From sunny San Augustin there are two options to go back across the Andes in the direction of Ecuador. The first option is just follow the road from San Augustin further up the mountains. It’s supposed to be in similar condition as the last crossing I did: not optimal but doable. It goes a bit higher but nothing I can’t drive. There are two reasons I don’t really like this option: one, the road actually heads north while I’m trying to head south; two, as with the last crossing it’s supposed to be quite busy so I won’t have any time to enjoy the views. The other option is to head further south and cross at the Trampolina de la Muerta. A scary name for the most deadly road in Colombia. It’s only single lane, but traffic goes in both directions. It’s 60km long but will take you more than 4 hours. This part doesn’t sound great but that’s where the views come in. The road zigzags along through the cloud forests with waterfalls coming down everywhere. I spoke to two other travelers who have done this road recently and they said it’s as described, but doable and the views are great. Ready for a new adventure I head south. I’ll sleep at the beginning of the route near the town of Mocoa. I find a hostel next to a very full, fast streaming river. It’s sunny, which is a good sign for the state of the road tomorrow.
I wake up with a bit of drizzle. Nothing too bad and I head in the direction of the Trampolina de la Muerte. The road is narrow, steep and gravel. I probably only average some 15 km/h but the views are great. The road is not too busy and you can mostly see other cars coming from far away and make sure you’re at one of the many turnouts to let them pass. You do have to double check the turnouts because some of them are partially collapsed. At large parts of the roads the guard rails are replaced by sticks and police tape. It won’t catch a car but at least it shows you clearly where the cliffs start. Or at least more or less. At some bits the sticks are hanging from the tape in the air above the cliff. There are a few river crossings on the road and all descriptions mention the first one as being the most difficult one. When I get there I stop the car and scout the “river”. It’s more like a waterfall rushing over a bit of road destroyed by a landslide. Big, sharp, uneven rocks in the water. In some spots the water is almost 30cm deep. I go back to my van and check how high that water would come. I think it’s too deep. I think I need to turn around. I’ll quickly eat lunch and look at where I’ll go tonight. The only spot is the same hostel next to the river. So really no hurry to head back. Just when I want to turn around a small car shows up from the other direction and crosses the water without any problems. Well, I wanted adventure, I’ll get adventure. Extremely nervous I go for the crossing. Victory! The next 5 or so river crossings are indeed way easier and most of them actually have concrete to drive over. On the way you can see what rain can do to this area. Huge parts of the roads are cut away by landslides. They’re old ones and quite well cleaned up so easy to pass. After that it’s up to the first pass. From there it’s all easy to the second pass. Until just before the pass a red light comes on indicating alternator failure. I quickly check to see if the belt snapped again but it’s there and spinning but my battery isn’t charging. I guess I’ll have to get to a mechanic before my battery runs out. Last two times the belt snapped I could drive for a long time without a problem. After the second pass the road changes back to paved in a small village. Now it’s only one more 3200m peak to get to the larger town I was planning to stay at that should have a mechanic too. But before I get to the top of that peak the car starts acting up. The engine heats up with the steep hills so I switch on the heating to cool it. The engine cools instantly so I switch the heating off again to save energy. Until I loose power and notice my engine is boiling over. Weird… The engine wasn’t showing too hot at all. I let it cool down, top up coolant and then… Nothing. The van doesn’t start. The battery is dead. With all the mountains I needed the fans and heating which obviously drains the battery way quicker. And when I switch on the heating, the voltage on the battery drops, causing the temperature gauge to fail, dropping the arrow, I switch the heating back off, voltage rises, arrow rises. It all makes sense. Luckily I bought jumper cables recently so I wave down a car to start me. Just before I reach the top I stall again. No alternator means the battery doesn’t charge. The jump might get you started but doesn’t keep you running. I stop a truck to help me start which is now way harder than the first time. We try everything. Even putting my battery in his truck to charge it with his alternator. Eventually we get my van started and I finally make it to the top off the mountain. With the clutch down I coast into town to a gas station. When I coast into their parking lot, everything is failing. No more temperature gauge, fuel gauge and even the digital clock fades away. The moment I’m in the parking spot the engine stops. The fuel station guys send me to a mechanic on the other side of the town. This guy only fixes mechanical problems, nothing electrical. I’ll have to go to the next city, Pasto, for that. Pasto is only half an hour drive away… with a small 3200m high pass in between… So that won’t work. I ask everywhere in town for a battery charger. Nobody has one. I convince the gas station guys to let me plug the van in to the wall power. I know it charges my secondary battery, but maybe it also does the primary one. After about an hour it’s getting dark. It looks like the battery charges but not enough to start. There is a restaurant 5 minute drive away at the Laguna de la Cocha where I planned to camp. They have power and internet. I guess I’ll have to get there. It’s mostly downhill so with one more jump start I should be able to make it. I get started again but I still have no gauges or clock. I’m not sure what else isn’t working so I’m pretty scared I’ll break something. It’s getting darker but I can’t use my headlights, it’s drizzling but I can’t use my wipers. Again I coast into the parking spot once the engine dies. I plug the van into electricity and go to bed and hope for good news tomorrow.
