Alaska is a dream destination to many of us. I guess it feels like the end of the road. But what if Alaska is the place you call home ? Dillon and Tessa always had a craving for adventures, so they decided they would leave Hope, AK, and drive all the way South to Ushuaia, Argentina, in a bus they completetely rebuilt themselves. Check out this fascinating trip across the Americas.
Where do you guys come from and how did you meet ?
Dillon and I (Tessa) are both born and raised Alaskans but we didn’t meet until a few years ago at an 80’s themed ski party at our local ski resort. We are currently in Tierra del Fuego, the very southern tip of the America’s. We made it to the end of the world!!! The trip began 13 months ago, but the adventure of rebuilding the bus started a year before that.
What’s the story of your vehicle ?
We bought a hunk of rusty metal for $500 as our first vehicle restoration project, which in retrospect we are happy we did, but in reality we can’t recommend it. As you can imagine it’s not easy to find a VW bus in Alaska, so we ended up buying a lawn ornament that had pretty much rusted through and through. We knew we wanted to put in a Subaru engine and customize the interior, but initial rebuild took 8 months longer than we anticipated.
Trying to live a budget life, we did all of the work ourselves, including learning how to weld, do body work, paint a vehicle, become a mechanic, the list goes on. In the end, we replaced every bolt in the thing. The only original parts seems to be the rear window and the side cabinet. For the VW purists, it might cause them to have a heart attack, but for us having our home the most functional for us was more of a priority than keeping everything original.
What part of the trip has been the most challenging so far ?
The most challenging thing about living this lifestyle is worrying about safety. Traveling through Central and South America have been amazing, but there are also significantly more safety concerns than cruising around the US. While there are worries of petty theft everywhere you travel, larger concerns about physical safety weigh on you much more when you are camping in areas that you can’t always guarantee are the safest, regardless of how much research about an area you do. For example, in El Salvador there were at least two guards with semi automatic weapons guarding the Burger King. This sort of thing doesn’t necessary ensure a solid night sleep when you are camping not far from there. We occasionally envy backpackers that stay in hostels and take busses places. Before this trip that is how we traveled, and we definitely took for granted not having to worry as much about safety or car troubles and the beauty of having more time in a place because you took the overnight bus.
How was the crossing from Panama to Colombia ?
The crossing from Panama to Colombia was a logistical nightmare. We were connected with a Canadian couple that we shared a shipping container with to lessen the cost, but still the cost to ship around the Darien Gap will be the same as shipping from Buenos Aires to Florida. We paid for an agent to help with the logistics, but even with his assistance there were a few days of running around Panama City and Cartagena on either end, standing in lines to get certain forms signed etc. Loading the bus into the shipping to container felt like dropping our firstborn child off for the first day of kindergarten. We weren’t sure how she would do without us, but really we were the ones struggling the most with the goodbyes.
How was it to go through the Andes mountains?
This is where going through the arduous process of doing the Subaru swap payed off. Traveling through the Andes with the original VW engine would have been rough. Despite the obvious of creeping the entire way in 1st gear, we would have had to continually adjust the valves with the constant elevation change. It is difficult to sum up our time in the Andes, as we were weaving in and out of the range through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Our time in the Andes in Peru comprised many of our most culturally rich experiences on the trip. The peaks were absolutely breathtaking, literally and figuratively. The high elevation of the Peruvian Andes was something we never completely got used to. We arrived at one of our favorite camp spots of the trip almost straight from sea level, Laguna Paron in the Cordillera Blanca section of the Andes, and it was a pretty sleepless, breathless night at 14,000 feet.
Can you tell us about someone special you met ?
One great human we met on our trip is a man named Manuel. We met him in El Salvador, and our meeting is a testament to the amazing people that comprise the VW van community. Manuel had been following our trip on Instagram, and when he caught wind that we were in his hometown he hopped into his identical VW bus to track us down. We still refer to him as St. Manuel, as his hospitality was like nothing we had ever experienced. Not only did he give us the most amazing painting he had created of his bus, he also offered to accompany us to the hospital to translate to the doctor Tessa’s symptoms and the specifics of her bodily functions a mere 10 minutes after meeting her. It had never been a dream to spend multiple days in a hospital in El Salvador, but Manuel came to check on us and bring provisions multiple times a day. The instant family that connects VW lovers continues to blow our minds. Manuel’s willingness to drop what he had planned to take us to the hospital, check up on us multiple times a day, paired with the most heartfelt kindness we have witnessed made our meeting something we will never forget. We still keep in touch and try to embody his compassion whenever possible.
Can you share with us the 5 most beautiful spots you’ve been to ?
1. Camping out in central baja with a VW caravan was one of our favorite spots/times of the trip.
2. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia – Nothing provides such an out of this world experience as this place.
3. Andean roadside market at 12,000ft we stumbled upon in the pass between Cusco and La Paz
4. Driving into El Chalten and hiking and fishing in the surrounding area was another one of our highlights. The Fitzroy range is impossible to beat.
5. Barichara Columbia. By far the most well preserved, breathtaking, and unaffected by tourism town we have been to. It is simply the poster child of what a quaint colonial town should be.