Guess Who’s Back in Town! It’s Me and the Broken Van!
Quick recap! So in the middle of the Salt Flats in Uyuni (Bolivia) 50 km from any road, 80 km from any town, my engine had decided to die. I managed to get my van from the Salt Flats to a mechanic in Uyuni, but this was only where the fun started. The mechanic was weird, unorganized and terrible to communicate with. The town was boiling hot during the day, freezing cold at night, at almost 4000 m above sea level and as dry as a mummy. But after 23 days of work we managed to get the engine back together, into my van and running again. I was as happy as I’ve ever been and wanted to leave the Altiplano and this country as quick as I could. However, surprise, surprise, on the way to the border I noticed my oil was disappearing at a impossibly high rate. Luckily I was paranoid enough to only leave town with enough spare oil because when I came back to Uyuni after only 300 km of driving 7 liters of oil had magically disappeared.
I went straight back to the second mechanic (Walter, the guy who helped me with the air in diesel line at the car wash) to figure out what to do next… Walter thinks that both the valves and the piston rings are leaking. That would be no good and definitely another engine rebuild. I go to town to think about what my options are and use the WiFi. I see that the Dutch Unimog couple from last week is back and I have lunch with them. They also think a rebuild is inevitable and that probably the valves and the piston rings are dead. The big problem will be how to get the parts. I call my dad and he says he had been thinking about visiting me again on the trip. He says that if he comes now, he could actually bring me the parts (if it’s not a whole new engine). I think this is a bit of overkill, so I say thanks, but no thanks. Back at the workshop, Walter suggests to just get the thickest oil we can find, fill up the engine and some spare bottles and just head for the border. Chile should be much easier for finding parts. But that’s 650 km of driving with multiple 4400 m high passes and no noticeable towns along the way. If stuff goes wrong (and it always does) I’d be screwed big time. So probably not the best idea. Walter looks like a much more organized mechanic and is way easier to communicate with. He also lends me a bicycle to go to town and I can sleep in my van at the workshop. Maybe I should just try to get it fixed here. That evening I go to the Llama pizza place to try to figure out how to get parts to Bolivia. I could order stuff in the Netherlands and get it shipped to Bolivia. But I read customs can be a huge problem. Multiple people mention they have had stuff stuck at customs for two months and had to pay loads of money to get their parts through. I talk to a travelling friend who is flying into Bolivia from the US in two days, but it isn’t possible to get the parts to him in time. Through one of the overland Facebook groups I am contacted by a traveler who I had never met and who is in Lima, Peru. Tomorrow he is going to check with the local mechanics there if they have the parts and if there is a way to get them here (I love these overland communities). I talk to friends from Canada, Peru and the Volkswagen club in Chile to see if any of them can get me the parts I need and all tell me it’s basically impossible. (The fact that the Volkswagen Club Chile guys tell me they can’t get the parts, is another good reason not to try to head to Chile). In the end even the American owner of the pizza place comes by and offers me to help through some family who will be flying in to Uyuni in a couple of weeks. So many friendly people that want to help but bureaucratic customs will make most of their offers basically impossible.
The next day it is time for my least favorite part: going to the old mechanic and confront him with the problems. When I get there the guy acts all surprised because everything was fine when I left. When I ask him what he thinks is wrong he doesn’t want to answer the question and asks me what Walter says. Only after a lot of pushing does he admit that maybe the valve seals are bad, but for sure the pistons are good. He blames the parts guy, but he offers to fix it for me. I tell him I don’t want him working on my van again. We agree that I will come back once we have opened the engine and know what the problem is. I also go to the parts guy. He is surprised too and blames the mechanic. Bolivian culture at its best.
Back at Walter we go through the options. I really don’t want to do another engine rebuild, but it seems to be the only option. I really feel bad about getting my dad to fly in with the parts but that does seem to be the only option. So it has been decided. Here we go again. Time to fly in some support and the start of engine rebuild number two.
A New Plan
Step one: get an extension for my van’s import permit. Back to the bureaucracy of the Bolivian customs. The nearest Aduana office is in Potosi, the previous city on my trip. That’s a four hour one way bus ride for a stamp. I arrive around lunch time and I walk to the customs office, but there is nobody around. The offices are open, the computers are on but there are no people… Weird… After a minute a nervous armed guard comes running in to kick me out of the building. Apparently everyone went for lunch but they had forgotten to close the gates. I wait an hour and come back. Getting the permit should be easy but somehow the people are very confused because I came into Bolivia over land, got 30 days for my van and my passport. Extended the passport for another 60 days in La Paz, extended my car for 60 days in Santa Cruz. Flew home within the first 30 days of arriving, came back. Got another 30 days in my passport at the airport, got another 30 days in Uyuni and now wanted 30 more days for my van. But two hours of explaining and writing a letter in Spanish later, everything was fine and I got another 30 days for my van. I just missed the bus back to Uyuni so I had to wait another 1.5 hours for my 4 hour bus ride back. So that’s gone for 14 hours for one stamp, but at least I actually got it.
