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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Vanlife vs. Vacation - Insights into our way of life

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

About late risers, caipirinha evenings and other myths - we clarify what van life means
The spirit of adventure in focus, that's what drives us
Boredom and idleness are foreign words on our journey
Every day is new - and yet there is something like everyday life

In some people's minds, the thought likes to slumber that vanlife or long-term travel is tantamount to an endless vacation, and that slowing down from work life is associated with caipirinha, campfires and endless loitering. This is by no means the case. Holidays for 2, 3 or even 4 weeks are booked in advance, prepared, have a beginning and a time-defined end, in which one tries to harmonize as much experience, sport, culture as possible, but also relaxation, in order to then to be prepared for everyday work again. On the other hand, the situation is different with long-term travel, especially if you go on tour across national borders for a few months or even years. Because while on vacation you can usually get through the weeks with a suitcase or backpack, the long-term traveler brings his everyday life with him in his vehicle. And what is there not to consider in order to keep the balance between everyday travel and a thirst for adventure. I have tried to summarize our experiences of traveling in Europe and now South America in the last few years in order to reflect the reality for you and also to give other travelers an overview in the future.


Short, medium and long-term planning of the travel horizon

In short-term planning, we look at activities over the next 1-7 days. Which tours on our bucket list are currently possible in terms of weather? What equipment do we need? Do we need to reserve something?


Of course there are also "hang-less" days when we don't plan anything special. Nevertheless, we always find something to do, more on that below... J


And then the (almost) daily question arises: Where do we sleep? I.e. where can we find a nice and safe parking space for the night. We don't always change locations every day – thank God. The rhythm would be unbearable in our opinion as a long-term traveler (although we do see countless people racing across the continent!). Nevertheless, the pitch needs to be chosen with care. After all, we want to feel safe and have a good night's sleep. A lot of things are of course unpredictable. There can always be a pack of dogs barking all night. But if you stay at an Argentinian campsite for a weekend, for example, you know from the start that it will be noisy. What also plays a role, of course, are the current needs. Sure, we are relatively self-sufficient on the road, but sometimes it just needs a hot shower, we need electricity, water, mobile phone reception, etc. Often not an easy task, such as looking for a parking space, or associated with some compromises. So, after a week of being free in a beautiful, secluded place, the need for civilization (i.e. shower, mobile phone reception, etc.) can be so great that you accept the Argentinean Asado party next door :-)


daily decission between convinience of official camping vs. wild camping

In the medium term for the next 1 - 4 weeks, the rough itinerary is considered. That means what do we want to see and experience, which hikes and other expeditions are planned. And of course we also look at how far we want to get in terms of distance. This includes installing one or two "service" tags (for laundry, vehicle care, etc.). Basically, we try to set as few appointments as possible in order to be flexible about what we feel like, what the weather allows and so on. Sometimes, however, it is simply necessary to book things for a longer period of time (e.g. an Antarctic trip) or even to make doctor’s appointments. In fact, we only do that in exceptional cases.


In the long term we have to consider the visa regulations of the countries (because of the length of stay), flights home to Germany and of course the best travel time for the regions.


Replenish supplies

First of all, something very banal that the “sedentary person” may not even be aware of: every supermarket purchase is new. There is hardly a shop that we have visited more than once, simply because we are "on the road". This means that you never know exactly what and if you will get something. And also not at what price. Chile, for example, is generally a very expensive country. We try to buy non-perishable items, such as razor blades, or products that can be easily preserved, such as nuts, in other countries (taking into account the “border problem”, see below). Sometimes we have shopping lists that we can't or don't want to check off for weeks.


Of course, we always buy fresh products. We eat very healthy, our fridge is always stocked with fruit and vegetables. But here, too, not everything is always available or sometimes simply too expensive. In southern Patagonia, fruit choices are typically limited to apples, bananas, and tangerines. Also OK. It doesn't have to be the papaya for 10 euros, which is already so soggy. With all shopping, however, space must always be taken into account. There isn’t endless space in the fridge or in the drawers…


Diet and alcohol

That brings us to the next topic. When on holiday, people like to keep all fours upright and enjoy themselves to the fullest. Of course we are very happy to do that. Above all, every country, indeed every region, has its own culinary specialties that we don't want to miss out on. On the contrary, we consciously engage in it. Because the groceries that you know from home are difficult to get and extremely expensive. As a rule, the locals already appreciate the pleasures of the respective country. In Brazil, for example, there are a lot of exotic fruits on the table, e.g. cashew apples, dragon fruit, mango and papayas. You can get most of them very cheaply on every street corner or, at best, even for free from the tree. And then of course there are super cool things like a coconut water drivethru. You can't miss something like that.


