Archive for September, 2012

Best of Peru – Our Version

Posted on September 26, 2012 by 2 Comments

Just a few more weeks until we are back on the road.  In the meantime, we thought we’d go back over some older blog posts and get re-inspired for life in the bus. We actually owe a ‘top ten’ list on Peru to our buddy Phil. After he saved our hides back in March, his only request was to give him some tips on Peru (and beer). Until now, we had only delivered on half the deal.

Peru was definitely a country that surprised us. I’ve said I didn’t know what to expect when we entered – only that we’d be visiting that famous touristy place. Sure, it was incredible – you should go. But make sure you spend a few days in Ollantaytambo along the way. And, Phil – DRINK THE CHICHA!

 

The rest of Peru ain’t too bad either.

I believe Zorritos, just south of the Ecuador border to be one of our all time favorite camping spots. Incredible sunsets, amenities, and a beach spot all to ourselves.

Peru was really the first place we were able to experience the Inca civilization. Terraced mountains, ancient foot trails, and Pre-Colombian human remains next to penguins at Puerto Inka. Pretty cool stuff.

Another highlight was the museum of Sipan. It contains remains from the Moche civilization (A.D. 100–850), including one Lord of Sipan whose tomb was just discovered in the last 25 years and contained more riches than King Tut. It also included a few sacrificed folks, a dog and llama. This became a highlight for us because Bode had been studying ancient civilizations and there was a whole lesson about the discovery of King Tut’s  tomb and how he’d been thought to be the richest Egyptian king. No photos were allowed, but you can read more about the museum and the Lord of Sipan here.

We are partial to relaxed beach towns, and Huanchaco fit the bill. It was cheap, beautiful and had 1st world conveniences nearby. We lingered here much longer than we should have.

Peru had some amazing landscapes- the Andes, desert and the Pacific coastline.  The following list contains, in our opinion, the type of scenery that will leave you speechless. Click on these links for our best attempts to capture them.

Canyon del Pato

Paracas

Colca Canyon and the way back up

 

So, Phil. We know you’ll probably be wandering Patagonia for the next year or so. Surely, you’ve got time to head up the Pacific Coast. Just keep on driving, and maybe we can meet in Venezuela?

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Filed Under: Peru

Sellouts

Posted on September 21, 2012 by 8 Comments

No, we didn’t go to Cuba.

We would love visit someday, but this particular arrangement was for cash.

I wrestled with this decision a bit more than I should have. When I was younger, I was always quick to label my favorite bands as ‘sellouts’ as soon as they became popular, hit the mainstream, or showed up as background music in a commercial. Of course I wished them success, but somehow without ‘selling out to the man.’

Now, of course, I have a finer understanding of economics. And, expenses.

This is not our first dalliance with commercialism. There was the short-lived Google Ads Experiment. We made several hundred bucks in a very short period of time. It was too good to be true.  I still don’t have a definitive understanding of why we were permanently booted. Their policy is to not disclose the reason. We’re still banned. And, the way I see it, they still owe us some money.

A few years back, I took cash to place a link on our vehicle page for a British insurance company. They contacted us, and I figured nobody would see it anyway. A few more hundred bucks in the bank. A month later, I removed it. It’s easy money, really.

Since then, I’ve still been getting solicited. Mostly bad deals, and I’ve ignored them. Besides, we’re not sell outs.

But, we’ve been spending more time thinking about costs. And, 6 expensive months in Brazil. And, maybe a trip to Africa. Europe. Asia. Our plan for funding it is just as poor as our plan for doing it.

Since our donate button hasn’t produced any major windfalls, we’re going to think harder about generating some income through the blog. Maybe that book will actually happen. We might start shooting some video and trying to hock it. We might… uh, any other ideas?

The Cuba Ad just landed in my lap and I took it. I made $140 USD in 5 minutes. So, sorry for selling out to the man. I feel dirty. Since some of our friends actually thought we went to Cuba, I feel even dirtier. I don’t know if we’ll do it again, but we might. At least we hope you will take comfort in the following graphic:

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Filed Under: Texas

The Insurance Post

Posted on September 14, 2012 by 3 Comments

I’ll have to preface this post by saying that I’m no fan of insurance companies. So, if you’re looking for the ‘best travel insurance’, then you aren’t going to find it here.  This is not a ‘how to insure yourself’ post. But, if you want to skimp on the minimum and cheapest way forward, then I’m your guy*.

