How to Nomad around South America

Dream of leaving the hustle and bustle behind? We’ve been on the road for more than two years. Here’s our list of tips for overlanding success.

By Stephanie Frias


Have you ever taken a long pause to peer at the people who are traveling the world with their kids for the long term?

While some are successfully flitting around by plane, others are taking a slower budget-friendly approach – doing it by land. 

First came the vanlifers, then the RVers, and now a hybrid that bridges the gap between the two.

Overlanding is the latest in travel trends for families. This type of travel allows for long term travel through one great big road trip. It’s typically enhanced by slow travel goals that involve camping, hosteling, offroading, highway driving, and exploring both popular places and off-grid destinations.

Our family has now been overlanding since May 2017, specifically in South America. While we have not yet met many families nomading around South America, we do see the trend growing. For some, it starts out as an RV road trip in the US and blossoms into an overlanding excursion through the Americas. For others, they get to South America and realize how much easier and affordable it would be to travel independently by private car rather than with tours and flights.

Here is our list of important considerations for overlanding in South America.

The Vehicle

First, take into consideration how you like to travel and how many people are in your family. Then decide if you’d like to camp or sleep in your car, how you’ll cook, use the bathroom, and if getting off the beaten path interests you. 

It is also important to think about parking and commuting issues, accessibility in crowded destinations, and security in both remote places and dangerous cities.

Finally, you must figure out if you’ll be able to do repair work and routine maintenance yourself based on the year and model of the vehicle.

We bought our car in Ecuador, as our trip was not precalculated. Our overlanding life was inspired after we made the move to the country expats. Ecuador is certainly not the cheapest place to buy a car, so if you’ll be buying abroad do your research on where the best place to buy is. We hear from other travelers that Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile are great countries to snag a great deal. You can also follow Facebook groups to find other travelers who have already completed the trip and now wish to sell their vehicles. While there are several, check out one called the Pan American Travel Association.

Our family chose a vintage Toyota Landcruiser for many reasons. In South America, it is advisable to choose a car without a lot of bells and whistles so repair work is easy and hassle-free. Also, old Toyotas are popular models, so parts are usually easy to find. We have heard so many stories from travelers who chose Land Rovers or VWs, and they wind up waiting weeks for parts to be shipped. They also often shell out extra money to find mechanics who are specialized in these types of makers, less common in South America.

Many people quickly realize that South America is not ideal for an RV – so it’s important not to go too big.  Some folks do travel with big overland rigs, trailers, or Unimogs, but we know that access with these can get tricky. RVs are not a common sight. Camping is not widely available, road conditions are not usually up to US standards, and mobility in the big cities is a huge issue with oversized vehicles.

Some travelers do just fine with outfitted vans, but we love our Landcruiser because getting offroad is important to us. The 4×4 capability and inside sleeping space were  important factors that influenced our choice. Our vehicle has been converted so our inside storage space fits on top of the folded down seats. This results in a semi-permanent platform with a custom mattress on top. We also added custom storage units and water tanks on top of our car.

Keep in mind that our kids are still small and we only sleep in our car occasionally. We have never used a car seat since arriving in South America (our kids are now 5 and 6). However, we kept the seats intact just in case country laws required us to put them in car seats. It has never been necessary. Our children simply ride in the back, sitting, playing or sleeping on the bed platform (slightly bigger than a queen mattress) while we drive.

Although many people are shocked to hear that we don’t use car seats, we are certain that traveling long term in a car would not be successful if our kids were restrained for the duration of this trip. It works because they have the freedom to move around. 

Car seat laws do exist in some cities and countries, but they are not widely enforced. Exemptions exist for late car models like ours, which do not have seat belts installed, and for travelers who do not reside in the said places. Even so, it is rare to see car seats being used outside major cities in South America.

The Packing

While your family will be able to carry much more than you would with suitcases, the lifestyle of long term travel means embracing minimalism.

Everything you need for the duration of this trip must fit in or on your car. Think clothing and shoes for all seasons, food and cooking supplies, tools and car maintenance essentials including extra gas. This is not to mention books and school supplies, toys, personal care items like laundry containers for handwashing, soap, toiletries, bedding, etc. Then, add in things like dishes, a stove stop and propane tank, or a tent and sleeping bags, if you plan to carry them.  And you lmust eave room for extension cords (with adapters for each country), flashlights, a camera, a laptop, and a portable DVD player. Yikes!

Overlanders quickly realize that “less is way more.” I estimate that everything we own and carry would fit into about three large dressers. It sounds like a lot of space until you realize your entire household need must fit into it.  It doesn’t take long to realize three pairs of clothing for each climate are plenty, jewelry and makeup are pointless, and the kids are happy with a small bag of toys. Anything extra winds up wasting valuable space better suited for the necessities.

The Overnights

Our car is outfitted for sleeping, but we don’t sleep in it as often as we initially expected. Mostly, car camping is reserved for trips through national parks, beaches, and truly remote travel.

There are very few established campgrounds in South America. Parking lots and gas stations are not always suitable for overnight stays, and street sleeping is not ideal for the lack of public bathrooms and appropriate places to cook.

We sleep in hostels most of the time. Most rooms are dorm-style, and the facilities offer shared living spaces like communal kitchens, living rooms, and outdoor spaces. Amenities vary widely and sometimes include laundry facilities, Netflix, pools, gardens, etc.

Seeing families in hostels is rare and it’s crucial to be extra selective when choosing a hostel. We only stay in hostels that are explicitly party-free, can offer us a private room or small dorm space, show a history of hosting families, and offer secure parking for our vehicle.

The Finances 

Currency is complicated in South America. Every country has its own currency, with virtually no resemblance to the others in value. None of them are willing to accept the currency of their neighbors. Be sure to handle all of the currency conversions at the border or official exchange houses.

Just as complicated as currency is the choice of cash or card. Some countries in South America very rarely accept cards. This means it’s crucial to carry cash or it’s impossible to function. In the countries of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia – cash is king and you’ll want to carry it in big batches of small denominations. Even for restaurants, hotels, and gas stations, cards aren’t widely accepted.

Overlanding takes a bit of effort to set up properly, but once you’re on the road, you may never want to stop. 


Stephanie Frias – September 2019

ROAM Contributor   

Stephanie is a professional travel writer, blogger and photographer. She’s mom and wife in a nomadic family, The Frias Family Nomads, who’ve been slow traveling through South America since May 2017.


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