Aspirational! While none of us will be doing this soon, here’s a great tale of how to by Renee Mitchell and Carl Orbell Richardson. Temporarily paused by Covid, the couple are back in NZ with plans afoot to be on the road here soon. But that’s a story for another time.
We first decided that we wanted more than just the occasional weekend or Christmas holiday camping trip in 2016. We were 24 and 25, had just brought our first house, and were heading down the path of getting a dog and settling down. Luckily, I went on a three-week trip to Ghana with my Mum that would set in stone a goal to live a more alternative life.
While I was in Ghana, Carl brought a 1961 Commer campervan. We spent the rest of the year getting the Commer ready for our two week camping trip over Christmas. That trip would again make us question why we spend so much time working, to have so little time to explore. It did not take long for us to decide that we wanted to make full time campervan living our next big goal.
We spent the next two and a half years paying off our debt, saving money, hosting travelers through couchsurfing, watching various van life vlogs, reading endless blogs, and filling our minds with as much inspiration as we could. In August 2018, we quit our jobs and spent 6 months backpacking around the world. We arrived in the USA in March 2019 and set out finding a van that we could drive to the bottom of South America.
We had a friend living in Virginia that we had hosted in New Zealand through couchsurfing for one night, which turned into three and a half months. He had organised a place for us to live with him and his girlfriend in an intentional community while we found our van. The community provided free accommodation and food in exchange for a few hours of work each morning.
The van hunt got off to a rough start. There wasn’t much in our local area and we ended up taking a 12 hour overnight bus ride to Athens, Georgia, to check out a VW Kombi Westfalia. It all checked out and we paid the guy through Paypal. The vendor freaked out overnight thinking that we were scammers and rejected the payment. Long story short, we got our money back a few days later, not without a visit to the police.
In the end, we ended up buying an old empty nursing home van that had been sitting at the community we were staying at for the last year. We initially weren’t interested, mostly due to the poor fuel mileage on the V8 engine. We also didn’t want to build out the entire camper ourselves. Anyone who has done this knows that it is a big undertaking. But it did have many positives. It only had 90,000 miles on the clock, a full service history, plenty of standing room, and a nice price tag of only $1500USD.
The legalities around buying a vehicle as a foreigner were a lot more complicated than we had initially thought. It changes State by State and after spending days researching it, we finally employed a professional. Put simply, the best way to register a vehicle in the USA, as a foreigner, if you want to drive it through Central and South America, is to register it in Washington State. Alex Smith from Overland Titles did this for us and posted us the registration and Washington plates. The plates were a great conversation starter, as we were on the total opposite side of the country. People were even more shocked when they found out we were from New Zealand and were always friendly and keen to talk.
The van build took us about one month, having around four hours each day to work on it. I am an architectural technician and Carl is a typical kiwi bloke, handy in all areas. I drew most of it up on the computer first, reducing the inevitable mistakes that could be made. Carl did most of the construction and solar build while I did the research, ordering on Amazon, sewing and painting. We began working in metric, but soon had to change to imperial, as badly as we wanted to resist it.
Our route was always pretty vague. We were heading to the bottom of South America and would figure the rest out as we went. We had some people to see in Florida so began the trip by heading to Key West, before making our way West towards the border of California and Mexico. We would figure out places to see and things to do along the way, visiting as many National Parks as we could with our annual National Parks Pass.
We quickly learnt how to find places to camp and discovered several websites and apps for this, including the bible of overlanding, iOverlander. In the USA, we typically stayed in National Forests or on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, which are both free and generally in beautiful nature settings. In our 3 months of living in the van in the USA, we only paid for camping four times and only slept in the Walmart carpark three times.
Free dump stations are readily available, and we used these to empty our 5 gallon grey water bottle and our chemical toilet. We had two 5 gallon fresh water bottles, connected to an electric pump and a tap. We filled up at coin operated filtered and chilled water dispensers outside many petrol stations and dollar stores. For showering, we had a 5 gallon bucket of water, with a rechargeable camping shower that cost about $30. We open the rear doors of the van and hang a shower curtain between them. If it’s cold outside, we boil a couple of pots of the water first. For cooking, we have a portable two burner Coleman stove.
