RexBuck's Latin America
Maps and GPS
Last updated June 24, 2014
Some people see a big part of the adventure as heading off into the unknown without maps or GPS. In the vein of a true explorer discovering new lands with no idea of where they are or where they are going - they are somewhere and they are going somewhere else, that's all you need to know. There is certainly an exileration of setting off down an unknown road toward an unknown town. Asking directions is many times a great way to interact with the local people.
Other people embrace technology, do a bit of planning and will rely on satelites, GPS (sometimes more than one) and paper maps, every navigation aid possible so that when they are lost, they can prove they are actually lost.
I tend to be towards the latter camp. I have a GPS with one or more mapsets for a particular region, paper maps for each country and a limited Spanish vocabulary so I can ask directions when the other two fail me.
I find paper maps handy for long-term planning and asking for directions. However, I rely primarily on my GPS for navigation and sometimes finding fuel, hotels, points of interest and, oh, hospitals.
I have a four year old Garmin Zumo 660 which has done me very well. When it is time to replace it, it will likely be with either a used Zumo 660 or, if I feel particularly flush, a new Zumo 590.
I have not had a alot of experience with other brands of GPS but Garmin seems to have the best reputation for producing sturdy motorcycle GPS' and the Garmin format has the largest variety of maps available both from Garmin and 3rd party suppliers. The 660 is designed for motorcycle use, takes a lot of vibration, easy to use with a gloved finger and waterproof. The bottom line is it works great for me and I would recommend it. The 590 apparently does all the 660 does, has a brighter screen, faster processor and more functions which is fueling my lust for the new version.
I have a Sena bluetooth headset in my helmet (without the microphone) that connects with the Zumo so I can hear directions and most importantly, can listen to music which is also stored on the Zumo. So far, the SD card in the Zumo stores about 2000 songs. Bonus!
Those of us buying our Garmin in North America generally have the Garmin North America mapset included with their unit which does a decent job of covering the US and Canada.
When heading south of the US the choice of maps varies dramaticly. There are a few providers selling Garmin compatible maps and a lot of websites offering free Garmin compatible maps. Listed below are the map providers I know about. I have not tried all of them but those I have, I'll tell you what I think.
Following is a list providers of mapsets, most of which I used:
Garmin produces some mapsets for Central and South America.
They produce a mapset for South America that includes Costa Rica and Panama but excludes Ecuador and Bolivia with poor coverage of Peru for $100.
They produce a mapset for Mexico that looks like it has poor coverage of non-urban areas for $50. (See BiCi Maps comments under Mexico)
They produce a mapset for Brazil and claim to have detailed coverage for $50
They produce a mapset for Chile with varied coverage for $80.
I have never purchased or used these mapsets after reviewing their online samples and hearing numerous reports of their inadequacies.
The go-to place when all else fails is OpenStreetMap - it is free, it covers just about every country in the world and it delivers routable Garmin compatible maps. You select the area you want the map for and it generates one file that will install itself in MapSource. The only downside is that you can only have one OSM map on your system at a time. So, once you need another set, the old one is replaced. Don't know if there is a way around that but it never bothered me. Found OSM maps useful for Ecuador and Bolivia which were difficult countries to find maps for.
I found GPSFileDepot to be an outstanding resource with referrals to many country specific sites. There is a wealth of information here.
smellybiker offers some mapsets in addition to other services. The website requires a subscription which costs $50 a year in order to download maps. I found these maps to be next to useless compared to others and the subscription a waste.
I recently discovered another provider with multi-country offerings GPSTravelMaps.com . These folks sell Garmin compatable maps for a lot of countries including all of Central America and three countries in South America. They look a bit pricy to me ($200 for all Central America). I have not tried their maps to see if they are worth the additional expense.
I purchase an updated BiCiMaps each year I have gone down there. There are two versions: Mexico only (which is now branded as a Garmin product but which appears to be different than the Mexico offering on Garmin's website) for $80 or, Mexico plus Central America (the version I used) for $100. Roads are generally pretty good as are cities (except one ways which cities change faster than the map guys can keep up with). However, small to mid-sized towns can be a challenge and it will not always find the best route.
I primarily used the CenRut mapset for Central America. It generally has better detail than the BiCiMaps so it got the nod most of the time. And, it is free! Decent detail and accuracy.
Primarily used a free mapset from ColRut. The weakest part of this mapset was detail for the city Medellin. Otherwise it was fine. Found it quite similar to the OpenStreet offering for Colombia and I'm guessing there may well be a lot of information sharing between OSM and the "Rut" organizations in many countries.
