Our 12 day motor home nightmare

santiago2 nov12 146After just two weeks in Santiago Chile, we were the proud owners of a Ford E350 short base 1994 casa rodantes (aka motor home).  It was a U.S import, cost us $14,900.000 Chilean pesos ($29,000 US), and it was the best motor home (private sale) we had seen in the short time we had been in the country.  It was more than what we wanted to spend for a road trip vehicle but we thought the convenience of our own mobile home and the money saved on accommodation costs would justify the initial outlay. We also hoped it would provide us with a decent re-sale.

We found cheaper motor homes (approx $18,000 US) but these needed obvious TLC (e.g. no generator, no start up, unkempt) which we didn’t have the time or know how to organise in a foreign city. The longer we remained in Santiago the more we spent on city accommodation.  If we chose a newer model, it would cost us $45,000++ US. It was a big outlay for an untested new adventure….

The motor home was clean, had low kms, a great engine and, we didn’t know it at the time, but came with a lovely rotted timber frame…..Unfortunately, we knew a lot about cars, especially 4WDs but not so much about motor homes… Our notion of motor homes cruising the American highway and being sturdy lived in structures did not quite equate with the reality of the one we had purchased and of the roads to be travelled in South America.

Our entire motor home journey lasted 12 painful days. Our honeymoon for only 3 days. Before long we found ourselves back to square one; in Santiago where we started, unable to continue our dream holiday.

Here is our 12 day diary….

santiago2 nov12 079Day 1: We are thrilled to leave Santiago, and begin our road trip adventure. Yippee!!! We love the motor home: its roomy, light and airy…the kids window is huge and they can sit facing each other. Although I love the walk through, I find that I’m too far away in the front seat to  help occupy/talk to kids and from the back seat, my husband feels a bit like a taxi driver…..

We stop and camp that night, but we still need to pay! Everything near the lake is fenced and private property. We also find that the size of the motor home (and this is the short base!!) is not so easy to turn and manoeuvre in tight spaces.  However, I love the big window view from our bedroom and I sit watching the sunset. My eldest son loves his bunk bed… we feel like we are in motor home heaven….

santiago2 nov12 294Day 2: Great sleep, love the kitchen – it has everything we need and more. I like the privacy – we are so self contained. Its a good space to hang out in.. but  the kids seem to  want to stay in more than they want to get out…. We decide meals are to be eaten outside – as picnic tables provided. Inside is already starting to look messy…

We stop in a town to do some grocery shopping although it is not so easy to park (need a double car park space) and we get charged double the parking fee..!!! Even with other motor homes on the road, I begin to feel we stand out like a sore thumb when in town…so obvious… at least we won’t lose the motor home in a car park!!

santiago2 nov12 101Day 3: We arrive in Pichilemu, a great little surf town. We park in a car park overlooking the beach, where else can you get a sea view for free!!  We even meet a couple who are impressed with our motor home..they tell us they would like to buy one…it seems like its becoming a popular way to travel in Chile even amongst the locals. That evening, we discover a flat tyre.. we are in town so a quick drive to a nearby tyre joint for a $10 repair.

My husband pops out and my son needs a poo as I cook dinner – easy problem to solve in a motor home…we can do both and I don’t even have to go anywhere!

Day 4: For some reason, our GPS has stopped working. Wondering whether the 2nd battery is flat (the one that runs everything…lights, water pump, fridge etc). We have no idea how the second battery recharges…. we got a vague answer from the owner… is it automatic or a switch somewhere?!… We cant find anything and we buy a new battery just in case current one is old.

Paved road ends and 30 kms of dirt road follows as we make our way   to Parque Nacional Radal. It’s not even a 4WD track (my 20 year old laser could do better than this!!). I don’t know whether to sit or stand and hold cupboards as the motor home wobbles, rattles and bumps along… my husband slows right down to about 20kms/hr..its the longest, bumpiest 30kms of my life…. We arrive finally, and transfer the kids easily to bed.

