Jun 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

Monthly Summary – May 2012

A note before the blog:  Yesterday our transmission failed.  It’s just the next occurrence in a long string of mechanical failures, but we’re trying to roll with the punches and keep a good attitude.  We’ve had a lot on our plate and haven’t posted to our blog as often as we’d like.  We’ll try to do better, but in the meantime, if you’d like to keep up with us on a more daily basis, go to our Facebook page and click the “like” button.  This will allow you to stay up to date with the things that happen on a daily basis.  Like mechanical issues with Nacho…

In May we spent money like it was going out of style.  Nacho underwent what was supposed to be a thorough maintenance routine to get us ready for South America (although this plan backfired on us).  We also paid for the Panama side of shipping our van from Panama to Colombia, which ended up being very time consuming and very costly.  We also bought a second laptop and finally caved in and bought a GPS unit for driving directions.  This all added up to our most expensive month.  In fact, it was 2.13 times greater than our previous most expensive month.

For the sake of information, here’s roughly what it cost us to ship Nacho from Panama to Colombia, a distance of 250 miles.  Note that some of this goes into next month’s report, as it was spent on the Colombian side:

Shipping container:  $1,050

Port fees: $243

Flights:  $656

Hotels for 14 nights (yes, it took THAT long!):  $523

Buses, taxis, miscellaneous:  ~$60

`              TOTAL:  $2,532

There was supposed to be a new ferry service that would connect the two countries by now, but we are in Latin America, and so things happen at a different pace down here.  The original startup date was May 10, which would have allowed us to make the crossing for about $1,000.  As of now they’ve pushed the date back to July 2nd, but I suspect it’ll be the end of this year or the beginning of next before it actually starts running.

Fortunately we budgeted for this month’s shipping expenses.  However, we still managed to go over our budget by $1,358, largely due to the money we spent on Nacho, the GPS unit, and the new computer.  We’re not too sad about this though, because after five months of travel we’re still under budget.

Countries driven: Costa Rica, Panama

Miles driven: 926 (Trip Total = 8,000; odometer reads 284,500)

Total Spent: $5,399 ($174.17/day)

Notes on our spending:

Gas – This was our cheapest gas month so far, as most of our time was spent idle, trying to get Nacho on a dang ship.

VW Expenses – We spent around $800 on preventative maintenance while we were in Costa Rica.  In hindsight this was almost a total waste of money.  Almost everything the mechanic touched has since failed, and our engine leaks more oil now than it did before we replaced all of the oil seals.  The transmission has also started leaking from a new location.

We did find a nice Volkswagen parts house in Panama City – actually the first one we’ve seen since we left home.  We took advantage of this gold mine and bought a new clutch, clutch plate, transmission axle seals, brake caliper rebuild kits, and a few air filters.  Unfortunately they didn’t have any rear wheel bearing housings, so we probably have some more wheel bearing failures to look forward to.

 Camping/Hotels – The first 13 days of the month were free, as we were still in our friends’ house in Costa Rica waiting for Nacho to be finished.  The hotel bills really racked up later on though once we started the whole shipping ordeal.  In all our shipping process took 14 days, and we stayed in hotels the whole time.

 Food – Our food spending finally bucked its upward trend.  We’ve started eating out at local joints a little more than we have been over the last couple of months, which is usually far cheaper than cooking for ourselves.

 Borders/Visas/Permits  – Getting into Panama from Costa Rica was free.  The only expense incurred here was the obligatory car insurance at the border.

 Other – Almost a grand for “other”!?  It happens.  We’ve been sharing a laptop up until now, which has been a constant struggle.  Between web surfing, Skype, blog writing, Facebooking, Kindle syncing, and other computer-based activities, one computer just wasn’t enough.  We went to Valdemart and bought a small second computer for around $400.

Everyone we’ve met on the road so far has used a Garmin GPS unit to tell them where they’re going.  We decided before we started this trip not to use a GPS, because it would require us to interact more with “la raza”.  If we didn’t know the way, we would simply stop and ask directions.  This has served us up until now, but it has been a constant struggle.  Most of the time the people we ask either have no car of their own, or simply don’t know the correct directions, so they just make stuff up.  I’m not kidding.  It’s like they’re ashamed to admit that they don’t know, so they just make up directions.  It’s nothing malicious, it’s just the way it is.  The other issue is that the streets down here typically don’t have names, and it’s very hard to navigate.  We finally caved in and bought a Garmin Nuvi 50 for about $150 at a mall in Panama City.

