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Re-adjusting to life in the US

After a quick trip across the US from Philadelphia (complete with stops at, yes, you guessed it, several train museums along the way) we are settling into our new community of Montrose, Colorado.

We got to spend a day at Witt's uncle George and aunt Bobby's house where Quinn got to run a really great train layout.

We got to spend a day at Witt’s uncle George and aunt Bobby’s house where Quinn got to run a really great train layout.

Back in Colorado!

Back in Colorado!

Our "stuff."

Our “stuff.”

Headed from Denver to Montrose, with our stuff.

Headed from Denver to Montrose, with our stuff.

Moving into the house that Witt's parents helped us build.

Moving into the house that Witt’s parents helped us build.

Haven't seen many of these in the past couple of years!

Haven’t seen many of these in the past couple of years!

We only had two days in Denver, and it was bitter-sweet. We were able to get together with a few of our friends, and it was great to see them. But we only got to spend a few hours with them, and with everyone’s busy lives, being five hours away isn’t that much different from being in South America. But we do hope get some visitors our way this summer.

Montrose is a town of about 25,000 people located five hours west of Denver. Traditionally it’s been a ranching community, but over the past 10 years they’ve really started to develop a tourism infrastructure, building a whitewater kayaking park in town as well as expanding hiking and mountain biking opportunities.

Some people have asked us how the re-entry has gone, and to be honest, overall it’s been pretty easy. When we returned from Africa over 10 years ago, going into a supermarket was overwhelming – we’d been used to something the size of a convenience store being something to look forward to!

In Latin America, and especially in Chile and Argentina where we spent the last months of our trip, large supermarkets are common and can be found in almost any medium sized town. Some of them are even owned by Wal Mart, and it shows as soon as you walk in. I have noticed that the prices of everything here in the US seem to have gone up since we’ve been gone, but I guess that’s to be expected.

Being here during the presidential election season isn’t exactly fun. Some of the candidates seem to try to prey upon and even stoke fear and hatred of anyone who is not American. That kind of thinking goes against everything we’ve learned as travelers.

In moving to Montrose, we’ve decided to eschew our previous corporate lives and with that forego the cushy healthcare and 401k plans that came along with them. While traveling we had a travel medical insurance policy that cost us roughly $2000 per year. In Montrose, which by unfortunate coincidence has one of the highest private insurance costs in the country, we’re paying almost $1400 per month to get a high-deductible plan under the ACA.

Twice in South America we went to a hospital or clinic for treatment for an injury, and both times (in Ecuador and Chile) the treatment was quick, easy, and free. I’m not saying these countries have perfect healthcare systems; I’m not sure how easy it would be to access care for major or ongoing medical needs, but it sure seems better than paying an extra mortgage payment for what amounts to catastrophic coverage. I try not to think about it too much. Just writing this makes me want to move to Mexico! Okay, that and tacos.

Another thing I’ve noticed, especially when we’ve had television, is the sophistication of the American marketing machine. It’s not like they don’t have TV ads in other parts of the world, it’s that here the marketing efforts seem more focused, subtle, and pervasive. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but it feels a little bit sinister to me.

On the up side, Quinn is loving being in one place, having his own room, and being close to his grandparents. And I’m pretty sure his grandparents are happy to have him back!

How to Ship a Vehicle from South to North America

Quinn gives his cousins a tour of his home on wheels

Quinn gives his cousins a tour of his home on wheels after it arrived back from South America

Shipping a vehicle is always daunting. You’re dealing with big companies as a little fish – they ship thousands of containers and vehicles every month, and one little RV doesn’t impress them much at all. Add to that the stories of vehicles being damaged with no recourse available, and the shipping process can become very stressful.

Although I can’t take the headaches out of the experience, here’s how we went about shipping the Sparksmobile back to the US from South America.

We found a great deal on airfare back to the states from Santiago, so it would have made sense to ship from Chile to the West Coast of the US. We investigated that, but we couldn’t find any roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) vessels doing that route. Most everyone we talked to shipped out of either Montevideo, Uruguay, (to Europe)  or Buenos Aires, Argentina (to North America).