Day 5: I wake up, pleased that we are here in the national park, I love the view, but I just don’t want to drive anywhere…. maybe we can camp here for the next 6 months?! Also wondering how we get to the park attraction we are here to see; the siete taza’s, as its more uphill on a dirt road….

I envy the campers in tents across the river…. 1) they don’t have to pay to camp and 2) we could never get to where they are in our monster home, as I’m now calling it… I’m starting to feel restricted by the burden of the motor home rather than free…. Before we can go anywhere, we notice a 2nd flat tyre…. why would anyone design such a top heavy vehicle and not put tyres that can withstand the load?!

We discover that we have no jack, and the jack we borrow from a nearby camper (designed to lift normal sized cars not monster homes) breaks….we give him money to replace the one we have broken and curse ourselves for not ensuring we had one on board…. It takes us the whole day to get the tyre repaired (our spare tyre is not a real spare for the motor home). We kindly have the owner of the nearby mini market drive my husband to someone who can repair the tyre 9 kms away…. I hang out with the kids and de-stress by throwing lots of rocks in the river….love the area but feeling a tad disappointed, wonder whether we will get anywhere at this rate…

Day 6: We brace ourselves and do the extra dirt road drive up to the siete taza’s – that’s what we are here for, and we go as slow and carefully as we can… on our way back we spot a great camp site but we are too big to fit, so we head back to the paid designated parking/camp spot….

Day 7: The fridge stops working and I empty as much as I can and use it all for breakfast, lunch and dinner that day…. I made the mistake of buying far too many cold groceries….its a big fridge..!


a split in the top cab after the dirt road
a split in the top cab after the dirt road

Day 8: We drive back down the dirt road we came, to head out of the national park…when we stop we notice the overhead fibreglass cab coming apart in a small section. We get our 3rd flat tyre…and our 2nd battery (our new one) is completely dead. We park and sleep in a supermarket car park. No one bothers or cares, until the next morning when the security guard comes to tell us to leave by 9am.

Day 9: The fridge and toilet are starting to smell even though we are avoiding using either. The water pump has stopped working too. We stop in the town of Curico, feeling disheartened and depressed… our aim of a road trip through Patagonia is disappearing fast… how can we visit the places we want to go (e.g. national parks, carrera terra austral etc) when our motor home can’t handle the dirt roads. We visit the local registry office and find out that it takes 15 working days for the vehicle to be officially transferred into our name. We are not even sure that we can sell our motor home with a temporary RUT number (Chilean ID number). It takes 3 months to receive the official RUT paperwork – we DON’T want to be stuck with the motor home for that long.

A Dutch business man living in town, stops and asks if we’re okay… we must be looking downright miserable… He gives us a business card for a large motor home dealer in Rancagua, not far from Santiago… we are starting to feel hopeful…

 Day 10: The motor home dealer quotes us $2,700 US to repair the top cab. They can’t work out why the 2nd battery is not recharging…luckily my husband can, once we have some down time to work it out.  He is able to get the battery charging again – one problem solved! The dealer is not interested in purchasing the vehicle from us, even in our desperate…’we will take anything” state…. We stop at a hot springs hotel that night, we can’t bring ourselves to drive on the dirt road to the national park, and ask if we can park at the hotel (where the paved road ends) instead… they are helpful and obliging…

not again!
not again!

 Day 11: We have another flat tyre… I’m starting to lose count and my temper… We are not far from Santiago but decide to stop the night at a COPEC fuel/truck stop.. We join another motor home in the car park… Not really enjoying the scenery now…would much rather be camped by a river somewhere not a car park!….

Day 12: We drive around Santiago centre for 2 hours trying to find somewhere to park our motor home… its too big to fit in a standard car space on the street, and these are far and few in between. We find some paid parking places, but these either have a height limitation or are private spaces…. I hop in and out of the motor home asking around while my husband drives in circles… I even find a restaurant with a great big outdoor car park area – we stop for lunch (because we can!) and I beg  to park the motor home here for a week at a fee…not a chance.

