Nikki Levi and Jakob Celnik quit their well-paying corporate jobs, bought a minivan, and, together with their dog, drove 38,000 miles across the Americas, which took them 16 months.Levi worked at Citigroup in New York as a high-yield credit-research analyst for four years before moving to Apple, and Celnik worked at the Blackstone Group for about three years before he moved to Soros Fund Management. In their interview with Business Insider Levi admitted that they were terrified while leaving their jobs. “But in hindsight, we shouldn’t have been … We cannot buy time, so we try to enjoy the time we do have doing the things we love, with the people and animals we love,” she said. Let’s take a look at what their incredible adventure was like.
They bought a used 2008 Dodge Sprinter 2500 high-roof van, with a 144-inch wheelbase, and with about 90,000 miles on the clock.
It was completely empty when they bought it. With little carpentry, mechanics, or construction experience, it was a process of trial and error to figure out what exactly to build and how to build it. They figured out a budget and tried to learn as much as they could by reading guides like the Sprinter forum and the Sprinter conversion sourcebook.
The bed frame was one of the first things they built.
First, they needed to figure out the layout of the floor plan for their van build. They chose a Sprinter with a 144-inch wheelbase and high roof because its length allowed for parking in regular parking spots, while its roof was high enough for both to stand up — even Celnik at 6 feet 2 inches.
Then they worked on the storage units.
Since the space inside the van was so small, everything had to be precisely measured.
They managed to fit storage cabinets close to the bed for clothes, books, and toiletries and deeper cabinets at the end of the bed.
There are no straight lines in the van, except for the bed platform itself, and all four walls are shaped differently. They had to get creative.
Then there was the kitchen.
They wanted to build a kitchen that could store enough fresh goods and nonperishables to last a few days, and one that was comfortable and convenient to use.
The couple have actually come out with a cookbook of their favorite recipes that reflect "van life cooking" — requiring only a two-burner stove, limited ingredients that are widely available, and cooking time of 30 minutes or less.
Their dog, Leika, loved the adventure.
"Wherever we travel, Leika always has her bed with her. When we first started the trip, she wasn't so sure about the driving, but after a week, the van became her home and she seemed to enjoy jumping out of the van to new smells and playmates every day."
The bed was their cozy cave.
They installed cedar paneling around the bed, which Levi said was inspired by sailboats. The mattress is 4-inch memory foam, and they comfortably fit two mountain bikes, other outdoor gear, and tools underneath.
"It is the most comfortable bed we've ever had," said Levi. "We often turned down offers to stay in people's homes in favor of sleeping in our van."
The first night on the Pacific Ocean was a big milestone.
This is a view from their first night camping on the Pacific Ocean, just north of Squamish, British Columbia, Canada.
They explored Banff and Jasper in Alberta, Canada.
"We tend to avoid places that are overrun by people and tour buses. And this lake is one of them. But, we realized that it doesn't matter if you're not the only person there. What really matters is that you have a chance to create a memory each place you go, your own, unique memory. The mountains, lakes, trails just held endless beauty, and at time were crowded."
Then they headed to Mexico.
"I just remember sitting there, drinking Tecate, taking in the tranquility," said Levi. "People told us it was too dangerous to drive through Mexico — it turned out to be one of our favorite countries."
This photo was taken somewhere between Colombia and Ecuador.
Having a dog often encouraged them to stop the van, stretch their legs, and take in the view. Here, they are parked on top of a mudslide that had gone down the week before on a remote road between Colombia and Ecuador.
They camped on the Salar de Uyuni, in Bolivia.
Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat, stretching for 4,500 square miles at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet.
"At times, you can't see any reference points, so you don't quite know what direction you're going," said Levi.
They camped at an altitude of over 14,000 feet at the end of the road on Illiniza Sur, in Ecuador.
They had to hike the remaining 3,000 feet by foot the next morning.
"On our way up, we ran into a guy pushing his mountain bike, with skis and ice axes on his back. He was going to climb the more technical Illiniza Norte peak, ski down the snow field, and mountain bike down the rest. That meeting was humbling for us."
It's wise to be slow and steady on these roads.
Sometimes it took them a full day just to cover 200 miles. Curvy roads, one lane, and a plunging cliff made for pretty terrifying driving conditions that required a great deal of concentration.
The open road in Argentina.
"With nice paved roads in Argentina, it was easy to travel at speed," said Levi. "But we'd need to remember to slow down and enjoy the scenery."
Here the Andes are pictured up ahead.
They went camping in northern Argentina.
They often just pulled off on a dirt road to find a camp spot for the night.