Finally, we went to the Panamanian version of Home Depot and bought a bunch of tools, some new water filtration equipment (turns out you can’t buy the 3M water filters we need for our water sanitation system outside of the USA), and some various odds and ends.  This set us back a couple hundred dollars.

May: ouch.

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May 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Monthly Summary – April 2012

After four months on the road, we decided it was time for a recharge.  It may be unfathomable to some that we would need a vacation from our vacation, but living in a van while navigating through foreign countries is challenging at times.  We usually try to stay in a hotel once every week or two so we can have a real bed and room to sprawl out, but this time we decided we would go to a house for a couple of weeks and not do anything except relax, read, write, relax, eat, drink, and relax.  It just so happened that our good friends Tommy and Brooke have a family vacation home in Costa Rica, and it was empty so they said we could stay there.

Our recharge plan has worked: we’ve been stationary for the last three weeks in a really nice house clinging to the side of a mountain on a coffee plantation.  We’ve been swimming a lot for exercise, getting to know the neighbors, cooking great food, hiking, and relaxing.  We had only planned to spend two weeks recharging, but Nacho has kept us here.  We dropped him off at the shop when we arrived, thinking a week would be enough to get all of the lingering maintenance issues taken care of.  In Mexico, after all, we had replaced all of the wheel bearings, did a brake job, and overhauled our steering in the space of two days.  Three weeks later, we still wait, and are becoming stir crazy.  No matter, we’re in a great place and will have a more reliable vehicle when we get under way.

In any case, or lingering in one place has done interesting things to our numbers.   During the first week of April our daily cost was around $100 (ouch!)  However, by the end this became our cheapest month so far.

Countries driven: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica

(This month in RED)

Miles driven: 468 (Trip Total = 7,074; odometer reads 283,574)

Total Spent: $1,743 (MONTH: $58.12/day, TRIP: $65.89/day)

Notes on our spending:

Gas – Gas remains expensive as we make our way through Central America, rarely wavering from the $5.50 mark, give or take.  Our gas expenditures in February, March and April were all within $11 of each other (the last 2 months were only $1 apart).  It seems that our traveling style results in an unwavering $350/month in gas in this part of the world.

What is unclear to me is how we only managed to drive 468 miles, yet still spend as much on gas as we do in a typical 1,700 mile month.  Something seems amiss in our numbers pertaining to mileage, but I’m just going to roll with it.  Or maybe I should start looking for gas leaks…Nope, a quick check of Google Maps shows that we missed some mileage in there.  This calls for a full-fledged investigation.  Beh, who really cares?

 VW Expenses – After we nearly burned Nacho down in Fray Bartolome, we decided we needed a surge protector to be used whenever we plug our van into land power.  We found an Ace Hardware in Northern Nicaragua, so we sprung for a 15 Amp surge protector.  Being in the Ace Hardware also came with the added benefit of feeling air conditioning for the first time in a really long time.

 Camping/Hotels – This month’s camping fees were extraordinarily low.  We spent $10/night for our last two nights in El Salvador, then spent $4/night for a few nights in Nicaragua.  Once we got to Costa Rica, the expenses disappeared.  We spent the last 21 days of the month in Costa Rica and didn’t pay for a single night of camping.  This was due entirely to the kindness of Costa Ricans and friends.

One night in Liberia we offered to pay a hotel to sleep in their side yard, but they told us we could camp for free.  Later we camped on a beach in Avellanas on someone’s property, but they didn’t ask for a penny (we left a tip anyway).  We were invited to spend a night in someone’s home in Playa Coco, which turned out to be an incredible experience, and yielded us several new friends.  Next we made our way to Atenas, where we were graciously permitted to stay in a friend’s vacation home, where we’ve been ever since.

There were a couple of hotel nights in there as well.  I got sick in Nicaragua, so we rented a room in a family’s home for a night.  Later, we rented a small beach cabin for two days in celebration of my birthday.  All in all this was a really cheap month for lodging ($121 in total).

 Food – This is one area where our costs continue to rise.  Our first four months have cost $518, $659, $929, and $989, chronologically.  This is one area where we’re not really willing to skimp; staying healthy on the road is paramount.  Besides, we’re food lovers and finally have the time to devote to eating as well as we possibly can, so we spend pretty freely here.  To compound matters, Costa Rica is about as expensive as the USA.  We’ve been shopping about once per week since we arrived, and usually spend $175 each time we go to the grocery store.  But then again, they have everything we could ever want here, so we don’t really care.  We’ve been eating barbecued pork tenderloin, ribs, hamburgers, and chicken, and have been drinking imported Belgian and German beer.  Could it get any better than this?  We haven’t eaten out at a restaurant, not a single time, in the last 3 weeks.