Step two: try to figure out what parts we need. Walter clearly works way more organised than the previous mechanic and takes pictures of everything. He keeps all the parts sorted in boxes and the floor is made of concrete, not dirt. On the other hand, he does not have any personnel, it’s just him and his wife; multiple times he has to go buy/borrow some pretty basic tools; and he seems to be the only person in Bolivia who does not have a car (and he’s a mechanic!) I guess this is still Bolivia… When we open up the engine one problem is clear right away. We can see the imprints of the valves on the pistons. The parts guy took way too much material from the head and now it doesn’t fit together anymore. Not an easy thing to fix. The valve seals are dead and the piston rings are bad too. The good thing seems to be that the pistons themselves look fine. The only thing we can do with the head is a thicker head gasket or stacking two on top of each other. This is not according to the repair manual but apparently not that uncommon in Bolivia. All this gets me a shopping list for my dad: 10 valves, 10 valve guides and seals, 1 full gasket set, 1 additional head gasket, 1 piston head (to replace the custom made one), 15 piston rings and 1 ring for my still broken 5th gear.
Step three: get the parts. So we know what we need and my dad managed to organize all these parts in the Netherlands. The parts have a delivery time of a couple of days and my dad will arrive here on Sunday, that’s 13 days after I came back to Uyuni. We would need another week to put the engine back together. That would give me and my dad another week and a half to explore Northern Chile together. Sounds like a plan
It’s Not All Bad
Of course you can’t work 24/7 and I had already seen everything in Uyuni. So to not go insane I get to hang out with other travelers. I meet up with the Dutch Unimog couple a few times. For two days a German couple with a Polish friend are at Walter’s as well getting their old, falling apart VW fixed up enough so they can travel for a few more weeks. A Swiss and a American guy show up with their Mitsubishi van. They need some minor fixes but they also want a custom-made roof rack. Not that they have any stuff to store on there but they want to be able to put a hammock up there. I help them with ideas and convince them to have the hammock support come out of the side, way more fun. This turns out to be a lot of work so they almost spend as much time there as I do and we explore the market together, organize BBQs for everyone at the workshop and finish a surprisingly not that terrible 5 dollar bottle of Argentinean whisky.
On Thursday I knew exactly what was the problem so I could go the old mechanic once more. The problems are so big that he must have noticed them before he send me out. I ask him if he really did check the oil level in the end, because I don’t remember him doing that and I can’t imagine the level wasn’t already down after 4 hours of running stationary. He says he did (I don’t believe him). I tell him that we noticed that quite some bolts were missing, he says he checked everything and they were all there when I left (I don’t believe him). Clearly I had been too tired and too excited to leave to really pay attention to the details when I left, that’s one expensive lesson learned. I ask him about the fact that way too much material was removed from the head (something every mechanic should notice right away) He says that he didn’t notice and that if it was true, it was not his fault but the parts guy’s fault. Me telling him that he is the mechanic so he should check if the parts were good and give the final OK seemed a really weird idea to him. He says that he had asked me if the engine sounded and felt OK and I said yes so, he had done all he could. Clearly this was not going anywhere and would just piss me off even more. I wasn’t going to get my money or my time back so I’ll just take my losses here. Around that time my dad confirmed that he had received all the parts. This meant I had a three day gap now. Time for some fun!
Break Time at the Lagunas
Together with the Salt Flats, the Laguna Route is one of the highlights of any trip to southern Bolivia. I wasn’t going to be able to drive there myself and I had three days to spend so I decided to book a tour for the next morning. My group filled two jeeps with eight Ozzies, a French couple, a Swiss guy, two drivers and myself. Our driver didn’t speak any English so I got to claim the front seat to do the translations (and have the best views). The first stop was the train cemetery. I had visited it a couple of weeks ago with some friends and it had been completely empty. Since all tours leave at the exact same time and have the exact same schedule there were now some 50+ cars parked there. Glad I already had the photos. After that it was back to the Salt Flats.It was weird to be back and we didn’t drive very far onto the flats. But we did climb the main island that I had skipped last time. That night we stayed at a salt hotel (the walls were made of salt bricks) just south of the salt flats.
