Go to college, get a job, save money, quit that job, go travel… for modern-day adventure seekers, it’s the new life plan.
Ernesto and Taisa met in Venezuela, finished up school, and built successful careers; but everyday life felt lacking. So the couple decided to load up their 4WD and spend four years overlanding the Americas. The places they discovered and the people they met changed them forever.
“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”
This is a story about breaking free.
Ernesto was born and raised where off-roading was a way of life. “The 4×4 culture in Venezuela, it’s huge. I would say you can compare it with Australia and Malaysia.”
The son of environmentalists, his parents would often load up the 60 Series Land Cruiser and head off to explore one of Venezuela’s 43 national parks with the kids in tow. A 4WD was both a means to capitalize on the natural beauty of their homeland, and a necessity for the primitive roads that delivered them to remote trailheads.
“My Dad’s first Land Cruiser was a 55 Series, an Iron Pig. We have pictures of me as a little kid standing in the back. My upbringing made it feel very natural to be outdoors. We attended summer camps, went hiking, all that. I was a boy scout, too. So, kinda geeky,” he laughs.
Ernesto’s family wasn’t unique in their 4WD pursuits. A Toyota assembly plant was located in Cumana, Venezuela and it – combined with cheap gas prices – made Cruisers a practical and affordable choice.
His first time behind the wheel? Well, here’s some foreshadowing for the sake of a well-rounded story.
“My first experience behind the wheel of a 4×4 wasn’t really that great. But it was fun. I stole my Dad’s 60 Series Land Cruiser, went mudding and… I crashed it.”
Ernesto admits there isn’t an incredible story about the crash, “It’s embarrassing… I just pumped the brakes and slid into another car, but I made up a story that someone hit me from behind. I had to come clean years later.”
This wouldn’t be the last act of stealing away for Ernesto, but his focus next shifted to school, then building his career. And of course, yes, Taisa too.
Meanwhile, in the Garden State, another set of parents bestowed a love for the outdoors upon their children.
Taisa shares, “I also went to a lot of summer camps. I was a Ukrainian Girl Scout and we went to all kinds of camps, like canoe and backpacking camp. My family would go to upstate New York in the summers and stay at a cabin in the Catskills; we did lots of hiking and canoeing so I definitely feel most at home outside.”
From early on, exploration served as a way of life for Taisa. She would build from her experience in the Catskills to hike the Appalachian Trail after college; and so many paths in-between. Then there was travel.
“I studied geography in college because I love maps and understanding the intersect between people and place. I always knew that I wanted to see the world.”
Her first exposure to off-roading wasn’t until moving to Washington state, as a way to access remote trailheads with Ernesto.
“He’s the one who introduced me. I’d been to plenty of beautiful places on rough roads, but they never required technical driving. I probably did have the perception of off-roading that it entailed driving really fast, and that it was more of a guy thing. But what I discovered is that it’s really community based.”
Theirs is a classic origin story: “We met at a bar.”
Mérida is a lively mountain town and home to Universidad de Los Andes where Taisa was studying abroad and Ernesto was studying English ahead of a move to Seattle. On this night, Ernesto’s mission was to lift the spirits of his friend who’d been through a rough breakup. His friend caught the eye of Taisa’s friend, and while they may have started the night as secondary characters, Ernesto and Taisa hit it off right from the start. They enjoyed a few weeks together leading up to Ernesto’s departure and kept in touch long-distance… 20-some years later they are an extraordinario equipo.
At 24, Ernesto moved to America to study UX design. He drove an Aerostar minivan while in school, then graduated to a Volkswagen Golf.
“It was the cheapest thing I could buy,” he grins, “In Seattle, we were driving a GTI for a while and loved it because it was really fast. I didn’t have a 4×4 for many years after leaving Venezuela. It wasn’t until Taisa and I started planning the big trip.”
“When Ernesto first pitched the idea of this trip, I was like, yes. Great! Awesome! I also want to travel the world, specifically South America. It was just a matter of how. The idea of a really long road trip initially sounded terrible to me,” she laughs. “I had never done an extended trip like that before, only by plane, train or bus. But I decided to start researching and quickly realized how possible it was – and that we can hike all along the way and really see whatever we want.”
“We’d been slowly planning for years,” Ernesto tells. “We thought about a Vanagon but the reliability wasn’t there. So, I went back to my roots and started looking at Toyotas. At the time a 4Runner was the most affordable option for the reliability we trusted.”
“I actually didn’t ever own a vehicle before the 4Runner,” Taisa adds. “So Sooty was our first home together. We had a great rooftop tent and it worked for all four years of travelling. We definitely got attached.”
The Sooty Shearwater is a seabird that migrates 40,000 miles per year. It’s grey much like the couple’s 4Runner that shares the name. If home is where you park it, four years of freedom by 4×4 is quite the house-warming present.
This lifestyle was niche before #vanlife took it by storm. The number of van and RV dwellers rose 38% in the three years leading up to 2020. Now, with the pandemic’s influx of remote workplaces, even more people are finding homes on four wheels.
Ernesto and Taisa both wanted to travel. But the idea to circumnavigate South America by 4×4 originated from Ernesto’s early life experiences. It still felt a little intimidating – four walls to four wheels. A conversation in the breakroom would pull the dream into fruition.
“I was talking to a co-worker from Chile,” Ernesto remembers, “she told me that when she was a kid, her family traversed South America in a Volkswagen Beetle. At first I didn’t even believe her – two adults and a few kids across the continent? No way! But the more stories she shared, the more I understood the possibilities.”