 Borders/Visas/Permits  – We crossed two borders at the beginning of the month in the same day.  To get from El Salvador into Honduras, and then from Honduras into Nicaragua, we paid $68.  Later on we crossed from Nicaragua into Costa Rica and paid $24.  Also, we’ve continued to stick to our guns and not pay any bribes, despite having been repeatedly pulled over by the police in Honduras and Nicaragua..

 Other – Our third highest category was the all-inclusive “other”.  This included a trip to the movie theater, a couple of yoga classes for Sheena, some supplies from Walmart, Skype telephone credit, an internet card (which doesn’t work), laundry, and various taxis and buses.

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Apr 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 12 Comments

Monthly Summary – March 2012

Now that we’re figuring things out and falling into more of a rhythm, the months seem to flash by.  This disappearing time trick also ensures that I remain in a perpetual state of catching up on blog updates.  Our friends back in Flagstaff are probably putting down first tracks on the mountain bike trails by now.  Rocky Ridge is usually the first to be clear of snow, and the rest of them slowly follow suit.  Sedona will also be warming up nicely by now as well.  Our old neighbors at the Dollhouse will soon lose their first garden planting to an unexpected frost (sorry guys).  Meanwhile, we’ve made it as far as Nicaragua and it’s been fairly hot all winter.  We’ve had three bouts of rain in the three months we’ve been gone, but really the only shifts in weather so far have been “hot and dry” or “hot and humid”.  It’s usually the latter.

Our spending this month was a bit higher than usual.  Much of this was due to Nacho maintenance, some was due to high camping fees and scant wild camping options, and some was due to getting conned into overpaying for things in Guatemala.  In the end, it’s all part of the game and we’ve expected our costs to fluctuate wildly month by month after having seen other monthly cost sheets, such as that of our friends at Bumfuzzle.  We’ve just grown so accustomed to staying vastly under budget that this month came as a surprise.

Countries driven: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador

Miles driven: 1,871 (Trip Total = 6,606; odometer reads 283,106)

Total bribes paid: 0  (Trip Total = 0…Eventually we’ll remove this section because we don’t ever plan to pay a bribe. But it’s a good reminder for now.)

Total Spent: $2,534 ($81.75/day)

Notes on our spending:

Gas – Although we’ve been driving less in general than we did in Mexico, gas prices are higher in Central America.  Belize was the most expensive at $6/gallon, while all of the other countries seem to hover right around $5.50/gallon.  Nacho gets around 18.5mpg, so we’re not in bad shape.  We still aren’t driving too much more than the average American does.

 VW Expenses – Driving a 28 year old van comes with the promise of mechanical mishaps.  Especially since it’s a VW Vanagon!  The engine and transmission each have less than 100k miles on them, but much of the rest of the van is original.  Nearly a third of a million miles takes its toll.  Our wheel bearings went out again in Guatemala, which set us back a little over $100 and five days.  We tried to replace the hubs at the same time, but there weren’t any to be found in Guatemala.  Also, we’ve discovered that our brakes overheat easily under our 5,800lb load, so we ordered some upgrades.  We settled on a set of slotted rotors and a couple of sets of high temperature ceramic brake pads.  We found them at Zeckhausen Racing in New Jersey for much less than our usual parts supplier, and he even shipped them for free to California as a way to help us on our trip.  What an awesome company!  From California the parts were loaded into a friend’s parents’ luggage and brought to Costa Rica, where they await our arrival.

 Camping/Hotels – Camping, like everything else in Belize, was bloody expensive.  We paid between $13 and $23 per night to camp there.  In Guatemala we spent around $12/night to camp, and $11/night for hotels while Nacho was getting fixed (go figure).  In El Salvador the prices finally fell back down to earth and we paid $3-$6/night.  We realize that paying to camp is something that should be easily avoided, but in Central America it’s surprisingly hard for us to find places to wild camp.  It’s pretty densely populated here, so the concept of heading down a dirt road for a while into the bush is tough.  If I were alone, I’d probably do more of that, but Sheena’s not as keen on the idea of camping in places where we might be seen by other people.  Our cheapest nights are usually the ones when we ask a hotel or restaurant if we can camp on their property.  When we camp, it’s oftentimes at a designated campground, but it’s just as likely to be at a hostel that has camping.