The second day the main part I booked the tour for started. The Lagunas. We drove through the some of the best landscapes of my whole trip. Sandy and salty deserts with volcanoes in the distance. Lakes with the most ridiculous colors that they get from the minerals in the water: dark red, baby blue, dark sky blue, bright green, almost white. And to make it all even better they are filled with bright pink flamingos. Except for that one green lake that got its color from the cyanide in the water. I guess flamingos don’t like that stuff either. Between the lagoons we stop to look at multiple funky rock formations. Some of them shaped like trees, others like faces. It’s cold and windy up here at 4500 m. Some people don’t even want to get out at the cars at the viewpoints but I want to enjoy every single moment of these views and I take my time wandering around, always the last person back, one the minute for our leaving time. On the way I see so many amazing bush camping spots. I could have easily spend a week on this trail with my own vehicle. However, it is also clear that I would have never made it with my van. Not even with a perfect engine. So I’m glad I’m doing this with a tour.
On the last tour day I enjoy some hot springs. The water is very hot and between the steam I can see a lake and the mountains in the distance. The sun is shining and it is not very busy. Amazing. But… the people outside of the pool are wearing thick warm jackets, gloves and hats. We are at 5000 m altitude, it is 6:30 in the morning and only just above zero degrees. Still really good. Luckily my group and drivers are pretty good, so even though there are 50+ cars with 6 people each doing the same tour, we arrive at every stop as first or second car and only one or two other cars arrive before we head to the next stop. These hot springs will be completely crowded in just 30 minutes, but an hour after that they will be empty again all the way until tomorrow morning. Passing some more rock formations we head to the southern most stop of the tour at the border with Chile. Most people in my group get out there and we pick up two new tourists for the way back north. Because their tour got re-booked we get some stops on the way back to Uyuni. Normally it’s just a long drive back but we explore some cool rock climbing gardens that look like some red wonderland. We cut down a fence to get to an enormous canyon that is hidden in the large flat plain. When we’re almost back in Uyuni I get nervous. Did my dad get through customs with all my parts? I keep checking my phone for reception and 10 minutes before we get into town I get a message that he got through without problems in Santa Cruz and that he will fly to Uyuni in a couple of hours. We’re going to be staying at my favorite hostel again and they had organised me a taxi to go pick up my dad. The driver says we got plenty of time when we arrive. The lights at the airport are still switched off. They are switched on 7 minutes before landing only. The lights go on and 7 minutes later the plane lands and a couple minutes more me and my dad are in the taxi back to town. There is no time to catch up yet because even though it is Sunday night, if we drop of the parts now at Walter’s he will still send them to Oruro (4 hours by bus) now to start the alignment. After that it is time to relax. My air-support has arrived. Time for a llama pizza, a beer and some catch up time.
You can’t make this shit up…
The first two days we can’t do much because the parts are still out. So I can show my dad my new hometown and my new family at the hostel. We meet the American and the Swiss guy at Walter’s (who are there again) and a French/Japanese couple who is also getting work done on their van. We want to go visit the train cemetery but we can’t because of a huge sandstorm. On Wednesday we finally start working. Not everything goes perfect so I get a bit nervous again. Later in the evening a big truck needs to use Walter’s workshop to unload for which he gets part of the load: a box of Cornonas to calm me down a bit.
On Thursday the parts come back from Oruro, but we realize that we failed to notice/remember that the first mechanic did a shit job at trying to straighten the piston rod of the broken piston we could have easily gotten a new one from the Netherlands or at least send this one out last Sunday. But now we’re very short on time with my import permit. I can’t extend it anymore and there are plenty of rumors that if you overstay only one day they will impound your car. I find out the piston rod is also used in smaller VW cars that are being sold in Bolivia. Walter calls a parts shop in Potosi and they should have it, if we run to the bus now we should be able to make it there before they close. We run to the bus, spend 4 hours in a bus and arrive at 6 when the shop has just closed. We check some other shops but nobody has the part. Just when we want to give up we see the first shop has reopened. We go back and the guy who told us on the phone he definitely had the part, now says he doesn’t have anything like that. So no part. We need to run back to the bus station to catch our four hour bus back. I am so exhausted… I really do not know what to do anymore… I have plan B’ed twice around the alphabet the last weeks… I’m so close to making it but now there are only four days left for me to leave the country and I have no plan B left… I really can’t do this anymore and I break down completely… So tired…
After a good night of sleep we have a new plan. We can send the part to Oruro after all and it should be back on Sunday morning. Two days of work and we can leave on Tuesday morning and make it out just in time. Friday and Saturday we can’t do much. We hang out with the French/Japanese couple and fix some small stuff on my van that had been bothering me for a long time but I couldn’t fix without Walter’s tools. Also because I can’t let my dad fly all the way to Uyuni and not let him see the Salt flats, we book a sunset tour. Our guide finds a small part of the Salt Flats that still has water on it. The reflections are amazing by day but even better after dark. You can see the Milky Way twice!
