The Pan-American Road Trip

We love capturing our adventures to create our Pan-American Road Trip Travel Series “Hasta Alaska“, but the truth is sometimes amazing things happen so quickly that we can’t capture it on film…either that or it is just too dangerous for us to flash the camera.  So we’ve decided to share what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling in our untold story.  Here’s the first chapter of our Chile to Alaska adventure and how it all started…

Chapter 1 – Chile & The Start of The Pan-American Road-Trip

volcano chile
The first sight in Chile in Pucon, where the dream started to take place.

I distinctly remember standing in the shadows of a snow-capped peak of a volcano in Northern Patagonia, Chile, when a VW Bus drove past me. That was it, the game-changer.  I stopped, I stared; and I knew instantly that the next couple of years of my life were going to be epic.

I’d been guided by my intuition since 2008 when I quit a successful career in the IT industry at the age of 26, and followed an 11 year long dream to go exploring!

I guess being brought up in Jersey, a 9 x 5 mile insular island; it was only natural to want to see what was out there!  Of course I was nervous to swap the safety and comfort of my home life for the uncertainty and dangers of the big wide world.   However, I knew these feelings were not as strong as my desire for adventure; so I booked a one way ticket to Asia.

Ripping up the backcountry, BC Canada
Ripping up the backcountry, BC Canada
Working with Tigers, Thailand
Working with Tigers, Thailand

During my first three years of travel I loosely followed the surf and snow seasons, learning to be comfortable making decisions that some others saw as impulsive.  I learnt a lot from backpacking and hitch-hiking around South East Asia, working as a tiger trainer and living with a Monk.  I grew in self-confidence whilst I stayed with head-hunters and trekked jungles to see orang-utans in their natural environment, but most importantly; I learnt to be completely OK with getting lost!

Before I owned Co'Pito I often got around like this. When you don't care where you are going it doesn't really matter what happens.
Hitching in Patigonia on the hunt for some wheels of my own

I had originally come to Chile in search of a motorbike to complete my South America to Alaska journey. Having spent over a month backpacking through Uruguay and Argentina I had quickly grown tired of the over-priced day-long bus rides and people bonking in the dorm bed above me!  However the sight of a VW Bus does funny things to some people – you know who you are – so after seeing that Bus (or Kombi as they are known as in Chile) drive past me, I rushed back to the hostel and researched until 4am what became my greatest adventure of all!

 

 

—–Pan-American Road Trip Passengers…(aka Couchsurfing)—–

To my surprise and relief I found that not only were there lots of Buses in Chile, they were also the cheapest vans on the market.  It was a good sign, but the trouble was – other than nostalgic memories of long summers touring Europe 15 years earlier – I knew nothing about them and worse, on one hand I could recite my entire Spanish vocabulary.  I needed help, so I moved into the stifling hot capital, Santiago and turned to the CouchSurfing community for assistance.

CouchSurfing is a network of some 6 million people world-wide who open their homes freely to strangers.  The system works on references like eBay and allows you to find a couch to sleep on or locals to hang out with the world over.  Everyone I contacted thought I was crazy but they all wanted to help.

Ivan and Ben in Santiago
Ben & Ivan in the Santiago appartment

One guy in particular stood out, Ivan, a 32 year old Chilean and VW enthusiast took me under his wing; letting me stay with him for over 6 weeks.   We visited Buses together, and he helped me apply for my Chilean Tax Residency (required for vehicle purchase in the country).  Once we actually found a Bus that started, and had all 4 gears, he helped me get the sale through the extraordinarily bureaucratic process; a month long ordeal that is designed at turning your hair grey, I think.

Buying a VW Bus
Overwhelmed on the very first ride

I had committed to a VW, and like my father before me; I now had an empty shell.  I tried to convince myself it wasn’t the 16 window model and barn-door style side-entry that made me buy the Bus.  But rather more practical considerations, like that it was a 1992 Brazilian – rust would be less of a problem than on the older models – true so far at least. Plus, having lived in a 1992 Mazda in Australia for 8 months, and having only spent $100 on parts, I somehow convinced myself that it would probably be the same with the Bus.  Anyway, I had heard they are really easy to work on and the mechanics are cheap here in Latin America, so it was probably going to be alright.

After a Christmas spent with Ivan and the Rodriguez family (and 3 very beautiful French CouchSurfing girls) at their beach-side rancho, I took a leap of faith and moved in with the purely Spanish-speaking family.  There’s nothing quite like jumping in at the deep end and cutting yourself off from the English speaking world.

vw Bus
This what Co’Pito looked like before I started work on him
Building houses in Chile
The working day with my new adopted Chilean family.

The deal was I would help them build cabaňas (holiday houses) in their surf-side estate and they would house me, fatten me up with Chilean chow and let me use their tools in the afternoons to make a home out of the Bus.  A pretty good deal I thought.  They didn’t know that I hadn’t built a thing in my life.

So it transpired that it took some time to get the Bus together, not only because half the day (or better) was spent putting houses up, but more because I was learning for the first time, was self-taught and I didn’t have the internet to teach me.  For me travel is the education of life, and unlike school, I always strive for A’s.  I had recently turned 30 and had no real ‘Dad skills’, so I figured I should build the Bus as well as possible.

bus in Chile
Carefully getting to grips with the power tools as I fumble my way through the build

Admittedly I got carried away making the interior a little prettier than it needed to be – especially considering what I was about to put it through – but ones relationship with one’s Bus develops quickly and strongly and I saw it as a personal challenge to prove to myself that I could do a good job if I put my mind to it.

making house in a bus
Embracing the challenge on my first build of anything really

Having spent so much time living in a tiny space in Australia I knew what was, and was not, needed for an expedition like this.