Cavalier attitude? Maybe. Consider the source before reading on…

 

Travel Insurance:

We don’t have it. Next…

Actually, we did consider it before leaving and just didn’t find anything that justified the expense. For the most part – as I understand it – this insurance aims to get you back home, where you will no longer be covered by travel insurance. I’m sure some company has a policy that’s good for somebody… but we passed.

 

Health Insurance:

From Mexico on down, we have been covered for nothing. This is a risk we have been perfectly willing to take. Over the past 3 years, doctor and hospital costs for our entire family have added up to about $100 USD.  And, in most countries, a pharmacist can sell you most drugs without a prescription, at a fraction of U.S prices.

If you can get some quotes for family medical insurance that covers international travel for under $100 USD for three years, then please get back to us.  Otherwise, we’ll just carry a wallet.

 

Auto Insurance:

We’ve only purchased insurance in countries where it is required by law – i.e. Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia. There might be a few others, and we indicate it in other posts (the Archives section links to the border crossings with info for that country). And, we typically only bought the insurance once we got there (except Mexico, we used www.BajaBound.com before leaving – I think we paid $110 for a 6 month policy.) In Nicaragua, for example, a month-long policy purchased at the border is only about $12 USD.

Regardless of whether or not auto insurance is required in any country – if there is corruption – insurance documents are a common tool the corrupt officials will use to try to get  bribe from you.  If you are a foreigner driving an ‘expensive’ vehicle like an old VW – they may insist you produce insurance documents or pay a big fine. So, keeping an insurance document of some kind is a good idea – even if it’s your old expired one from back home.

When we were in Peru, we met another couple from the U.S. that had been traveling for a few years in a 70’s-era motor home. Obviously, they had big bucks. At one particular border crossing in Argentina, they ran into a scam and were ultimately forced to buy ‘insurance’ right at the border post. They paid good money for the terribly forged document you see in the actual scanned image below (altered to protect their identity).  After they realized the document was so bad it wouldn’t convince any local cop they had actually paid for it, they generated a new fake document based on the original forgery. They gave it to us and told us it was their goal to make this the most popular fake insurance form for overlanders out there.  We’ve since learned that some overlanders call this ‘self-insured.’ We never got around to posting their document… so, fill in your own info and…  here you go.  It works. You’ll just have to trust us.

Of course, we would never suggest that anyone use fake documents. If you are trying to avoid a corrupt official, then proceed at your own risk. Never attempt it when a real accident or injury is involved.

In general, Latin American countries are ‘at fault’ states. If you get in a wreck – it’s your fault. Insurance – even if legit – is not a “get out of jail free” card. There are horror stories out there – of someone’s life’s savings being drained to pay lawyers and families to make the accident ‘go away’ –  but we’ve also found that people just love to tell horror stories. You’re a grown-up: you figure it out.

* This is not advice. Do your own research.

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Filed Under: Argentina, Texas

The Money Post

Posted on September 13, 2012 by 7 Comments

If you’re worried about getting ripped of while traveling internationally, you should be. You will get ripped off. By your bank.

So, here’s a few random pieces of information about how we handle money. The only caveat is that you really shouldn’t be taking financial advice from bums living in a VW bus*.

How do we get money and pay for stuff? The simple answer is… cash. This might change, but we’ve mostly been dealing in cash.Now that we just got a better credit card, this might change.

The Options:

ATMs -they are everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but most places. With a little planning, you can have a pocketful of cash at all times. Most machines in Latin America also dispense US dollars (for some reason) in case that makes you feel any better. Watch out for ridiculous fees (see below).

Credit cards – We rarely use them, and they have rarely been accepted where we’ve travel. For example, in Bolivia, people usually don’t even have change for their smallest printed bill, so handing them a credit card is pretty much out of the question. Aside from that, swiping credit card numbers and ordering 10 new laptops on the internet is still a pretty easy gig – even for novice crooks. We’ve just avoided it entirely.

