Buying a car to travel South America wasn’t something that we initially considered. We had travelled before through Asia, Europe, Africa, New Zealand and Australia often with no more than a backpack and surfboard. So why should this trip be any different? We wanted to surf in Peru, hike in Patagonia, visit the Amazon, dive in the Galapagos and simply visit so many more amazing places. To take on all these adventures we needed to bring a lot of gear along with us. This is when we started to realise it maybe travelling and living in a campervan could be good idea. So we decided to buy a car in Chile.
After the initial thought, the decision was easy. Being from Australia and owning our own camper-van at home, we had already spent a lot of time travelling this way. With all of the hiking and surfing equipment that we wanted to bring, this was the perfect answer. We didn’t want to be hauling huge packs all over the continent.
We have compiled this list of the pros and cons of travelling with a car vs backpacking to maybe help you decide if it’s for you or to better prepare you for life on the road, living in a campervan and the reality of vanlife.
THE GOOD stuff
of living in a campervan
The ultimate reason to get a car is the freedom you get with having your own vehicle. You can go where ever you want and if you like a place you can stay for as long as you please. It also allows you to leave whenever you want. No more hassles of having to pre-book any transport!
SAVE MONEY $$
Who doesn’t like the idea of saving some cash while travelling? You can save a lot of money on accommodation especially in more expensive countries by living in a camper-van. Places like Chile, Argentina and Brasil it is legal to wild / free camp as long as there are no signs saying otherwise. Think of how much you could save from this alone, even if it is only every second night. Your accommodation costs (which are usually the main portion of your budget) will be slashed in half!
SAVE MORE MONEY $$$
Say what? You can save yourself a lot by self-catering as you travel. Having your own vehicle set up as a camper-van will give you an area to cook and the ability to take a shopping trolley full of groceries with you, wherever you go. You’ll be able to live off more than instant noodles.
Now this isn’t going to be the case in every country you visit as some countries are so cheap it’s better to eat out than to cook for yourself.
To see how much we have spent and a breakdown of all of our costs while road tripping South America have a read of our budget blog.
GET OFF THE GRINGO TRAIL
When travelling there is always going to be the big-ticket bucket list items that everyone wants to see. Unfortunately, there’s not too much you can do about that but join the ques. Having your own car will not only allow you to visit the ‘must see’ destinations but it will give you the opportunity to get there before all of the buses arrive to avoid the busiest times.
One of the good vanlife realities is that having your own car and living in a campervan will also allow you to go to the places that nobody has ever heard of before. These places might just end up being the highlight of your trip. You can really begin to explore a country and its culture for yourself once you leave the main backpacker hubs.
BRING MORE THINGS
If you have ever packed to go backpacking, you will understand the headache of trying to fit everything in. There is a fine balance between travelling light to avoiding the pain of lugging a huge and heavy backpack around with you and under packing. When travelling to colder climates it also becomes more difficult as you need more bulky items to stay warm and dry.
If you have your own car you can fit everything in with ease. This is life changing if you also plan on travelling with things like surfboards, snow boards and hiking gear. This was the main reason we chose to travel by car in the first place.
GET YOUR MONEY BACK
At the end of your trip you are going to sell your beloved home on wheels. Hopefully you haven’t had to deal with any extra costs or expenses along the way and can sell your vehicle for close to what you paid. There are obviously lots of considerations here. If you have looked after your car and regularly maintained it, sell it in the right location and at the right time of year, you shouldn’t have much trouble. If you have put in the time and effort to convert a car to a camper you may even sell the car for a profit!
THE not so GOOD stuff
of living in a campervan
THE INITIAL EXPENSE
Buying a car and setting it up for travel isn’t cheap. If you have a tight budget to begin with you may not be able to get very far if all of your hard-earned travel money is locked up in the investment of your new car.
MEETING LESS TRAVELLERS
More time camping is going to mean meeting less travellers than if you were spending every night at a hostel. While some people may love this, others will miss meeting new people. Depending on your personality you may have to find a balance between the remote and isolated camping spots and staying in lively towns and hostels.
SHOWERS, TOILETS AND SMELLY ARMPITS
Maybe this is the reason for not meeting so many other travellers?
Unless you plan to pay for accommodation every night while you are living in a campervan you will be spending some time free camping. This can mean no toilets or showers for a few days. If you are lucky / smart you will have some way of showering / washing set up in your car. But as good as a solar shower, dry shampoo and baby wipes are they still don’t replace the real deal. It’s all part of the vanlife reality
We’re not just talking about car batteries here but if you’re not careful it can lead to that. Nobody wants to go without their phone or laptop and secondly it’s kind of important for navigation. You can’t rely solely on a cigarette charger while you are driving to keep your batteries topped up. If keeping things charged is important to you, you will need to spend a little time and money setting things up to be able to travel comfortably. This could mean buying an inverter to charge your laptop while driving or maybe a full on solar set up.
But don’t forget there is always the option of staying at places that have power available like campgrounds and hostels. Or just enjoy switching off for a while.
Buying a car as a foreigner in South America can take time. You need to organise all of your paper work, find the perfect car and then buy it. If you only have a couple months, your time might be better spent enjoying the sites. Hiring a car could also be an option but often it’s quite expensive.
If you want to know more about the process of buying a car then take a look here!
One of the realities of vanlife are the costs of fuel, toll roads and parking. These things that can add up quickly without you realising. The biggest factor here is how much time you have and how fast you want to travel. Obviously, the more distance you cover in a shorter period of time the higher your daily costs will be. But it’s not all bad if you have some friends or spare seats so you can give other travellers / hitchhikers a ride. Especially on long journeys where sharing the costs is a great penny saver.
Hopefully the car you buy never has any troubles, but you do still have to be prepared for any extra costs that may unexpectedly arise. Having money set aside for things like this or a good travel insurance plan is something that is worthwhile considering. There is also the cost of regular maintenance. Things like new tyres and oil changes as you travel. This is just another thing to factor into your budget especially if you want to significantly reduce the chance of something major happening and having to pay for that!
Thanks for taking the time to read this, we hope that it has helped clarify what the reality of vanlife and living on the road is really like. Hopefully we’ll see you out there.
Josh & Ruby
Two Lost Feet