The couple dove into research and discovered so many kinds of people making the trek in so many different ways. A few first-generation digital nomads they interacted with became friends: @DesktoGlory , @LostWorldLacey , @LostWorldLuis and @LifeRemotely.
“These guys became an inspiration for us. We started communicating with them, and they were really happy to help. We actually got to meet most of them after their trips when we were about to take off. To us, they are the O.G.s”
Empowered by their findings and new friends, they built out Sooty and then faced the biggest decision of their lives.
Ernesto shares, “I left Venezuela so I could come here and go to school. I spent a lot of money doing that and then… what? I’m just going to quit it all? Like ‘Hey Dad, we’re moving into our car!’ For how long? What are we gonna come back to?”
“Honestly, the most difficult part of going on a trip like this isn’t having the money or time, or even building the vehicle – that’s all important – but the hardest part is making that decision. Actually doing it after years of planning, actually quitting your job and driving away from family and everything you own. It’s hard.”
On Taisa’s end the hardest part was leaving family. “My nieces were little and I am really close with them. When it was time to actually leave that day, I had never felt such a pain in my heart before. It was palpable. I pushed through, and I knew that I had their support to realize our dreams.”
Spoiler alert. It was all worth it. There was an adjustment period, sure. Ernesto and Taisa learned to slow down a little, and take time out for themselves. Not being rushed is a huge benefit to vehicle-based adventure travel. It keeps costs low. When it rains, you simply stay another day. If another route is calling, you make a turn.
Each new state, each new country, each latitude and longitude brought breathtaking things to discover. The places that made them nervous to pass through, ended up being fine. The people they met were incredibly gracious. Their fellow travelers were incredibly inspiring; they even caravanned a bit with a group of fellow 4×4 dwellers.
As Taisa summarizes, “The thing that I most looked forward to was the simple joy of exploring new places. I was really excited to get to know the people and places on a much deeper level just simply because we had the time to do so. And we did. And it was awesome.”
They spent four years traveling, but all it took was four seconds for Ernesto, Taisa, and Sooty to find themselves in real trouble.
“The story starts with me needing a snack and peeling a tangerine,” Taisa explains, “We’d just had the most incredible, incredible day of hiking in Brazil’s Aparados da Serra National Park.”
Ernesto was driving, “I was inputting coordinates on the phone and veered off the road. We slammed into a really deep ditch. It happened so fast.”
“Sometimes you find yourself in a recovery situation that you anticipate. You’re working with friends and using their vehicle to help, you think ‘this is going to be a story to tell’, take a few pictures… this was not one of those times. The vehicle was leaning against a mound of mud and the right wheels were up in the air.”
The pair was on their own on this day, heading to a rendezvous in a tiny mountain village. They’d chosen a road less traveled to get there, and a muddy winding mountain road at that. Now, at dusk, without anything to winch from, they were relying on traction boards and grit.
“I was trying to get us free by working the 4Runner back-and-forth, but that was damaging the side of the car and making these terrible noises. Eventually, I just floored it.”
Their rear air locker did its job and one wheel caught traction – lifting the other three up in the air momentarily before slamming the maxed-out payload back onto the road.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” Taisa says, “I didn’t know a vehicle could go under that much opposing force.”
“We were lucky to get out of there, but I immediately felt that something was wrong with the suspension,” Ernesto remembers. “The rear of the vehicle was swaying.”
The adventurers limped into town through the dark and rain in their damage rig. It was a speed bump that broke the camel’s back.
“It was like an explosion or something – so loud. I could see with my flashlight that the coil spring had broken in two and was stacked. We’d pushed the boundaries of that vehicle even before the accident with thousands of miles and crazy roads so this was the breaking point.”
ARB was Ernesto’s first call. Not only did he need to replace a warrantied part in a hurry, he needed to get it to remote Brazil.
“The guy who answered the phone was like ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you all sorted out.’”
With the help of ARB offices in Seattle and Jacksonville, and ARB’s Latin America dealer Tecmin, the spring shipped out next-day. It was the local 4×4 community however who supported the final leg to deliver the coil spring needed to get Sooty back on the road, even offering the duo a place to stay while their four-wheel home was in the shop.
“Back in Venezuela, ARB is synonymous with off-roading. Everyone outfits their vehicles and the main brand will be ARB – bumpers, suspension, you see it everywhere. There’s a reason for that.”
Taisa adds, “ARB helped us finish the last leg of our trip, which was really the sweetest, and got us home safely. We are forever grateful to have had that support, especially in that particular time.”
The trip changed them forever, no doubt. Their maiden voyage into the broader world of the 4×4 community made it clear that overlanding can be so much more than a weekend hobby.
For Ernesto: “To me, overlanding is the true definition of freedom. Being in control of our daily lives, deciding where we are going to go, what we are going to do. You really get in touch with yourself when you are traveling for an extended period of time. Overlanding presents you with different situations and teaches you how fortunate you are and really grounds you. It cancels out all that noise. We’re so lucky, so fortunate, to live where we do.”
For Taisa: “Overlanding has changed my life in that I know my most valuable resource is time. I know that I don’t need many things, except to keep exploring this beautiful world.”
Tancho was the name Ernesto and Taisa chose for their current 4WD ride, a Troopy, FJ45 Land Cruiser. The iconic red-crowned crane is the national symbol in Japan, said to bring longevity and happiness.
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