No Ice box/Refrigerator:  Buy local and fresh at the markets every day.  Living space goes up.

No Fixed Kitchen / Removable cooker: For when you want to cook under the stars – More space, more people.

The whole design was based around maximizing living space to cram in as many people as possible whilst using the thinnest materials available to give the 1600cc engine a fighting chance of getting us there.

 

Hasta Alaska VW Bus

Finally Finished!

Chilean Bus
Best to capture a picture now, because it will never look like this again
inside the kombi
Everything we own in this tiny space

inside the kombi

inside the kombi
Kombi by night – cosy eh! The thing at the foot of the bed is a light, the dial in the cupboard is an amp meter to tell us how much power we are drawing from the battery

Eventually almost 4 months later it came together, but there were a few hiccups, like a last second dash to the border for a visa extension and also breaking down at the first road toll (and every 30 minutes after that)!  I came close to throwing in the towel twice before the project even got off the ground.  However, as my building skills improved and Co’Pito (named after the fearless family dog) came together, my Spanish became passable and I felt like I was becoming prepared for the journey of a life-time.  How wrong could I have been!

 —–Finally it’s a Pan-American Road Trip—–

roadtrip
Our first road trip – not entirely convinced early engine problems were a thing of the past we headed 6 hours south of Santiago in search of waves. Pictured Ben, and Couchsurfing friends Nati and Dan

The main attraction for me of owning a Bus over a bike was that I could bring people along with me; and I was grateful to all the CouchSurfers of Santiago for so much help – that is when I had the idea to make it an Open Bus Expedition and have the first MOBILE couch on CouchSurfing. (this links to our first ever video)

Things changed quickly in those first days, I had to learn how to live in my Bus, whilst two other people were learning the same thing.  Our maiden voyage / see-if-it-holds-together test run was to Pichilemu, Chile’s world famous left-hander.

surfing bus
Pichilemu – Chile’s finest wave was our first camp spot

I immediately noticed the differences living on the road in South America compared to vanpacking in Australia.  Firstly the police were great.   Gone were our fears of being bribed, extorted and constantly moved to a new spot.   We awoke to a million dollar view of what many argue is South America’s best wave, for FREE!  The police did eventually turn up, but only to check out the surf for themselves.  The other thing we started to notice is that street dogs were now a part of our lives, they were everywhere and it would only be a matter of time before we tried to smuggle one across a border.

Kombi Camping
Lots of street dogs, we already wanted to take one home, but which?
Kombi Camping
The rules are slightly more relaxed in South America – we didn’t get carried away and take advantage of that, honest!

A stark realization hit me as we finally pointed our compass north and towards Alaska.  Not too much consideration had been given to the dangers of the roads themselves.  I had hitch-hiked over them, and I knew they were bad and the Latino drivers’ worse.  For sure, everyone I met thought I was the “Gringo Loco”, but their fears were with the people that I would meet.  “What do you mean he is going to pick up strangers in the street?”  My fears, however, were with my lack of Spanish and communication barriers if things went wrong. The only concerns with the actual driving part were reserved for, well, my mother.

But those concerns were at the forefront of my mind as Natalia, hot local CouchSurfer and Hasta Alaska Hero, slept on the back sofa whilst I sweated bullets watching Dan, 26 year old CouchSurfer, Birmingham, pull out into the freeway at 90kph having just taken the wheel for the first time – and being told not to exceed 80kph!  I think most people would be nervous letting someone they’d just met drive their newly finished Bus on a Latino highway, but I figured if I am going to open my house to hundreds of people on this journey – and I am – then I would have to let people share my house – all of it!

The trouble was, he had only just got out onto the freeway when a large truck overtook us at 100kph, cutting right in front of us, and nearly taking the nose clean off Co’Pito, the truck continued to veer off the road and into a 10ft storm drain which acted as a ramp and launched the entire load – 30ft in the air and upside down, their sleeping bodies shaken into a pant filling, rise-and-shine.

I was convinced during the heart-pounding flip-flop-less sprint over glas

s that, arriving first on scene, I would witness something truly horrific, but as I climbed up the upturned truck and heaved the driver’s door open vertically, I was amazed to see the two guys crawl out with hardly a scratch on their sleepy faces. Nobody else stopped, it was a good early wake-up call!

I had already come so far, I knew I had learnt so much and I had sobered up to the adventure.  I knew what the project was now; I was clearly committed to making this an ‘Open-Bus Expedition’.  So we headed out of Chile and on towards the frontier with Argentina, passing the highest peak in the Andes at 6,962m (22,841 ft) –  riddled with “Bus Paranoia”, stopping every half an hour for the “Poor-man’s Dipstick Test” to check for overheating.

andes road
The road out of Chile towards Mendoza, Argentina was one of the highest we would have to tackle

 


 

Read More from our Off-Camera Adventure in South America in our Overlanding Story e-book:

 

Overlanding-South-America-ebook

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