A Man, a Van and the World Cup’s Craziest Plan

When Miguel Peña and three broke friends began a 5,000-mile road trip to the World Cup final, nothing—not torrential floods, thieves, or unconscionable referees—could derail their dream.

A Man, a Van and the World Cup’s Craziest Plan

It’s Monday afternoon in Fortaleza, a coastal city in northeastern Brazil. The boardwalk that stretches along Iracema Beach is packed with tourists. The atmosphere is festive, as people erupt into impromptu chants and cheers while sipping watered-down beers under the midday sun. The 2014 World Cup is underway and Mexico is scheduled to play the powerful host country the next day. People in sombreros and green jerseys dominate the crowd, singing mariachi music and speaking in Spanish. Suddenly, a beat-up white van turns the corner, honking repeatedly. A young man waving a giant flag hangs out the window yelling “Mexico, Mexico!”

His enthusiasm does not seem out of place but his chariot does. The plates on his Dodge minibus are from Nuevo León, a Mexican state nearly 5,000 miles away from Beira Mar Avenue.

The four men drove from Nuevo León, Mexico to Brazil. (Photo by Flora Charner)
The four men drove from Nuevo León, Mexico to Brazil. (Photo by Flora Charner)

“Did you drive here from Mexico?” a man in a Brazil jersey asks in broken in English.

“Yes, we did,” the flag-waver replies.

Miguel Peña, twenty-six, started planning his trip to Brazil four years ago, shortly after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He and his cousin Rey had dreamed of seeing Latin America and watching the FIFA tournament in person. The two were very close. Less than a year later, Rey was killed in a car accident and Peña was devastated.

“I felt like I owed it to his legacy to make the trip happen,” Peña said, sitting in the van with the flag in his lap.

He mentioned the idea to Abraham Gardea, twenty-five, and Andres Castro, twenty-eight, two of his best friends who had studied international relations with him at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León. The three had connected due to a shared adventurous nature and curiosity.

“We would always talk about seeing Latin America when we were in school,” Gardea said. “What better excuse than the World Cup in Brazil?”

Enrique “Kike” Guajardo, twenty-eight, a bone cancer survivor and motivational speaker, was the last to join the crew. After losing his pelvic bone and some muscles nearly ten years ago, Guajardo became dependent on crutches in order to walk.

For nearly a year, the four friends gathered on a weekly basis to discuss logistics, budgets and sponsorship possibilities. They connected with a local T-shirt company that helped Guajardo build a Facebook page and create the “De Norte A Sur” (From North to South) campaign.

The quartet made a short video featuring Guajardo and Peña, which they submitted to the “Kilometers of Stories” contest sponsored by the History Channel and Goodyear. Their proposal: drive from Mexico to Brazil to watch the World Cup while delivering a message of hope in the fight against cancer. They won, receiving a $2,500 check for expenses and a $5,000 credit for air travel.

Driving through the salt flats of Bolivia. (Photo courtesy De Norte a Sur)
Driving through the salt flats of Bolivia. (Photo courtesy De Norte a Sur)

The van was provided by “Guadalupe Joven,” a government institution that works with young people in Nuevo León and had hired Guajardo as a presenter in the past. “At first, a local car company was supposed to give us a van. They cancelled on us at the last minute, so we borrowed this one,” Gardea said. “We invested 10,000 Mexican pesos (roughly $1,700) and got it moving.”

The money won in the contest was enough to pay for the repairs and other minor expenses. All four friends sold their personal cars and other valuable possessions and put together an additional $5,000 for the trip. They were prepared to find odd jobs along the road, like bartending and selling T-shirts about their project. Peña, Gardea and Castro are also musicians and hoped to play for hire at some point during the trip, and Guajardo booked speaking engagements in some of the cities along the way.

And so the dream to explore Latin America began in a rickety van packed with blankets, instruments, clothes and other trinkets from home.

“I’m very close to my family,” Peña said. “It was very hard for me to leave them, so my mother gave me a small Guadalupe virgin that has traveled with me ever since.”

The four travelers left their homes, jobs and girlfriends in Monterrey, Mexico, on April 9 and started heading south.

They drove through Central America in just ten days, making very limited stops while passing through the mountains of Guatemala and volcanoes of Nicaragua, but they were concerned about their safety.

