My Most Loyal Travel Companions.

Meet my two most loyal travel companions…

On the motorcycle and in the car: my Garmin ZUMO 550

Ever since I arrived in this immense and diverse country called Brazil, I have been relying on two things to find my way to far away places and back home again. I say ‘things” because that’s what they are… I’m talking about the Global Positioning System, commonly referred to as the GPS… 

As the title of this post implies, I am using two of these babies:

  1. On the Motorcycle and in the car: A Garmin Zumo 550
  2. On hikes and mountain bike rides: A Garmin GPSmap 60C

I know, some people swear by paper maps, and I respect that completely, but in this day and age, (unfortunately) “time is money”, and I found out that a GPS is probably THE best tool for someone who wants to discover a country the size of Brazil in one lifetime…

On the mountain bike and on hikes : my Garmin GPSmap 60CSx

Seriously, I wouldn’t know how to even BEGIN to figure out where I would have been right now without these two fine pieces of equipment… I was already using them when I was still living a far less adventurous life back in old Belgium and I was glad to find out that also in Brazil they are preventing me from getting lost (ok, not ALL the time :)) and spending thousands (yes thousands) of extra dollars – Euro’s, whatever on gas.

Another invaluable advantage the GPS has, is that it also provides lots and lots of extra information about your environment.

At any point in time, you not only know your exact location (which is always good) but on top of that, the GPS gives you your speed, direction, altitude, distance to the next turn/exit, ETA (estimated time of arrival) and so on… Good luck with finding all that on a paper map

Hell, my Zumo even has a function to keep track of how much gas you have left in your tank.

Especially when I’m driving my Land Rover Defender, I need the GPS to give me the exact speed, because the original meter of the car is totally incorrect… and speed cameras are being widely used on Brazil’s highways and fines don’t come cheap

What about the Software?

Of course, the GPS device is only half of the setup… you need good map software too, and that’s where I had some issues. The first couple of weeks in Brazil, I was using Garmin’s “City Navigator NT – Brazil” map, but pretty soon, I realized that it was not the best choice…

Inside most cities, there was no problem, but once in the more rural areas… forget it. You can just as well turn the GPS off altogether. I guess I discovered the reason why they call it “CITY navigator”.

Luckily there’s a Brazilian organization called Tracksource, made up of thousands of volunteers all over the country, and on their website you can download accurate, totally free – monthly updated – maps of Brazil, to be used in your Garmin device.

This free map doesn’t only have the correct road info, especially of the ones outsidethe cities, but also contains a ton of dirt roads and hiking trails that cannot be found in the Garmin map, let alone on any paper maps…

A few examples (click on the pictures to enlarge):

1. Tijuca park in Rio de Janeiro: Note the difference between the Garmin map and the Tracksource map

Tijuca park – Garmin Brazil City Navigator map

Tijuca park – Tracksource map

2. Pinheiral (a small neighborhood just outside Volta Redonda): Comparison between Garmin, Tracksource and Google Earth

Pinheiral, according to Garmin City Navigator map

Pinheiral, according to Tracksource map

Pinheiral on google Earth

As you can see, not only does the Rio Paraiba do Sul, one of the biggest rivers in Rio de Janeiro State, seem to stop dead in its tracks, but also the roads on the Garmin map are totally wrong compared to Google Earth. The Tracksource map on the other hand is showing the correct situation. I know this for a fact because I am very familiar with this area…

Nothing bad about Garmin here. Just being realistic. Probably the latest version of “City Navigator” is going to be a lot better, but unless they make their map of Brazil free too, I think I’ll stick with what I know is good. It would be my pleasure to test the new version though (If they send me one for free of course :))

Time for replacement (@Garmin: some sponsoring would be so nice wink – wink…)

No matter how good they were made, my two little companions have had their best time

Extensive use for 7 years caused the buttons on the ZUMO to wear and tear

The worst thing I imagine the unit had to endure, was the crash I had last year when I smashed my motorcycle at 100 km/h into a parked Volkswagen Combi (it was not supposed to be parked there – legal procedure in process :)). I broke my pelvis, my shoulder and a few ribs… The front of the bike was completely destroyed, but amazingly the Zumo worked just fine afterwards…The Zumo has been with me for 7 years now, and has been through a lot… I used it in the coldest, wettest (Europe) and the hottest (Brazil) circumstances, and it NEVER showed any problem… A few times it refused to start up, but that was easily fixed by taking out and putting back the battery…

Only thing is, that in june 2011, I noticed that one of the buttons on the left side had come loose… As you can see in the picture, I used some tape to prevent the button from falling out (and water from getting into the device) and until today it still works just fine.

Also, the battery of the Zumo is no longer holding its charge, and needs to be replaced.

The “in” and “out” buttons all worn from extensive use over the years…

Same thing with the handheld 60CSx… I can only imagine what that poor thing has been put through, mounted on the handlebars of my mountain bike. Years of usage left its marks on the buttons, the surface of a couple of which has worn out to the point that they are no longer recognizable. But I guess that is normal wear, and it doesn’t affect the proper functioning…

Apart from the sometimes though weather conditions and the shaking on the mountain bike, this unit also sustained a crash at 80km/h…Again, I was completely messed up (broken heel, Collarbone and 3 ribs), but the GPS was ok…These things can REALLY take a hit.

That is, until a few days ago…

The end of the 60CSx…

One slippery rock, one fall and this is the result…

After passing the crack and reaching the slippery rock face 50 cm lower, I turned back to grab my backpack. My feet slipped on the tilted rock face and I fell face down on my belly… on top of my poor GPS, which I carried on a clip on my belt…Hiking to the top of “Tres Picos” in the Serra da Mantiqueira, I was crossing a rocky section near a waterfall. The area was wet and mossy, and VERY slippery. I had to make my way through a crack in the rocks which was so narrow that I had to remove my backpack to be able to pass.

I got up with a bad feeling… looked at the GPS and saw the cracks in the screen and the information rapidly fading until there was nothing left but a few spots with all the colors of the rainbow… And that was The End of my 60CSx

So now what?

Well, if I want to keep exploring my beloved Brazil, I’m going to need another handheld GPS, but, same as with motorcycles, the prices for a Garmin GPS here in Brazil are almost double of what they are in the US or Europe… (Oh, so you thought Brazil was cheap huh?) and I’m only going to Belgium in July 2012…

On the other hand… I think this article is a great “product review” for Garmin, and so if someone at Garmin reads this and decides I could qualify as a “test guy” for their products, I would be more than happy to oblige… I promise I will test the crap out of the things they send me…

I don’t know about having more of those crashes though…

Cheers

Do You use a GPS?  Do you see it as a Useful Tool or a Necessary Evil?