Driving from the US to South America – Interview with LifeRemotely.com

Have you ever wondered what it would be live to drive across Central and South America? If you were to believe Hollywood movies and US news networks, you might expect to be held up at gunpoint by banditos, drug lords or corrupt government officials. As usual, real life isn’t quite that dramatic. In this interview, the LifeRemotely.com trio, share what life is really like on the road as they drive from the US to Argentina. They offer some great details on their costs and total budget, road conditions, camping availability and more. Even if you’re not interested in an overlander trip, there’s some great advice in this interview.

Please tell us about your backgrounds?

Jared and I are brother and sister, we grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to Seattle when we were teenagers. After high school, Jared was an exchange student in Holland and returned several times throughout his time in college in Worchester, MA. I went to college in upstate New York, then did a study abroad program in Croatia. Not long after graduating I took a job as a photographer on cruise ships where I met my husband, Kobus. He grew up just outside of Joburg, South Africa and left in 2003 to work in cruise ship casinos.

After several years of exploring the world we eventually returned to Seattle to start our real careers. Jared is a software engineer, Kobus is a college instructor and web developer and I am a freelance graphic designer. We worked full time about 5 years, and took occasional trips when we could. But it wasn’t until 2011 that we finally put all the pieces together and became location independent.

Overlander Trip at the Equator

Please tell us about your current trip?

In October 2011, our year lease ran out and the three of us decided to hit the road. We bought a 1997 4Runner and decided to drive south all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina. We are currently in Ecuador and have been on the road for just over 10 months. We just crossed the equator a few days ago. In about six months we’ll have reached the southern tip of South America.

Honestly, we aren’t sure where we’ll head next. There’s been talk about driving north to Brazil, shipping our car to Africa, or maybe heading west to Australia. We post information on our route and all the research and planning we did on our Trip Shenanigans page.

Why an overlander trip, rather than flying to a destination?

We wanted to work while moving relatively frequently (2-3 times per week). Given the gear we’d need to carry and the hassle of consistently finding a place suitable for work, backpacking didn’t seem like the best option. We also love to camp and cook and definitely don’t mind the money we save by doing those two things frequently.

Once we started researching where we wanted to go, we realized that it was going to be very difficult (expensive and/or time-consuming) to get to some of the out-of-the-way national parks we wanted to visit. Having a car solved this problem. It also allows us to carry everything we need to be self-sufficient (well, except a toilet). We easily offset the cost of gas by sleeping in tents and preparing most of our meals. These two things are infinitely easier to do when you have your own transportation to get to the supermarket and the campground.

Working and changing destinations a few times a week was another struggle. Although we don’t need much gear to get our work done, we do need internet access consistently and have regular conference calls to make. Having a vehicle makes it easier for us to get online when the unexpected happens. It gives us the flexibility to leave earlier or stay longer depending on our work commitments and what we need to get the job down. If the power goes out or the internet is flaky, it’s no problem to drive to town and find a place where we can plug in.

What are some of benefits and detriments of a long driving journey like this?

The benefits are simple. We have a car and can fill it full of great things other travelers don’t have the luxury of. For example: a 5-quart cast-iron dutch oven, a propane stove, a few gallons of water, enough food to last us three or four days.

Aside from not having to lug our belongings around on our back, we have a lot more flexibility in our schedule. We can move at the drop of a hat, and don’t have to worry about figuring out public transportation or pre-arranging anything.

All that said, we have a car that needs maintenance and someone has to figure out the directions. All our stuff has to be neatly packed up every time we change places. Although public transport isn’t easy or comfortable, is does require far less logistics than driving your own vehicle. Border crossings take hours and a pile of paperwork. Reliable information on road conditions and tolls is hard to come by. And packing a backpack takes about 10 minutes, while packing our tents and car takes at least an hour.

What do you estimate your costs will be for this trip?

Our total estimated cost for a 16-month trip from Seattle to Argentina, including start-up money, was just over $90,000 for three people, or about $1,900 per person per month. I know, that sounds like a lot of money, let me break it down.

We spent $17,224 on start-up costs. This included $7,700 for our Toyota 4Runner, several thousand in vehicle modifications to add a fridge and a dual battery system. Car and health insurance was another $3,000, and we spent about $1,000 on gear – mostly maps, a GPS and guidebooks.

