Free maps

Free maps of Central and South Americas

How do we navigate the PanAm you ask? We did not want to pay any money for maps and fancy GPS devices, that’s for sure. This is what worked for us and we think it might work for you as well, but there are definitely other options (let us know if you have a better solution!). We have a windows laptop and an android phone, if you have that (a Mac would work too), you’re good to go.

P.S.: I’m afraid this turned out pretty long and it might seem complicated. As Mr. Twain said, I didn’t have time to write a short version. But it isn’t that bad really, if you know how to install applications on a PC and download apps on your phone, you’ll be good, I promise.


  1. Before you go: Planning at home
  2. Planning on the road
  3. Actual navigating – this is the part where you get free maps for your phone

I. Before you go: Planning at home

Requirements: a computer or tablet should be enough

Not everybody plans their journey beforehand. We’ve met travelers who navigate the narrow Guatemalan roads with nothing but a Lonely Planet book and decide every morning where they want to go. With us, it was a bit different. When we decided that we are really going, we started noting every interesting place we stumbled upon on blogs, saw on TV or read about in magazines. Since there was two of us and we used two devices to do that, we needed some sort of fancy collaboration software to do that. Well, turns out Google Maps is quite capable in that sense.

Unfortunately, Google decided to redesign the Maps application while we were preparing for our trip. We kept using the old version and so this guide is written for it as well, since the new version is still in beta and functions are being added and removed as we speak. They launched something called Maps Engine Lite , which looks promising, but we did not use it since it was still buggy.

To get the old maps, follow these steps:

  1. Go to Google Maps.
  2. Click the Help button (white question mark in a blue circle) at the bottom.
  3. Click Return to classic Google Maps.
  4. Click Yes in the notification bar that appears.
  5. On the landing page that appears, follow the instructions to opt out permanently.

Adding points of interest into a google map:

  1. Find a spot that interests you:
  2. Click “Save to map” and either choose an existing map, or create a new one
  3. Repeat

note: don’t worry too much about adding pictures to the description of the waypoints, the won’t be transferred to Basecamp for offline viewing later on.

To share the map with your travel buddy:

  1. click “My places”, “Maps” and select the map containing your waypoints. From this step on it depends if you will be redirected to the new Maps Engine Lite (which you probably will, seems like this happens even if you chose to keep the old maps). The process in the old maps is similar though, you will just have to find the right buttons.
  2. Click “Share” in the upper right corner – you can fill in e-mail addresses, share a link, etc.
  3. Now your buddy can edit the map you created and add points her/himself, probably while pretending to be filling in excel sheets at work.

II. Planning on the road

requirements: a computer (Windows or Mac)

You know have a couple (hundreds) of waypoints in your custom google map. But even if you plan to purchase a 3G SIM card in every country you visit, you will not have a connection all the time, will you? It is time for some offline maps!

Get yourself a copy of Garmin’s Basecamp application here (don’t worry, you won’t need any Garmin device). You will use basecamp to display the free maps you’ll download later. The software is rather user unfriendly, but it is free and once you get to know it, it is quite capable.

You now have a an application, that can display maps. Next you’ll need some better maps.

Downloading free maps for Garmin Basecamp:

  1. Load up this page.
  2. Map type: leave “Generic Routable”
  3. TYP file: leave “none”
  4. Choose a predefined country: ignore that
  5. Enable manual tile selection: CHECK!
  6. Now click on the rectangles on the map below to select the areas that interest you. You can download the whole American continent if you want to.
  7. Enter you email address into the field above the map and click Build my map

In a couple of minutes you will receive one email confirming your request has been taken and couple of minutes or hours later you will receive a second email with a link to your file.

Download the file that looks most similar to “osm_generic_windows.exe” (or if you are on a mac) and run it. That should install your new maps. Now restart Basecamp and and switch to the new map – look for a drop down list in the toolbar (your’s will probably show just Global map and the new OSM map):

Now zoom in really close and confirm you can see even small streets let’s say in Antigua, Guatemala. You can switch between the global map and the OSM map to see the difference.

You might also want to switch the detail level to Highest:

OpenStreet maps aren’t optimized that well for different zoom levels (or maybe it’s Basecamp’s fault), so keeping the detail level on highest is probably the best way to go.

Now you have maps and a way to display them on your laptop. But how do you get your painstakingly collected waypoints from google maps to basecamp?

Importing waypoints from Google Maps to Basecamp:

  1. Load up your custom google map (see above)
  2. Click the folder icon in the top left corner and select “Export to KML”. You can choose to export all maps, or just one.
  3. Drag and drop the downloaded file into Basecamp – probably into the Library in the left sidebar:
  4. Done! Now you should be able to see all your waypoints from Google maps in Basecamp and offline!

Requirements: Android smartphone

Now you should be able to load all your waypoints and maps offline on your laptop, so there’s nothing stopping you from hitting the road (yeah, right…).
But how do you actually navigate to these waypoints without splurging on an expensive standalone satnav? You have a phone, right?

We are using an old Android phone with 4″ screen which we find more than good enough. We can’t help you with an iPhone, but there might be similar applications for iOS.

Getting the maps to your phone

  1. Download OSMand from Google Play.
  2. Open the app and download the OpenStreet maps for your phone (sorry, you can’t use those from your laptop). 10 downloads are free, you might have to pay a couple of bucks to get the full version if you will need more.

While the maps are downloading to your phone you can export your waypoints from Basecamp. OSMand reads GPX files, so that’s what you need.

Getting the waypoints to your phone

  1. Select the appropriate collection in Basecamp in the “My Collections” sidebar.
  2. Click File > Export > Export your_collection:
  3. Select GPS eXchange format (.gpx) as the file type and export the file.
  4. If OSMand finished downloading the maps you can load the new GPX file into your Android phone. Put it into “osmand/tracks” folder.

Displaying the waypoints in OSMand:

  1. Disconnect the phone and fire up OSMand:
  2. In the map view open the menu
  3. Select Map data (icon with three layers)
  4. Check GPX Track…
  5. Choose your GPX file from the list (if you can’t see the file here, you haven’t put it into the correct folder on your phone)

Voila, you should be able to see all the waypoints from your Basecamp list. You can search for them, navigate to them, etc.

To navigate to a waypoint long press on it’s icon, click on the bubble and select Navigate (or similar in your language).

You’re done!

Additional notes:

  • OSMand shows one icon for all waypoints, it does not respect the icons set in Basecamp.
  • OSMand unfortunately can’t display GPX point descriptions, you’ll have to use a different app for that, such as GPS Essentials
  • If you don’t care about importing .gpx files into your phone, Skobbler is a good (although paid) alternative to OSMand.