We contacted Martin Flores (operaciones AT capri-arg DOT com.ar) with K-Line and German Weber (gweber AT webersi DOT com.ar) and requested quotes. For our situation, Martin’s quote was much less expensive.

K-Line doesn’t post their schedule much more than 4-6 weeks in advance, so we didn’t get a ship date until we were just a month away from when we wanted to be on a boat. K-Line updates their schedules about once a week.

Our shipping charges amounted to about $2300 including port charges on both ends and a $200 destination change fee that most people won’t need.

Dropping our car off at the port of Zarate (near Buenos Aires) was fairly straightforward, and took about 3 hours. Here’s a complete write-up of the process that we received from Toby Conroy of Carpe Viam:

The company we shipped with was K-Line. It is a company out of the states. It has a different name in Argentina. The name in Argentina is Capricorn. We contacted Martin Flores, his email is: operaciones@capri-arg.com.ar. He is not an agent so you do not pay him a fee and you do all the work yourself but it is easy. All you have to do is contact him and send him all your paperwork and then he will tell you when to drop your car off at the port. Here is our write up for the port in Zarate, Argentina:

1. Drive past the port entry to the “caja” to pay the port fees. The GPS coords for the caja are: S34* 04′ 07.1″ W59* 02′ 48.0″

2. Right before the caja, there is a parking lot on the right. Park there and walk towards the coordinates. Ask for the caja if you don’t see it. You will not have any documents from Martin at this point, I would suggest emailing him the night before you go to ensure that he sent them over because he did not in our case. When you get there and they finally find your info, they will tell you how much to pay. We paid 1960 pesos. They only accept pesos, no credit cards. If you need wifi, there is a spot in front of the modular building outside of the caja. We used it to call Martin when they couldn’t find our documents.

3. Next, drive back to the port entry and park on the right hand side, wherever you can fit before the toll booth thing. GPS coords for port entry are: S34* 04′ 30.8″ W59* 02′ 05.2″

4. Go to the window of the building on the right hand side. You will need your passports. Here, they give you a temporary ID to enter the port. You both need them if you are both going into the port. Go back to your car and drive up to the toll booth. Hand them your temporary ID and the receipt for the port fees you just paid.

5. Drive straight until you reach another booth and park on the left hand side before the entrance to the parking lot/booth. This is aduana. The coordinates are: S34* 04′ 07.1″ W59* 02′ 05.2″ Go into the building and cancel your import permit. We didn’t get proof that they cancelled it, although we asked. They scribbled down in pencil on our import permit which port the truck was going to and the boat to load it on. Then they took the keys. It happens very fast! But they let us take a quick pic and say our goodbyes Then, they call a taxi for you and give you a ride to the entrance to the port where you wait for your taxi.

Our van was loaded onto the Bangkok Highway on November 23 and we were supposed to pick it up in Jacksonville, Florida, on about January 5. The vessel ended out having mechanical troubles, and after a two-week vacation in the Mexican port of Veracruz, our van finally arrived in Baltimore on February 1 aboard a different ship.

The process for picking up the car is a little strange, because unless you’re authorized by the Transportation Security Administration you’re not allowed into a US port. That means you need to engage the services of an escort who is authorized (by means of something called a TWIC card). We hired Kurt Mueller for the task, who can be contacted through his wife Heide at Heide_Mueller@yahoo.com. Kurt charges a $175 flat fee for his services. He will pick you up anywhere in the Baltimore area, drive you to the port, and retrieve your vehicle for you.  (Thanks to Melanie Cahill and Justin Smith of Lost in the Americas for referring Kurt to us!)

Kurt had called the appropriate port personnel the day before I was to go to Baltimore and was told that the van was ready to pick up. When we arrived at the port however, Kurt was told that we still needed to get customs clearance. For some inexplicable reason, despite the fact that there is a customs office on the port we had to go to the customs office at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport to do this. This cost a few hours, but I was still able to get the Sparksmobile back by mid-afternoon.

