The Kombi Chronicles – Live From Panamerica!

English couple Lee and Willow (and cats Aimee and Lexi) are currently on the Panamerican highway in their 1976 VW Kombi, and have been creating such great video and photography that I decided to reach out to them to see if they had time to answer a few questions for an article… They did, and here is the result!

If you like their style please do give them a like and share over on Patreon or their other socials.

What inspired you to embark on your journey with the VW Kombi campervan?

    The decision to take this journey in this way was a cumulation of different things. We met back in 2012, both with plans to travel outside of the UK. Our new relationship meant that Lee cancelled his travel plans and I ended up living in his home city, Birmingham, for a further 7 years.

    We were both studying, working and simultaneously renovating a very dilapidated house that we had managed to buy there. We spent our twenties working hard, but we knew that all of this would be a means to an end as we both wanted to travel. We planned to do that after we had both finished our degrees.

    I had wanted to travel outside of Europe for some time. I wanted to experience that culture shock and I wanted to do it soon, but I had no real idea how or where though. It was kind of a vague dream. Lee however wanted the campervan. I had done backpacking previously in the past but the thought of travelling with a vehicle had never occurred to me. He loved the iconic classic VW and thought it’d be amazing to own and travel in one, the more we thought about it, the more we thought why not. We started looking into buying a kombi and ultimately purchased one on Gumtree back in 2015.

    Here’s her arriving in our back garden for the first time in 2015. My old trusty polo, Beryl, tows her in. This was the condition the bus was in when we bought her.

    With the idea of the VW comes some kind of ideology, you become part of the VW family and we started to watch Kombi Life as he was about the only other person travelling in a kombi that we knew off. At first we thought South America sounded like such an adventure, but honestly after watching Ben’s channel, it put us off. We had poured any remaining money we had into restoring our van.

    Slowly over several years she became precious to us, perhaps seeing some of the photos of the amount of work that went into her, you can see why. We watched Ben getting robbed and breaking his van and thought, no, that’s not for us. We opted to go with a ‘safer’ trip around America and Canada instead. I think this idea actually came from my mum, America is one of those classic countries for a road trip after all.

    Our combination of wanting to leave Europe and also travel in a car meant that we would be planning a significant trip in order to make it worth the costs involved in shipping the vehicle to another continent’. And so we planned to spend 12 months travelling the US and Canada, before shipping back to the UK and picking our lives back up where we left off.

    How did you prepare your VW Kombi for long-term travel?

      Our main preparations for Ruby were getting her road legal. We’d bought a vehicle in a much worse condition than the previous owners had let on. They had told us it had only two patches of rust, and we had stupidly believed them without having the experience of knowing what to check ourselves. In actual fact the entire front chassis needed welding just to get it through an MOT.

      As we couldn’t afford to pay for that, I learnt to weld and started fixing up the shell first. At the time I worked in a college in Birmingham teaching car mechanics and my boss let me keep the camper in the college as a project. He encouraged me to swap the engine to a Subaru for reliability, and conveniently, there was one in the workshop that wouldn’t start. We got it to turn on first and then swapped this more modern engine into the camper in the hope it would give us better fuel economy, more power and less problems.

      It’s hard to show, but she was in a terrible state and had clearly already had major welding done in the past. These photos really don’t show just how bad it was! We spent nearly a year just trying to fix the chassis, prep and paint it.

      As she had clearly not been road legal for a while, we did all the usual things like replacing worn joints, refurbishing the brakes. The entire electrical system was redone as well. These things were not so much a preparation for long term travel as a necessity for any travel. At the time, we planned to spend only a year abroad, driving the relatively easy roads of North America and so we didn’t really go overboard with any preparations.

      Lee was allowed to come in and help at the weekends and after a lot of work, we fixed everything and replaced a lot of components. The new engine was installed and running. Here she is for her first MOT in March 2017.

      We did want to be able to stay off grid though, and so I attempted (I say attempted as I had no idea what I was doing and the amount of information that is available now on youtube and so on, did not exist about 8 years ago) to install an electrical system that would handle life without hooking up.

      We fitted a compost toilet and a Wallas diesel cooker and heater. We built the whole interior ourselves by hand to save on money. We bought a complete tree, which as local saw mill cut up and then we dried it at my dad’s house. My dad had the machines required to thickness, cut and sand the wood which he taught us how to use in our holidays. Here’s how our interior started, compared to it nearly completed on the right.

