Breaking down along the PanAmerican Highway and the endless VW life

Inside the mechanics of a three years road trip along the American continent

To be honest we did not have the minimum idea where we were into when we started the trip. With a new rebuilt engine we thought it was all resolved. These are evidences on how naive we were. We thought we could cross the whole continent without breakdowns. 

The worst part of breaking down was that our house is our vehicle. And the best part was that our vehicle is our home. How many times we were stranded in a hidden paradise or by the side of the road, made a coffee and stayed for the night? We found home in the hopeless places. 

That trip was like a marriage we could not scape from. Not just because every time we entered a country a temporary import paper was issued but because love was tested breakdown after breakdown in crappy situations between idyllic locations. We were a series of defeats and small victories in unknown countries with unknown friends and we were as amazed as any other on how strong we came out of it.  

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The word overheat was powerful. We avoided to speak it out loud but when did we became aware of the power than a machine has over our destiny.

The first time was in the Lost Coast up and down the hills of Northern California. It was not summer yet. Our first year in the van. 

We were visiting our friends Leah and Peter in Redway, the heart of the redwood forest. The Avenue of the Giants was the road that connected town with their cottage up in the woods. The forest was like no other we had seen before, the individual trees were a full interconnected being, thick, dark, and silent at times. Among the tallest trees on Earth we slept, ate, laugh and listen. Strong and wise, we could hear them whispering each other in a foreign language. It was difficult to leave that small piece of fairy tale.

We turned left onto the coast and deeper in the Emerald Triangle.

The day was crystal blue without a cloud in the sky. The road was one of our favourites: perfect gravel. We were mesmerised by the up and down of the hills with LazerHawn on the speakers. Green spirits were high.  There were no populated centre, only private properties, farms and land, nothing else. We arrived to Honeydew to only find out that there were only two buildings and a small grocery store. We continued left, aiming to get to Shelter Cove in a couple of days. We had not hurry at all. Just wandered into the wild of the conservation area. We crossed some traffic occasionally. 

We stopped at one of those oficial campsite where there were not facilites and you have to self-register by putting payment on a envelop in a box. Very confidence approach we thought. We had a light lunch and for some reason we decided not to stay. The road was getting sharper and steeper. At some point we heart a noise, we looked at each other and then outside by the window, there was a light smoke on the  back or maybe just the gravel dust, difficult to tell. We both looked at temperature gauge. The arrow was at the lowest level. How long have we been driving since the campsite? We could not say. Had the engine not got into temperature yet? There were not references of distance or time. We were not sure. Everything around was thick vegetation.The road was too narrow to stop so we had to continue until we found a pull out.

First thing we checked was the water level. There was none. No one drop. We checked one by one all the hoses and there it was, just the one under the radiator. There was a silent of realisation followed by inquisitive stares, big deep breaths and head scratches. 

Next was the testing. Refill the system with water and start the engine but first it was very important to cool down the block and by no means avoid extreme changes in temperature so there was no other than wait for at least two hours. An eternity after ten minutes. Tension grew up. There was nothing to do. We sat and got up, walked ten meters to the left and ten to the right, kicked some stones and looked up at the sky wondering why, how. It was a warm day. We made coffee and waved to several pick-ups that passed by. A white Silverado 250 stopped to see if we needed help. 

“Oh, dude” said the driver after hearing the word overheat. His tiny white red eyes opened slightly, we could see from his gestures that he was trying to find the words to comfort us. 

“Sorry” he muttered. 

“Thanks” we said and smiled.

After two hours we used our drinking water to refill the system. At this point we had already diagramed the sequence. So when the water started to bubble up like a volcano, retighten the head was the emergency procedure to follow. We ruled a 80 percentage of probability. Torque was set at fourteen. Again tension grew up screw after screw, ten in total. The only sounds was the torque wrench “click click, click click”. 

It was not instant joy. We did not  know how long the fix could work. Might take us for a few miles or might as it did until the feet of Arenal volcano in Costa Rica. 

We were grateful for every single mile. 

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While on the road our minds were full of rules: never drive at night and be aware where to park cause we never know what could happened next. 

It was the day before New Year’s Eve when we arrived to Peña Bernal. The town was full with families in peregrination to the peak. We parked at an improvised parking lot in a local family’s backyard that charged 15 pesos (1 usd) for the day. Only a couple of spaces left and not much shade. 

