Building a Campervan in the Middle of Paraguay
When J and I graduated university, we bought one-way tickets to South America, bought a Mitsubishi Delica van in Paraguay and spent 2 months doing a campervan conversion to make our little home.
We had only one screw driver, bought one plank of wood and could barely speak an Spanish. We spent our days dreaming up what we wanted in our camper home and trying to figure out how we could do it. We drove through Paraguay, looking for places where we could work, sawing and building and painting wherever we could.
Growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, I've never been a construction/handy type. In fact, I'm pretty useless at it. During the trip, though, I learnt to do more handiwork than I've done in my whole life combined. In the end, we managed to make a home that we really loved (and, more important, that actually worked haha).
This is the process of how it came to be. :)
The Rooftop Tent
We bought the van with a rooftop tent included. The rooftop tent was super lovely to sleep in, I loved sleeping in a spacious tent with the bonus that you're high above everyone else. Sayoonara looosers down beloww.
One of the best things about our van was that we could choose to sleep inside the van or in the tent. We usually slept inside the van when it was cold or rainy, we were feeling lazy or when we were in the middle of a city so it'd be weird to just whip out the rooftop tent.
And then on hot, summer nights by the beach, we could sleep in the tent...
clearing out the van
The previous owners of the van had built in a lot of storage space in the back, hoarding about fifty million boxes. Around this point in time, I was super into a "Minimalism" phase. I still get a lot of crap about how douchey I was about it - I used to refuse to chip in for gifts because I deemed them "un-useful" and I even refused thoughtful presents from friends, in the name of minimalism. Whilst I still do try to be minimalistic now-a-days, I have attempted to tone down the douchiness haha.
Anyways, the point of the story - the boxes and crap had to go, in the name of Minimalism.
We cleared everything out and started taking the structure down.
We wanted to build a bed into the back so out came the back seats!
You've probably already noticed that I do not feature in a lot of photos doing actual work (haha). It was during the building process that I realised my skillsets were strongly centred on digital activities, looking for joke opportunities and chilling out. I eventually do learn how to do some physical labour though..
Finally, we were left with an open space to build everything we ever hoped and dreamed of. Fortunately for us, the van already came with flooring and padded 'walls'.
building the sofa-bed
Next we go wood shopping! This is a first for me and I am beyond excited. We purchase the best wood we can afford - aka. plywood, the cheapest one there is.
Next, we volunteer on a Paraguayan farm and use our spare time to start building the bed's structure.
We design the bed to be made of 3 parts, so that it can convert into a sofa when needed.
And don't even get me started on the lacquer-ing process. Due to our clueless Spanish, we accidentally bought a strange kind of varnish that turned out to be thicker than honey. Can you imagine trying to paint honey???
NEVER again... never again. I'm smiling in the photo but the only thing keeping me going is empanadas.
As a reward for our hard work, we treat ourselves to some Paraguayan spit-roast chicken, which they take fresh off the spit for you and hand it to you in a plastic bag. Style.
You may recognise the two faces below. One is a face hungry for chicken. The other is the look of someone not impressed to be waiting for their food to be photographed. Which is which?
Look, this is another work station of our's. We set up shop in a nice man's guesthouse, who lets us use his tools and workshop to continue building our van.
Next, we purchase a foam mattress from a "tapiceria" (aka an upholstery store). Here, they sell all different types of foam so you can choose the type you like. We choose a 5cm orthopedic foam. It actually turned out to be a lot thinner and harder than either of us are used to but we got used to it after a while. Amazing what the human body can accomplish.
We also choose some cloth to get tailor-made into a cover for our mattress. All in all, a super cool experience getting to make our own mattress and cover!!
This is the storage beneath the sofa.
The final product!
For the kitchen, we build in a 2-burner stove and drawer, both of which can be 'pulled-out'. This is basically my pride and joy of the entire campervan. Anyone who would give me 10 seconds of time, I would use it to pull out our drawer and stove. "Look," I'd say, "It draws out."
"Wow" I'd whisper, awe-struck.
The 2-burner stove is connected to a 10kg gas tank on the right, which lasts us about 2 months of everyday use (with the gas supplying the stove and our camping fridge).
Then came a few layers of lacquer to help seal the wood.
Electricity - the second battery
We get a second battery installed by a car electrician. It's a 100 amp car battery, which we calculated to be more than enough for us to charge phones, laptops and power our blender for a morning smoothie everyday. The second battery is connected to the starting battery of the car, and thus only gets charged when driving.
Installing a Regular Starting Battery vs Deep Cycle Battery?
It's often recommended to get a deep cycle battery as your second battery. This is because normal starting car batteries are not meant to be continually drained and recharged, thus wearing down the lifespan to about 1-2 years. Deep cycle batteries, on the other hand, have a longer lifespan when used in applications such as this.
However, we made the choice to stick with a regular battery as it was far cheaper and easier to find, and we would only be travelling with the car for 1 year before we sold it on.
How do you ensure that, when using the second battery, you do not accidentally drain the first battery?
We explored two options: either an alternator (more common method) or using a switch between the first and second battery. Our car electrician recommended the switch, which you manually flip on/off in order to break the connection between the two batteries. When the switch is "off", no power can be drawn from your first battery, meaning that you will be fine to start your car with it the next day.
We went with the manual switch option as it was simpler and more fail-safe than the alternator. The previous owners of the van had said they'd had electrical issues when using an alternator. The downside is that you must remember to turn the switch 'on' when you start driving (to recharge the second battery) and then turn it 'off' when you stop and start using the second battery. Hopefully you are better than I am. I only remembered to do it about twice in 8 months. Luckily, Mr. Human remembered the rest of the times.
The second battery connects to an inverter. The inverter converts the 12V energy supplied by the second battery into 240V energy, so that you can plug your phone, laptop, appliances, etc directly into the inverter.
TIP: Because our inverter only had one plug, we plugged a powerboard into it in order to charge multiple things at once. A powerboard is a great thing to have when overlanding!
And finally, check out the slideshow below to see action-shots of us and our Avocado van.