I started my trip without a GPS, not really wanting to bother with an electronic item on my handlebars, electronic maps for each country and another potential theft item. I bought quite a few paper maps off the internet before leaving home and figured that this would be adequate. Then, I discovered quickly how difficult, and dangerous it was to try and read a map while driving. Even more, stopping frequently to check a map turned out to be a big downer. Then, I got seriously lost on my first riding day just trying to get out of Buenos Aires. This, plus a couple other major wrong turns convinced me that a GPS would provide me with a lot of peace of mind. So, when Amanda visited me in Bariloche, I had her bring me a Garmin Nuvi 550 GPS receiver and a lockable handlebar mount from Tour Tech.
I wired the GPS into the bikes electrical system, on a relay, so I don’t need to worry about a 12v cigarette style connection. It’s turned out to be a really handy tool and I’m very glad to have it. Of course, a GPS only works as good as the underlying maps, which has been the source of frequent problems. In the best cases, I can navigate straight to an address. In the worst cases I can at least tell if I’m going in the correct general direction.
Below are a list of the maps I used for each country, links to each providers website and my review of each maps functionality. [external links are shown in red]
Argentina and Chile: Proyecto Mapear – This map covers Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Best of all, it’s free. For most locations, this map was excellent. It provided about the same level of detail and accuracy found in the proprietary Garmin maps used in the U.S. It supported routing and was able to provide directions to specific addresses in most cities. Regarded as the best GPS map for Argentina. Recommended.
ConoSur GeoRed – The newest version of this free map contains information for Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay and Uruguay. I only used it for Bolivia, which I found not to be very impressive at all, but slightly better than nothing. For example, it showed the the city of La Paz as only having about five streets. Others have commented that this is a pretty good map for both Argentina, but the best map for Chile. Recommended.
Viajeros Mapas – Another free map rumored to cover parts of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. I was not able to get it to function after trying for several hours. In fact, it lead to several hours of frustration and the deletion and re-installation of several programs on my computer. Apparently, the program only works with a seriously old version of Garmin’s Mapsource software. Not recommended at all.
Bolivia: I used the ConoSur GeoRed map listed above as I was not able to find a specific map for Bolivia. The map seemed to have good information on roads throughout the country. However, street level detail within urban areas was very poor. As far as I can tell, there are no high quality maps available for this country. Recommended.
Peru: Perut – A free map for Peru. The map quality was definitely better than what I could find for Bolivia, but it was still not quite up to the quality of the maps available for Argentina, Chile or the U.S. Detail on the map is generally pretty decent, but beware of the auto routing. Recommended.
Ecuador: I was not able to find a GPS map for Ecuador. After my trip, I learned of a free GPS map made by Proyecto Ecuador, which is rumored to be pretty decent. You can find that one here.
Colombia: Colrut – A free map for Colombia. It was much better than the maps available for either Bolivia or Peru, but again, not near the quality of the maps available for Argentina, Chile or the U.S. The map supported navigation to addresses in some major cities, but often got one way streets wrong. Still, a good map for the price. Recommended.
Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala: GPSTravelMaps.com – I was not able to find any free maps for Central America, only the expensive single country downloads from GPSTravelMaps.com. Given the $50 price tag per country, I was very disappointed with the quality. In major cities, streets are often not labeled and one way streets are generally incorrectly identified. Most roads, other than the Panamerican highway, have simply not been included in the software. Even more surprising, many small towns, and even many cities fail to show up in the maps. I was very disappointed with these maps. I felt that they were a waste of money and would not recommend buying it. Not Recommended.
Panama: (PTY GPS) I haven’t tried it, but after my trip I found a Panama specific GPS Map made by PTY GPS that has a high degree of detail. At $99 for the full version, it’s a bit pricey, but for someone living or staying in Panama for a while, it may be worth it.
BiciMapas – I later discovered that BiciMapas, a paid service ($159), also offers a Central America atlas for Garmin GPS units. Given the very poor quality of the GPSTravelMaps, I’d recommend trying the BiciMapas for Central America. Recommended.
Mexico: BiciMapas – In Mexico I used the $104 BiciMapas Mexico atlas. The file is huge and the maps provide a high level of detail for most of the places that I have been. Border areas seem to be a bit limited in their scope and sometimes the map’s routing has been a bit flawed, but overall, I have been quite impressed. My primary disappointment is that the program is generally not very good at routing to a specific address. Often it will provide a location at the start or end of the street specified, omitting the specific house/building number. This is a good tool for Mexico. Recommended.
Having a GPS undoubtedly saved me a significant amount of stress and trouble during my trip. Across most of Latin America, road signs are few and far in between. Streets are frequently routed in a very confusing manner when entering and exiting towns and getting directions from locals is often counterproductive. With the GPS, and even the most limited electronic maps, the information provided can be very reassuring and helpful. My strong suggestion for anyone contemplating a similar trip would be to purchase a significant stockpile of paper maps prior to leaving home. Also, coat any non-waterproof maps in something like REI’s Map Seal. I’ve found that in most Latin countries, good quality maps are often difficult to find. Having a decent quality paper map to compare against the GPS information has proven to be a good strategy for me.
OSM Map Update:
Since getting home I have learned of something called OSM (Open Street Maps). OSM is a collaborative project to create a free, editable map of the world. I haven’t used OSM, but I think it could be a great alternative to many of the crappy Latin American maps that I used.
Per Wikipedia, the maps are created using data from portable GPS devices, aerial photography, other free sources or simply from local knowledge. Both rendered images and the vector graphics are available for download under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence. You can find a significant amount of information by searching Wikipedia for OSM and even more importantly, Wikipedia’s page on using OSM for Garmin receivers.
Here are some pages that looked promising to me, but again, I have never used this map source.
If anyone has use OSM, I’d love to hear more about this and if you felt that it was valuable, useful or not worth the time. Thanks!