Leading International RV Caravan Expeditions Can Be an Education in Itself
Norman Yelland never saw himself as a South American wagon-master. But for the last decade, the paramedic from Texas has been just that, leading an annual RV caravan expedition – dubbed “Trek of the Americas” – deep into Central and South America
The South American tour covers 23,000 miles, takes four months, and winds through 15 countries, ending at the southernmost city in the world.
Today, Yelland is a partner in Pathfinder Adventuretours, which hosts the Trek of the Americas each year, among other destinations.
What’s it like to be an international RV tour leader? We caught up with Norm between southern treks with a few questions.
How did you get started leading RV tours into Central and South America?
I had previously written a book on camping south of the border. After that, people were interested in knowing more about Mexico and started asking me to take them down there. That’s how we started doing the trips.
Back in the 1970s, we were just starting to do caravans into Mexico. We began to venture into Guatemala in 1975 and found it much more interesting than Mexico. It was cleaner; the roads were better – just more natural. It hadn’t been spoiled by the tourists.
Had you worked in the RV or travel industry?
Actually, I worked as a paramedic in a fire department and had done training classes. By teaching classes I learned Spanish. That helped me learn about a lot of out-of-the-way places. I went to small towns that many tourists didn’t normally get into in Central America and Mexico.
How did you develop an interest in camping?
I’ve been camping since the 70’s. I wasn’t raised in a camping family, but I started camping in my 20s in a tent. Since then, I think I’ve camped in every way you can think of – a trailer, motorhome, a camper, you name it. Today, I have two RVs: a class A motorhome and a truck-camper. Once in awhile, if I fly someplace I’ll take a tent. I just don’t want to spend a week in a tent.
Today you lead RV caravan tours to the southernmost tip of South America, the end of the Pan-American Highway. How long have you been making the trek?
We actually did tours into Central America from 1976 until now. We started in South America in 1996. We had contact with one of the tourist boards in Brazil and they invited us down for a site investigation. We found camping, campgrounds and RVs. In fact, three South American countries have RV manufacturers.
Where do you wind up camping?
There are some private campgrounds. There are also national parks. Many of the city parks allow RV camping. Also, sometimes we just camp at different museums and public places.
Very few sites offer amenities – probably less than 10 percent. But you might find nice city parks along the river, with picnic tables, cook stoves and restrooms. And there’s always a place that you can get water. Also in South America, a lot of the service stations have showers, and there’s no charge.
All the RVs that come with us are self-contained. After the trip is halfway through, people will come to me and say, “Hey, we really don’t need all these hookups.” If you’re sitting around a park for a month, you need hookups. But if you’re traveling around, as long as you can get water – we recommend they have a solar cell on the top to take care of electric needs – you’ve got it made.
This is a four-month trip. How much does it cost to go?
Their is a base price for two people, but we tell participants to expect to spend about $25,000 for two – that’s everything, from souvenirs to food, fuel and entertainment. Probably 70 percent of the people who go are retired. We’ll also see a lot of people – usually Europeans – who will just quit their jobs and take off for a year to do something like this.
What kind of fuel costs do you face there?
Actually, it’s not that bad. The preferred fuel is diesel because it’s much cheaper than gasoline. It used to be much more expensive down there for gasoline and diesel. But now that our prices have gone up, there’s not a lot of difference. If you’re using diesel it’s often cheaper. In Venezuela diesel was 2 cents a gallon. I filled up 70 gallons for $5. It’s almost unbelievable.
A trip to South America can’t be completely over land. How do you actually get the RVs into the country?
We drive all the way to Panama. In Panama, we usually spend a week doing the shipping process. We put them (coaches/trailers) on a regular oceangoing liner, and then ship it to South America. We go ahead by air and visit places we can’t tour by RV: the Galapagos Islands, Machu Pichu, and so forth. Then we join the RVs and drive all the way counterclockwise around South America.
When we get to a shipping point – usually Venezuela – the RVs go back on a boat and are shipped back to Miami or Houston. It’s really a test of where you can go from North America with your RV.
Do you feel safe leading a caravan in another country?
We’ve never had any kind of threatening situation in any of our groups – it’s a question that’s always asked.
What keeps you coming back?
Its 15 countries and you see all these different cultures. The big advantage in doing it by RV, and not flying, is that you see places you would never see if you flew in – the small towns and out-of-the-way places. For instance, the Petrified Forest in Argentina. There’s no hotel, no way to get there if you fly in. But we actually stay out at the national forest. The glaciers, the lakes we camp on that are so clear and pure you can drink the water – it’s incredible.
Plus, the socialization is great. It’s not like taking a bus tour where you have to be with everyone all the time. If we’re near a really nice restaurant, we might all go out. We do some planned events together. With tours, we might have a bus pick us up and drop us off.
One neat thing about the trip is we always find experts in our group. We’ve had bird watchers, marine biologists, retired oil workers who can tell us about the oil wells. It’s nice to have all the experiences from the people with us. I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve traveled with
Do you ever get bored seeing the same thing over and over?
Every trip is just as exciting as the next. You go to the same places; notice maybe a little change every year. But it’s different people. I never feel like I’m doing the same old thing. We visit mines, we do agricultural elevators, wheat fields, and sugar cane plantations – there’s such a variety. Probably the only thing that’s boring for me sometimes is going across the desert in Chile. There’s nothing out there – it hasn’t rained for 500 years. It’s literally the driest place in the world. It’s exciting to see it, but for me nothing changes. That takes about three days.
Did you ever imagine yourself as a South American wagon-master?
Not really. But it’s better than sitting around on my front porch in Texas! The truth is I enjoy it. I just enjoy it.