 Food – Food is one area where our spending has increased fairly substantially.  In Mexico, we were in heaven.  Street vendors and holes-in-the-wall sold all sorts of delicious food at dirty cheap prices.  I’m talking about food that would beat your town’s best gourmet Mexican restaurant, hands down, every time.  Not only that, but the ingredients are usually fresh and local, not genetically modified, industrially grown, and delivered out of season in a Sysco truck.  All that, and dinner could be had in Mexico for $1-$2.

As we ventured beyond Mexico’s southern border, the good food pretty much dried up.  Each country has had its specialties, and the occasional delicious surprise, but we’re having to try much harder to eat well now.  Sure, in Guatemala you can get fried chicken with rice and beans for $2.  In El Salvador you can get a dinner of pupusas (a corn meal patty containing beans, cheese, and pork skin) for $1.  In Nicaragua (beyond the scope of this update, I know) we ate quesillas, which is a corn tortilla containing a huge chunk of cheese covered in chopped onions and cream, for about $1.  All of these options are tasty, but none are all that good for you, and they’re all pretty bland.  In order to eat well, we’re spending a lot of money on tortillas, fruits and vegetables at the local markets, and the occasional fish.  We’re still eating well, but it’s getting more expensive.  Over the last 3 months, our food spending has been $518, $658, and $928, respectively.  Yes, we’ve almost doubled our food spending in Central America compared to Mexico.

 Borders/Visas/Permits  – To get out of Mexico and into Belize, we paid $68.  To get out of Belize and into Guatemala, we spent $63.  Everything other border crossing, according to our notes, was free.  Every time we approach a border, someone attaches themselves to us so that they can “help” us get through the steps.   They also make it seem like they’re officials who are supposed to help you, and they won’t leave you alone, no matter how many times you say “no thanks”.  In the end they expect a $5 tip, but usually the process is easily enough done on our own.  When these people approach us, we tell them that they’re welcome to help us, but we won’t be parting with any money.  This gets rid of them every time.

 Other – This category also rose considerably this month.  It’s a conglomeration of little bits of hardware, fees for tours and park entry, ant traps (thanks Bacalar…), car insurance in Belize, internet cards, laundry, a chocolate making class in Antigua, and a trip to the doctor.

Before we arrived in Antigua, I noticed an inflamed mole on my back, so decided to get it checked out by a dermotologist.  I walked into his office without an appointment and told the receptionist my problem.  I waited for 10 minutes and then went into the doctor’s office.  He gave me a consultation, in English, and explained all of the possibilities.  He then did a biopsy and sent it away for lab work.  I was eating ice cream next door less than an hour after I walked into his office.  The price, including the consultation, biopsy, and all of the lab work to test for cancer, set us back $75.  When people ask why we’d dare to travel without health insurance, this is why.  The idea of falling into financial ruin over health care is almost uniquely American.  Sheena’s dentist visit in Mazatlan was free, and now this.  And by the way, I don’t have cancer after all!

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Mar 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Monthly Summary – February 2012

Month number two is in the books!  First, a look at the numbers.  Second, some evangelism.  Next: goodbye North America, hello Central America!

Countries driven: Mexico

Miles driven: 1,772  (Trip Total = 4,735; odometer reads 281,235)

Total bribes paid: 0  (Trip Total = 0)

Total Spent: $1,934 ($66.69/day)

Retrospective Thoughts On Mexico:

I’m going to be straight with you.  In America, our news outlets are all about sensationalism.  If there isn’t anything outrageously bad to report on, they’ll revisit the terrible, heinous crimes from last month.  This sensationalist attitude means that all you ever hear about Mexico is a continuous stream of negativity;  terrible stories about kidnapping, dismemberment, and murders that occur due to the movement of drugs northward to satisfy America’s own lust for illicit drugs.  Furthermore, everyone has heard about a friend of a friend with a corrupt cop story.  Let’s face it, Mexico gets a bad rap north of the border.

Before we left on our trip, people used to ask us how much money we were budgeting per day for bribes.  PER DAY!  After two months and 4,735 miles on the road in Mexico, we were never so much as pulled over by the police.  We stopped at countless police and military checkpoints, but were met with nothing but smiles and friendly small talk.  The police, by and large, aren’t crooked.  Foreigners who get pulled over and then offer bribes to “make it go away” are the real issue, as they create the false impression that foreigners are stupid, and will part with their money at the drop of a hat.  Treat them with respect and they’ll do the same for you.