      One other thing we decided on that was we would not live in a camper we couldn’t stand in. We had a custom roof fitted by Space which we still agree to this day, we wouldn’t have survived this long living without it.

      Here’s the new roof fitted (right) and the first time we ever slept in her. She has no interior, no nothing, we were just super excited to try it out.

      Now in hindsight there are definitely things that I would have done to prepare for this trip, had I known. We have carried out several major upgrades while on the road, more on that later.

      Can you share some of the most memorable experiences or destinations you’ve visited?

        I left this question last to answer, as I think it’s the hardest.

        It is quite impossible to pick or even form coherent thoughts. There have been so many. A lot of them are just meeting really nice local people. Some are mind blowing scenery. Some are simple things like finally driving out of the garage after a two month breakdown. Some are just the simple pleasures.

        I remember just how well I slept at Cerro Negro, Nicaragua. A black gravel dormant volcano, where you can climb to the peak, dragging your hired board behind you so that you can sandboard back down. It’s a beautiful location. Stark black rock against a new bright green forest that encircles the base and a brilliant blue sky. It was just so peaceful.

        We have made some friends for life and been invited without second thought into peoples homes. There isn’t a country yet, out of the 14 so far, where some kind person has not brought us inside and made us dinner.

        For me the VW scene in the south of America will always hold a special place in my heart as it was the first time we really saw that community in action and we made friends we still talk to nearly 5 years later. We were invited into our first thanksgiving dinner there, taken on a private boat tour down the local river and then went out shooting his gun collection. It was a very southern experience and totally awesome.

        In Mexico, we witnessed Arribada, a phenomenon where thousands of turtles simultaneously land on the beaches to lay their eggs. We went on our first tequila tour, which ended with us trying a shot of every homemade tequila they had while trying to get by in our very bad Spanish with the kids who had been left in charge of the shop. We tried ground up locusts and marijuana tequila with some very excited teenagers. Often, it’s the things you don’t plan. Funnily enough, some of my fondest memories don’t have any photos, I suppose when you’re caught up in a great moment you don’t always think to record it. For the sake of showing just a pretty photo, here’s the amazing Tamul Waterfall in Mexico.

        We have watched a live volcano erupt in Guatemala. We have dived with sharks in Panama.

        We saw sloths and monkeys so close you could touch them on the beautiful Caribbean beaches of Costa Rica. And then we’ve camped right there on our own little Caribbean island.

        In Colombia, we swam in the eerie green waters of a thermal river at 4000m above sea level, its water heated by the nearby volcano that threw out clouds of smoke behind us. On the same trip, the local police pulled us over because they wanted to take us out for lunch.

        Peru was the first place we found some nice cheese as we delved into the tiny local markets that exist in every town here. We visited Machu Picchu and the famous rainbow mountain as well.

        Bolivia gets a mention as it is just so underrated. A beautiful country with the friendliest people, we stayed a week in the back garden of a local cowboy who showed us a critically endangered species of macaw that only lives right here, while his wife made us beautiful empanadas. Here too is some truly impressive nature, the Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat so big that NASA uses it to calibrate their satellites. If you’re willing to drive hundreds of kilometres into the altiplano on a road that isn’t on a map, you can reach Laguna Colorado. I have seen many lakes, but this one took my breath away.

        I can’t wait to see what’s next… the glaciers of Patagonia or boat trips to see jaguars in the Brazilian amazon…

        What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced on the road, and how did you overcome them?

          Our single biggest challenge has been keeping the van alive.

          We lived in our tiny kombi through a global pandemic in a desert in Mexico. We learnt a new language from scratch. We spent nearly every single waking moment together. I know of other people who couldn’t handle these aspects of the lifestyle, but for us they pale into insignificance next to the gigantic task of our rotten bus. Despite the huge amount of work we did prior to leaving the UK, any classic car owner will tell you, rust is like a cancer. It didn’t take long for it spread and rear its ugly head.

