How We Find Overnight Places On-The-Road
We spend the vast majority of our nights “free camping”. From Christmas 2014 to the time of writing this, late November 2015, we have visited 7 formal campgrounds, or other places, that we paid to spend the night. This is possible because our Berta is self-contained.
There are basically two ways that people travel the Pan American with their own vehicles (excluding cyclists and motorbike riders).
One group does the trip in either in a small four-wheel-drive (a pick-up truck or a Land Rover/Landcruiser style vehicle) or in a small converted van. Due to limited space and load capacity, the set-up of these vehicles is usually not fully self-contained. Some might have a rooftop tent to sleep in, others a sleeping platform fitted into the back. Only a limited number of these carry a toilet or have shower facilities.
Then there are those, like us, who travel in larger vehicles; often much larger and heavier than ours, and usually built on a ‘real’ truck base. The truck chassis affords luxuries such as large water tanks, a fixed toilet, a large fridge, built-in cooking facilities (often including an oven) and sometimes, as the final luxury, even a washing machine. We often wish we had one!
But there is a price we pay for being self-contained: we use much more fuel than nimble small-to-medium sized 4×4s or vans – probably twice as much! And let’s not start on road tolls, maintenance, and other costs. Whether this evens out by having the option to use mostly free overnight places is open to discussion…
People in small vehicles need to stay at formal camping places more frequently, or occasionally spend the night in hostels. You simply can’t pop up your roof top tent in the middle of a city; if necessary we can always look for a quiet side street in a city to park and spend a night.
Although, we don’t like to overnight in noisy places, because we usually don’t sleep well, or sometimes, not at all! Our preferred places are away from bright street lights, traffic, barking dogs, and early roosters = away from densely built-up residential areas. This also means that we avoid large fuel stations with attached rest areas, an overnight option many other overland travellers seem to use a lot.
So where do we look for overnight places?
There’s no single answer to this question. Experience has taught us to tackle this almost daily search with a range of approaches. Most days one of them is successful but, on odd nights, we end up staying at places which are less than perfect.
1. Chance Discoveries
Since we usually don’t drive with a set destination at the end of the day, chance finds are often the best. For example: we might be driving along and notice a river bed, with a good access track and level dry banks; or we spot a nice level space just somewhere out in nature, with distance to the road. When we see something like this in the afternoon we almost always pull off the road and check it out. Many of these turn out to be our favourite overnight places.
2. Empty New Development Sites
These are places we always look out for, although we hardly ever list these in our camping locations because they will almost certainly be short-lived options. You drive past such sites quite frequently: a new subdivision, all roads are done, but construction on buildings hasn’t started yet or is in its really early stages. You can often find good level ground or occasionally park right on the roads.
Careful: never use such sites if there is any indication that heavy earth moving machinery might still be in use, or if you could be hindering any construction work!
3. Abandoned Buildings
Closely related to the above but usually just one free standing unfenced building, which was obviously abandoned long ago. The usual indicators are smashed windows or missing roofing. Unfortunately these sites can be very trashy and are often too close to main roads.
4. Sports Fields
In Latin America these are mostly soccer fields. We use them occasionally, but are always careful not to drive onto a well-cared for flat green. But, if it’s a bumpy dirt lot with some rusty goal posts at each end, and not too many houses nearby, we have used them.
5. GPS Map
If we don’t find any of the above locations I often pull up my tablet and scroll through the GPS map. What I’m looking for are things like large parks, green areas, river banks, etc. Roughly half the time I am successful with this approach. We have found some really nice places by using this method, including our (unpublished) safe spot in Santiago de Chile, which we used on many occasions, for more than a year. At other times we waste a lot of fuel driving around, checking places out, and cursing the fact that our GPS maps don’t show contour lines (the ground is too steeply sloped for us to park), buildings (no open space), or fences (the nice river bank is all fenced in). And occasionally the neighbourhood just doesn’t feel right – more about this below.
This is a popular free smart phone app, originally released in 2013 for iPhones only; the Android version has been available since mid-2015. Because we both own Android devices, we’ve only been running the app since September. Therefore, we are not really familiar with it yet and often simply forget about it. Also, since we travel slowly, listed places are often too far apart to be of any real use to us. Although, a couple of times we have found good spots with this app. Some listed places weren’t accessible for us (locked gates, height restrictions) or simply not to our liking.
Up to now iOverlander is our least used option, but the times we remember to open it are becoming more frequent.
Locations we have also used to stay overnight
7. Parking Lots of Graveyards
These are often at the edge of a village, sometimes away from the road, and quiet. You might even find a tap with water. Parking lots of churches can belong in the same category (but check they don’t have a bell that chimes every hour).
8. Parking Lots of Tourist Sites
You can be lucky with these – they are away from traffic and quiet. Or you can be unlucky – they are too small, fenced in and the security guards won’t allow you to stay overnight, or they are right next to a major thoroughfare.
And, if you’re really lucky, you might even discover free Wi-Fi to hook into.
Balnearios are basically places where people go for a swim when it’s hot. In Latin America these are mostly privately owned, large park-like grounds around a pool or dammed-up river. They usually have a restaurant, toilets, and other facilities. On our last trip through Central America we were always on the look-out for these. Often we had to explain, at some length, why we wanted to stay overnight, and usually it was up to us to offer some payment (US$5-10), or we consumed something in their restaurant. Be careful to check if the balneario operates late into the night. Some do, but most close at 9 or latest 10 pm.
Of course, there are numerous other places to stay overnight. This list only includes examples of those we seem to use most frequently…
On the one hand, security should not be forgotten, although we believe that the most people are decent, friendly, and helpful. First and foremost we trust our gut feelings: if a place or neighbourhood doesn’t feel right, we move on; if locals or the police tell us the neighbourhood isn’t safe, we don’t stay!
On the other hand, we know of travellers who go to great lengths to remain hidden from everybody. They scout out a place in the middle of the day, set a GPS waypoint for it, and return in the dark of night without lights on – we find this a little extreme… We often park in full view of the entire neighbourhood and so far, have never been troubled. We have to admit that our Berta is also relatively difficult to break into. But we also believe that such openness offers some protection.
Places which become too popular with overland travellers, can pose a risk as well. Only a month before I wrote this, a story circulated on forums about a beach in Peru, where overlanders were attacked at nightfall, threatened with a pistol, had their windows smashed in, and only escaped because they could get from their living area into the driver’s seat, and thus managed to speed away. This was a location listed on iOverlander.
Whatever recommendation you find, on our lists or iOverlander or elsewhere, the decision to use any location will finally be up to you! Conditions change as the world is constantly changing…
As you can see from our list, and iOverlander, different people prefer different places for spending the night. Some look for nice facilities and easy access to a city centre or public transport; others want to be as far away from civilisation as possible. If possible, we prefer to be in a quiet spot, close to nature, but in some regions we encounter too many fences to get off the road. Some places are perfect, others less so, but we always find somewhere to sleep.
What is your preference?
Do you find lists, like ours, of any use?
Or do you always look for your own places? How do you go about this?
Is security a major concern for you? Or privacy? Or rather the price?
Please tell us in the ‘comments’ below! Maybe our readers, and we, can learn a thing or two from you…
Finally: don’t ask if travelling in a truck, like our Berta, is a better or cheaper way to experience Latin America than any kind of smaller vehicle. This is the most heated recurring discussion among overlanders. We believe this question will never lead to an all-encompassing conclusive answer!
You can look at and download the list of our camping locations here ! (Work in progress.)