As for the extreme danger due to the war on drugs, it never even crossed our minds outside of wondering “what is the media talking about?”  It never came up.  Not in a conversation, not out of the corner of our eye, never.  We felt silly safe every second of every day.  Well, except for that strange day in Chamula, but that was different.  In short, America is missing out on experiencing a truly wonderful country to its immediate south due to little more than media fear mongering.  If I sound dumbfounded, it’s because I am.  Should Europeans avoid travel to America because of gang violence in Los Angeles?  Well, unless they’re a member of a Los Angeles based gang, I’d say they have nothing to worry about.  If the Mexican media reported on every single murder in the USA, they’d be scared to death too.

In Mexico, almost every day was an absolute treasure.  The people we met were unfathomably kind, the weather was incredible, the food was life changing, and we feel that we’ve become better people for our experiences there.  In the people we found a warmth and sincerity that we’ve never felt on such a universal scale.  No longer do we dare pass someone on the street without greeting them with a smile and a “buenos dias”.  Whenever someone passes us on their way out the door of a restaurant, they invariably smile at us and say “provecho”.  Enjoy.  Not just every once in a while, I’m talking about every time.  Entire families will say this to us in turn as they pass.  Even tough-looking teenagers.  Mexico has taught us manners.

If you’ve considered going to Mexico, but have been dissuaded because of the supposed danger, stop worrying.  Just go.  You’re more likely to die from a freak vending machine accident than you are to die from drug-related violence in Mexico.  After two months, we’ve decided that the country really deserves six months in order to discover all that it has to offer.  And as you’ve seen from this monthly summary and the last, it’s cheaper to travel in Mexico than it is to stay home.  Now go and write a harshly worded letter to your local media station and tell them to be more positive.  But don’t forget to say “buenos dias” first.

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Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

Monthly Summary – January 2012

The first month of our journey is behind us.  In the interest of spilling the behind the scenes details of a trip like this, I thought we’d run a monthly summary.  We’ve been getting a lot of questions like “how much does your trip cost?” and “what happened to your GPS map?”.  Read on and you’ll find out…

Countries driven: USA, Mexico

Miles driven: 2,963 (odometer reads 279,463)

Total bribes paid: 0

Total Spent: $1,762 ($56.84/day)

What went wrong:

  • Fried two Samlex 600W True Sine Wave inverters.  These supplied 110V electricity to Nacho for plugging in household appliances.  Samlex decided to stop honoring their 2-year warranty after our 2nd one of the trip (3rd since we bought it) died, so we replaced it with a 750W Duralast modified sine wave inverter from AutoZone in Puerto Vallarta.
  • Our SPOT GPS Messenger died in Mazatlan.  It still turns on, but will not communicate updates.  We contacted their warranty department, but after a couple of weeks they still haven’t taken any action.  This has made our live map useless.
  • Two of our Shurflo check valves split open in Baja.  These are used to keep our onboard hot and cold water tanks from mixing.  We took the valves out, covered them in Gorilla Glue, covered them in duct tape, and reinstalled them.  One of them still works, while the other seems not to work so well.  We bought some brass check valves in Mazatlan, but haven’t installed them yet.  The water system works fine, and was only down for one evening.
  • Our Sure Power battery separator doesn’t seem to be working out for us.  Its job is to connect the starting and auxiliary batteries when the car is running so that our “house battery” can charge up from the alternator.  This works, but due to complexities too in depth to discuss here, our house battery would never reach a full charge, even once it switched to solar power charging.  This caused us to have to ration electricity, which we didn’t like.  We disconnected the battery separator and have been great ever since.

What went right:

  • Our on-demand hot water system has far exceeded our expectations.  I designed the water system such that we could heat up the hot water tank while we drive, and use the hot water for showers later, or we could idle the van while we shower and generate on-demand continuous hot water.  The latter has been our preference due to the ease, no need for advanced planning, and extremely hot water.  When the water comes out of the shower, it’s so hot that it’s hard to stand under it.  It can be mixed with cold water, but usually we enjoy the skin-melting hot water by itself.
  • Nacho’s engine.  We didn’t have to crack open then engine compartment all month.  This must be some kind of record.  Nacho just kept chugging away without any complaint.

Things to ponder:

We spent quite a bit less money this month than we did in a typical month at home.  We find it strange that it’s cheaper to travel the world than it is to stay home.

We drove an average of about 95 miles per day in January.  While this is much more than we drove back home (and a little more than double what the average American drives per day), our overall carbon footprint is lower.  We generate all of our electricity with solar, have only used about 1 gallon of propane all month, and use magnitudes less water than the average person.  One day I’ll actually do the math, but I’d imagine our carbon footprint is 50% less than the average American (I know that’s debatable, so let’s wait until I do the calculations before tempers fly).  This just helps us sleep a little better at night.

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