          As I mentioned, we were naive kids when we bought here. We were also naive drivers, used to the easy roads of Europe. We broke our first engine by flooding it with water in Mexico, then again driving a volcano, then on a mountain road in Panama and recently again in Bolivia. Imagine trying to source a European spec engine from America, because it doesn’t exist where you are and then get shipped and imported via a boat when you don’t speak the language.

          The first time the engine broke, I too had a breakdown in the mechanics workshop. The trip was over! How could we continue? I should mention that this was also in the middle of COVID so going home wasn’t really an option either. Our friends at the time rallied around us and when we finally got another engine delivered from Canada, we fitted it together.

          The last time it broke, we shrugged, coaxed it over the Chilean border and found a friendly local who’d let us use his garage to rebuild it. The time and investment to be here meant that giving up was not really an option, after all you can’t just abandon your car and pets in a foreign country. We found people to help us and a resilience I don’t think we knew we had. We do insist on driving some stupid roads, perhaps that’s why we break it all the time!

          Our last workshop in Chile, and a typical kind of road we drive here

          The engine is just one part. I think it would be simpler to name what hasn’t broken. The suspension, the gearbox, the brakes, the electrics. Everything at some point has gone pretty wrong. We had welded it back together more times than I care to count, at one point the engine nearly fell out. The rear wheels snapped off. It’s been quite extreme.

          Rear chassis snapped, followed by the first gearbox breakdown, Mexico 2021.

          I would like to mention though that we have yet to be robbed, threatened or generally experience anything particularly unsafe. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, of course it does and we know other people with different experiences, but for us personally, this has never been an issue.

          There is this perception that you are ‘living the dream’ or ‘on holiday’ when you travel like this and we have visited incredible places and met amazing people, the lows are crushing. It’s a lifestyle of extremes. We were fortunate that as a couple that we still share very similar perspectives and goals. This trip has undoubtedly changed both of us but we find ourselves closer because of the challenges and it’s each other we lean on when the going gets tough.

          How do you manage daily tasks like cooking, sleeping, and staying clean while on the road?

            We both love to cook and half of our storage space is allocated to food and kitchen supplies. We have a diesel cooker and heater for a couple of reasons. Firstly the space saved by combining two appliances and secondly the availability of diesel internationally, compared to trying to refill gas bottles. We have two hobs and a small electric oven, called a Remoska in which we can make bread and things like that. We share the cooking pretty equally as it’s something we both enjoy. Weather permitting we’ll cook outside on the fire. Despite our tiny setup, we did cook my family a three course Christmas dinner we enjoyed squeezed inside Ruby on a freezing day in Las Vegas. We are also (kind of) vegetarians, so being able to cook is important. There’s not a lot of variety in food for non-meat eaters here and we tend to make our own food the majority of the time.

            While technically it is possible to sleep downstairs on our rock’n’roll bed, the amount of stuff we have to move to do it means we very rarely use it. It’s an extreme back up, like when we had to spend the night in a hurricane, there was no way we were putting up the pop-top. So generally, we sleep ‘upstairs’ in our pop-top. It’s a narrow 4’ bed, but we’re pretty used to it. It’s also quite nice that as we sleep up there, we don’t have to clean and rearrange our entire living space downstairs to go to bed. It also gives us the flexibility for one person to get up at a different time or go have a lie down if they’re not well or something like that, while the other can still ‘downstairs’ like normal.

            As you can imagine, in such a small van, we don’t have an internal shower. We do have an external solar one for the warmer countries. In cold weather we can heat up water inside and have a wash over the sink if there’s no showers available. We also have a usb shower pump we can drop in any water to use to wash. The facilities really depend on the country. Sometimes it’s very easy to find a hot shower, other times not so much. I have never been a daily shower person, whether people think that’s gross or not! The majority of the time we don’t go to campsites, sometimes we’ll spend a night or two when all the tanks are empty, the batteries need a charge and we both need a shower as we can say we are getting our money’s worth, but generally we’ll find another option.

            I know a few people who live in their vans without a toilet, but for me that’s a necessity. It gives us greater flexibility with wild camping and there’s no way I’m running outside for a wee in the freezing cold at 3am.

