While our personal ocean crossing from Panama to Colombia was a bit shaky, our cars made the trip without any evidence of nausea or vomiting. We had to run around the port at Cartagena dancing the document shuffle and playing the xerox game for about 3 days, but this was not unexpected. While border crossings in Central America were slow and tedious, we figured the border between two continents would be a lot worse. Finally, our cars were released from their containers and we are now ready to hit the road. But first, a video tribute to the shipping process:
Today we embark on the only marine portion of our journey down the Pan-American Highway. After spending about 2 weeks in Panama City, we have organized boat trips both for ourselves and our cars to Cartagena, Colombia. The Pan-American Highway is continuous from Alaska to Argentina except for a 30 mile disconnect in the road, the Darien Gap. People have crossed the gap on foot or in highly specialized 4WD vehicles with a bridge-building crew, but currently the border area between Panama and Colombia is both wild, uncharted jungle and home to various paramilitary and terrorist groups. So, for the next 5 days we’ll be playing pirate – sailing the Caribbean, island-hopping through the San Blas Islands for 3 days before hitting the open sea for another 2 to arrive in Cartagena. Our car should arrive by cargo container about 3 days after us. For more info on the whole shipping process, we have detailed information on Drive the Americas.
Somewhere on the drive between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we hit a milestone for our trip. Since leaving our apartment in California, we have now driven 10,000 miles. As the crow flies, only 2,973 miles separates us from our former home in Mill Valley, USA to our temporary home on Playa Negra, Costa Rica, but we’re definitely living a very different life. 7 months and 7 countries later, we’ve camped in apocalyptic downpours, blistering heat, and numbing cold, slept on beaches, mountains, and lakes, and driven across small rivers, over rocky mountainous passes, and through some car-swallowing potholes. Our faithful car has handled washboard roads at ridiculous grades and we’ve been grateful on a number of occasions for the 4WD. So, here it is, our greatest hits video of wacky road conditions:
As I said before, Mexican roads are like a box of chocolates. The same seems to hold true for Central America in general.
We have gotten a couple of requests for videos of the Ecamper from people interested in learning more about it, so here it is (also posted on YouTube) – enjoy.
We have gotten many questions, both on this blog and from people we’ve met in person, about how the Ursa Minor’s ECamper modification works, and how well we like it. We have definitely observed many people staring at our car or driving next to it on the freeway – we assume they’re trying to figure out why our Element looks a little different than other Elements.
I think it’s easy for us to say first off that we love the ECamper. Putting up and taking down the ECamper is extremely easy. The top is strong and lightweight, and while the car does look slightly different, the ECamper is well integrated with the Element. We opted for the white top, as we thought if we matched the camper top to the car (darker blue) it would get too hot in the ECamper. The fabric that makes up the sides of the ECamper (when it’s popped up) is thicker than tent fabric, so it stays much darker than a tent, which makes sleeping all the more comfortable. We heard that some car modifications can change the braking and/or steering of the vehicle. We did not notice any difference in the handling of the Element after getting the ECamper installed, which may be due to the lightweight materials used in its construction. We have not yet slept in the ECamper during a rainstorm, but we did take the car through a carwash, and we did not find any moisture in the ECamper afterwards.
We love the details the ECamper folks thought of:
1. They installed a handle and lock inside the car on the rear door. This seems unimportant until you try sleeping in the car without an interior rear handle (see our previous urban camping post). It is very annoying to crawl to the front doors when you want to get in or out. So we can easily open and shut the door from inside the car.
2. They installed a great LED dome light on the ceiling of the Camper, and there are also individual adjustable LED reading lights for each side, so you don’t have to mess with headlamps/flashlights when you’re up in the ECamper.
3. There is an on/off switch for the LED lights in the ECamper that has been installed in the car itself, so if you think you may have forgotten to turn off the lights, you don’t need to pop the top back up to check.
4. At the foot of the ECamper, and around the sides and above the head section, you have the option of opening screens for ventilation, or you can unzip the sides entirely if you need to hand things up to people in the camper from outside.
We only have a few minor comments in terms of things that could be improved on the current design:
1. There is some slight additional road/wind noise from the sunroof when driving the Element now that we installed the ECamper, mostly when you have a crosswind. The panels do not fit as tightly as the sunroof panel that was there before, and some air does flow through the ECamper into the Element. In some ways this is probably a good thing, as it should keep the ECamper aired out and dry. We did drive our car on a long weekend trip with four people, and we did not have anyone in the back noticeably more cold than the front passengers, so other than some wind noise I don’t think it matters.
2. The sleeping pad isn’t super thick. Definitely more comfortable than nothing, and I’m getting more used to it each time, but it compares to a thin Thermarest. I think it’s a trade-off – to keep the profile of the ECamper as slim as possible, you can’t have a lot of padding. We put a camping mattress on top of the ECamper mattress, and this works pretty well.
3. There aren’t any pockets in the sides of the ECamper (like you would normally find in a tent). It would be nice to have little pockets to keep things like glasses, chapstick, tissues etc more organized. There are cloth rings in the ECamper, so we’re going to hang small organizers from the rings to help with this.
4. It is possible and not too difficult for one person to get up and down from the ECamper while someone else is ‘sleeping,’ but so far I have yet to not wake up when Cornelius has to get down in the middle of the night. However, I don’t know how this could solved, so this isn’t really a complaint, just a comment.
Overall, it’s fantastic and we think we’ve left a lot of jealous people in our wake. If you decide to get yourself an ECamper (which we do recommend) get used to people checking you out when you drive down the road. While the upfront costs of purchasing the ECamper may seem expensive, we figure we only need to sleep in it about 40 times (rather than shelling out for a motel) before it starts paying for itself. 3 nights down, 37 to go.