This Surfer Road Tripped to Nicaragua, Built an $8K Tiny Home, and Decided to Never Leave

Architect Daniel Serrano headed south from Oregon in search of the perfect wave. He found that and more, so he DIY’d his camper into a permanent residence.

"None of this was part of my plan," says architect Dani Serrano of creating a home out of the Pastime Camper he bought for $1,500 in 2019. A passionate surfer and traveler, Dani only knew one thing when he started out on the Pan-American Highway in Oregon: that he was taking four months off from work to drive down the Pacific Coast toward South America in search of the perfect wave. In Aposentillo, Nicaragua, he found a break that fit the bill, a legendary spot known as The Boom. But he also discovered a hospitable climate, a strong community, and a low-cost lifestyle.

Architect Daniel Serrano purchased a camper for $1,500 in Oregon and then hit the road south until he reached Nicaragua.

Architect Daniel Serrano purchased a camper for $1,500 in Oregon and then hit the road south until he reached Nicaragua.

"I was also intrigued by the potential that my architecture could have in a remote place like this," he adds. Wasting no time, he promptly bought a half acre covered with fruit trees, fixed the detached camper on it, and began designing beachfront homes and resort properties for clients in the area.

Four months on the road in his camper made Dani a devotee of essentials-only living, and temperate Nicaragua made it easy to keep that up. But with occasional wet weather, he decided to experiment by building a traditional palm palapa as a shelter for the camper. "I really wanted to build a roof similar to a classic hut," he says. "And I needed a temporary roof to keep the camper dry during the rainy season."

A passionate surfer and traveler from Spain’s Basque country, Dani’s interest in tropical architecture started with semesters in Guatemala and Puerto Rico, and grew into a fascination during a post-grad apprenticeship in Bali.

A passionate surfer and traveler from Spain’s Basque country, Dani’s interest in tropical architecture started with semesters in Guatemala and Puerto Rico, and grew into a fascination during a post-grad apprenticeship in Bali.

Dani never imagined sticking around for long—"at first my plan was just to enjoy life in this place and use the caravan as a refuge," he says—but with plenty of interesting architectural projects, ample waves, and a simple, outdoor-oriented lifestyle, he decided Nicaragua would make a pretty good outpost when he wasn’t back home in San Sebastian, Spain. The camper was going to need some upgrades.

In line with his less-is-more mentality, Dani knew he wanted his new setup to be compact, as sustainable as possible, and inexpensive to operate. To meet those ends he relied on locally-sourced materials, like teak wood provided by friends in the area, and metal joints made by a local welder. "I bought the rest of the materials from a hardware store in the closest city, Chinandega," he explains. "Everything is very basic."

In Nicaragua, May through October is the rainy season. "October is usually the wettest month," says Dani, "and sometimes there are hurricanes." He hasn’t had to face one yet.

In Nicaragua, May through October is the rainy season. "October is usually the wettest month," says Dani, "and sometimes there are hurricanes." He hasn’t had to face one yet.

At just 240 square feet, the home requires careful organization and tidiness.

At just 240 square feet, the home requires careful organization and tidiness.

Dani poured concrete to help stabilize the camper.

Dani poured concrete to help stabilize the camper.

Using tools equally as simple—a radial arm saw and a drill—Dani and his friend, Tiemo Riediger, a carpenter, put the camper on stilts, turned it into a dedicated bedroom, and built an open-air wooden frame around it to add living space, a kitchen, and a bathroom. To stabilize the camper, they secured the stilts in a small concrete slab base, and then bolted the camper onto the stilts. The camper slots perfectly into place in the structure, just as it did on Dani’s truck.

At the opposite end of the structure, Dani built the bath using smooth teak paired with modern white appliances and black fittings for a spa-like feel that contrasts with the camper’s rustic functionality. A slightly pitched, corrugated steel roof tops the wooden frame, providing protection from rain without sealing the home off from fresh air and light. With no immediate neighbors, privacy wasn’t a concern, and Dani opted for a central dining/living area that could be fully opened to the garden.

The space under the camper is used for storing Dani’s most prized possessions: his surfboards.

The space under the camper is used for storing Dani’s most prized possessions: his surfboards.

The camper, which now serves as Dani’s bedroom, has room enough for two beds.

The camper, which now serves as Dani’s bedroom, has room enough for two beds.

 Dani built the bathroom using teak slats that give it the feel of a sauna.

Dani built the bathroom using teak slats that give it the feel of a sauna.

The structure’s simple construction is laid bare with the vanity: wood frame holds up the vessel sink and provides a place to store towels below.

The structure’s simple construction is laid bare with the vanity: wood frame holds up the vessel sink and provides a place to store towels below.

This Surfer Road Tripped to Nicaragua, Built an $8K Tiny Home, and Decided to Never Leave - Photo 10 of 27 -
Dani can’t see any of his neighbors from the property. "You definitely feel surrounded by nature," he says. The natural greenery includes lemongrass, aloe vera, mango trees, cashew trees, and avocado trees.

