Panamericana: crossing cartel country in a plug-in hybrid Mini
Leon Poultney is a writer, driver, rider and lover of all things automotive. He runs Flat-Out Creative and contributes to the likes of Stuff, DriveTribe and anyone else who will have him.
Sometimes you just have to be straight with the often nonsensical, marketing-obsessed PR people of this world. “How on earth did you get this trip like this signed off?” I ask Andreas Lampka, Mini’s head of communications in Germany and the man responsible for the majority of the planning involved in this overtly epic adventure.
“I bought it up at the very end of a meeting, we all voted for it and everyone agreed,” he explains. “But it wasn’t until I started planning it that my bosses realised it wasn’t the 2,000 mile Carrera Panamericana race I was mentioning, but a 10,000-mile journey through most of South America."
That’s right, somehow Mini's own head of comms managed to hoodwink the pursestrings holders into tackling a route that would see three Countryman plug-in hybrid vehicles cover more than 10,000 miles from a starting point in Dallas, Texas to the final destination in Ushuaia, Argentina and the beautiful surrounds of Patagonia. In doing so, these hardy little vehicles would traverse 12 countries, numerous tetchy border crossings and some of the most famous cities in South America (for both good and bad reasons).
The first of many fuel stops on the route
Catching up with the bedraggled team in Cartagena, Colombia, it soon becomes apparent that the journey so far has been fraught with lengthy border crossing procedures, superfluous paperwork, expensive bribes, shipping delays and the general chaos that’s attached to transporting four German-registered vehicles (the support vehicle is a VW van) through a selection of notoriously corrupt countries.
Rather than spend a couple of months attempting to complete the entire Pan American trek, Mini has invited us to complete one section of said trip – a 1,000-plus mile odyssey that meanders through the heart of Colombia and briefly crosses the border into Ecuador, before we hand over the baton to some other plucky writers.
Alas, the trip is already way behind schedule due to shipping issues from Panama, with officials citing storms out to sea, delays and other such excuses why the three Minis have been stuck on a ship for thirteen days, as opposed to the proposed two.
That famous infotainment screen dishing out the bad news
The mood among the crew is sombre, as daily trips to the docks only lead to empty promises about the delivery of vehicles, so it gives us more time that we expect explore (and get quite drunk) in party town Cartagena.
After a few stern words and some monetary incentives, the Minis are finally released form the docks but the major delays in clearing customs means the remainder of the expedition is now on an extremely tight schedule. By the time we see the bright red hatchbacks pull up outside the hotel, we only have a couple of hours of daylight left.
The cars are awesome: three plug-in hybrid Mini Countrymans, complete with explorer-spec roof rack and retina-singeing Hella lamps. The once bright red paintwork is now dulled by hard miles of road dust. We have to remind ourselves that this is supposed to be a test of the little hatchback's hybrid technology, rather than a PR stunt, as supposedly the vehicles will receive a thorough engineering shakedown when they return to HQ.
Adventure roof rack should come as standard on these things
Time to ponder is slim, as our ragtag group of Russian influencers, German support team and a couple of Brits now faces a 400-mile hack south towards Medellin, which Google Maps suggests should take a solid 12.5 hours without a single stop. In an irksome echo of circumnavigating the M25 at rush hour, that estimated time of arrival slowly creeps up with every slow lorry, errant donkey, broken road surface, lorry pile-up and road-wrecking landslide encountered along the way.
Driving through Colombia is predictably hectic, with nothing in the way of lane discipline or road laws most Europeans are used to, but very little can prepare a driver for the never ending jams, hold-ups and time-draining events that occur on the road.
With three drivers rotating shifts behind the wheel (a fellow journalist and a member of the Mini support crew occupy the other seats), we finally pull into the Intercontinental Hotel, Medellin, at around 5am the following day.
No amount of Red Bull and blisteringly strong Colombian roadside coffee can stave off the fatigue of such a punishing drive and to add insult to injury, the journey has devoured any time we could have otherwise spent enjoying Medellin’s buzzing nightlife.
The metropolis that was once labelled “the most dangerous city on earth” by Time magazine has now transformed into a creative hive of colour and activity. An extensive public transport system now connects the many barrios and neighbourhoods that once served as recruitment camps for Pablo Escobar’s notorious cocaine empire, allowing residents to commute to newly created jobs and create businesses of their own, which has helped transform the image of the city.
Granted, tourists still arrive in their droves to indulge in the gruesome history of Colombia’s warring drugs cartels, made famous by hit Netflix show Narcos, but Medellin is now so much more than that.
Medellin in all its graffiti-clad splendour
Due to the punishing schedule, I manage to blag just a whistle-stop walk around the famous La Comuna 13, once one of Medellin’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. It is all we really have time for, but proves to be well worth the detour and the massive argument with the trip's organiser.
It affords some of the most amazing views over the city and an inside look at the alleyways, shacks and escaleras electricas that join these once marginalised communities with the big city. There’s also myriad retina-popping graffiti that adorns the walls clinging to the hillside, with many murals telling stories of ruthless gang wars of yesteryear, the struggle with drugs and a violent past.