Of course we also have a glass of wine every now and then in the evening. Not more, but even what is okay every day on vacation, we don't want to allow ourselves in our everyday travel. We try to find the balance between enjoyment and abstinence.


Caipirinha Brasilien Reisen Refugio Canaa
Caipirinha for breakfast:-)

Sports

Sport is a natural part of life for us. Since we also have many active hobbies that we can practice in nature and when travelling, it goes quite well together. This includes hiking, but surfing, kayaking, rock climbing etc. We have many options. Sometimes, however, it has to be a yoga session or targeted fitness exercises. This then has to be incorporated into everyday life. There are of course more or less suitable places. As a rule (when the weather is good) thank God - in addition to discipline - a flat area and our sleeping pads are enough. And from time to time we even find fellow human beings who let us motivate them and take part.



Communication & Internet

Each country regulates the mobile network for itself and so the search for the optimal data SIM card made us desperate in Argentina. In order to avoid the hassle every time we enter a new country, we quickly signed a contract (in Uruguay) that allows us data roaming on the entire American continent at a fair monthly price. It's very convenient if it "just works like that".


Were it not for the fact that there are significant cell phone dead spots across the South American continent, particularly in Patagonia. If you are not traveling in cities (which we usually avoid!), you will hardly have cell phone reception. The whole data contract doesn't help there. Offline for days. What sometimes seems very appealing has gotten on our nerves over time. Beautiful pitches in the middle of nature, which we would have liked to have enjoyed longer, we left after several days. Because just for every tour planning you need data, even if it's just the current weather report. Don't get me wrong, we're not wimps. In Patagonia, however, some tours are simply not feasible or very dangerous in strong winds. Accordingly, after about 5 months, the next logical investment for us was a Starlink internet flat rate. Satellite Internet works in the most remote corner - as long as there is a clear view of the sky. Now we can plan tours, make reservations, work on our blog, etc. whenever we feel the need to.




Car Insurance

No problem within Europe, as the local insurance covers everything. A challenge on the American continent, as there are hardly any insurance companies willing to insure vehicles with foreign license plates. So far we have only been to the Mercosur countries. Here is an Allianz policy that covers Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. That means crossing the border without any worries (at least as far as car insurance is concerned, see below). further north we will probably have to look for suitable national insurance before every border crossing. Speaking of which, there is actually only liability insurance for foreign license plates. (Yes, there are possibilities, but if the insurance premium is that high....well, everyone has to know for themselves) So any self-inflicted damage must be borne by yourself. But only as a rule of thumb: as a foreigner it's always your fault anyway - so it's best not to cause an accident :-)


Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ 79 Carretera Austral Südamerika
No rush hours and traffic, most potential for damage in South America is still speed bumps

Border Crossings

There are a number of things to consider at every border crossing. And after all, we have already crossed the border 17 times in the first 10 months. What are the entry requirements for us and our car in the new country? Because not only we, but also the vehicle has a so-called temporary import permit. It does not have to be declared during this period. As a rule, the duration corresponds to our personal residence permit. Nevertheless, we have to make sure that the document is properly issued every time we cross a border and that it is closed again when we leave the country. Otherwise, we can subsequently be sentenced to import duty for our vehicle.


In addition, no plant or animal products may be imported at any border. It doesn't sound dramatic at first, but it is, since the fridge is almost always full of fruit and vegetables. And unfortunately, the regulation also affects honey, eggs, nuts and cereals. In other words, we have to empty our muesli mixture completely or throw it away before every border. Of course we don't. We have found quite good hiding spots in the vehicle that have so far gone undetected. In addition, we apply the “sacrificial potato” strategy. That means we declare to customs that we are importing “forbidden” products, to be precise there are still 1-2 potatoes left from yesterday evening. If we don't do that, but something is found, there is a risk of a severe fine (in Chile, for example, the equivalent of around 500 EUR). As a rule, the "sacrificial potatoes" are then removed and the rest is of no interest. In the rarest of cases, our vehicle was searched, and then only half-heartedly. However, we have already heard from numerous travel acquaintances about painful losses at customs. TOI Toi Toi. I also believe that speaking Spanish and being friendly and relaxed helps. Arrogant tourist behavior in English is certainly not effective with customs officials.


