After a year of living in our 1987 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon and exploring North America, we realized that we hadn’t had enough and set our sights on South America next. We gave ourselves three months to tie up loose ends back home and see family and friends before we got rolling again. Those three months were jam-packed with lots of preparing ourselves and the van for the adventures that lay ahead. Before we knew it, the van was sealed in a shipping container and on its way to Colombia where we would travel by air to meet it at the port.
When we started doing our research, we were adamant about seeking out as many off-the-beaten-path drives and experiences as possible. However, we had never even considered the possibility of the completely unexpected, off-the-beaten-path experiences which would find us instead.
Some of these were experiences that we could have never prepared for- the real, raw, and gritty ones that may have scared us in the moment but will keep us laughing for years after the fact.
Us Terrified That We Were Getting Robbed but They Just Needed Help
We had successfully retrieved the van from the port and were looking forward to getting back out into nature after a week and a half of city life. Our original plan of camping on a quiet Caribbean beach was foiled by local law enforcement showing up and asking us not to camp there. This was our first interaction with Colombian police and we were nervous. Not only did the Colombian police inform us of an alternative sleeping spot that would be safer, but they gifted us pins showcasing the Colombian flag, Colombian National Police flag, and the Colombian National Police seal.
Shortly after, we made our way over to the alternate spot for the night. It was a large, roadside gravel lot near a tollbooth…hardly the beach we were hoping for but it was just for a night so we settled in. This is where it got a bit scary. We heard a group of men approaching the van and saw the glow of their flashlights move closer and closer. Then there was a knock on our door. Our Spanish was pretty poor at this point, which put us even more on edge. We opened the door to a stout Colombian man speaking very loud and hurried Spanish. It turns out that all they needed was help jumping their truck’s dead battery.
The exact sort of situation we were hoping to avoid just happened to happen to us on our first night on the road in Colombia. And guess what? We lived. That’s not to say that you should forget everything you know about personal safety. Always trust your gut and if something feels off, leave immediately if you can. You can’t be prepared for everything but it helps to be 100% prepared for what you can prepare for.
The Day Our Van Turned Into A Makeshift Ambulance
While driving the back dirt roads through the mountains of Colombia, we came across two trucks and a group of people blocking the road. As we got closer, we realized that something very terrible had happened: a motorcycle accident. One woman was in shock and bloodied up with a very, very broken leg while her mother was repeatedly trying to call for any and all help. A group of men who had stopped to help before we arrived splinted her leg. We offered bandages and tape from the First Aid Kit we always have in our van. The ambulance was taking way too long to arrive so we loaded the two women into the back of our van and began driving them to the next town. Much of the road turned into washboard occasionally which made a fast, smooth drive impossible. Since we had a majorly injured person in the back of the van, it was important to not injure them further. As we got close to town, we noticed the ambulance coming towards us and flagged them down. The EMTs took over from that point on and we watched it continue down the road with the two women in tow. We spent the rest of the day in a complete daze. Never had we ever thought we’d see such a jarring sight…or the day when the van would essentially be an ambulance!
Camping On A Beautiful Family Farm In the Colombian Mountains
One evening, while attempting to find a wild camping spot we had learned about via the iOverlander app, we got stuck. Being at high altitude lowered the van’s power and made going up the extremely steep dirt road to this place impossible. Peter ended up having to carefully back down the road, even with the van sliding a couple of times. Yikes. Once the ordeal was over, we noticed that a farmer (along with his two kids) had been watching us. We drove over to say a quick hello and asked if he knew of a place that we could sleep for the night. Without hesitation, he offered us his land. He led us down the road to his house and once we got settled into a spot, the whole family came out with hot coffee and bread for us! Any attempts from us to repay them for their hospitality were rejected. We were floored by their generosity.
An Unexpected Detour, Thanks To An Unexpected Tip
We had just spent a night wild camping on a pull off we found along a very bumpy dirt road which ran outside of a National Park…and an active volcano. We hadn’t seen a soul around since the evening before until we noticed a truck bouncing its way towards us. After passing by the first time, we saw the truck coming towards again, just as we pulled the van onto the road to leave. They slowed down next to us and rolled the window down to say hello and chat. After asking us a few questions about our travels so far, he told us that he had a friend, Gustavo, in the next town who started a Volkswagen club there and that he’d be excited to meet us and check out our van. He quickly passed on some contact details and wished us well before continuing on. We hadn’t planned on stopping in the next town but decided to anyway. What are the odds of seeing the only other person around who just happened to know a Volkswagen enthusiast?
Since we didn’t speak much Spanish and knew absolutely nothing about Gustavo, we were nervous. We reached out anyway. The plan was to possibly meet him in a public place for a quick beer before continuing on again. Gustavo ended up being one of the kindest and most helpful people we’ve met on our journey. He insisted on putting us up in a super nice hotel for a couple of nights, taking us around in his car to see his beautiful city and had dinner with us. He even took us to a beautiful Hawaiian-themed public pool, where we spent the day lounging under palm trees and eating a delicious set lunch. Any little part that we needed for the van, Gustavo knew exactly where to find it. We still have our leis from our day at the beach and Gustavo still texts us via WhatsApp to see how/where we are. We can’t wait to see him again!