All else failed and I relied on the OSM map. It was fine. Good detail. Got me through Quito a number of times.
A local company apparently produces a mapset branded as Garmin Ecuador although it does not show on Garmin's website. I tried to buy it online from them without success. Now I see their website lists the local retailers that carry the CD. I know local motorcycle rental and touring shop Freedom Bike Rentals recommends these maps and uses them for their tours.
Looks like there is a free provider for Ecuador also Proyecto Ecuador - have not looked at their maps.
PeruRut did a good job. Another free project mapset. Got me through Lima with a lot less drama than others with different mapsets.
ConoSur coverage of Peru is nowhere close to PeruRut
Relied on OSM again. I was only in Bolivia for a couple of days, basicly into La Paz from Peru and out to Chile. I seemed to have a lot less drama getting in and out of that city than other people who had other mapsets.
ConoSur coverage of Bolivia is very skinny
I have since found a "Rut" site BoliRut but have not reviewed their offering
Chile and Argentina
Mapear was the clear winner. While primarily a map for Argentina, it's pretty tough to draw argentina without including that little strip of land next to the Pacific Ocean. Better detail and more POIs had me defaulting to Mapear.
ConoSur covers Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. It rarely outperformed Mapear in Chile and Argentina for me. I recently checked the site and it appears to be down right now.
Tips for handling Maps with a Garmin
MapSource vs Basecamp
Garmin for some reason produces two programs to install on your computer, MapSource and Basecamp. I find MapSource to be an adequate route planning program. Garmin seems to be encouraging the use of Basecamp which, for my purposes is cumbersome and much more difficult to use. That's just my experience. MapSource is a free download.
When you download a new map from one of the many websites mentioned above, it will come in the form of an executable file, ie: a program. Install it and the new map will now appear in the dropdown list in the upper left hand corner of MapSource. Now by selecting that map, you can review roads, look for POIs (Points of Interest) and plan trips. If you have more than one mapset installed for a region, you can choose a location and toggle between the different mapsets using the dropdown in the upper left hand corner to determine which gives you the best coverage of that area.
Once downloaded and installed on your computer, you need to get the mapsets to your GPS. This applies to a Garmin Zumo 660 but I think the same technique applies to other Garmin units as well. This will make loading maps to your device much less painfull.
I have installed a Micro SD card on my Zumo which gives the device a second and larger memory. In addition to music and digital files of improtant documents, It is a great place to install all of the maps other than the Garmin North America set which I keep in the Zumo's main memory.
Remember, MapSource makes one file containing all of the maps you want installed. It will overwrite your previous mapsets when a new map or maps are installed. Since the Zumo has two memories (the main Zumo memory and the SD Card memory) I have installed the North America Mapset on the Zumo memory and everything else goes on the SD Card memory. That way, North America is always there.
Getting maps to the GPS.
Open a fresh MapSource.
Select the first mapset you want on the GPS with the dropdown menu in the upper left corner
With the "Map Tool" hi-lite all the areas of that map you would like access to. Some mapsets are broken down into regions so you don't have to do the entire area of coverage. Others you get the whole region of coverage
Select the next mapset you want on the GPS
Again, using the "Map Tool" select the area you want to the GPS
Important: Since any maps (except North America) already on your SD Card will be erased, you will have to make sure you include any maps previously installed on the GPS
Now you will notice under the "Maps" tab on the left is a long list of all the areas of all the mapsets you have hi-lited. These will go to your GPS. At the bottom you will see the size of the file that will be created on your Zumo SD Card
Hook your GPS up to your computer with a USB cable, click send to device, make sure the Zumo's SD card is selected, "Maps" box is checked under "What to send" and click send. This will take awhile.
When finished, disconnect your GPS and turn it off. Turn it back on and after it does it's start up thing, you should be ready to go.
Tips for Navigating with a GPS
Select the correct Map - If you have more than one mapset loaded on your GPS, you need to select the correct map by going to: Tools > Settings > Map > Map Info. This will display a list of all maps installed on your GPS. With the exception of the North America NT set which can be paired with the North America NT 3D set, you should have only one mapset selected. Preferably the mapset you used to plan the route. Your GPS will do strange things if you have more than one distinct mapset seleted.