Grenze Border Argentinien Chile Villarica Vulcano
Today no waiting lines at the border office

Laundry

Every 3-4 weeks laundry has to be done. This is usually not so easy to organize ad hoc. Because campsites with coin-operated washing machines, as you know them from Europe, you won't find in South America. Of course I could theoretically wash by hand. That might make sense for one or the other part, but certainly not for a 12-kilo sack that we accumulate over the course of a few weeks. Apart from the fact that bed linen etc. simply needs the right water temperature. And of course drying shouldn't be neglected either. There is sometimes enough space, but then the weather has to be right and there has to be enough time. If you just “overnight”, none of this works. That's why I just take my laundry to a professional laundry every 3-4 weeks. There are actually in every larger city and usually with "next-day service". So I have the all-round carefree package. Freshly scented, dried and folded laundry. As far as the cleanliness is concerned, I'm not always 100% satisfied and from time to time underpants, cleaning rags etc. disappear - but that's part of it.


Wäsche trocknen Südamerika
Special kind of laundry, after being surprised by the flood in our kayak by nighttime

Keep in touch with family and friends

The life of those who stayed at home goes on, you yourself are on the road and experience a lot or are busy, as you have already read. We often experience the statement "I didn't call because I don't know where and when I can reach you", which is certainly correct and motivates us to cultivate our friendships as proactively as possible and to use our own time windows including time differences. One cannot legitimately expect anyone to always know whether we have to bridge a 3, 5 or 10 hour time difference. For example, I call my parents, who are retired, almost every Sunday. It works as well as ever - and if it does, then it's because of my internet connection. We arrange telephone appointments with friends in advance, sometimes also in group calls. And often we just use text or voice messages for short updates or votes.


However, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. That is also the reason why we visit Germany at least once a year.


Budget and financial planning

The love of money is of course a short- and long-term issue. The self-imposed monthly budget must be kept in view and liquidity must be maintained accordingly. Controlling is more my profession. We do the budget planning together. Normally we adjust the planning at the end of the year on a rolling basis, if necessary. However, one cannot and must not be quite so strict, because every country has a different price level, and there are also unusual special items, such as a trip to Antarctica, etc. Micha takes care of the long-term planning, especially our investment strategy.


About the van

Logically, our car is not only a vehicle, but also a home and therefore essential for us. That means we take good care of it. We were already very critical when choosing the motorhome and weighed up what we wanted and needed. You can read more about this on our homepage.



During the trip we plan regular maintenance - depending on the type with different intervals. This includes quite banal things like topping up engine oil, but also lubricating joints, changing filters, etc. As far as possible, we do things ourselves. In some countries, however, it simply makes sense in terms of price to have such work done. And that is when we pay the equivalent of €10 for a job that costs us half a day. Of course, for certain things, such as an oil change, a professional has to do it. But it's money well spent - so far we haven't had any serious problems with our vehicle. Knock on wood.



Entertainment on Board

That should not be underestimated, it is not always only sunshine on the weather program. Of course, our e-book readers are always on board, so we have unlimited access to reading material. We often want to watch a movie or a series in the evening. Not all portals offer the download option, so that you are independent of WLAN or data volume. That's why we're very happy to have our Starlink on board.


Photography and Blog

Finally, we come to the obvious subject for you readers. The blog and the photos must of course also be put together. That starts with the experience. Micha almost always has at least one camera at the start. I really admire his sustained enthusiasm and discipline. Combining experience and enjoyment with professional photography is an art and a commitment, e.g. on strenuous multi-day tours, where the backpack weight plays a decisive role and in the evening you might just want to fall into the tent tired. But such a good timelapse of the South American starry sky has its photographic appeal!


And then, of course, comes the processing: selecting photos, editing them, etc. That's all Micha's job. I "only" do the writing part, which means I write our blogs. Nevertheless, each article is published by us together, i.e. the finishing touches are teamwork. Of course, you have to have some leisure for such topics. Something like this doesn't always go hand in hand. Especially not after an 8 hour hike. That's why we plan enough time.


And then there is a lot going on behind the scenes, such as backing up photos (double!), managing memory cards, charging batteries, maintaining equipment, etc.


Pantanal Jaguar Safari Fotografie 600mm Linse
Shooting from a boat

Many, many points can be added to this list in detail, but I don't want to bore you or whine. Because in the end it is our self-chosen lifestyle and we don't want it any other way. We are very aware of what a privilege it is to be able to choose this one. And in the foreground for us are still the numerous adventures, unexpected experiences and magical encounters that make the whole thing so appealing.


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