Dani can’t see any of his neighbors from the property. "You definitely feel surrounded by nature," he says. The natural greenery includes lemongrass, aloe vera, mango trees, cashew trees, and avocado trees.

For the front of the living space, Dani and Tiemo constructed a teak and fabric partition that slides along a track. For window coverings at the rear, he used simple wood panels that operate with ropes and pulleys. "They’re easy to operate and make you feel as if you’re living on a sailboat, with the wind often dictating whether to crank them open or closed," he says. "If the weather is good, there is no problem in leaving it open day and night." When closed up after dark, the house is lit with hanging paper lanterns; from the outside, it appears to glow like a lantern itself. 

Dani is especially pleased by how smoothly the sliding door and pulleys for the windows work. "It was an experiment and it turned out very well," he says. To keep the teak floor sand-free, he forbids anyone from entering the home with flip-flops or shoes on.

Dani is especially pleased by how smoothly the sliding door and pulleys for the windows work. "It was an experiment and it turned out very well," he says. To keep the teak floor sand-free, he forbids anyone from entering the home with flip-flops or shoes on.

Paper lantern light fixtures and spot lighting at the entrance make the home glow at night.

Paper lantern light fixtures and spot lighting at the entrance make the home glow at night.

To establish a boundary for his property and enhance the sense of privacy and place, Dani built a primitive but striking fence at its entrance. He used thin, rustic teak rods arranged vertically along horizontal planks. "It allows silhouettes to be intuited," he explains, "but you can’t see through it clearly." The fence, however modest, adds a decorative touch to the utilitarian appearance of the camper’s structure.

"I prioritized simplicity, functionality, and respect for the environment," says Dani.

"I prioritized simplicity, functionality, and respect for the environment," says Dani.

This Surfer Road Tripped to Nicaragua, Built an $8K Tiny Home, and Decided to Never Leave - Photo 15 of 27 -
The structure is built predominantly with teak, which is easy to source since it’s grown commercially in Nicaragua.

The structure is built predominantly with teak, which is easy to source since it’s grown commercially in Nicaragua.

"I learned a lot from the locals," says Dani. "Wood cuts were made by a neighboring carpenter, and another neighbor fabricated the metal joist hangers."

"I learned a lot from the locals," says Dani. "Wood cuts were made by a neighboring carpenter, and another neighbor fabricated the metal joist hangers."

Dani built a small storage shed on the edge of his property to house his building supplies and tools.

Dani built a small storage shed on the edge of his property to house his building supplies and tools.

Relying on local materials and doing the construction himself kept project costs to a minimum. Dani estimates he spent about $8,000 all in, including the camper, tools, purchasing and transporting materials, building a small storage unit to house the tools, and cookware for the kitchen. Part of its beauty is that, similar to the camper’s spirit, the structure is designed to be impermanent; it can be easily disassembled, moved, set up elsewhere, or recycled. "I definitely think the simple construction is one of the main characteristics of this project," says Dani. 

Not only were the construction costs low, the project has been slowly paying for itself. When Dani’s on the road or back in Spain, he rents his home out on Airbnb. And for the six months each year he spends in Nicaragua, Dani uses his home as an "office" where he works and meets with clients. Of course, he finds plenty of time to do the things that kept him around in the first place. "I read books in the hammock on the terrace, do sunrise yoga, and eat well," he says. "And score epic waves."

A table in the living area serves as a place to eat and as a desk for work.

A table in the living area serves as a place to eat and as a desk for work.

Wood panels at the rear of the home serve as window coverings and operate with pulleys.

Wood panels at the rear of the home serve as window coverings and operate with pulleys.

An outdoor shower was provides a place to rinse off after a dip or surf in the ocean.

An outdoor shower was provides a place to rinse off after a dip or surf in the ocean.

Dani says the avocado trees are the best part of the property—"perfect for when you want to have a good breakfast after surfing."

Dani says the avocado trees are the best part of the property—"perfect for when you want to have a good breakfast after surfing."

Friends gather for a fireside sing-along on Dani’s property.

Friends gather for a fireside sing-along on Dani’s property.

A palm palapa covered a patio area before Dani built the teak structure around the camper.

A palm palapa covered a patio area before Dani built the teak structure around the camper.

Camper House Floor Plan

Camper House Floor Plan

Camper House

Camper House

The Storage Shed

The Storage Shed

c
Caitlin Wheeler
Dwell Contributor
Caitlin Wheeler was a lawyer in Silicon Valley and is now a writer in Durham, NC. She's written about lawyers with zany careers, the North Carolina wine industry, and global architectural design.

Stay up to Date on the Latest in Tiny Homes

Discover small spaces filled with big ideas—from clever storage solutions to shape-shifting rooms.