Driving the Pan-American Highway with the MINI Countryman S E
You could call it a mini adventure, but there really isn’t anything MINI about taking on the Pan-American Highway.. in a plug-in hybrid.
Three, matching red MINI Countryman Cooper S E ALL4’s, lightly modified, were shipped over from Germany for one job – an epic road trip along the world’s longest north-south road link. The route: Dallas, Texas to Ushuaia in the Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – South America’s southernmost tip.
Of course the Pan-American Highway traditionally begins a little further up North America, in Alaska. But MINI had business in Texas – a state that surprisingly sells more of these iconic little rides than most.
Dallas was also the spot for the start of the fifth stage of the east-west MINI Takes The States 2018 Rally, which duly worked out as a prime launch locale for this bonkers 17,000-mile journey tackling diverse climate zones, dense jungle, narrow mountain passes, never-ending motorways and gravel tracks.
The only mods to these exclusive Countryman Pan-Americanas, previously unveiled at the 2018 New York International Auto Show, are a pair of extra spotlights, winter tyres and roof-rack sporting a spare wheel (a second spare also in the boot) and six, one-gallon jerry cans of petrol.
We picked up the 2nd stage of the MINI Pan-Americana trail at Mexico City – myself and Miss Emma Walsh representing the UK in a truly international venture while the other two hybrid Countryman were piloted by fellow road-trippers from Russia and Spain.
Arriving late in the evening at the luxurious W Mexico City there was sadly no time to explore the unfeasibly giant city. An early start was planned, and as we were soon to find out every day was all about getting our MINI from A to B and stragglers would not be tolerated.
Destination: Oaxaca City, Mexico Distance: 460 km
With the outside temperature already hitting the late thirties, the cool, air-conditioned climate and comfortably roomy cabin of the XL-sized MINI was an instant hit as we settled in to the sounds of our Moscow-sourced Mexicana playlist.
After exiting the sleepy Mexican metropolis before the millions of locals mobilized, we were out on long stretches of dusty road – shared only with black smoke-belching trucks to the backdrop of the sun rising cinematically over distant mountain ranges.
Although the Countryman Cooper S E is a plug-in electric car theoretically capable of three-figure fuel economy, it still, naturally has a thirst that needs feeding – especially on uncompromisingly long runs like we’re putting it through.
But our first pit stop looked more pop-up pet rescue shelter than service station – scraggy dogs laying or wandering all over the forecourt. Two even welcomed our MINI convoy with excitable barking. They were not frothing at the mouth though, we quickly noted – which was reassuring.
Tanks brimmed, bizarre confectionary perused (not purchased) and we were back on the road – a pattern that was to become quite familiar over the next few days given the mileage we needed to maintain to keep on MINI’s grand Pan-American plan.
There wasn’t much by way of roadside entertainment as the miles were munched except the occasional gatherings of identically lethal looking barbeques signposted somewhat effectively by men waving flags, or whatever brightly coloured material they had, in the middle of the road. This was the long road to Oaxaca City – and clearly one that health and safety had forgot.
The next run was a long one, and the first time the petrol cans on the roof provided more than just an adventurous aesthetic thanks to a succession of closed and/or credit card-confused gas stations.
And it was time for another first too in an all-but-empty restaurant.
Vasily, our enthusiastic Russian comrade ordered a slew of plates for the peckish – all containing some form of insect. Crickets seem to be a quite speciality in these parts. Turned out some of us weren’t that peckish after all.
After finally reaching Oaxaca City the traffic hit us like an automotive migraine. We’d hoped to sneak a peek at the ancient Mayan ruins the city was known for but the Mexican congestion ruined that Instagram moment with consummate ease.
Having rested and recharged our own batteries as well as the MINIs’ in the comfort of Hacienda Los Laureles (www.hotelhaciendaloslaureles.com) we were back on the road once more as the sun rose.
Destination: Tapachula, Mexico Distance: 676 km
This was the longest leg in the trip – hence the heinously early 7am departure – but it was packed with some great roads, mountainous vistas and the most epically proportioned wind farm we’d ever witnessed.
Families sitting in the back of pick-ups and open wagons on motorways, at speed, had become oddly familiar by this point – as had the amount of stray and presumably blind dogs in the road. Shotguns in the street, as fashioned by parking attendants and apparent bums alike, were also getting weirdly familiar too.
