Back in the Day – Jan. 28, 1970: We travelled the Americas in Volkswagen camper

Although long out of print, "Pan American Highway Guide" by Ringwood resident Ernst Jahn can still be bought online for about $15. Ernst wrote the book after he and his wife Edith took a 28,000-mile trip through Central and South America in a Volkswagen camper.


Although long out of print, “Pan American Highway Guide” by Ringwood resident Ernst Jahn can still be bought online for about $15. Ernst wrote the book after he and his wife Edith took a 28,000-mile trip through Central and South America in a Volkswagen camper.


In December 1965, Ernst decided that he would give up the world of engineering to become a traveler. He made plans for a unique journey, purchased a Volkswagen camper, and was on his way to adventure. Ernst and Edith took a seven-month tour along the Pan-American Highway and among other things became the first North American tourists in a decade to drive overland all the way from the United States to Brazil, according to the source article.

The Jahns had visited 21 countries and traveled 27,888 miles in their Volkswagen camper by the end of their odyssey. Ernst used their experiences to author a reference book titled “Pan American Highway Guide,” which was accepted among travel experts as one of the most concise and complete guides to Central and South America, according to the source article. (This book is still available on Amazon for $15.)

Despite the length of their journey, it reportedly wasn’t all that expensive. Ernst told of some of the costs in this excerpt from one of his accounts of the trip: “Our budget was based on a three months’ trip. After the third month however, we had only reached Lima, halfway on the planned route, with more than half of our budget money left. So we continued for another four months. The cost was as little as $.08 a gallon for gasoline in Venezuela and an average of $1.35 a day for two for food bought at native markets.”

The journey’s total car repair and service bill, excluding tire service, was $187 (about $1,300 in today’s money). The Jahns also spent a total of $507 (about $3,500 in today’s money) on gasoline for the trip, according to the source article.

“My personal gourmet chef was with me (that is my wife Edith), who learned to prepare many delicious specialties from natives. Our frequent filet mignon suppers in Chile, Argentina and Brazil kept our daily food expenses to that daily average,” said Ernst.

Edith, besides being cook and confidant, was the model for many photos he took while on the trip. Photos of her were published in several South American magazines, according to the source article.

She also encountered several male admirers on the trip, as told in the book: “One time we parked opposite a college in Ibague, Colombia and while I was taking pictures nearby, 60-70 students swarmed around the VW, some offering their autographed pictures to Edith. I had a hard time getting back to the car and even then they completely ignored me as her husband.”

The best part of their trip?

“While following part of the 3,000-miles-long Inca Road (a section of which is part of the Pan-American Highway system), extending from Quito, Ecuador to Tucuman, Argentina, we came to the highlight of the whole trip: the visit to the ruins of the ancient Inca Empire of Machu Picchu near the South American archaeological capital and sacred city of Cuzco, Peru.

“Here on the steep slopes of a mountain, surrounded by the roaring Urubamba river, deeply hidden in tropical jungle, the Incas artfully carved and ingeniously fitted together massive stones without the aid of mortar to form temples, palaces, observatories, agricultural terraces, dwellings, tombs and 3,000 stone steps.”


“In Guzco, poncho-clad Indians lead their Llama herds over narrow cobblestone streets and hold their open market in the city squares. A shish kabob of llama meat bought on one of those markets caused Edith to get a bad allergy. Days later in a desolate Lake Titicaca region her allergy accompanied by spells of high fever turned worse. No pharmacy… no doctor… In a small village natives informed us of a first-aid station where an old Indian gave her a chlorine shot that fortunately helped,” he said.

“People everywhere were quite friendly and surprised to see a foreign car equipped with bed, kitchen, and refrigerator, not to mention the running water,” said Ernst. “Many times we were surrounded during the lunch stops or in the evenings and had to demonstrate our mobile home.

“In the equator village of San Antonio, near the impressive equator monument, a proud father of 20 children asked us whether we were married. When he learned that we recently celebrated our second anniversary and had no children yet, he cheerfully comforted Edith: ‘Don’t give up hope.’

“In Santiago, Chile we witnessed the greatest tragedy of the trip, the March 28 earthquake. We sat in our car, parked on the beach near Valparaiso, 15 feet from the thundering South Pacific, when the 85 seconds tremor shook our car and displaced everything inside.

“We were panic-stricken when we realized what had happened and thought of the enormous tidal wave that followed the 1960 earthquake in southern Chile, flooding thousands of acres of land and causing great loss of life.

“We quickly tried to back up to higher land but the sand was soft and the wheels spun in. Panicky but helpful beachgoers noticed our calamity and helped to pull us out.

“Fortunately there was no tidal wave. The loss of homes and lives in the villages was extensive and the small mining town of El Cobre with 450 inhabitants was completely flooded by thousands of tons of copper-mud sludge after the tremor broke a dam – a shocking sight.”

Ernst and his wife’s next planned adventure was a visit to the Caribbean.