One car park refers me to another, who refers me to another.. it feels like a wild goose chase… we almost give up when a dealer points me around the corner to an outdoor car park to try… its perfect… we just fit through and we park in the back..for $80 US per week. Phew what a relief…

We take what we can carry with us, glad to be out of the motor home but so disappointed to be back in Santiago again.

Selling our motor home

  •  We could sell the motor home with a temporary RUT number but had to wait the 15 working days until it had officially transferred into our name.

We could not find a Car/motor home dealer who would sell our motor home on a consignment basis (which is how vehicle sales normally work in Chile)…partly because it was too old (one motor home dealer didn’t want anything under 2004), partly because car dealers don’t necessarily want to have a motor home sit there taking up space when cars can sell faster and easier, and partly because it had structural issues.

  •  We found a helpful Nissan dealer (who spoke English) who organised someone to come and look at it and give us some helpful advice when everyone else gave us a little more than a head shake no…  carlos verdugo cverdugo@verdugo.cl
  •  Our only option: to advertise privately until it sold. We dropped the price from our purchase price of only a month ago, and dropped it again after a week or so which increased the interest and got us the sale. The first person to come and see it, bought it– negotiating further again based on the condition..


  •  After almost two months, we had sold the motor home at a loss of $8,000 (not a smart financial decision, we could’ve cried….) but with a huge burden lifted off our shoulders… 2 days later, we bought the car we should’ve (a 4WD!) and packed it with our camping gear (simple and easy), and set off once again on the road out of the city hoping to get further than our previous 235 km out of Santiago…but that’s another story…..
too many overnight car park stops...convenient but not pretty
too many overnight car park stops…convenient but not pretty

For more practical information on the process of buying and selling a car see blog: buying a car in a day!

For more information on overland vehicles for family travel, see blog: vehicle options for a travelling family.

 Lessons learnt:

  •  Buy what you know: it is much easier in both the purchase and any maintenance/repair issues on the vehicle
  •  Choose your budget wisely…you could buy a good reliable 4WD for $7,000 US or a cheap motor home for $25,000 US – imagine the number of hotels you could stay in for the price difference!    Like all vehicles, it is not an asset you are buying which will increase in price…but a liability!
  •  Cars move quicker and easier on the marketplace than motor homes… motor homes are an additional luxury for both locals or travellers.   Do you need all the conveniences of home on your travels?
  •  The roads are reasonable (even the dirt ones).  A 4WD will give you more options re: going off track for potential wild camp sites (as long as its not too big!).
  • Balance the pros and cons….see blog on overland vehicles for family travel – consider your budget, period of travel (long or short term), use of your vehicle (will it sit in your garage for 10 months of the year?), location and time of the year (camping not particularly fun during winter in the mountains!  Of course, consider size of your family and your (real) needs.
  • Give yourself more time if you can when purchasing…it is possible to begin looking while out of the country, but to buy a vehicle without seeing it can be a significant risk.
  •  If buying a motor home check out the dealerships  just out of Santiago. Some car dealers may have motor homes in their yard. Check out both private and motor home dealers. We were scarred by our private sale, but not all sellers are the same!  A large motor home dealer based in Rancongua: Importadora ILK S.A: Alejandro Kuntsmann: Ruta 5 sur KM. 99 Requinoa www.rodantes.cl

A US importer in Santiago (RV USA) : www.rvusaimportchile.com: they have newer          motor homes from $45,000+ and also hire, at a substantial cost.

  • If you decide that a motor home is the way to go,  check costs and quality in your home country. It might be easier to BYO…(bring your own than buy in country). We saw lots of different European/French motor homes on our travels which seemed to be better quality and also made to order..
  •  If you cant find anything local in Santiago when it comes to parking your motor home, check out our car park space: Mujica 0133 Nunoa, Santiago: large open car park