Traveling small in Spain: Why every young family should try camper life

Earlier this year, we ditched our umbrellas and dark Dutch days for 10 days of Spanish sun. Taking along our two young children, we shared less than 14 square meters of space for these days.

I know what you are thinking: Are you crazy?

Some people would probably say yes, but then they probably don’t know that years ago, my partner and I shared an even smaller space for two years. That’s right, five years ago, we ditched our full-time campervan adventure for cribs and diapers and although we missed the nomad lifestyle, our lives were too busy to look back. But when brainstorming ideas for a trip, we jumped at the chance to pile our family of four into a rented camper.

This camper was bigger than our previous one. It was our hotel and rental car, all rolled into one. The less than 14 square meters included a driving area, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and all of our beds. Yet as anyone knows who has ever lived small, it was enough room.

Our spot overlooking the sea. (All photos by Lane Henry)

Traveling back to a place pre-kids, pre-Pandemic and pre-homeownership

After a quick flight from the Netherlands and a late-night check-in at the camper rental office, we put the camper in drive and headed to a spot we knew along the sea. Waking up in the morning outside of Málaga, the sea air hit my nose and I was transported back to years before in the same place.

The nostalgia was comforting.

Pre-kids, pre-pandemic, pre-home-ownership.

It was a simpler time and I hoped to recreate that with our kids. We spent the next 10 days hopping between Málaga and Tarifa, logging 600 kilometers for the entire trip. It was a relaxed pace although still much faster than pre-kids when we had nothing but time.

Our days were filled with light sightseeing, walking and relaxing in plazas. We scoped out new playgrounds each day. We ate lunches out, making the most of the cheaper Spanish prices, fresh seafood and restaurants’ menú del día (three-course daily menus for 12-15 euros).

Our evenings were spent in the camper, prepping dinner in the tiny kitchen and doing activities at the dining table.

That first day, we had a lazy morning, strolling along the Playa El Dedo and the other beaches east of Málaga. We ran in the sand, enjoyed coffee and stopped at the playgrounds scattered along the beach. We ate our lunch at the lively beachfront El Tintero Restaurant, where there was no menu. Waiters just bring trays laden with seafood dishes around to the tables and you stick up your hand if you want one.

Monkeys in Gibraltar

Day trips

One day, we ditched our camper and took a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar for a day trip to Tangier, Morocco. Our kids got to step foot in Africa and get lost in the maze of the Medina (the old inner city). It was an assault on our senses – and sometimes patience – but in a good way.

We enjoyed a chill day exploring Tarifa (and of course, its playgrounds). We sampled the lightly-grilled local red tuna and enjoyed views of both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

We moved north to Gibraltar where we showed our passports again and walked across its functioning runway, entering the busy streets and towering buildings. We were immediately transported into an English vibe.

We became the ultimate tourists when we paid for a van tour of the Rock and the monkeys that live there, but our kids adored the monkeys that live overlooking the sea and urban jungle.

Like all trips, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Heavy rains forced us indoors one afternoon, so we found an uber-modern shopping mall in Marbella. Another gray morning was spent in Málaga’s Museo de la Imaginación, a museum filled with illusions and photo ops for kids. And yes, we still dealt with toddler tantrums and cranky children just like our days at home.

The trail leading to Competa

Ending on a high

We ended the trip on a high, staying at a friendly camper parking in the foothills just inland from the sea. We walked on a tiny trail from one town to the next. It was an easy hike with children – easy since we were prepared for our children’s hiking style – which is none.

We carried one on our shoulders and the other in a backpack carrier.

The hike ended at Competa and we walked in not knowing anything about the town. After striking up conversations with multiple expats, we found that the town is a tiny oasis for internationals. With the great climate, stunning mountains, view of the sea and easy access to the airport, we saw the appeal.

All good trips must come to an end and ours was over too soon.

We found that life in a camper is not exactly as chill as pre-kids, but very close. We liked that we could explore different towns without always repacking our suitcases. Our children slept in the same bed every night and had plenty of storage for their toys and the treasures they collected.

Living in such a small space forced us to live partly outdoors and enjoy nature more often.

There’s a saying that says “Vacation is just parenting in another location,” but in the camper, I found myself more relaxed than usual. There was no morning rush to get the kids to school. Naptime was usually optional, especially if we were on the go. And if the kids wanted to wear the same clothes multiple days in a row, we didn’t care.

For us, a camper doesn’t make us choose between staying put and exploring. It’s the best of both worlds. We aren’t ready to buy a camper and ditch our settled life, but it’s tempting.

Maybe one day though.


Read more about Spain here in Dispatches’ archives.

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Lane Henry is an accidental long-term expat. She is an American who came to the Netherlands for two years—or so she thought. She has now lived in the Netherlands and explored Europe for over a decade.

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