            The other mundane thing we deal with is laundry. Here the majority of laundrettes are not self-service and therefore you have to wait for your clothes. A lot don’t use hot water and often stuff doesn’t come back that clean. Once before they stole our clothes too. Now, for the sake of saving money and actually getting our clothes cleaner, we wash everything by hand using a couple of buckets we have. Just find a clean river, and you’re good to go. We’d also use that opportunity to stock up and filter our drinking water. We filter all water we drink here as it’s often not potable from the taps and sometimes very chemically. We have a small Survivor water filter which is great for getting drinking water just about anywhere.

            What’s the community like among fellow campervan travellers?

              Undoubtedly there is a community, just from the lifestyle. Then there is another community from being an owner of a classic Volkswagen. It is no exaggeration to say the VW community is a global family.

              Firstly the community amongst vanlifers. As we travelled through the pandemic that was fairly non-existent aside from the one German couple we lived with at the time. Now, years later and especially in Argentina, where we currently are, there is a massive travelling community. Online, there’s whatsapp groups, facebook groups which are pretty helpful for advice. It’s nice to be able to ask questions about borders or insurance and know that there is a community of people there who have personally done it and are happy to share their experience.

              VW meetup, Chicamocha Canyon, Colombia.

              In day to day life, it’s common to see other campers on the road. We have met up with many people in person, who we first knew from being online. It adds a nice balance to the lifestyle, as it can be a lonely one at times. People here are pretty friendly, especially fellow Europeans. If we see a car with foreign plates, we’ll generally go and say hi, we are always up for a campfire and a chat!

              The specific VW community is one that we had to experience to believe it. We were first rescued from a smashed windscreen by some fellow kombi lovers in Louisiana. They saw our post on facebook, sourced us a windscreen, brought it to us in the carpark of the motorway services and then proceeded to fit it for us. They totally refused any money and instead invited us to their local campout. We have been offered everything from free parts to free accommodation from complete strangers, just because we own a kombi. A stranger in Colombia gave us his clutch cable for free on the side of the road. A mechanic here in Argentina sourced us a spare part from Brazil and let us stay in the house all weekend insisting that they feed us. Another enthusiast let us stay for 6 weeks in his personal garage for ‘a donation’, while his elderly mother brought us fruit and washed our clothes for us. The kindness of people is truly unparalleled and it’s a beautiful thing.

              How do you handle maintenance and repairs for your VW Kombi while traveling?

                After a string of problems caused by garages themselves, we now won’t take our car to a garage. I repair anything that goes wrong myself, naturally with Lee’s help. The only exception to this is perhaps welding, sometimes it’s easier to explain what you want than to get to grips with a different machine. The downside of Latin America is that there aren’t really any formal qualifications, so quality assurance and liability are not really a thing. The general view here is they’ll fix it, ‘for now’. Repairs can be short lived and often badly done, especially by a mechanic who is that ‘because my dad was.’ Without any kind of quality control, we find it less of a risk to do it ourselves.

                While this is a downside of these countries, the flipside is that here is that you can generally just use a local garage. We have always managed to find a local who will let you use their space and tools for a small fee. Unlike the UK, no one cares about health and safety or insurance and that’s just fine by me. We wander around in our flip flops, pulling bits off the engine and covered in grease. It’s very relaxed.

                Of course, not everyone is a qualified mechanic. However, I do strongly believe that anyone travelling long term or abroad in the car should be acquainted with the basics. I know a lot of travellers who left with no knowledge of the car, but now do all basic maintenance themselves to avoid these issues with garages. If you’re not willing to maintain your own car and you travel here, then be prepared to pay ‘gringo prices’ as well as encountering some questionable repairs from time to time.

                For me, it’s also an issue of control. I do not like to be left at the mercy of someone else’s knowledge. Especially when they no they only have to fix it enough for you to go far enough away you won’t come back. If you have no idea about mechanics, then a strong grip of the language is definitely advisable.

                How has traveling in the VW Kombi impacted your relationship and personal growth?

                  I don’t think you can know someone better than by living with them in just a few square metres through the best and worst time of your life. We went 12 years ago and as you can imagine, who we were and what we wanted back then is not the same as it is now. I think when you go through so many experiences together, you will either become closer or grow apart. Change is inevitable. We are fortunate that as we discovered new countries, new lifestyles and new people, we both grew to love and hate the same things. We love the culture and we both want to live here. We both dream of the same kind of future and that makes it, on the whole, easy. I can only imagine how some couples end up growing further apart, one of you loves the laid back culture and the other can’t stand how nothing ever happens when it’s supposed to.