We estimated $21,000 in one-time big expenses. $13,500 of this is the cost to take a two-week cruise to Antarctica. If money runs short, we won’t hesitate to cut this out. Also this includes the cost of flights and shipping our car in a container from Panama to Colombia.

For food and lodging we estimated $23,446 for three people, $7,815 each. We figure gas to be an additional $7,000. In total our daily per diem is around $80 per day, or $27 per person. 10 months into the trip, we’re still pretty close to budget. For more info check out the budget recaps we publish for each country on how much we spent and how close to budget we were.

On top of all that, we have an additional $14,490 of “spending” money ($10 per person per day). This is the “everything else” category. But mostly it’s souvenirs and booze. We don’t track this money because it varies quite a bit, but I can certainly say we haven’t come anywhere close to spending this amount.

Is it hard spending so much time with your brother and husband on the same trip?

Traveling with three people is both a blessing and a curse. The best part is that we have three people to divide up chores. A good part of writing on our website is possible because there are three of us. My brother is also an amazing cook. And my husband is the only one who can be trusted to drive in these sketchy road conditions. I’m pretty good at doing the dishes and reading maps, but otherwise, just dead weight.

My brother and I have travelled together quite a bit, both before and after I met Kobus. We get on well, even in stressful situations. I think that both the guys enjoy having another man around to, I dunno, do man things with. Like any travelers, we do have our disagreements. We pitch tents in opposite sides of campgrounds and give each other dirty looks for a day and then get over it. You can’t travel this long together and not learn to deal with disagreements.

Overlander - Roads in South America

What is the quality of the roads on your trip?

The roads. They’re like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re going to get. Unfortunately, if you choose the crappy watermelon flavored chocolate you can’t discreetly put it back in the box and take another. You can, and people have, driven the entire length of the Pan American, from Alaska to Ushuaia, in a low clearance 2WD car.

Because we like wildlife and camping, we often end up in less than ideal driving situations. If you want to see some off-the-beaten-track places you will need a high clearance 4WD car. Costa Rica was especially fun for us. We were there at the start of the rainy season. In many places nice shallow creeks turned into raging rivers overnight. We were almost stranded in the Osa Peninsula when a creek backed up and forced us to do a pretty risky crossing. Thankfully there was a truck on the other side who agreed to pull us through if we stalled.

Navigation is a pain. There’s very little reliable information on road conditions. Even with a GPS and a good set of maps, we never know if the 200km stretch is going to take three hours or 10. Road construction, police checkpoints, landslides, stray cattle herds, accidents, all can cause monstrous delays at any given time.

Camping in South America

What is camping like in Central and South America?

In Mexico, camping is easy. There are a lot of US and Canadian snowbirds that come down with RVs for the winter, so there are plenty of established parks to stay in. Costs vary quite a bit, but it’s never more than you’d pay in the States. We’ve averaged $5 per person so far.

South of Mexico, things get a little more interesting. Camping isn’t popular anywhere else in Central America except Costa Rica. We stick to national parks and hostels that allow tents. We have camped in some incredible places, and been confronted with some scary wildlife. Howler monkeys once decided to sleep in a tree mere feet from my brothers tent. He woke up with one giant pile of monkey crap outside his door. In Mexico, we twice rolled up the tent to find huge tarantulas living underneath. Needless to say, I don’t roll up the tent anymore.

So far in South America, camping facilities have been better and more frequent. Colombians especially tend to go camping with their families, so there are far more options of places to pitch a tent. Also, there is always free coffee. Awesome.

It takes a bit of online research and asking other travelers. Guidebooks are nearly useless. We have managed to camp at least two-thirds of our nights on this trip. We keep lists of all our accommodations by country on our website to help out other overlanders.

Have you encountered any dangers on the road?

Short answer, no. There are police checkpoints everywhere south of the US border. But every time we have been stopped we have been treated in a professional and courteous way. Police and military have never attempted to solicit a bribe or give us a phony ticket. That’s not to say there aren’t corrupt police, it’s just not nearly as bad or as scary as Hollywood and Fox News make it out to be.

