Hi guys! Apologies for the recent radio silence. It’s been a busy couple of weeks – I finished up some contract work and income taxes, we left Lake Atitlan and for the past few days we’ve been exploring Acul and some of the other small villages in the highlands of Guatemala. More about that in the next blog though because this post is all about travelling with a dog!
We get a lot of people asking us what it’s like to travel from Canada to Guatemala with a large Nordic mutt. We also meet a lot of Vanlifers who’ve come across stray or abandoned dogs in the US, Mexico or Guatemala and anguish over whether they should adopt the dog and bring it with them on their adventure. If you’re thinking travelling with your dog or adopting a mutt along the way, here are our thoughts on the pros and cons of Vanlife and international travel with a dog. These pros and cons are particularly relevant to those of you travelling through Latin America. But first, a little dog travel history.
/// Why We Started Travelling with our Dog ///
In 2012, we adopted our first dog. Over a number of months I had managed to wear Marc down and finally, on my birthday, he agreed to let me adopt George – the dog I had fallen in love with while volunteering at the SPCA. My father-in-law, André had warned me that once I had a dog, I’d no longer want to travel because it wouldn’t want to leave the dog behind. I dismissed the warning and figured that while we travelled, I could just leave George with whomever… a friend, family member, kennel – lots of options.
Well, it didn’t take long to realize that André was absolutely right. I found it painful to leave George at home while we travelled and after spending 5 weeks away from him during a trip to Nicaragua, we decided that if we were going to travel long term, we’d have to do it via road trip so that we could bring George with us.
George was along for the ride in 2016 on our road trip through the Mexico mainland, Baja and back. We loved travelling with him and were devastated when he died, somewhat unexpectedly, that Fall. We spent the Winter of 2017 travelling through the US, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize without a dog and while it made travelling SO MUCH easier, it felt lonely and less exciting. We decided that we were absolutely dog people and immediately upon arriving home from our trip, we adopted Walter the Adventure Mutt.
/// Vanlife with a Dog – Pros ///
We knew when we adopted Walter that he was a good traveller and friendly with other people and dogs. These qualities make for a great travel dog and most of the time, having Walter by our side makes travelling even better. He comes everywhere with us and keeps us company through the good, the bad and the ugly. He rides in the van behind the driver’s seat, explores with us, eats his meals with us in the van and sleeps in his own little van bed which I’m pretty sure, is almost half the size of ours 😉
Bringing People Together / Socialization for your Dog
In every country we visit, dog lovers – travellers and locals alike – come out of the woodwork to meet Walter. In Guanajuato, Mexico, more than once we had women chasing us down the street wanting to meet Walter and yelling, “Ooooh, el perrito!” In the smaller rural villages, locals approach us to admire him and want to know “how much does he cost?” and “are you selling him?” Little kids love his big smile and like to pet him and ask us questions. Inevitably, after a few minutes of chatting about Walter, locals start to ask questions about us, our travels, where we’re from, etc.
RVers, Vanlifers and Overlanders are equally excited to meet Walter. Some travellers don’t have pets because of their travel lifestyle and are thrilled to get some snuggle time. Others have dogs with them too and because they’ve experienced so many of the same pros and cons, we have an instant connection and our doggie friends have a new playmate.
Protection & Security
Although people generally sense that Walter’s friendly, they’re cautious at first because he’s relatively big and unusual in Latin America. People ask us if he’s a wolf or coyote. Some locals give us a wide birth when we walk with Walter and when sketchy people ask if he bites, we say, “sometimes”. We always feel safe exploring when we have him along and are so grateful that the protection he provides.
Keeping a Healthy Routine
It is so hard to keep a routine on the road and it’s something that we often struggle with. Walter, like all dogs is a real creature of habit. Morning and evening walks with him give the start and end of our day some consistency, as do regular mealtimes. Maybe most importantly, needing to get Walter out for a walk after a long day of travel forces us out into the city or onto the trail instead of collapsing in our van “living room” with a bag of Doritos.