Cash – we’ve met a few folks who have brought giant wads of cash from home and then hidden it all over. It won’t last forever, but you can often get a pretty good rate in the street with no fees at all (risk counterfeits at your own peril). Note: the legal limit to cross a border in most countries in $10,000 USD cash. Whatever. I prefer to sleep at night.

Our experience:

When traveling abroad, you’ve got to watch out for a few things. One is the ‘foreign transaction fee’. If the word ‘VISA’ is printed on anything you are using, you are pretty much stuck with this and it’s going to be a 1% fee on top of any transaction. Credit or ATM. Why worry about 1%? It adds up. And, there all often all sorts of other  fees related to the vendor, the local bank, your bank, the ATM, etc that ultimately mean you’re getting screwed. It can quickly add up to 5% or more if you’re not careful. If your traveling for a long-weekend, you might be able to shrug it off. Not us.

When we first started, we had a Bank of America account. This bank sucks. It really does, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  For the past decade, we had a friend that worked there and could help us out with any problem we had – waive any fee, etc. Having a personal banker is the way to go – and it was the only reason we stayed there. After she left, we were seemingly tied down to this bank, so we just kept it. Not because we liked it, but because it would be such a pain in the ass to change. This is the key to their entire business plan and fee structures and the reason everyone in the US should jump through all the hoops and switch to a local credit union. But, I digress…

When we left on this trip, we had only this bank account/ATM card and one VISA credit card. That’s it. If you’re not going far, you can actually make this work. In Canada, Mexico, and the Carribean, B of A is affiliated with ScotiaBank and you can use their ATMs with no extra fees. Bingo! Easy-peasy – just drive around looking for only this bank. It can be done. You can access your own money without being charged for it.

But, as we learned when we got to Guatemala, this stops and the fees start. They do have ScotiaBank, but it’s no longer affiliated with B of A. So, we switched to BBVA. We thought BBVA would be a good choice because they have branches in every country (actually, this doesn’t seem to matter at all – we’ve never dealt with staff at a local branch) and because they reimbursed all fees from other banks and “did not charge extra fees for foreign transactions” (except that VISA issued the ATM card and they did still add the 1%  foreign transaction fee). Anyway, this worked well for a while. We had to save the receipts from the ATMs and mail them back to the US every 90 days and then we would get reimbursed for all of the ATM fees that we had to pay on the spot. Kind of a pain in the butt, but they did actually pay us back, so we were content. That is, until Sept 30th 2011, when they changed their policy and decided to stop refunding these fees.

Time to switch again.

So, before we left Chile back for the US in January, we did a little test. We took the B of A card out of storage and tried it in an ATM. Then, we used the BBVA card for the same amount. Result?  BBVA charged us about $6 and BofA charged us $11 for a single ATM transaction. We even called and talked to someone at B of A to make sure we weren’t missing something. Really, 11 bucks?  The answer? Yep – that’s what they charge to put your card in the machine.

Since we were back in the US, we did our research and found that none of the big banks had any better deals. However, the credit unions did. And, as it turned out, so did Fidelity. Not a bank per se, but I did already have an account from a previous employer’s 401k and it was effortless to get a card. Since VISA is on the ATM card, we still get stuck with what appears to be the 1% foreign transaction fee (although it doesn’t explicitly show up on any printed record anywhere). Still, they do automatically refund all other fees from the foreign banks and there are no other fees.

As for credit – we always shied away from using our credit card because of the fees, rareness of acceptance (good luck in a Peruvian town in the Andes), and propensity for fraud. After a little more research, we found that there is a card from Capitol One (MasterCard) with no foreign transaction fees or any other fees as far as we can tell. Hell, it even looks like they will give us 1% cash back for each purchase. We’re still not going to hand it over to just any Jose-Shmoe behind a counter, but we may just start charging things more often if it’s that easy. In Chile and Argentina, MasterCard seems to be accepted in most major businesses.

So, we are currently looking at a possible 1% fee on ATM transactions (VISA’s foreign transaction fee) and zero fees on the credit cards (1% cash back, actually.) Not too bad – it could definitely be worse.

Since we returned to South America the last time, we tested it all thoroughly – it’s legit.  No complaints. Everything is automatic.