Tapachula, in the Chiapas region of Mexico, is a border city very close to the Pacific Ocean and Guatemala – our next checkpoint. And it didn’t look too friendly either as our MINI convoy rolled conspicuously into town with angry-looking, generously-moustached Mexicans eyeballing us from the roadside. And yes, mucho guns on show too.
“This is Tapachula, man,” Carlos, our Spanish amigo explained. “This is a very famous dangerous place!”
We had no idea about the validity of his statement but straying from the comfort of the hotel certainly became less desirable. Only about one in ten of the staff spoke any English too, so we took Carlos at his word, found the hotel bar and cracked opened the Coronas.
Destination: Panajachel, Guatemala Distance: 210 km
Today looked like it was going to be a walk in the park compared to the distance we’d covered during last two days. But we did have the small matter of an international boarder to cross.
It was 6 hours after arriving at the security-heavy border that we were finally allowed to be on our way. Both Mexicans and Guatemalans, we can testify, do like stopping you at every opportunity to frown, pat their guns and look at you with distinctly seasoned suspicion.
Our MINIs, having been hosed down with some kind of unexplained insecticide, looked frustratingly clean now – the deal is to not clean them at all for this whole adventure. The border patrol couldn’t care less.
But with one more country flag sticker added to the tailgate of our Countryman we were moving once more and slicing through the busy streets of a colourful little town called Ayutla.
Not five minutes later we were stopped again and this time by trainee cops, no less. But it was becoming like water off a duck’s back to us now. Having waved some paperwork under a few noses and wiped any lingering looks of border frustration/anger off our faces we were free to hit the severely broken-up Guatemalan roads.
Although you’d ideally like something a little more powerful than the Countryman’s 0-62mph in 7 seconds to fully abuse the sweeping mountain roads, we found on route to Panajachel there is a real appeal to regenerating bonus battery power during long descents. Of course the downside, inherent with all hybrids, is that you’ll use it all up, and twice as fast, as soon as you’re powering back up another picturesque incline. And without any electric boost left in the cells, the 1.5-litre petrol engine can feel a touch out of breath.
We even collected a sudden monsoon on our way that tested the Countryman’s practical four wheel-drive ability, negotiating rivers that were roads not two minutes ago with reassuring ease.
MINI’s plug-in hybrid took everything in its stride and looked damn cool doing it as we rolled into our Central American oasis (www.hotelatitlan.com) on the shore of the volcano encrusted Lake Atitlan under the cover of night for some well-earned R&R.
The remote, James Bond-like spa retreat even sported a trio of helipads, one that was even used while we dined in front the infinity pool.
Come the morning and I found being woken by the sound of wild parrots in the botanical garden just outside your door certainly beats any iPhone alarm.
One alfresco breakfast later, a ‘Full Guatemalan’ in fact – no insects but featuring a generous serving of refried beans (which seems to come with almost every dish in these parts) – and a quick car park photoshoot and it was time to load up the MINI trunks once more for our final sprint through this increasingly beautiful country.
Destination: Antigua, Guatemala Distance: 100 km
Leaving the lush, luxurious escapism of Hotel Atitlan was an undoubted pity, but this final, short leg of our stage in the MINI Pan-Americana adventure delivered some of the best driving we’d had here.
Cranking up the impressive MINI soundsystem with the Narcos soundtrack we made the most of the 165kw/224hp on tap generated from its twin engines through beautifully colourful little villages, foggy mountain passes and on to sinuous, sweeping open highways.
100km had never flown by so quickly, or enjoyably.
Bringing our MINI Countryman Pan-Americana to a final stop in the walled splendour of Filadelfia coffee plantation was even a little emotional. Our team, and our MINIs had bonded brilliantly over the past few days. We’d seen things we’d never seen before. Got used to seeing things we never really wanted to see in the first place. And survived one whole stage in an epic road trip of which our little red cars delivered everything from comfort, to entertainment, to unflappable reliability. And we hardly crashed at all.
So, before we departed without our trusty red MINI to Guatemala City Airport but in a sorry warm beat-up Hyundai taxi, we saluted the new recruits that took-up our relay baton and continue the MINI adventure through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Our one request; to make those MINIs as filthy dirty as they can.
For more info on the MINI Countryman Cooper S E, head over to the MINI Website.
MINI COUNTRYMAN COOPER S E ALL4 1.5 Plug-in Hybrid
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Top Speed: 123 mph
Pure Electric Range: 22miles