Strangers In A Strange Land (aka Tourists Who Ended Up In A Very Non-Touristy Town)
After a couple of days exploring high-altitude hot springs, we found ourselves in the tiny Colombian town of Murillo. This town’s plaza was adorable and colorful, complete with the Colombian plaza signature: a church at the head of it all. We decided to park in the plaza, use the free public WIFI, eat lunch and do some walking around to a nearby waterfall. As the day went on, we realized that we were the only tourists in the whole town. We were charmed by the ease the town exuded and decided that it’d be fun to spend a night and sample the couple of bars we noticed earlier that day. As the sun went down, we took the short walk to a tiny street lined with a couple of bars. We nervously walked into the first bar, with a small group of locals having a rowdy time. As soon as the barkeeper noticed us, he excitedly welcomed us, shook our hands and quickly brought us two beers. He asked us about our travels, complimented our infant-level Spanish and repeated his warm welcomes to his country and bar. He instantly made us feel at home and when we went to settle the bill, we asked him and his wife about the safety of parking in the town plaza for the night. They said it would be absolutely no problem since the police station would be just across the way from us. We thanked them for the information and hospitality and left to figure out dinner.
On our way back to the van, we noticed another tiny bar full of local farmers and amazing retro latin music. Okay, maybe just one more beer! The owner of his bar approached us the way our family members would: open arms and a big bear hug. This guy was very, very jolly. We ended up staying much longer than expected after he treated us to a couple of free beers and insisted we take shots of aguardiente with him. A crazy thunderstorm rolled in and the power in the entire town went out, but he insisted on one last shot in the dark. Literally. We were struggling the next morning but it’s an experience we still haven’t forgotten!
Seeing A Broken-Down Westy Getting Rolling Again (In A Really Random Part Of Peru)
We were rolling along on our way to Cusco to meet some friends, when we spotted an amazing geyser and decided to stop off on the next pull-off and check it out. As we approached our parking spot, we noticed…another Westy?! We couldn’t believe it. As we got closer to say hello, we learned that the three travelers were having trouble getting their engine started, due to the altitude. After the getting-to-know-you chatter and checking out each others’ vans, Peter attempted to help them troubleshoot. They had been trying everything they could for hours at this point with no luck. Finally, it was decided that the best option was to take one of them into the nearby tiny town to see if they could get a tow or any other form of help. We gave him our extra tow strap and wished him well as he sped off on the back of a local’s motorbike. As we drove on, we realized that we hadn’t told him an important piece of information about using the tow strap and not tearing up any part of his van. We turned around and when we got back to their van, we heard the engine running! A very nice local man had stopped to help them out and had managed to get the engine started! We all did some cheering as they loaded their belongings back into their van. After exchanging information and saying our goodbyes, we happily watched them roll on.
Of course, those are just a few of the many stories we’ve collected along the way.
One of our goals with the South American leg of our trip is to make as many new friends as possible and so far we’ve accomplished exactly that! Our favorite experience has been meeting other overlanders and sharing camping spots, meals, drinks and stories. It all started with meeting a British couple in Cartagena after one of them just happened to be at the same cafe as us and overheard us talking about our travels. Then, spotting another van in a small town, discovering that the couple was Swiss and running into them in almost every country we’ve driven through so far. On our way to the Tatacoa Desert, we met another couple who happened to be going to the same place as us. After camping with them once, we’ve managed to meet up three times since then and spend weeks at a time caravanning together. In Northern Ecuador, our caravanning group of two vehicles became three after we met an awesome couple from Argentina who were making their way to the United States. Driving into Quito, allowed us to meet a fellow van fanatic who embraced us as part of his family and invited us to his home for dinners and hot showers. “Camping” in the parking lot of a safe public park in Quito allowed us to meet even more travelers, including more Argentinians and a couple from New York who we ended up caravanning through parts of Ecuador and Peru with.
Once we arrived in Santiago, Chile, we met three more groups of people traveling in their vehicles who happened to know the friends we had previously met. One of them ended up caravanning further south into Chile and Argentina with us where we met a kind family who shared their delicious, homemade seafood stew with us and let us cook our meat on their grill after we were unable to find one.
Then there are the off-beat encounters like the super friendly hitchhikers and adorable, tiny Peruvian women we gave rides to on a whim. Not to mention all of the warm, kind-hearted people we never would have met if we hadn’t had to deal with transmission problems for roughly two months. The mechanic graciously allowed us to stay in his backyard and use his bathroom. A Chilean couple invited us into their home for hot showers, drinks, homemade empanadas and company. Lastly, a couple of locals who spotted Peter working on the van on the street offered their homes and garages to him when we first started having problems in Argentina.
Each and every time we recount these memories, our hearts feel full of joy and gratitude. That feeling makes us want to be better people. Even more, it makes us want to pass on the kindness in whatever ways we can. Even though some pretty scary and stressful things have happened so far, we still consider ourselves extremely lucky. The one and only breakdown in our two years of travel brought lots of stress and downright disheartening moments. It also brought so many warm and kind new people into our lives and allowed us to reunite with friends, which might not have happened otherwise. It’s as true as it is cliché: so much good can come out of the bad times if you just take a couple of deep breaths and see what happens!
This article was written by Peter & Shruthi from @holidayatsee. Check out their amazing adventures on Instagram!