So there you go – boring and practical information. But, don’t listen to us – do your own research. Terms change all the time. It looks like there are lot’s of small credit unions and brokerage accounts that waive foreign fees and probably have better service than everyone mentioned above, so we would recommend checking out the other options as well.

*Past performance may not indicate future returns.

 

While we’re at it, I’ll also mention that I’m a fan of Mint.com. Pretty handy – you don’t have to remember 10 passwords, and you can track all your accounts in one place.

 

 

 

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Big wheel keep on turnin’

Posted on September 12, 2012 by 12 Comments

I know we’ve been disappointing some folks with our less-that-thrilling hiatus in the US. We celebrated our 3 year anniversary of traveling by being… home. We turned a 2 month break into a three month break. Not exactly inspiring stuff.

Since we’re not really living up to the dream right now and back on US soil for another month, I’m going to post some things I’ve been thinking about putting up here for a while. Basically, just the things that people ask us over and over. Not that it will be interesting to everyone, but a few folks might find it helpful.

Up first will be info on different aspects of our trip.  Logistics, mainly. Not exactly a how-to series, and definitely not a claim of expertise, but just general info on how we’ve done stuff. Here’s what I can think of now and will post over the next few days.  Please let us know if there’s any other stuff to add to the list.

-finance, international banking

-security stuff

-insurance

-gear (maybe – we’re under-geared by most standards)

-overlanding, camp sites, etc.

-the next 6 months in South America, our best guess

I think the number one question people ask us in person is “what’s the worst thing that’s happened so far?”  We’re always a little hesitant to answer, and I think it’s interesting that people are looking for the most negative thing first (answer: an attempted break-in in Grenada). But, if you really want to know where the dirtiest toilet was… go ahead and leave a comment below and we’ll answer it in an upcoming post.

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Almost Escaped

Posted on September 10, 2012 by 3 Comments

Well, that didn’t take long.

“Can you come to Toronto in two weeks?”  Um, I guess.

This is Friday, mind you.

“Actually, how about California in three weeks?”  Uh, Okay, sure.

“Wait…. maybe Toronto”

Such is life.

We were supposed to fly to Buenos Aires today. We could have all gone, but then I would have to turn around and fly back here solo in a few weeks. We just decided it would be better for all of us to stay here until we can return and hit the road together in earnest. So, we’ve changed our flight* at the last minute and are sticking around a tad longer. I’ve got work… maybe in Canada or maybe in California – I’m still not sure. But, it’s work. Why am I suddenly reminded of the past, when work schedules seemed to dictate the rest of my life?

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.

- Michael Corleone

 

*FYI – changing an international flight on American Airlines has a fee of $200 USD per person, plus the difference of the actual fare. Fortunately for us, the fares are cheaper in October, so no extra fee. Now, we’re outta here the second week in October. We’ll try to think of something interesting to post in the meantime.

 

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How To Lose Blog Readers

Posted on September 5, 2012 by 18 Comments

Step 1: Stop posting anything related to what your blog is about.

Step 2: Then, just stop posting.

Step 3: That’s it. You’ve succeeded!

 

If you’re still out there, thanks for bearing with us while we get our act together.  We’ve been back in the U.S. for two months now, and will return to South America (and blogging) next week.

We had lots of things on our to-do list while back in the U.S. and I think we’ve done most of it. One of the things on the list was rest… that one will have to wait until later.

We did get to spend lots of time with family and friends – that was number one on the list. We went on a big extended family trip to Belize and Mexico. Went to California. I worked – a lot. Angela went to New York. Bode went to summer camp. NASA. Climbed all over a submarine.  Went down a five-story drop water-slide. Finished his 3rd Harry Potter book. Movies, park, museums, etc. We did our normal Texas loop – Houston – Galveston – Austin – Lake Conroe – and back – multiple times, not necessarily in that order. Of course, we ate too much. There was lots more stuff I can’t even remember – and we’re getting used to traveling without a camera. Bode even managed to win a dance contest somewhere in there.

So, that’s our vague summer wrap-up.  The only thing left to do is to stuff all of our worldly possessions into three duffel bags and get on a plane.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…