"As the trip went on, we became more comfortable camping in the middle of nowhere or asking permission from a farmer or local police if we could camp on their property or in the town square," said Levi.
This is Laguna 69 in Peru.
They hiked the Laguna 69 in Peru in the Cordillera Blanca.
"We camped at a lodge just outside the park and the owner warned us not to eat the fried bread from the kiosk at the park. We pull up and the first thing I do is get the fried bread and eat it quickly, all without thinking. Jakob comes up to me and says, 'That's exactly what Charlie told you not to eat. If you get sick, you deserve it.' I was thankful I didn't get sick and that I made it to see this lake."
And this is Torres del Paine National Park.
They spent five days hiking through this park, in Chile's Patagonia region.
"We took this photo driving away from the park. There's something humbling about knowing that you spent a few days wandering among these mountains," said Levi.
They headed to northern Bolivia.
Levi and Celnik spent a few days camping in this valley. The town, Sorata, is situated in a steep valley surrounded by 20,000-foot mountains.
They parked their van next to a farmer's home as they explored the mountains behind this lake by foot.
They would often stop and ask local farmers for a good place to camp, and they were always well received. Some locals went so far as to offer them the chance to buy a baby alpaca. They cost only $100, in case you were wondering.
A little snow never stopped anybody.
Here they drive through the Southwest Circuit in the Bolivian Altiplano, where the Andes are at their widest.
"The ranger told us the park was closed due to an abnormal snowstorm hitting the park and no cars were permitted to enter," said Levi. "After some begging and pleading, he let us pass and we had the park to ourselves for a few days."
Here they are camping at an elevation of 14,000 feet.
"Evenings were the best. We'd have a chance to process everything we'd seen and done during the day," said Levi. "Camping at 14,000 feet elevation started to become normal to us. Clear nights often meant it would be colder, but the stars were well worth it."
This is the Southwest Circuit in Bolivia, at about 14,000 feet.
"People told us we were crazy to drive a two-wheel-drive car, but often you'd see a local in a 1988 Honda Civic going up the same roads that we were told impossible without a 4x4. And when in doubt, help never seemed too far even in the most remote locations."
The Argentina-Chile border.
Reaching the Argentina-Chile border was bittersweet.
"After hundreds of miles of dirt roads and remote deserts, you feel like you're entering a different world — shopping malls included," said Levi. "We drove towards Chile and spent a few days in the Atacama Desert watching the red sunsets."
Enjoying the view in Huancavelica, Peru.
Peru was one of their favorite places to visit in terms of the diversity in the landscape and people. They spent a few days in Huancavelica exploring the town and camped in the middle of the city in a parking lot.
They camped on a beach outside of La Paz in Baja California Sur, Mexico.
Twelve hours after this picture was taken, Hurricane Odile hit the Baja Peninsula and caused major destruction. It was the largest hurricane to ever hit the Baja.
"Locals weren't originally too concerned about the hurricane, and said not to be too alarmed by the hurricane warnings. We didn't think too much of it and set up camp near the beach. In the evening the wind had picked up significantly and rocked our van, and when we checked the news we realized the hurricane changed course and was heading straight for us."
They urgently packed up and drove to the next city to seek shelter.
"After a sleepless night, we discovered flooded streets, broken windows and collapsed buildings," said Levi. "Things slowly came back to life as supplies came in."
They drove to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Most people take the train or hike up well-formed trails to see this historic, Incan World Heritage Site. They decided to drive, through mountains, lakes, and stunning scenery without the crowds.
Reflections in the salt flats.
Parts of the Salar de Uyuni are flooded depending on the season. Sometimes it's impossible to tell the sky from the ground.
The only van in a row of motorcycles.
When the couple was in Panama, they needed to figure out a way to get on a ferry that wasn't technically allowed to carry the van at the time. Panama and Colombia have no road connection, so they needed to ship the van between the countries.
"We played to each other's strengths — Jakob did all the organization and mapped out all the places we needed to stop by to get approvals, while I used my Spanish and my shameless ability to beg people to convince them to help us. It certainly didn't hurt that it was the night before Christmas, but incredibly we ended up with the only car on a 500-car ferry. It ended up saving us a boatload of money."
The ferry actually had to turn perpendicular to the dock just to let the Sprinter on.
Levi and Celnik had been dating only nine months before deciding to share the small space of a van for 16 months.
"Being in a van was like a pressure cooker on our relationship," said Levi. "Traveling for 16 months together was not always easy, but you're in it together and have to solve every problem together — that can be good, and it can be difficult."
After reaching Argentina and returning back, the couple decided to get married. They now live in Seattle, where they are setting up their own business — an Amazon sale platform for brands — and are planning their next adventure on the road.