Rica (inexpensive, probably useless and arranged at the border crossing as part of the normal formalities) and Belize (best arranged in the nearest town – see chapter 19 of the online journal for more details). You must have bike insurance to ride in the US & Canada. We tried ‘normal’ US bike insurance companies but they wouldn’t touch us without a permanent US residency. We found 2 companies who do bike insurance for non-nationals. Both cover your bike for both the USA & Canada.
On our first visit to the US we used Berglund Insurance Agency who issue policies through Dairyland Insurance Company. It cost $219 + $60 agents fee for 3 months cover of the cheapest option insurance they offered. Their contact details are:
Berglund Insurance Agency
4040 E Camelback Road, Suite 285
Phoenix, Arizona 85018
Tel: (480) 949-1034
Fax: (480) 949-0321
Berglund offered the best deal of the 2 companies but only offer cover for a maximum of 3-months. For the Alaskan stage of our trip we used Motorcycle Express. Although more expensive they offered policies for up to 6 months. It cost $252 + $35 agents fee per bike for 4 months of the cheapest option insurance they offered. Their contact details are:
Michael I.Mandell Inc / Motorcycle Express
6800 Jericho Tpke Suite 120 West
Syosset, New York 11791
Tel: (516) 682-9220 or 1-800-245-8726 (toll free within US/Canada) Ext 1107
Fax: (516) 393-5996
They also ship uncrated motorcycles by airfreight between Canada and Europe and have since advised that they can now offer a passenger ticket on the same flight.
Medical / Travel Insurance – We had a comprehensive Medical / Travel Insurance package covering the duration of our trip from ‘Insure and Go’ (www.insureandgo.com) including a policy extension covering motorcycling. We took out the policy as we wanted some security in the event of a major catastrophe – bad bike accident, major illness etc. Maggie’s broken elbow in Argentina was fixed for free in the local hospital including all medicines and materials (plaster of Paris etc). We went to see doctors in Chile & Nicaragua for sore throats and the consultancy fees were less than $20 with the same again for medicines. You can also buy antibiotics, pills & ointments from any pharmacy if you are sure of what’s wrong with you and know a good remedy. We had to abort our trip in September 2004 when Norman’s Mum was diagnosed with Bone Cancer. The doctors recommended we return home immediately as the outlook was not good. It was a frantic period, as we suddenly had to find somewhere to leave the bikes, stow all our kit, organise flights etc. Afterwards we remembered about the insurance policy and that there was a cancellation / emergency return home clause in it. We submitted a claim but they refused to pay out as we hadn’t follow their strict procedure, which stated we had to call their agents for permission to fly home. If you take one of these policies, make sure you read the small print and follow their procedures exactly or they don’t pay!
Vaccinations, Certificates & General Health – We had all inoculations as recommended by the World Health Organisation but were never asked to produce any certificates by any officials. That’s not to say you won’t, so take the recommended advice before you leave home. The Yellow Fever Certificate is especially important if you are travelling from affected into non-affected areas.
Malaria – we took Paludrine (daily) & Avoclor (weekly) tablets once we reached Northern Peru and continued these on into Central America. We hated taking the pills but as we were travelling in wet mosquito infested malarial risk areas we thought it best to take something. The pills don’t stop you getting Malaria, they just minimise its effects once you have it and in the end we had concerns over possible ill effects of taking them for so long and so stopped after about 8 weeks. More worrying is Dengue fever as there is no preventive medicine and some areas of Costa Rica had as many as 1 in 3 of the population affected. The best prevention is to try and not get bitten. Wear long sleeve shirts & trousers, spray with a DEET insect repellent and be especially wary at dawn & dusk when the mossies are most active. We also carried a mosquito net and used it frequently in cheaper hotels (make sure you bring something to string it up with). If you don’t have a net, try to get a room with a fan, as the mossies don’t like moving air.
Drinking Water – we only ever drank bottled water as even local tourist info recommends against trying the local tap water. The exception was Panama, which apparently has some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. Tap water is fine for cooking / tea if you are going to boil it. I know the guide books warn about not taking ice-cubes in drinks as they may be made from local tap water but we tended to observe what others were doing in a particular establishment. As far as we know all the places we drank in used bottled water for their ice as word gets round quickly these days and a room full of customers with food poisoning soon gets circulated. We never refused a drink with or without ice cubes and never had any problems.
If you do end up with an upset tummy, ask for Carbon tablets at the local pharmacy. We used these 3 or 4 times to stop diarrhoea and they were fantastic as they seem to stop the runs quickly without permanently blocking your insides, which can happen with Imodium type anti-diarrhoea pills and lead to worse complications.
We shipped 2 bikes out from London to Valparaiso (Chile) and returned from Vancouver to London. We also considered shipping out to Argentina but heard too many bad stories of hassle & corruption that put us off this option.
Outbound: We shipped with Kuehne & Nagel from Dartford, England. K&N are the 4th largest freight carrier in the world & have offices everywhere. We paid £1277 for the outward shipping +$125 USD per bike for Shipping Agents fees for customs clearance in Chile. This included £350 for packing the bikes. This was done professionally using hand made wooden crates & the bikes were vacuum-sealed in plastic membranes. In hindsight this was probably overkill as we could probably have scrounged crates from a bike shop that would have done the job at a fraction of the price. But we were shipping to South America – it took 2 months for the bikes to get there & the boxes contained most of our personal effects – riding gear, helmets, camping pruck etc and they were very securely packaged. The bikes arrived in one piece with all our kit and it took a day to clear them out of customs and extract them from their crates with no hassle whatsoever.
Homebound: K&N don’t ship vehicles or personal effects from Vancouver so we shopped around & found Sea-Air International Forwarders Ltd. Jim & Maggie Mathieson (a Glaswegian couple) were fantastic & waived their $100 handling fee as we had done the ride for Cancer Research. Their contact details are:
Sea Air International Forwarders Ltd
2230-5200 Miller Road
Richmond BC V7B 1L1
We paid $750 US for shipping both bikes + $200 CDN ($2.2 CDN = £1) for crates from a bike shop ($50 per crate + labour charges for assistance in putting the first bike away) + $100 CDN for insurance + £200 Shipping Agents fees for customs clearance in London. We could have knocked £50 off this last figure. It cost £50 per bike to clear customs + £50 for the agents fee. We also declared personal effects in the shipment and these were covered by a separate and different 3rd form, which cost a further £50 to process. Doing it again I would declare 2 crates each containing 1 motorcycle & not mention the personal effects.
We also looked at shipping home from the US but were advised that since 9/11 US Customs procedures are a nightmare and it’s cheaper and easier to ship from Canada.