The van arrived undamaged, with only the little convex stick-on mirrors stripped off, just as they were when we shipped from Panama to Colombia. I think if I were to ship a vehicle again, I’d buy a set of brand new convex mirrors and leave them on the dashboard for whoever wants them.

The van back in one piece at Jen's parents' house in Philly

The van back in one piece at Jen’s parents’ house in Philly

Our Van Build post-trip assessment

This post is a review of all of the systems and accessories we used in converting our van to a camper, for those thinking of building a van. Here’s what worked, what didn’t, and what we’d change.

The Sparksmobile

The Sparksmobile

The Van

Our van is a 2001 Ford E350 extended body with a Salem Kroger 4×4 conversion and the 7.3L diesel engine. We bought it used in 2012 with 78,000 miles on it and the 4×4 conversion already in place. The only problem we had with the van itself was a clogged fuel line that caused us to be very slow when climbing hills. It was a minor problem, but we didn’t know what was causing it and it stressed us out for awhile. With help from the Oaxaca Ford dealership and Calvin and Leanne at Overlander Oasis, we finally got it fixed. Since then it’s been only regular maintenance. I would have no problem taking this van on another trip.

The 4×4 conversion gave us no problems, although we stopped at Whitefeather Conversions prior to our trip where a former co-owner of Salem Kroger disassembled and lubricated the front hubs. This was purely preventative.

Colorado Campervan Poptop

The size of the CCV poptop is great for layouts like ours where the top bunk is the primary sleeping area. It’s tall enough to sit up in, and wide enough to be comfortable for two. The actuator motors worked through 700+ nights of camping on our trip.

We opted for fine “no-see-um” netting in our poptop which suffered a few rips along the way that we repaired with tent repair tape. The canvas held up well.

Auxiliary Fuel Tank

We installed a 20-gallon auxiliary fuel tank behind the rear axle. The tank switch failed, leaving us stranded on the Dempster highway with an empty rear tank and unable to switch to the main tank, and after a couple more problems with it I eventually removed it and gave it away. On our trip we never found that we needed extra fuel capacity.

Plumbing

We had no problems with our plumbing or our shur flo water pump. We only have a 14-gallon water tank, which from our experience was sufficient for about 3 days of being completely self-contained (drinking, cooking, and washing up) if we were careful. If I had it to do over again I would want a bigger tank.

We also have a shower that comes out of the back of the van. We can open the rear doors and rig up a shower stall with a tarp. Our Webasto Dualtop heater/hot water heater provides hot water. We only used the shower 3 times because of our lack of sufficient water on board (usually when we were near a source of fresh water we also had access to a shower) and the fact that the setup for the shower was time consuming. I wouldn’t include a shower if I had it to do over.

We installed a separate faucet at our sink for drinking water which went through an Everpure water filter. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, we chlorinated the water we put into our tank. The filter then removes the chlorine. It was very convenient to have clean drinking water readily available and without having to purchase and discard hundreds of plastic bottles. We brought a few spare filters with us to last the trip.

Appliances

We debated for a long time over whether to spend the money on a diesel cooktop in order to avoid the hassles of filling a propane tank in areas where adapters might be difficult to find. In the end we opted for a Webasto diesel cooktop. It only worked right immediately after I took delivery of the van, and a few times after we stopped at XP Camper where Marc Wassmann helped me try to diagnose the problem. We called it our leftover warmer, because it would get hot enough to warm up leftovers before flashing an error code and shutting off. I know a lot of the high-end expedition vehicles use these, so they must work. I just had a bad experience, and I plan at some point to install a propane stove.

Our Webasto Dualtop heater/hot water heater worked great, and having heat in the van was very nice on the handful of occasions we needed it (Alaska in September, high altitudes in the Andes, and in Patagonia). It worked at 14,000 feet, which surprised me.

If I had it to do again I’d probably go with an Espar diesel heater, sticking with diesel because heating is so fuel intensive. With propane only used for cooking, you wouldn’t have to refill the tank very often. Since we didn’t use the shower much I wouldn’t feel the need to have the water heater component.