Crossing into Mexico, we quickly learnt that we needed to improve our Spanish. It took us over an hour to get a SIM card from the local market, longer than it took us to cross through the border. At this point, we realised we didn’t even know how to get petrol.
Luckily, we had been invited to stay on a proper Mexican Ranch for a few days, through an Overlanders facebook group. Our Mexican / USA hosts spoke English and Spanish and taught us the basics that we would need to continue our journey. On our way into the Ranch, we crossed paths with a couple that we had met the night before. They warned us that there was no way we were going to make it to the Ranch, because they had to turn around in their big Chevy 4wd after 30 minutes of skidding up the gravel track. We tested our luck and made it in with no issues.
The Baja Peninsula of Mexico is an Overlander’s dream. There are endless isolated beaches, free camp sites, empty surf spots, fish tacos and margaritas. We spent six weeks on the Peninsula alone, nearly always free camping on beaches, and meeting many other awesome Overlanders. We then took a cargo ferry from LaPaz in the South of the Baja Peninsula, to Topolobampo on the West coast of mainland Mexico.
We had our first and only van break down in the State of Chiapas, after hours of winding hill roads. The rear brakes had seized from overuse and were moments away from catching fire. The nearest mechanic was not much more than a patch of dirt on the side of the highway, and we had to communicate with hand signals, as they spoke their own indigenous language. However, they had clearly dealt with the problem before and had the brakes fixed within a few minutes. Once we got to the next big city, we spent an entire day at a decent mechanic going over the brakes and doing some other much needed general maintenance work.
We generally averaged a daily cost for the two of us of around $50, regardless of which country we were in. Petrol is more expensive in Mexico and we tended to pay for camping more often, but food is significantly cheaper, tacos being the main go-to.
After six months in Mexico, we crossed into Belize, a tiny country sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala. The population is predominantly African descendants and speak English as their first language. There is also a large population of Chinese, many who have been in Belize for several generations and have surrendered their Chinese passports to become citizens of Belize. It was here that we heard our first and only Chinese woman with a Rastafarian accent.
We mostly free camped in Belize and felt really safe doing so. Many people holiday in the Islands off the coast and know Belize for the famous blue hole. But it also has the most incredible and widespread forests that we have ever seen. The nature and wildlife is impossible to put into words. I was both terrified and amazed one night when I got my path cut off by a Tarantula on my way to the toilet. Not long after Carl nearly grabbed a snake instead of a paper towel. Needless to say, we slept with the van windows closed that night.
After crossing into Guatemala from Belize, we made our way across the country to Lake Atitlan. We spent two weeks in a Spanish school before meeting back up with two other Overland friends that we had met in Mexico. Once the borders South closed due to the covid situation, the camp started filling up with other Overlander’s seeking a spot to hunker down as Guatemala went into lockdown. The campground was on the edge of the Lake with its own private jetty which we used as a diving board, a lake side sauna, and views out to several volcanoes, one which we would watch erupt each night. Here we met a Kiwi and British couple in their 70s, who are driving their Range Rover around the world, as well as their Kiwi daughter and her Canadian husband and two kids, who are driving their rig from Canada to Argentina.
Our original plan was to get to Costa Rica where we could suspend our TIP (Temporary Import Permit for the van) and leave the van in a government bonded storage facility for up to one year. However, with the COVID situation and the borders South now closed, the only way we could leave Guatemala was through Mexico. We traveled in a convoy of other Overlanders back into Mexico, where we managed to get a 10 year TIP and store the van in a campground, before flying home to New Zealand.
Back in New Zealand, we have no idea when we will be able to get back to the van and continue the trip with the current global pandemic. We have many renovation projects planned for the van when we return, including insulating and lining the ceiling and getting the air conditioning fixed. In the meantime, we are about to begin the engine rebuild of our Commer campervan. Like everyone, we hope to be able to get out and “explore our own backyard” while we are back here in New Zealand.
Check out Renee and Carl’s excellent blog HERE