Turn off Auto Recalculate - Allowing the GPS to recalculate a route automaticly is the fastest way to be sent off on a wild goose chase. I want it to tell me I'm off route and ask if I want it to recalculate the route. I usually say no so that I can zoom out a bit and see where the route is and where I should be. This is particularly helpful through a town or city or on a detour. Tools > Settings > Navigation > Recalculation Mode
Practice zooming out - Sometimes as a turn is approaching, I'll zoom out a bit to make sure the GPS hasn't found some sidestreet it thinks is a shorter route only to turn back on the road I am currently on in a couple of blocks. I find when going through cities and large towns that staying on major roads saves a massive amount of aggrivation. The GPS may discover a shortcut and drag you through the slums of some city rather than sticking to the main roads. Zooming out and you can quickly see its dastardly plans for you and do your own navigating for a bit. Sometimes it may think a road exists when it doesn't (or it may be impassible) and you can decide to override the route and find your own way out of town. Zoom out to find where you want to be then try to find the main roads (particularly if in a city) to get you there.
Be careful of where your via points are located - If you just select the name of a city as an objective, the mapset will identify that city by a specific point somewhere in the middle of the city and take you there. You don't want to go there!
If you are just going through a city, find a point on the highway just past the city for your mark and it will hopefully find the best route.
Sometimes when planning a route, if you are dragging the route line around, it is easy to inintentionaly drop it slightl off of the road you want to be on and the GPS will gladdly take you there then back to the main road. PITA Look at the via points and make sure they are located properly. Or, look at the list of upcoming turns - if you are on Hwy 2, it wants to take you to a couple of side roads then back to Hwy 2, just stay on Hwy 2.
Leave the GPS turned on for short breaks - When you stop for gas, a break, some food or any other short-term reason, leave the GPS on. If you don't, you may have to wait 5 or more minutes for the GPS to power up, find enough satelites and get your route going which is frustrating particularly if there are a few turns coming up shortly.
I have my Zumo hardwired to my bike (not through the CanBus). When I turn my bike off, it will give me 25 seconds or so to decide if I want the GPS to stay on before shutting it off. The Zumo will operate on its own battery in this state for 2-3 hours.
Use your head - This may seem obvious but it is easy to get complacent with a GPS guiding your around and just assume it will get you to where you want to go. By staying aware of where you are and what towns should be coming up, you may want to stop and reassess your route if a sign is telling you a town is in a direction different to where the GPS is taking you. Knowing the name of a good sized town on your route is very helpfull information if you have to quickly stop to ask for directions.
WARNING: I use a PC. I have no idea how MapSource works on an Apple product. Some of this may still be helpful though.
While you can plan a route of almost infinite length, don't try to load long routes on your GPS. I wil usually break my trip into routes of 600 km to 1200 km in length. They are more manageable and make your GPS run faster.
You can have as many routes in one .gdb file as you want. I usually limit it to about 30 to 40 before I start a file for the next phase of the trip. When I am planning, I sometimes will try a number of alternative routes before selecting a winner.
When you load the routes for the next day or two to your GPS, open a fresh copy of MapSource, copy the routes you want to load on the GPS to that second MapSource (any waypoints or points of interest you have attached to the route you are load will automaticly be transferred also) then load it to your GPS from there. Otherwise, MapSource will load all of the routes you have created in that file to your GPS. You will then be frustrated.
Once finished, disconnect the GPS from the computer and start if up and let it sit for awhile. It should eventually install the routes. If it doesn't, go to Tools > My Data > Import Data > Routes, tick the routes you would like installed and press "Import"
Since writing the above, I have found that Garmin is pushing users to use Basecamp rather than Mapsource. When Basecamp was first introduced, it was such a constricting POS that didn't suit my needs at all. I have recently downloaded Basecamp and find it to be very robust. As usual, some things better and some things worse. I still tend to automaticly go to Mapsource but can see using Basecamp more in the future.
Paper and Traditional Maps
Mexico - Guia Roji . . . period. Can be bought online from Guia Roji or Amazon or you can just stop into many Pemex gas stations and pick one up. In the form of an atlas and renewed each year. About 50 maps plus many cities. Outstanding
For those interested in incrediblely detailed military maps, MikeMike on ADV provided this link to the Perry-Casteñeda Map Collection - wonderful detail, topo maps, etc.
Other countries - I bought a combination of country maps by International Travel Maps
and National Geographic Adventure Maps. I bought them through Amazon.com. Try to get waterproof maps - inevitably you will have a map out in the rain. Both vary in scale from country to country and larger scale maps can be less useful when looking at a local area and asking someone for directions. Better than nothing though. The Nat Geo maps seem to have a bit more cultural information. I didn't find either lacking in accuaracy.
The Perry-Casteñeda Maps of the Americas includes traditional maps of other areas that may be of interest to map hounds.