“Wait” said Otto as we were heading out and kneeled to look under the engine. 

His face said everything. 

The engine was almost on the floor because the mount was broke in two. The reason why we were having issues with the second gear lately. 

We followed the crows until we submitted the peak. When back we agreed with the family to stay the night for another 15 pesos, and the next day, and the following day, with our engine hanging from a tree, until the only welder in town came back for work. 

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Loosing fluids on our way to Humantay Lake at 4200 m.a.s.l. in the Peruvian Andes. We could not determinate the cause until a couple of days later when water medals where replaced. 

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We were parked on the side of the PanAmerican road in Panama. There was the busiest  container traffic we had ever seen. We could feel the sucking power of these monsters trucks when passing at speed. It was difficult to sleep at night. 

Beside us and the road, it was Otero, the tire repair shop owner who offer us electricity, access to shower and the most kind help an stranger could have ever given us.

We were there for five days until we could not stand it anymore. In search for some quiet time to re-evaluate the crappy situation we were in, packed few belongings and headed to the mountains. We left the van behind for the first time in 2 years. 

We took a chicken bus ride to El Valle de Anton, located in a volcano crater up in the Central Sierra. Green, quiet and refreshing. We asked around for accommodation and ended up in La Casa de Juan Hostel. As soon as we arrived the rainy season came upon us. Rented a private room and opened one dollar beer. Next step, figure out where to get a new and complete cylinder head for a VW 1.6 turbo diesel because in Panama there was none. What a coincidence that the owner of the hostel, Perseo, was a Volkswagen fan. What were the odds!. 

After talking to Culo Racing, a raw mechanic in San Jose, we ruled out Costa Rica. Our strategy was looking first at the closest countries. And after much research our only options remained Usa and Uruguay. We needed a completely assembled head with regulated valves. After some international calls we got in contact with a colleague in Uruguay. He could buy the part for us and assemble it for a cost of 800 usd. We were left with the logistics of the importation. 

The international calls we made were uncountable. We spoke to severals shipping agencies and customs in both countries. The head was ready and we agreed with an agent with representation in both countries. Day after day, excuse after excuse, the transporter was always on the way but they never picked it up. Out of the blue, our dear friend Uriel showed up. He picked the part up and went strait to the airport, checked it in with Copa Airlines and seven hours later we were in Panama city, did some more paperwork, paid customs and walked out with the head in a box. 

The rain gave up for three days. Enough for Otto to rebuilt the engine and put us back in the road. 

We spent a month in La Casa de Juan. Between calls we had a good time, did some hikes, made new friends and enjoyed despide our spirits were low.

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All the maintenance were recorded in a logbook. Seventeen oil changes plus eleven to the diesel filter. Air filter was funny because it was customised and was out of the standard by four centimetres. We had to craft it every time. 

Shopping auto parts became a compelling task since names differed depending of the region. We usually showed the part which we dissembled in the parking lot. 

The amount of tools and screws we carried was outrageous, nothing was spared and it could said we were prepared.

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We were not able to decide whether or not to drive the northern Andes of Peru. The rainy season had just finished and was difficult to get to know the road conditions. By other travellers we knew there were massive landslides weeks before but no updates on whether or not were cleaned up. The only thing we knew for sure is that we needed a new clutch. Not immediately but at soon as possible. 

We entered Peru with the hope that VWs were a thing over there. The next big city was Piura. Dust and heat were our only two companions while going across all of the auto parts shops in town. It was 3 p.m. and we could not handle it more. Peruvian’s coast line and low lands were an arid and barren terrain with high temperatures, no trees for shade and quite doggy we thought. 

We continued searching for the clutch in every city along our route until we got to Chachapollas. It was a refreshing city, not just the temperature also the modern but yet colonial vibes. We were in the Andes again.

There were not many places where to stay the night so we asked permission at the gas station to stay for the night. Next morning we spent two hours at the local auto parts where the boys were calling every distributor in Lima to see if we could get the part sent. Again, another country with no volkswagen diesels. 

Back at the gas station, we asked permission “to do some mechanics in the lot”. Dismounted the transmission, took out the clutch and went to a local who crafted two new pads. 

We lived for three days at the gas station. 

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At the end we were left triumphant with no suspension issue, neither of transmission, the diesel pump was in perfect shape, just one bearing change, no a single tow. And yes, we got to the far tip of South America eventually.

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