/// Cons ///
Crossing Borders / Administration
Dogs add an extra dimension of complexity to crossing borders which, once you get south of the US, is complicated enough even without a dog. We spend a lot of time and money before leaving home researching requirements and getting all the right vetting, paper work, etc. However, some of the requirements are near impossible for Vanlifers and Overlanders to meet (mostly due to timeframes) so we are often crossing borders with only “most” of the right paperwork. This has not yet been a problem but it always makes us nervous. Last year, we had to sneak Walter into Guatemala (that’s a story in itself). This year, the customs agents were happy with our “almost right” paper work but it took them a full half hour just to process Walter (let alone us and the van)!
Limiting Your Activities and Destinations
Walter has separation anxiety and as we have yet to resolve it, it means we can’t leave him alone in the van, even at night or when the temperatures are cool. In other words, we can only go where dogs can go. We have missed out on a lot of restaurant meals, visits to ruins/museums, swims in waterfalls, happy hours with friends, campgrounds and perhaps most surprisingly, hikes on trails in US National Parks. Usually we’re happy to find alternative activities, eating arrangements, hiking trails etc. but this can sometimes be frustrating. I remember being absolutely starved last year when visiting the town of Cholula, Mexico. Both restaurants we wanted to try weren’t dog friendly and we ended up eating over-priced, bland food at one of the few restaurants that had a patio. This type of thing is something that happens often enough!
Being Chased by Street/Unleashed Dogs
There are A LOT of street dogs and unleashed resident dogs in Mexico and Guatemala, particularly in the rural areas. If you travel with your dog to Mexico or Guatemala (and pretty much anywhere else in Central America), you will get chased by street dogs and you must develop nerves of steel. Most of the dogs are more bark than bite but some do want to bite and you have to be prepared. We carry a stick – not to hit dogs (obviously) – but to swing around when they get close and aggressive so that they know to keep back. I’m sure it makes us look slightly crazy to the locals but it’s really the only way to ensure that us, Walter, the local dogs and whoever else we’re walking with doesn’t get hurt.
Speaking of locals, travelling with a dog almost inevitably means that you’ll get on the nerves of some locals. We do our best to keep Walter from bothering or inconveniencing people but it’s just not always possible. Here are just a few examples:
- At times, when walking along the narrow dirt roads, Walter dives into the bush and chases out a chicken. Thankfully he’s on a leash and has yet to catch one but feathers fly, chickens squawk and it draws disapproving looks from the surrounding locals (not surprisingly).
- On the boat taxi, the captain occasionally makes me sit with Walter on the bench instead of up front with the cargo. At least twice, this has resulted in Walter getting a lot of white fur all over the beautiful Mayan skirt of a – now very upset – local woman.
- Just today on our walk through the Guatemalan highlands, some sheep got spooked by the sight of Walter and took off, ripping out the branches they were tied to and going on the lam. Luckily the owner found them but looked none to impressed when she realized we were the culprits.
- On the coffee tour in Antigua, Walter threw-up (for unknown reasons) at the farmer’s house and then tried to bite the farmer’s puppy when the puppy wanted to eat the barf.
- I could go on but you get the idea!
Attempting to Keep the Van Clean
The living space in our Roadtrek is small and while it doesn’t take much time to get it clean, it also gets dirty and messy so easily. Walter is generally a pretty clean dog but the battle of the fur is never ending and realistically, it’s a battle that can’t be won. Not to mention occasional dirty paws, wet dog smells, etc.
/// Is Travelling with a Dog For You? ///
Our cons list might seem pretty long but for us, the pros of travelling with our adventure mutt far outweigh the cons. We love having our Walter with us on our journey and wouldn’t trade it for all the cleanliness and simplicity in the world. That being said, these cons are REAL and any Vanlifer travelling with a dog will tell you the same. SO if you’re thinking of travelling with your dog or adopting a mutt on the road, make sure you give careful thought to all of these considerations.
I’m sure there are some pros and cons that we’ve missed. Are you travelling with a dog? We’d love to hear from you with your own thoughts on the pros and cons or some hilarious travel dog fail stories!