Yes, you can travel overland with your dog(s)! We have met many travelers in the Americas with their dogs, and most of them were like us–not the richest, not the most organized, not the most Spanish-speaking. If you want to travel the Americas by car and can’t bear the thought of leaving your dog at home, you don’t have to. Here are some answers to the most frequently-asked questions we get about traveling with Milo.
Is it difficult to cross borders with a dog?
It depends on the border. We made 13 border crossings and they ranged from completely ignoring the dog (Peru, Bolivia) to requiring pre-approved transit papers (Chile) to an on-site vet exam (Panama). Initially, we were told to visit a vet a day or two before crossing each border to request an up-to-date health certificate, but this was only specifically requested at a few borders. In Mexico, we received a ‘pet passport’–a booklet to record vaccinations–and this sufficed for every single border crossing. Some vets we visited gave us a health certificate just because we asked for it; others insisted we wouldn’t need one–and they were always right. Toward the end, we stopped going to vets in advance and just winging it. Central America was the most problematic and costly. Each border was different and each charged some fee for Milo to enter. When we crossed into Panama, the Panamanians supplied their own veterinarian inspection. I’d read online that this would cost $100, but ours was less than $10, although we did have to wait about an hour. In Honduras, they didn’t want to accept our pet passport as proof of vaccination and in the end charged us something like $50 to enter. In short, it can be difficult to find accurate information on border crossing with a dog, so just have your vaccination certificates ready, and be prepared to exercise some patience.
Crossing from Panama to Colombia was a big ordeal. We had to ship our car in a cargo container, leaving us the choice to either fly or to take the popular sea voyage through the San Blas Islands. Panama City sort of crushed our spirits and we couldn’t figure out a boat that would accommodate us and the dog. We’d heard that the islands were nice, but that the 30-hour open water crossing was extremely rough. We flew.
Booking the short flight to Cartagena was challenging. Dogs are not allowed to fly between July 15 and August 15 due to the heat. They are also not allowed to fly on weekends. And, they are not allowed fly on civic holidays, such as La Asunción, which on 2013 fell on August 15 and was observed on Monday, August 19. Our airline had allowed all three of us to book tickets that day anyway, and this resulted in me almost having a mental breakdown at the airport when they told us our dog wasn’t going to remain in Panama as we boarded a flight to Colombia. Luckily we avoided this. In addition to all the flight organization and costs, we were required to do veterinary work and such on both ends, which cost us something like an additional $200. Yuck. But you know what? From Colombia to Argentina, we needed nothing for Milo at any border. Until Chile.
Crossing into Chile was always our second-biggest hassle. Chile requires specific paperwork from SENASA (the Argentine agricultural and livestock sanitation agency), which can only be obtained by visiting a vet for a certificate of health. I’m sure there are equivalent certifications if you cross from Peru or Bolivia, but most overlanders deal with SENASA at least once, as there are many crossings to be made.
Of course, dealing with the ferry crossing from Baja (La Paz) to mainland Mexico (Mazatlán) was one of the best experiences of the trip! We did it with the TMC cargo ferry instead of the more expensive passenger ferry, which meant we got to remain with Milo the entire 18-hour ride and sleep in our van. Also: DOLPHINS. Is it easy to find dog food?
Yes. In Mexico, you can buy dog food at most convenience stores. Pedigree brand can be found in mostly every country. Most markets will sell bulk dog food out of huge bags for about a dollar a pound. If your dog requires specialty dog food, you will need to visit a vet, where you can pay American prices for fancy foods like Science Diet.
Is it easy to find veterinarians?
Yes. We visited vets all the time, to buy flea medicine and for questions on paperwork. It is a good idea to visit a vet periodically (at least one per country) simply to know about the changing environmental risks. Vets are everywhere, and often do consultations for free. When we did have to pay for something, it was typically around ten dollars.
What strange risks do I need to be aware of?
There are the normal dog and traveling issues, like diarrhea, heat exhaustion, and carsickness. There are also strange diseases to look out for. Our friends’ dogs came down with ehrlichia, a tick-borne disease, during a dry spell in Costa Rica. This is a deadly disease that can be treated with antibiotics if found early enough. Please take precautions if visiting areas with lots of ticks in Central America. Check your dog regularly to remove ticks, use anti-tick treatment, and keep your dog’s hair short to facilitate tick spotting and removal.
Also, every country south of the United States has stray dogs. If your dog exhibits aggression toward strange dogs, you will need to make an extra effort to train them to play it cool, or you will have endless problems. The same is true for your dog and strangers. I was surprised by how many people are terrified of dogs outside the U.S., probably due to the prevalence of aggressive strays. Our 25-pound dog had grown men cowering in fear in some instances. Once, a gun was even pulled on him when he started barking. Please keep your dog under your control at all times.
What do you do when you want to visit a place that doesn’t allow dogs?
We start by asking. Sometimes ‘no dogs’ signs don’t really mean anything, and you can be permitted to enter your well-behaved dog on a leash. This goes for campgrounds, hotels, and some parks and natural attractions. Most national parks and historic sites do not allow dogs, and we have left our dog with park guardians or vendors near the entrance whenever it was too hot to leave him in the car. Please do not ever leave your dog in a sunny car. Even with the windows down, the car heats up fast. Many travelers leave their dog tied to the car, where they can rest in the shade and play guard dog. For hotels, demonstrating that your dog is trained helps a lot, as many areas are not used to housebroken dogs. Oftentimes, simply showing/stating that your dog can sit on command, sleeps on his own blanket, and does his business outside is enough to gain your business.
For longer excursions that may not be dog-friendly (like Torres del Paine in Chile, Amazon excursions, or Antarctica), you will likely have to board your dog for a few days. Plan ahead and ask around to see what other travelers are doing. When we visited Machu Picchu, we found a campground where we could leave our van overnight, then hiked into town, where we spent the night at a dog-friendly hotel before continuing up to see the ruins. Then we left Milo at the hotel and spent the morning at the ruins before returning to claim him and hike back.
What else should I know about taking my dog along?
Does your dog like mountains? Deserts? Beaches? Cities? Long car rides? If you don’t know…you’ll find out!