“In Mexico, we are constantly hearing about the guerrillas and kidnappings in these countries on the news,” Castro said, as he drove around Fortaleza with thick red sunglasses and a sock hoodie. “We were especially concerned about San Pedro Sula in Honduras, considered the most dangerous city in the world.”

They also needed to make it to Panama before April 20 in order to catch the ferry that would take them and their van across the Caribbean to Cartagena, Colombia.

Upon their arrival in the colonial city that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism novels, they met Luis Fernando Gonzalez, a hostel manager who provided shelter for the four in several cities throughout Colombia.

“Luis ended up becoming a sort of sponsor for us there,” Gardea said. “He introduced us to a lot of people and helped set us up in youth hostels throughout the country.”

Andres Castro in a huddle with boys from "Football for the Future" NGO in Medellín, Colombia. (Photo courtesy De Norte a Sur)
Andres Castro in a huddle with boys from “Football for the Future” NGO in Medellín, Colombia. (Photo courtesy De Norte a Sur)

In addition to Cartagena, the crew visited Cali and Medellín. In the latter, they volunteered at the Football for the Future Foundation, which works with troubled youth. “We got to play soccer with these kids and share our story with them,” Gardea said. “We all love the game, so it was great to be able to use our passion to help them.”

After three weeks in Colombia they headed south, visiting Machu Picchu in Peru and the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, in Bolivia. In each new place, they met fellow travelers and friendly locals interested in their project and their journey.

“In the town of Ayaviri, near the Bolivia-Peru border, our van broke down. It was difficult to find parts for it in this part of the world,” Gardea said. “However, Oscar, the most wonderful mechanic, took us in and had us stay with his family for two days while he waited for the parts to arrive. I will never forget his kindness and generosity.”

After they got back on the road, it took the group a little over a week to reach Natal, their first stop in Brazil. The city was packed with Mexican fans who had flocked there to watch their national team’s debut in the World Cup.

Despite their limited funds, everyone except for Gardea managed to secure a ticket and watch the match against Cameroon inside the new Dunas Arena.

“For me, it was enough to be there and feel the atmosphere around the stadium,” Gardea said. “I had my sights on other matches.”

Natal is popularly referred to as “the City of the Sun” and is known for its beautiful beaches and sand dunes. However, on the World Cup match day, rain showers flooded the city, causing mudslides.

“It was really complicated in Natal,” Castro said. “The rest stop where we had parked the first night was flooded and we didn’t want to get stuck.”

The rain forced the travelers to move up their trip to Fortaleza, roughly 320 miles away.

“This was the city where Mexico and Brazil were going to play,” Gardea said. “I knew I couldn’t miss this one.”

They picked up Emily, a Canadian tourist who joined them for the ten-hour trip and contributed money for gas. In Fortaleza, they found a rest stop equipped with showers and decent coffee.

They drove to a local Pizza Hut, where hundreds of Mexicans in El Tri jerseys had gathered and decided to tune their instruments and play some music. Some people dropped donations into their guitar cases, others bought them pizza and one man even gave them tickets for the World Cup match Gardea had been dreaming of.

“I literally was able to cross one of my biggest goals for the trip off my list: I got to see Brazil play Mexico in the Castelão Arena.”

In the Pizza Hut parking lot, they also met the Maganas, a Mexican family who had lived in Fortaleza for five years. The Maganas gave them a place to stay and few hot meals.

After Fortaleza, they returned east and headed to Recife, where Mexico played Croatia. The last match of the group stage, it was crucial for Mexico to win in order to guarantee its place in the round of sixteen.

In Recife, torrential rains also put a damper on their trip. “We were staying in the van and couldn’t sleep properly,” says Gardea. “When we woke up it felt like we were in a furnace covered with mosquitoes.”

The sacrifice, however, was worth it, as Mexico demolished Croatia’s defense in the second half and qualified with a 3-1 victory. After celebrating the team’s victory, they returned to Fortaleza.

“Fortaleza had been our favorite city so far,” Gardea said. “We were excited about going back and reconnecting with our friends there.”

Guajardo, however, did not take this trip with the group, as he needed to travel back to Mexico for some routine check-ups.

“We couldn’t cash in the $5,000 we won from History Channel, we could only use it as a travel voucher. So, Kike took advantage of that to go home for a bit,” Gardea said. “It wasn’t the same situation for Kike as it was for us, he couldn’t just sleep in the van. His condition required more.”