Once the murder capital of the world, Medellin still feels edgy
Cruising down to Cali
Our dash from Medellin to Cali is by far the most frustrating yet, with the average speed on the Mini’s digital readout rarely getting above around 20mph. This is chiefly down to the single track roads, choking HGV traffic and the fact that Highway 50, supposedly a major arterial road, is nothing more than a dusty track in parts, which has been squeezed into narrow, single-file traffic lanes by landslides and questionable local engineering works.
The journey is a continuous loop of backed-up traffic, a few miles of bumpy terrain, followed by another queue as we wait for the lines of oncoming vehicles to filter past. We clocked one of these stops at well over an hour, with most locals leaving their vehicles to buy drinks and snacks from the entrepreneurial roadside vendors, light a cigarette or play a game of dice. Us gringos just get bitten by mosquitos.
Thankfully, the roads get smoother once we make it past Cartago and Buga, with the scenery turning from beautiful to absolutely epic, but it means we arrive at our hotel in Cali (home of the other infamous cocaine cartel) just in time for a bemused night porter to check us in.
A lesser-spotted Colombian hybrid vehicle
The punishing amount of miles required to complete Mini’s challenge of making it to Ushuaia in time and somewhere near on-budget means the days will largely be spent in the vehicles, racking up the miles. Mini’s hybrid technology has so far proven to be extremely capable, with the on-board battery packs neatly recharging down and via kinetic braking, meaning it’s possible to cruise at low speeds on electricity alone.
Predominantly designed for the city, the plug-in hybrids have tackled some serious terrain with very few problems. We notice the air conditioning in our vehicle starts to play up after a full day of driving, but it’s easily solved, while the small tanks means we’ve had to brim with fuel frequently via fuel station stops or the red cans attached to the roof rack when said stations run out of gas.
Salty snacks, Spotify and sugary drinks help pass some of the more monotonous sections of road, but there’s always something going on out of the window: a scooter carrying four people, a roadside bar pumping salsa music, a man taking a machete to a truck tyre and a random police check parting travellers with their pesos.
According to our hosts, the most painful border crossing (Mexico to Guatemala) has taken the team six hours, so it’s completely understandable that they want to make proceedings as easy as possible.
In an attempt to mitigate the border patrol pain, we hole up for the night in the quiet border town of Pasto, which sits around 2,500m above sea level and is home to a chocolate-box, if a little quiet, town centre. The plan is to rise early and beat the queues, so the hotel’s restaurant serves up a local delicacy of roasted cuy (that’s guinea pig, BTW), served on a bed of salty popcorn with slivers of chopped liver delicately strewn over the dish just before bedding down.
Come sunrise, there is time for a brief stop at Las Lajas Sanctuary – quite possibly the world’s most beautiful church, which majestically straddles the Guaitara River and provides the perfect opportunity for some photos.
Las Lajas Sanctuary is worth the quick toilet break stop
But Zen-like tranquillity of the place is soon forgotten as we reach the border, which is predictably frenzied, with lengthy queues to attain the correct passport stamps to leave Colombia and equally long waits to obtain the correct documents to enter Ecuador.
A figure leaps from the back of a pick-up and attempts to run the border on foot as we wait in a stinking holding area. There is a commotion, much shouting and gun waving, before the man is tackled to the floor, his flip-flops flying through the air.
Two hours, another failed border-run attempt and many packets of crisps later, we wave goodbye to Colombia, the expensive tolls and rutted roads making way for smooth tarmac and instant epic vistas.
It's time to flush the smuggled PG Tips down the loo
Ecuador is simply breath taking, the Cayambe volcano and numerous Andean peaks visible from the roads, which snake and carve their way through deep valleys and often crest cloud-busting summits.
The Mini’s sat nav suggests we reach an altitude in excess of 3,500m at points, which goes some way to explain the breathlessness felt whenever we walk a few feet during toilet breaks, while the same system also points out the fact that we crossed the equator – the digital latitude readout swinging from north to south.
We reach Ecuador’s capital, Quito, for sundown, but there’s plenty of opportunity to appreciate its beauty. Ribboning tarmac surrounds the city, which looks as if it has been poured into the mountainsides from a great height, and we circulate the road system for what feels like an eternity before being fired directly into the city centre.
Quito seamlessly blend the old with the new, the historic centre (another UNESCO World Heritage site) plays host to buildings that date back as far as the 1500s, while the financial district is awash with modern glass high-rises and expansive hotel sites.
Night falls and the team drinks steaming glasses of Canelazo in a small town cafe, an Ecuadorian take on a mulled wine that’s made from exotic fruit juice and strong sugar cane-based alcohol called Aguardiente.
It warms the core and does a good job of staving off the bite of the cold winds that blow down through the city from the mountains. And with one final toast over more Canelazo, we put the finishing touches on a monumental but brutal road trip, wishing God Speed to the impending batch of hardy drivers flying in to pilot the cars through Peru, Chile and Argentina.
This was home and office for the duration of the trip
The team eventually completed the 25,750km journey and the three Countryman PHEVs made it safely back from Argentina to Germany. One of the cars can now be found tucked in a corner of the BMW museum in Munich. But the PR fanfare was dulled somewhat by the fact this trip ran over time and budget quite considerably. If anything, it will ensure senior figures at BMW will pay more attention in meetings.