The worst thing to happen to us was in Costa Rica, the “safest” country in Central America. At the most expensive hotel we have stayed at on this trip a bunch of our cooking gear was stolen from our hotel balcony. It was more of a pain to find replacements than anything else. Of the 110 places we’ve stayed from Seattle south, this was the only time we ever had trouble. We’ve never once had a problem while camping.

Location Independent in South America

How do you earn an income now?

When we left Seattle we all kept our day jobs, although we cut back our working hours quite a bit. We still saved enough money to do this trip, just in case working on the trip didn’t pan out.

As I mentioned earlier I am a freelance graphic designer. I work for three or four clients back in Seattle and average 15 hours per week of work. In July, I took a one-week hiatus to fly back to Atlanta and work an event for Microsoft. As a powerpoint designer, I essentially hang out back stage and wait for executives to want edits made to their presentations, millions of edits! In five days, I billed 70 hours of work.

My husband teaches one to two online classes per quarter at a community college near Seattle where he taught in-class before we left home. He also takes the occasional freelance web design gig when the opportunity presents itself. Kobus and I set the goal of earning $3125 per month (after taxes) to offset the costs of our travels. So far, we’ve managed to exceed this goal every month.

Jared is a software developer who contracts for the department of defense to write healthcare programs. (Yeah, military, plus healthcare, plus software, I think he’s crazy too). He is currently waiting for a new contract to start, but in the meantime he does pretty much all the work keeping our website up-to-date. That doesn’t make us much money yet, but someday we’ll be internet famous.

What advice can you offer for others interested in a Central and South American overlander trip?

Shameless self-promotion time! We recently released a FREE ebook all about overlanding in Mexico and Central America with 315 pages of advice. If you really want to do this trip, check it out. We will release a new version after we finish our time in South America.

If I had to condense that advice, here’s what I’d say: Learn Spanish! Spending several weeks in Guatemala taking lessons improved our experience on this trip ten-fold. Buy a car that can be easily repaired. We know two couples, one with a Eurovan and the other with a Vanagon that both recently spent MONTHS trying to repair destroyed transmissions. And finally: Go! Go! Go! Especially if you have a job that can be done remotely. This trip is incredible and life changing. Internet is plentiful and places are incredible. Don’t hesitate.

Links

Blog: liferemotely.com
Twitter: twitter.com/LifeRemotely
Facebook: www.facebook.com/LifeRemotely

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

6 Responses to Driving from the US to South America – Interview with LifeRemotely.com

  1. UnwireMe says:

    Great interview!

    The guide is excellent (and free!) You guys are too far ahead for me to catch up.

    Looking forward to reading the South America update 🙂

    -Rich Polanco

  2. Thanks John for the awesome interview!

    Hey Rich, don’t worry, we’ve already started planning the South America version. We just crossed into Peru today. Woo hoo!

    Best!
    Jessica

  3. James says:

    Nice interview dudes! See you in a few days. One day we will all be internet famous!

  4. Teresa says:

    Loved this article. My father drove our entire family from Indiana, USA all the way to Jutiapa, Guatemala, about 50 years ago in a volkswagon bus. I was 12 at the time. It was the trip of a lifetime. We took the Pan American Highway, large portions not passable during certain times of the year. We lived in Guatemala for about a year and then returned to the United States the same way. It was from my father that I got my adventurous spirit. I continue this legacy as a digital nomad, international house sitter, but those days were special!

    • John says:

      Hi Teresa,

      Sounds like a great experience. Your father must have been a cool person.

      It’s great to see all the families travelling the world nowadays. Their children are learning and experiencing so much.

  5. David Gott says:

    Hooray for you guys. Incredible. Am just beginning to investigate the possibility of driving to Chile. My international driving experience to date is limited to Mexico, 20 years ago. My companion, my son, has round-the-world backpacking experience. I will probably(need to) spend more time planning this than the actual trip will take. Look forward to reading all that you have written on your experience. Our experience are also that international travel is usually quite safe, had a water container stolen in Topolobompo Mexico and was “robbed” at knife point by some kids on the beach in Acapulco on Christmas eve. Minor incidences. I watch Fox news quite often, I don’t get the impression from them that you do.
    Continued safe travels to you and thanks for the great info.

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