Gardea and Castro are both single. Although they have met a lot of beautiful women along the trip, they said dating has not been simple.

“It’s not so easy to pick up a girl at a bar when you haven’t showered for days and have no money or hotel room,” Gardea said. “We’ve done okay, but are hoping things will get better as we get closer to Rio.”

Andres Castro is greeted by a Mexico fan in Fortaleza. (Photo by Flora Charner)
Andres Castro is greeted by a Mexico fan in Fortaleza. (Photo by Flora Charner)

The travelers still managed to get their hearts broken in Fortaleza, but not because of a woman. The city they fell in love with ended up being the last stop for the Mexican national team, which lost to Holland 2-1. Peña, Castro and Gardea were all sitting in the bleachers when the Clockwork Orange sent El Tri home.

“We had been leading throughout most of the game and then everything changed in the last eight minutes of the game,” Castro said. “Holland scored and then the referee gave them a penalty kick after (Arjen) Robben took a dive. I couldn’t believe the Cup had ended for us just like that.”

During a post-match press conference, Mexico’s coach Miguel Herrera described the penalty as “invented” and accused referee Pedro Proenca of making a bad call that cost them the tournament.

“I was literally ready to get on a plane and cancel the whole trip,” Gardea said. “That is how upset I was.”

Gardea got over the shock of seeing his team eliminated from the Cup and decided to continue with his intended journey. He knew he needed to be in Rio for the final and was not willing to give up so soon. Peña had to travel home for a family emergency and used one of the travel vouchers, so it was just Gardea and Castro.

While relaxing at one of their regular rest stops, using the wifi inside the convenience store, Castro suddenly saw three people getting out of the van with one of his bags and ran after them.

“I’m usually very cautious in those situations and try to avoid any confrontation,” Castro said. “I don’t know what got over me though, when I saw them I ran after them and forced my bag out of his hand. Thank God he was so drugged up he didn’t react.”

The thieves, two young girls and a man, jumped into a parked car and escaped. In the midst of the rush, the driver hit another car and a fight broke out. The police arrived on the scene and everyone, including Gardea and Castro, had to go to the precinct.

Despite its beauty and laid-back culture, Fortaleza is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The United Nations recently ranked it among the ten most dangerous places.

“We had heard about Fortaleza being dangerous and the Maganas had warned us, but we really hadn’t lived it firsthand,” Gardea said.

Two days later, they began the 807-mile drive to Salvador with a broken door handle, but not broken spirits. They were determined to reach Rio before the July 13 final.

Mexico was no longer in the Cup, which meant many of their compatriots who had supported them along the trip with food, tickets and shelter had now gone home.

“We don’t speak Portuguese and most Brazilians we have met don’t speak English or Spanish, so it is hard for them to connect with what we are doing,” Castro said. “We have been picking up more travelers in order to cut down on the costs.”

“Our goal now is to reach Maracanã,” Castro said, referring to Rio de Janeiro’s stadium, but “it’s much harder to get tickets for these matches.”

Abraham Gardea, Miguel Peña and Andres Castro sit in bleachers of Arena Pernambuco stadium in Recife, holding up a sign reading "cancer can't stop me from being here with you in Brazil 2014." (Photo courtesy De Norte a Sur)
Abraham Gardea, Miguel Peña and Andres Castro sit in bleachers of Arena Pernambuco stadium in Recife, holding up a sign reading “cancer can’t stop me from being here with you in Brazil 2014.” (Photo courtesy De Norte a Sur)

The recently renovated Maracanã was originally inaugurated on June 16, 1950, for the first World Cup held in Brazil. In the first tournament match played there, Mexico lost to Brazil, 4-0.

“This is the place where so many great players made their start, where so many historic matches were held,” Castro said. “We all grew up playing soccer from a young age and always dreamed of seeing the Maracanã.”

Tickets for the final are expensive and hard to come by. Police in Rio de Janeiro have cracked down on scalpers and arrested eleven people in connection with a high-level ring in which tickets have been sold for up to $16,000.

“We only have money left for food and gas. It is going to be very difficult, but we are going to try to get into the final,” Castro said. “After all, this has been our end goal — to be a part of the world’s most important sporting event.”