Next morning I try to start. Nothing. The battery did not get charged. Crap. Plan 2: pull the battery and the secondary battery out and charge the primary with the secondary battery charger. My online research says this should work. At around noon I swap the batteries back again and try again. The van starts! It worked! I do want to have a full full battery to get over that last mountain, so I continue charging. I also want a full secondary battery. Even though it’s not great for that battery, I could theoretically use that one to drive on if I really have too. Because all my van problems always happen on Fridays it is now Saturday afternoon. Too late to still get to a mechanic in Pasto. So I guess I’ll stay another day. Not exactly the way I planned to spend my one year on the road celebration. Then the news made everything even more absurd. A huge rainstorm last night (13cm in a few hours), caused a huge flood, basically erasing the town of Mocoa in Southern Colombia. Yes, that Mocoa… the place I stayed at the night before, some 12 hours before it was wiped from the map. In a town of some 36000 people almost 400 are now dead. One of the rivers that flooded was right next to the hostel I camped at. I was parked some 20m from that river behind a closed gate. The only way out was a dirt road upstream along the river. There is no way I would have made it out of there. If I would have stayed somewhere else a day longer or if I actually would have turned around at the first river crossing yesterday I would probably not be able to write this. Pretty scary and definitely making my van problems look like nothing big.
One year on the road day! 12 months ago I arrived in New York with everything I owned on my back (minus a van still on a boat). I had no clue how I was going to get through this trip. I only had a vague route plan, which I wasn’t sure if I would actually drive it or just turn around once I hit Mexico. Now I’m in Colombia! All the way in South America, almost at the equator. Last week I was thinking how in one year on the road nothing big bad had happened. The van had never broken down enough that I couldn’t drive anymore and I’ve felt so much safer in all the countries on my trip than I ever expected. Until two days ago… When I could barely get the van past the mountains and I almost got killed in a monster flood…
So after two full days of battery charging I will attempt to get across the last mountain and into Pasto. Pasto has one of these nice South American car neighborhoods filled with specialized car shops. One only does brakes, one only tires, one only batteries, etc. I even has a few parts stores specialized in European cars. Sounds hopeful. But first the mountain. The road is paved and nice but I still drive with only 15km/h up to keep the engine cool and the heating off. I make it all the way over and finally find a generator fixing guy. His shop looks a bit dodgy but he was recommended to me by the nice looking shops in the street. The guy dives under the van and takes the generator out and starts taking it apart. Back home they would have definitely told me to get a new one. Here they fix it. After some time he tells me he needs two new brushes… which I’m supposed to go buy… A store three blocks further sells generator brushes and of course has the ones I need. Costs: 60 cents for two. Back at the store the guy puts everything back together. And it works! I’m back on the road. The four hours of work cost me some 8 euros. I like mechanics here. It’s still early in the day so I head south towards the Ecuadorian border and my last Colombian stop in Las Lajas. There is a gondola going down to Las Lajas and at the top station you can camp for free (incl toilets and WiFi). There is a French couple who are heading north staying there too. We take the gondola down to Las Lajas. This is definitely the slowest gondola I’ve ever been in but it’s steep downhill and crosses a canyon so I guess it’s better than walking. In Las Lajas is the most absurd unexpected church. It is constructed in/across a steep canyon on a huge bridge. Supposedly Mary made an appearance here making it a good pilgrimage location. Real fun to walk around. Back at the top of the Gondola we’re joined by a Dutch couple (only my third other Dutch car in a year). This very much confuses another Dutch couple coming out of the gondola: an almost empty parking lot with only two Dutch cars and a French car. We’re at now at 2900m so my last night in Colombia is a cold one. But at least I’m still alive and the van is working again.