Around the World in a Ponton: Part 4

Elisabeth and Fred Smits
Photos by the authors
Here, in the latest segment of an occasional series, Fred and Elisabeth Smits share highlights of their journey from Mexico through Central and South America, with excursions to Cuba, the Galápagos Islands and Antarctica.

Around the World in a Ponton: Part 4

Article & Images Elisabeth Smits


In August 2014, Fred and Elisabeth Smits set out from their home in New Zealand with their 1957 220S Ponton “Abel” on a five-year trip around the globe. Here, in the latest segment of an occasional series, they share highlights of their journey from Mexico through Central and South America, with excursions to Cuba, the Galápagos Islands and Antarctica. To date, the Smits have been on the road for 963 days and traveled more than 53,000 miles.


Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador & Cuba

February 2-July 30, 2016


When we returned to Mexico in February last year after a long holiday with family in New Zealand, we immediately became involved in classic-car activities with an award from the Mexican commission for classic cars and a rally from Veracruz to Acapulco. By mid-March, we were in Guatemala, having crossed the 23rd national border of our trip – and that’s always a bustle of paperwork tinged with anticipation. During the next seven weeks, we enjoyed varied scenery, historical cities and a traditional lifestyle that made this country one of our favorites. We particularly enjoyed lovely Lago de Atitlán and the multicolored Spanish colonial buildings of Antigua, but the country’s true splendor is found outside the main cities; towering mountains, prominent volcanoes and dark-green jungles teeming with wildlife entice wonder.


Guatemalans live in the most basic of conditions, often without water, electricity or basic sanitary services that people living in developed countries take for granted. Transport is generally by foot or donkey, or sometimes by three-wheeled motorized tuk-tuks. Between towns and villages,  “chicken buses” – outrageously painted and chrome-laden old school buses that are icons of the country  –  provide basic transportation and often-unexpected thrills on the small winding roads.

With a ministerial entry permit, we made a brief visit to El Salvador where we were stars on radio and television; we couldn’t go farther into Central America because right-hand-drive cars are forbidden. So it was back to Mexico, from which we shipped Abel and Zambezi (our faithful Ponton and trailer) to Colombia, while we spent three weeks as tourists in fast-awakening Cuba.


•   Abel was honorary rally car at the XV Rally Del Golfo al Pacifico (Veracruz to Acapulco) – we won a Copa Acapulco Special Accolade for being last at every checkpoint   • 

•   We can’t always take Abel with us: here we’re driving a red tuk-tuk scooter in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala   •

   •   Our mobile camp at beautiful Lago de Atitlán, Guatemala, with dramatic Volcán San Pedro in the background   •


•   A “chicken bus”– the major form of transportation in Guatemala   • 

•   Last day in Guatemala: our hostel in Quetzaltenango   •   Posing with old  Detroit iron in Havana – the city is decayed, but the people are vibrant   •

•   Video shoot for El Salvador’s national Speed TV channel, and a live interview on Gasoline Radio 102.5FM in San Salvador, the nation’s capital   •


Colombia, Ecuador & Galápagos

July 30, 2016-January 7, 2017


Not only did Colombia prove to be a traveler’s paradise, we also found ourselves adopted by the Antique and Classic Car Club of Colombia members, who introduced us to Bogotá Mercedes-Benz dealership’s mechanics. After wearing out eight tires in the last 9,000 miles due to a badly repaired rear end, Fred was easily convinced to put the car in the company’s hands. Pulling parts from four separate cars left from when Pontons were ubiquitous as taxis in Bogotá, mechanics replaced the rear end and completely corrected the problem during an eight-week period. While we waited, we visited other parts of the country, even meeting photographer Lucana Perez (see The Star, July-August 2011), who showed us the sights in Medellin and shared her stories of traveling through North and South America in her own Ponton.

We are often asked about the thieves, kidnappers, guerrillas, drug wars and corrupt police in this region that the media publicize. But in more than two years on the road, we have not encountered one single dangerous situation. Of course, we act sensibly: We avoid known dangerous areas, remain aware of our surroundings, use ATMs when we require cash, and don’t drive at night or flaunt expensive possessions, so we seem to have turned the odds in our favor.

We spent five weeks in Ecuador, including two weeks on an expedition ship to the Galápagos Islands. The country has been a driving challenge, including logging tracks and dirt roads to the top of the 12,841-foot summit of Quilotoa volcano; the scenery in the Andes has been spectacular, even though we had to leave the trailer behind to traverse the high passes.


•   Under an endless blue sky, Abel at the top of Colombia’s spectacular Valle del Rio Cauca   •   

•  Red roofs and white walls line a steep village street in Barichara, Colombia   •

 •   A skillful team of mechanics at Automercol Mercedes-Benz in Bogotá rebuilt Abel’s rear axle   •

 •   In Medellin, Abel parked next to the 1961 180b Ponton of intrepid photographer Lucana Perez, who has toured extensively through the Americas  •


•   Preparing for a beach landing in the Galápagos Islands, 605 miles off the west coast of South America. •

•  Galápagos is one of the most fascinating places on Earth   •

•   The famous Galápagos marine iguana and giant tortoise   •  

•   A Christmas midnight drive with the local car club in Cuenca, Ecuador   •  

•   We walk the line: Back to back on the equator   •


Antarctica, Peru and Chile

January 7- March 16, 2017

Leaving Ecuador, we descended to Peru and south into the Atacama Desert of Chile, the driest place on earth. For thousands of miles, we enjoyed the never-boring landscape of multihued sand and rock with the intense blue of the Pacific Ocean to the west. We’ve been impressed by the ruins of highly advanced cities built millennia before the Egyptian pyramids. We also couldn’t resist taking three weeks to visit Antarctica.  With Abel performing way beyond expectations – a true testament to this well-built 60-year-old machine – we will drive south to Patagonia and then proceed north through Argentina and Paraguay back to Ecuador; there we’ll pick up the trailer for shipping to South Africa around Christmas.


Please follow our journey via; for background information, visit


•   “Mano del Desierto”– hand in the desert – Chile’s outstanding sculpture in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth   • 

•   We visited Antarctica on the expedition vessel MV Ushuaia   •  

•   A morning chat with a Quechua lady in the town of Chivay, Peru  •

•   To visit Peru’s Cañón del Colca – twice as deep as the Grand Canyon – we had to cross 16,181-foot-high Paso Callicalli  

•   Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in the Atacama Desert   •



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