                  As an individual, it certainly forced me out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions. I entered Mexico without a word of Spanish and now my Spanish is pretty passable. Being forced to deal with the large breakdowns we have experienced is pretty stressful at the time, but that first time the engine fires back up and you drive away once again, you look back and think, “We did this.”

                  I was always a stickler for the plan and not one for sudden changes. Now I’m a lot more relaxed, which I think is a good thing. This lifestyle is completely impromptu, we never planned to drive to ‘the end of the world’, we never planned to rescue two cats and we never planned to move abroad. Most days we wake up with a vague idea of what’s going on, which often changes and I’m ok with that.

                  Overall, for the sake of sounding cheesy, I think I’ve become a nicer person. The kindness that other people have shown me for absolutely no other reason than wanting to help a stranger, has made me want to be more like them. We grew up in a country where saying hello to a stranger on the bus or smiling at a passerby on the street is weird. What kind of a culture is that? If a van had parked up outside my house ten years ago, I’d have most likely sat there twitching the curtains. Now, I’d go and offer them a shower. People seem to think the world is a scary place full of people out to get you. In reality, that’s mostly the fault of the media and the majority of people are actually lovely. For me, it was invaluable to see that first hand and realise that all the negative content we see, is not the daily norm.

                  What advice would you give to someone considering a similar lifestyle?

                    Try the lifestyle first, ideally in the van you would travel in. Being comfortable in your rig is so important. Before we designed our interior, we rented another kombi for a week just to see if we could handle living in it. Straight away we hated the way the roof worked, the way the cupboards were built. But we didn’t mind it being small. It was so useful to be able to go into a build and know that those things were irritating to us. We spent a long time designing our interior. We went to festivals, looked at other vans and decided what were our ‘must-haves’. I think this is even more important if your van is small. Then try it out. Of course we couldn’t just go away for months at a time, but in our holidays we took her to Scotland and France for several weeks, just to see what it was like and trial it all out.

                    First trip abroad to France in 2018.

                    Another important thing, as previously mentioned, is having some kind of knowledge of your car. As a traveller you often don’t have that fall back option of going back to the garage if a job is done poorly, like you would in normal life. Naturally the level of knowledge you can acquire varies hugely from person to person, but at least be aware of your vehicle. What oil it uses, when was it serviced, what work has been done. Get to know your car as much as you can.

                    The list of advice is probably endless, depending on where you go. Ultimately though, if you’re happy and comfortable in your car, everything else can be learnt en-route. If you’re planning a huge trip down the pan-american highway it is of course advisable to learn the language, plan your monthly costs, research insurance options both for you and the car and so on. But in reality, we did none of this and we’re here just the same. All you need is an open mind and a bit of resilience.

                    What are your future travel plans and goals with your VW Kombi?

                      We will be flying home in July to spend a month with our families, the first time Lee’s been home in the entire 5 years. When we return to Uruguay, we will head south at (hopefully) a fairly quick pace. We want to reach Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world, in November. From there we will return at a more leisurely pace back up through Chile and Argentina. We plan to re-enter Bolivia in order to drive through Paraguay into Brasil. After a maximum of 6 months there, we will cross through French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana into Venezuela. This will ultimately bring us back into Colombia, our starting point for this continent and we will have visited all 13 of its countries.

                      The ultimate goal is to purchase land, either most likely in Colombia or Ecuador and set up a campsite there. We want to offer a great space for other travellers and help other people the way we have been helped. We are interested in a kind of eco, off grid setup which is largely self sufficient. Lee wants to open a microbrewery, whereas you’ll find me covered in dirt, digging up vegetables. We would also like to open a small restaurant and a killer garage facility that others overlands can use to repair their rigs. Naturally, this will all take quite a long time, but that’s ok. We would just be happy to have a plot of land we call home, where Ruby can finally get the welding she deserves! We have absolutely no interest in returning to the UK to live, I for one certainly can’t handle the weather there after seeing how it is in the rest of the world. We’ll still probably travel in the future, but we have no solid plans on how or where. For now, we are quite excited about finishing up the trip and staying stationary for a bit.

                      Tim Aldiss

                      Sharing my passion for campervans, road trips and dreaming of the next escape

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