Study Abroad Squared: Hell is Empty, and “El Cheapo” is Here

Having just returned from a week-long trip around New Zealand’s South Island, I felt it was necessary to share my awesome adventures and counsel any future South Island travelers against the beauties and pains of traveling in cheap cars called “El Cheapo.”

After planning out our trip for weeks and selecting a wide variety of campsites, hostels, cruises, hikes and activities to do while in the South Island, we were ready to go. We were most excited about the fact that we had just rented a car called “El Cheapo.” Drawn in by the funny name, the car symbolized the absolute control we would have over our trip for the next week. We were free to go anywhere and do anything, as long as we had our trusty car along with us. 

Boy, were we wrong.

Our first time seeing the famed “El Cheapo” at the Juicy Car Rental locale in Queenstown. 

Upon landing in Queenstown, New Zealand, we were surprised to receive such a nice-looking car. The people at the car rental place told us not to get too excited — “the car has some problems,” they said, “but it should be fine, for the most part.” Not paying any attention to these sinister words, we hopped on the car and embarked on our journey.

I’m happy to say that the first leg of our trip was not too bad. We moved around pretty easily — the only troubles we really had involved finding parking spaces and having to move through very hilly areas (parking a car when the ground underneath you is at a 45° slant is not an easy feat). Queenstown, however, was a great adventure. We hiked the Tiki Trail of Queenstown Hill on the first day and proceeded to explore the different food locales and bars during the night.

The view from the top of the Tiki Trail.

Our second day, we took a Wine and Cheese Boat Tour around Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, which we originally missed because we were unable to find any parking spots nearby and had to reschedule for later that day. As I mentioned before, parking in Queenstown is rough. We ended the night by paying a visit to one of the town’s below-temperature ice bars, where everything — including the chairs, decorations, and cups — was made of ice.

Us girls at the Below Zero Ice Bar — they had to give us special gloves and coats!

That night, however, on our journey to our first campsite of the trip, we discovered one of the many challenges “El Cheapo” presented — it was the car versus dirt roads. It took us about an hour longer than it was supposed to for us to reach the campsite at Moke Lake. The poor car hit so many rocks along the way that we were scared of popping a tire or making a dent. Tired and weary, alas, we made it. It was a beautiful night, full of campfire foods and whispered secrets under the bright stars. 

Relaxing and enjoying the view in our four-person tent.

The next morning, we packed up our tent bright and early, had some simple grub consisting of store-bought croissants with peanut butter (a real delicacy), and joined an all-day guided trip around Milford Sound. For those of you who don’t know, the Fiordlands of the South Island have recently experienced some intense flooding, causing many roads in the area to close and tourists excursions to be cancelled until further notice. Luckily for us, the day we decided to go was also the day they opened up the roads for the first time since the floods. This is how we became one of the first people to go to Milford Sound since its closure! 

The beautiful waterfalls and scenery of Milford Sound.

The journey into our hostel in Glenorchy that night provided some difficulties from “El Cheapo.” It turns out that driving through gravel roads for four hours in the middle of the night is not an ideal driving condition for this particular car. We made it safely, but the morning brought some more complications when, seeing as we had unknowingly parked in some very wet and unlevel terrain, the car got stuck. We ended up having to call over some guys from a wedding party, who were staying at the same hostel, to help us move it. After some tears of frustration and lots of pushing, we got the car out. Needless to say, that morning was unforgettable, for both us and those wedding attendees. 

We were rewarded with a nice, scenic breakfast after pushing the car free.

We proceeded to spend most of the remaining days driving northward, making our way into Wanaka and Lake Tekapo. We even made some beautiful scenic stops on the way, including stopping at an old gold mine track and a nearby hidden waterfall. 

Some of the beautiful views encountered on our trip!

We then stayed at a campsite at the base of Mt. Cook for our last camping spot. The following morning, we even did a sunrise hike (I did not hyperventilate once!) before we, ultimately, drove to Christchurch for the last leg of our trip. 

It’s funny — you would think that the end of the trip would also mean that the end of our troubles with the car were over, right? 


Our view after our sunrise hike in Hooker Valley.

“El Cheapo” decided to give us one last challenge to overcome — a sputtering battery. From the moment we left Glenorchy, turning off the car was a gamble, for whenever we would try and turn the car back on, the chances that it would start immediately, as it was supposed to, were very low. Every time this happened, we would have to wait for a few minutes and try to start the car once more. If the battery sputtered again, we would begin the waiting process anew. This went on, all the way until our last hours in the South Island where, after returning “El Cheapo” to the car rental place, we felt as if an immense weight had been lifted off of our shoulders.

Finally, we were free of the car and its terrors.

We spent the rest of our time in Christchurch looking for murals, all of which are spread around the city.

Car problems aside, the verdict on the trip is that it was a whole lot of fun. No matter where we went or what we ended up doing, all turns provided a seemingly endless array of silly and amusing experiences that me and my gals will probably never forget. 

One piece of advice I would leave for anyone thinking of going on a trip with their pals: if you end up renting a cheap car like “El Cheapo,” keep in mind that driving and maintaining such vehicles is not for the faint of heart.

‘Til the next one!

Valeria M. Garcia, Study Abroad Correspondent

Valeria Garcia is an international student from the Dominican Republic and a junior majoring in Advertising and minoring in English (fun fact: her titles are all Shakespeare references!). She is currently studying abroad in Auckland, New Zealand and will be interning at Loop Recordings, a local record label, for the semester. Valeria is a big culture nut—whether it’s food, music, books, or even language, she enjoys trying and discovering new things. Her current goal is to try not to pass out on her next hike.

Valeria M. Garcia, Study Abroad Correspondent

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