Our refrigerator is a National Luna Weekender Twin. It has a small freezer compartment which is really nice to have because you can make ice, and it’s good for keeping meat frozen. The compressor in our fridge failed after about 2 years of continuous use. We didn’t know what part had failed, and the folks at Equipt1 who sold us the fridge shipped new electrical components to us in Chile free of charge. When that didn’t solve the problem, we located a 12v-fridge specialist in Buenos Aires who was able to replace the compressor. I still think this is a great fridge and would happily buy another.

Electrical

We have a 100Ah Lithium Ion battery from Smart Battery. Going with Lithium Ion cost twice as much as an equivalent usable capacity in AGM batteries. They’re also 1/3 the weight and take 1/3 the space of AGM batteries. Our battery has a noticeable but small reduction in capacity after 2.5 years of full-time use. I am happy with the decision to go with Li-Ion. Depending on how much we use our computer and tablets, and how much sun our solar panel gets, our battery will last anywhere from 24 hours to about 3 days. I don’t feel the need to add any more capacity.

We have a 100W solar panel fixed to the roof and a Blue Sky Energy solar charge controller. Solar wasn’t a panacea, but we found it very useful. In an area with full sun it (in combination with the battery) will keep our fridge going indefinitely. In hot climates you’re always looking for shade to park in, so it’s less useful then. The solar is also nice when the van is parked for an extended period because it keeps all of the batteries topped off. If I was building the van again I’d probably go with 200W (or more if I could afford it).

We had a Cole Hersee 48530 dual battery isolator. After about 1.5 years it failed and wouldn’t separate the batteries properly. I replaced it with a manual switch I found in Lima, Peru.

One of our favorite items was our Fantastic Vent Fan. It kept us cool on many a hot night in Central America.

We haven’t had any electrical faults with the RV house systems.

Layout / Furniture

CCV built the interior of our van to our design. With the ability to use the “upstairs” as our primary sleeping area with our son sleeping downstairs most of the time, we were able to optimize the downstairs area for living rather than sleeping. We are happy with the layout. Photos are here.

The furniture is constructed of 3/8″ (I think) plywood and has held up very well. The drawers are secured with spring clips, and do occasionally pop out on rough roads. It would be nice to have a mechanical latch mechanism on the drawers.

Outside

We have a Fiamma F45 awning that worked great and was easy to operate.

We have an Aluminess rear bumper and tire carrier along with a galley box that holds our outdoor cooking stove. The bumper worked great, and Aluminess even built a custom platform on the inside of the door to the galley box so I could put our Coleman stove on it. With the EB van I tried to keep the weight on the bumper to a minimum.

We elected not to purchase an aftermarket front bumper, a winch, or offroad lighting. We didn’t miss any of those things.

 

Valparaiso, Chile

After a few fun days in Buenos Aires, we made the short flight back over the Andes to Santiago, where our Airbnb host picked us up and drove us to the apartment we rented from him in Valparaiso.

We had a very enjoyable and relaxing two weeks there, and we’re very happy we got the chance to explore this funky and sometimes gritty city on the coast.

During our first weekend in the city, we took a walking tour taking in some of the beautiful buildings that are built on the hills overlooking the harbor.

During our first weekend in the city, we took a walking tour taking in some of the beautiful buildings that are built on the hills overlooking the harbor.

Valparaiso is justifiably famous for its street art, and we were introduced to the works of several local artists during our tour.

Valparaiso is justifiably famous for its street art, and we were introduced to the works of several local artists during our tour.

The styles vary, but the art makes hike up and down the city's hills worthwhile.

The styles vary, but the art makes hike up and down the city’s hills worthwhile.

“Valpo” as the locals call it, was once Chile’s most important sea port. It is the first major harbor for ships coming north after passing Cape Horn. The opening of the US transcontinental railroad and the Panama canal drastically reduced that traffic, and the harbor dimished in importance. Today it is home to part of Chile’s navy, a stopover for cruise ships, and a busy freight terminal.

