Steamboat couple takes a 28,000-mile road trip to Patagonia in a 1987 VW van
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Talk about a doozie of a road trip.
What else would you call a van voyage spanning 21 months, 28,000 miles and 16 countries (to the tip of South America, to be exact)?
That’s what locals Matt and Sarah Smith returned from last summer, taking their 1987 VW Syncro named Koru from Steamboat Springs to the tip of Patagonia.
“It was the adventure of a lifetime,” said Matt, who chronicled the trip along with Sarah on their blog kruisinkoru.com. “We gave up our jobs and most of our belongings, living minimally day to day in the van.”
Driving through Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, the point-it-south duo loaded Koru with surfboards, bikes, climbing equipment, camping gear and more, leaving Steamboat in August 2016 and returning in summer 2018.
They first drove south, climbing 14ers near Salida, before touring Carlsbad National Park, visiting Austin, Texas, and entering Mexico. From there, they hit the Yucatan, stashing Koru in Cancun while taking a quick flight to Cuba. Back in Mexico, they crossed the Sierra Madre Mountains to Mexico’s Pacific coast, stumbling into a Reggae festival in Puerto Escondido and surfing the famed Mexican Pipeline at Zicatela.
They then surfed their way through Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. To bypass the roadless, 90-mile Darien Gap, they took a five-day sailing trip through the San Blas Islands while shipping their beloved Koru to Cartagena, Colombia.
Reunited with their trusty ride, they then climbed, surfed, backpacked and backfired their way through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Finally, they wound their way through the Andes into Argentina, Chile and Patagonia.
While safety was always a concern, their only trouble occurred in Guadalajara, when thieves broke into Koru and stole a duffel bag containing Matt’s computer as well as a propane BBQ and other items. Afterward, they devised a security system, running a cable between the inside handles of all the van’s doors.
“The van was kind of like having a 6,000-pound baby along that you’re always worried about,” Matt said. “You’re always wondering, ‘Is he sick? He’s a little noisy today. Is he going to be safe over there for a while?’ It’s hard maintaining a relaxed, care-free attitude unless you know your home is safe.”
And it wasn’t all glassy surf sessions, epic sunsets and Coronas, he said.
“Sixty shared square feet can be tight,” he said, adding that messes can be created in milliseconds. “Living the ‘van life’ with a partner brings everything front and center whether you like it or not. There’s nowhere to hideout.”
Dampness came with the cramped quarters.
“There’s also no way to keep things dry or mold-free,” Matt said, adding that while the van didn’t have AC, it did have “the hardest working fan you’ve ever met.”
The main takeaway from the journey, Sarah said, is the beauty of the planet’s places and people.
“Everywhere we visited, the people were kind, helpful and friendly,” she said. “The trip was about adventure and seeing new places, but we found so much more. We made new friends, laughed and shared with people of all cultures and walks of life.”
As for breakdowns, the only real one came at the trip’s end as they were readying to ship Koru back to the states from Santiago, Chile.
“We literally had the engine blow up five hours from port in Chile on our way home,” Matt said. “We had it towed and then pushed it onto the container to ship it back to the U.S.”
When the van arrived in Oregon, Matt and the previous owner replaced the engine to ready it for its next life. They sold it to an Argentine couple, and Koru is heading south once again.
Inside the ride
The duo made the journey in a 1987 VW T3 Syncro, the AWD version of the Vanagon.
“It had great clearance and a short wheelbase,” said Matt, adding that the rear wheels had a diff-lock and they added some recovery gear “to help on the back roads of Latin America.”
The heavy lifting on the build was done by previous owner Karl Mullendore, of Westy Ventures, who gave it a 1.9L mTDI — m for mechanical, meaning no computers — engine from a 1998 VW Jetta.
“It was reliable with all the clutter of a computerized engine removed,” Matt said. “And we added an instrument gauge cluster to help diagnose any problems.”
They painted it with monstaliner truck-bed liner to prevent rusting and had Dave Harrison of Vanagonlife modify the window and add a custom center console.
They also upgraded the wheels and added a Trailmaster HD suspension kit for off-road capability and had master mechanic Jonathan Rall, of Bend, Oregon, add a custom front bumper. Dual spares resided on the rear bumper.
Inside were two sleeping options: upstairs with the top popped or downstairs on the folded out bench. For cooking came a small kitchenette with electric fridge/freezer, sink, single propane stove and drawer space.
A 15-gallon water tank pumped through a carbon filter and UV light to purify, while a D2 Espar heater pulled diesel directly from the fuel tank. The electronics were powered by two deep-cycle lifeline batteries with a power inverter.
For toys, two bicycles stored on the rear bumper, surfboards rode up top, and a Thule box stored camping and climbing gear. Two Pelican boxes carried tools and spare parts with a steel box bolted underneath to house rarely used spare parts.
Overall, they estimated the van to weigh more than 6,000 pounds.
Editor’s note: Matt and Sarah are now happily back in Steamboat, where Matt works as an analyst at ACZ Labs and Sarah at Steamboat Central Reservations.
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