In December of 1976, my parents Oscar and Maria set off on a six-month road trip that would forever be known as “El Viaje”.
Their entire trip would span multiple countries, starting in Canada, cutting through the United States, into Central America. After flying the car from Panama to Lima, they would then travel through South America, making stops in their respective homelands of Uruguay and Peru.
My Dad, Oscar, had arrived in Canada in 1973, originally in Montreal, and then went to Toronto. My Mom, Maria, had left Peru and arrived in Toronto in late 1973. They were introduced by friends and began dating in 1975.
The discussions about this trip began in early 1976 and originally included two other couples that they were friends with. At the time, my parents had been living in Sarnia, Ontario, where my Dad was driving trucks and my Mom was working at a Corn Wheat company. Over the course of the next few months, they pooled their savings with the intention of buying a van with the other couples and modifying it for the trip.
When it came time to leave though, the other couples backed out. My parents were left with the decision: did they want to stay or were they still going to go?
They opted to go. That December, they packed their things into an Austin Mini and left Sarnia for what would be the defining trip of their lives.
After crossing the border, their first stop was Chicago, with plans to drive through the United States down to Central America.
It’s impossible to summarize the sheer number of sights they saw. In the Southwestern part of the United States alone, they spent time at the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Park. Heading further south, they spent almost an entire month in Mexico, spending time with my father’s family in Mexico City and exploring the western part of the country. They camped by Lago Apulo en El Salvador, and spent a week at a resort in Guatemala before heading to Costa Rica and finally, Panama.
In Panama, they flew to Medellin, Colombia to start the South American leg of their journey. They took several buses through Colombia, then through Ecuador, and onto Peru. While in Peru, they stopped in Lima to reunite with the car and meet my mother’s family, most of whom were meeting my Dad for the first time. They then headed to Juliaca, Cusco, and of course, Machu Picchu.
Their departure from Peru led them to Bolivia, through La Quiaca, a city in the northern portion of Argentina, and then into Uruguay. Upon reaching my father’s hometown of Montevideo, my Mom now got to meet his entire family. After spending time with my father’s family, they boarded the ferry and made their way to Buenos Aires, then to Mendoza, before driving the Mini through the Andes to the border of Chile.
All of the stories weren’t necessarily as rosy. While they were camping one night in Guatemala, they were woken up in the middle of the night by gunshots and had to spend the rest of the night in their neighbors RV to stay safe. In multiple countries, the only way they were able to cross the border is to essentially try to bribe the customs agents. The Mini also broke down in different cities but left them stranded in Bolivia at one point until they found the right part. At one point in Paysandú, Uruguay, they almost ran out of money completely and my Aunt in Montevideo had to overnight them a box with cash stuffed inside a pair of shoes.
Along the way, they met fellow travelers, some of whom they still remember fondly. While in Panama, they met a French Canadian man by the name of Rene Roux who was driving his motorcycle through Central America. They traveled alongside each other and parted ways after Colombia. By sheer coincidence, he ended up visiting Uruguay and my Dad invited him to stay with my Uncle and family in Montevideo.
Rene was apparently extremely simpatico and left quite an impression on my grandmother – so much so, she kept encouraging my Dad’s niece Anita to flirt with him; poor Anita was mortified. Rene ended up passing through Uruguay to go to Brazil, and eventually, my parents would see him again in Canada.
When I went to interview my parents for this story, my Mom plucked out a photocopy of a Brazilian motorcycle magazine entitled Duas Rodas Motociclismo with Rene and his bike on the cover. The story inside the magazine was an interview of him and his travels through South America, a lot of details about the motorcycle itself. You can view the story on Rene here.
Despite the graininess of the black and white magazine cover, I could tell Rene was indeed a handsome man and I could see why my grandmother would’ve tried to nudge Anita along. I felt a slight pang hearing this story about my paternal grandmother, Rosa. She passed before I was born, and my knowledge of her mostly consists of small anecdotes and stories. Learning about how she tried to push a 20-something-year-old Anita into flirting with this handsome, charismatic French Canadian man who she had only met a few days prior felt so aligned with the version of her I had in my mind. Researching this trip not only gave me insight into my parents but also added another small story to my collection of Abuela Dominguez-Casala.
Once my parents left Chile, it was time to make their way north, up to Colombia so they could start the journey back home. While in Colombia, they had to abandon their car – which was illegal – so they stripped the car of everything, took the plates of the car as souvenirs, and left their Mini on the side of a road. It seemed like such an unceremonious end to their trusted travel companion, but the other option of selling it would mean unwelcome attention from the police – and so, the goodbye to their Austin Mini was succinct.
They flew from Medellin to Miami, where they stayed in a hotel in Miami Beach. By this point, it was early May, and they were most likely greeted by the Miami humidity and heat. While having dinner in Miami Beach, my Dad looked around and saw the crowd around them was mostly full of retirees.
“It was full of old people,” he told me. “I thought to myself…I could never live here.”
Little did he know, Miami would end up being home. My parents would eventually leave Toronto to move the family to Miami in the early 1980s. A few years later, I would be born and they would raise me and my two older brothers there. Miami would completely transform from the city full of retirees to the city it is today.
Their journey ended up with them driving from Miami to Toronto, where they quickly had to jump back into ‘normal life’ and begin working again. But el viaje forever changed them. It strengthened their bond with one another, and hearing their travel stories as I grew up instilled a deep sense of wanderlust in me.
My own journey is going to be so different from theirs, but I hope I’m able to gather the same kind of stories they have. Our paths aren’t exactly alike – for starters, they didn’t work while they were traveling, and they definitely were not navigating a country in lockdown due to a pandemic.
I hope I get to meet other travelers, get to explore the cities I’m staying in, and taste the freedom they got to have.
Most of all, I hope I get to make the kind of memories they did – the kind that I can look back on years from now and have my face light up the way each of theirs did while telling me the story of el viaje.