Riding one of the electric trolley busses in downtown. Some of the busses are more than sixty years old, and the system is a Unesco World Heritage site.

Riding one of the electric trolley busses in downtown. Some of the busses are more than sixty years old, and the system is a Unesco World Heritage site.

Valparaiso harbor from our apartment.

Valparaiso harbor from our apartment.

A system of ascensores takes some of the work out of getting around the city. Most of these elevators are more than 100 years old, and they rattle and creak to make sure you know it.

A system of ascensores takes some of the work out of getting around the city. Most of these elevators are more than 100 years old, and they rattle and creak to make sure you know it.

The highlight of our visit to the excellent naval museum was meeting the builders of this model. When they finish their two year labor it will be the largest model ship in South America.

The highlight of our visit to the excellent naval museum was meeting the builders of this model. When they finish their two year labor it will be the largest model ship in South America.

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We visited two of the homes of Pablo Naruda, a famous and eccentric Chilean poet.

We visited two of the homes of Pablo Naruda, a famous and eccentric Chilean poet.

A last day of fun on the beach before we fly to winter.

A last day of fun on the beach before we fly to winter.

We celebrated the end of an amazing journey with a nice meal overlooking the harbor.

We celebrated the end of an amazing journey with a nice meal overlooking the harbor.

On our last full day in town we got together with some friends to take a cooking class. Quinn and Jen roll dough for empanadas.

On our last full day in town we got together with our friends, Cicilia, Jorge, and her son Caetan to take a cooking class. Here Quinn and Jen roll dough for empanadas.

Our day started with a visit to the market to buy ingredients. Here Quinn watches the fish cleaner filet the fish we bought from the fish seller.

Our day started with a visit to the market to buy ingredients. Here Quinn watches the fish cleaner filet the fish we bought from the fish seller.

Seems like a good place for a nap.

Seems like a good place for a nap.

Mmmm fresh veggies.

Mmmm fresh veggies.

We of course had plenty of wine to acompany our meal, and here we're pouring the pisco sours.

We of course had plenty of wine to acompany our meal, and here we’re pouring the pisco sours.

During our class fellow Denverites and overlanders Chad and Katie contacted us and were able to stop by to share a couple of bottles of wine with us. What a fantastic ending to the last day of our Big Big Trip!

As I write this we are waiting for our flight to Toronto from Santiago. What a journey this has been. We are so incredibly fortunate to have been able to undertake this adventure together as a family, and as this chapter in our lives comes to a close we look forward to spending time with family and friends whom we haven’t seen in far too long. We’d like to thank everyone who has stopped by to read about our adventures and travel virtually with us.

We don’t know what the future will hold, but this site will stick around. You never know when the Sparks will decide to spread their wings and fly once again.

With love,
Witt, Jen, and Quinn

Second year finances

Another year and another 10 countries behind us. How time flies!

For those interested, here’s how our budget worked out for the past year.  Actually, the numbers in the charts below cover nearly 14 months of expenses from 1 July 2014 through 28 Aug 2015.  

These numbers include everything we spent while on the road except our trip to the Galapagos, including our expenses shipping the van from Panama to Colombia. They also don’t include our home expenses such as our storage locker. Here’s how it breaks down by country:

Expenses_by_country

The per-country numbers don’t mean a whole lot. For example, Panama includes shipping the van, Peru includes new tires and batteries for the van, and Chile is where we happened to be when we paid for our health insurance for another year. Our time in Argentina includes a $700 refrigerator repair. So just because the expenses for a particular country are high doesn’t necessarily mean that country is expensive.

What I think is telling is the overall average of $94 per day. When people post the “how much should I budget” question to forums, the answer is often that $100 per day is a good ballpark figure. Our actual results support that. Based on how we travel, and the fact that there are three of us, I think two people traveling on $80/day is probably reasonable. If you have any must-see, big-ticket items on your bucket list (think Galapagos, Easter Island, or Antarctica) those are extra.

Here’s our budget by category:
Expenses_by_category

Feel free to post questions in the comments, and happy trip planning!