On Sunday morning my body decided it has had enough. I’m tired, I’ve got the shits and I can barely walk. We make our way to Walter and while I try to sleep a bit in the van, my dad does an awesome job at trying to communicate with Walter (He doesn’t speak any English, my dad speaks no Spanish). The rod was back, but it wasn’t good yet. It almost fitted, but it didn’t. By flipping it around they managed to get it in. Not great but it will have to do. A boatload of pills, some sleep and the need to continue makes me be OK again after lunch. We reassemble the engine but we can’t continue because of the bolts the first mechanic had lost. It’s Sunday so we can’t but new ones.
On Monday morning we manage to buy the bolts. This means you visit the three shops in town that sell bolts (and nothing else, only bolts and nuts) with an identical bolt as the ones you need. They go through their shelves until they find the same ones. With a lot of hard work we manage to reassemble the engine and mount it back into the van. At the end of the day we get it to start without the cooling connected. It runs so smoothly and there is no smoke. There is only one problem… The diesel pump is leaking fuel like a pissing horse. We can’t get it to stop and it’s getting dark. We really do need to leave tomorrow the latest by noon to make it out on time.
So the plan was to just fill it up with diesel, get an additional can of diesel and go for it. But when we get to Walter he has already disassembled the pump. Not cool. However, this might be my lucky day because when he replaces an O-ring the leak is gone. We mount the cooling but now we notice we are dripping oil… Yes, another oil leak. So we’re not going to make it out of the country before my permit expires. But Walter has another idea. With a letter from the mechanic that says the vehicle can’t move we can get an exception from the traffic police. He says he has done this before. I’m skeptical but it is my only chance. I hurry to the police and there I wait. There is a long queue and not much happens. It is getting later so I get Walter to come for help. When he arrives we can go straight into the office and get the stamp without needing to explain anything. Let’s hope the border people are OK with this. Back at Walter’s we notice that the oil leak is only the dip stick that isn’t fully tightened down. No need to worry. We fix it and we go for a test drive. I head straight out of town so I can get a bit of speed. About 2 km from the workshop, there is a speed bump and after that I can’t change gears anymore. I stop and open the hood. Guess what? The engine and gearbox fell out… Yeah they were actually hanging 20 cm below the mounting brackets… You really can’t make this shit up…. I don’t think I’ll ever leave this town. I run back to the workshop to get help. Our French friend offers his van to help tow/transport tools so we load it up and head back to the van. Turns out one of the mounting screws only got one turn when positioning the engine and was never fixed further. With the use of a couple of jacks we get the engine back into place. Luckily and surprisingly(!) nothing was damaged. I guess we are good to go for tomorrow. Since the other guys are leaving tomorrow too, they have organised a goodbye BBQ at the workshop.
Off we go
On Wednesday morning we are finally ready to leave we say goodbye to Walter and his family, the French/Japanese couple and my new family at the hostel. After the first 100 km drive the oil level is perfect. We check the oil a couple more times (all good) and my dad gets to drive at over 4000 m for the first time in his life at our last 4400 m pass. We arrive at the border at 4 (that’s 200 km in 5 hours). The gate is open and I consider making a run for Chile, but decide to go the official way. The passport guy doesn’t care about my weird stamp collection and lets us through in no time. The customs guy seems very confused about the letter from the police. He needs to talk to his boss which seems to take hours. But in the end they let us through! I’ve made it out of Bolivia! It took me six weeks longer than planned but I’m out! The millimeter we cross into Chile the road changes from the worst gravel road into perfect tarmac. We wouldn’t see any cars the next few hours of driving but the roads were just perfect. The landscapes are beautiful too, with lakes, flamingos and volcanoes everywhere. But we have no time to stop because the first town is another 150 km drive. The last bit of the drive is steep down into a canyon and it is already dark. At the campsite we check the oil and it is exactly the same as this morning. The campsite lady can make us some dinner and gives two glasses wine so full not another drop would fit. We’ve made it! Bolivia: eat my dust!
This story of course needs a big thanks to all the people that helped me not go insane during these 6 weeks of drama. Everyone I’ve met in Uyuni and all the people back home. Thank you so much! And of course the biggest thank you of all thank yous goes to my dad who within a week managed to fly from the Netherlands to Bolivia with all the parts I needed and helped me through the by far hardest part of my trip.
People have asked me how I got through these six weeks of drama llama, without going crazy and giving up. At the time I thought that was a weird question, you just keep going. But now when I reread everything that happened again, I have to say I’m surprised too. That was a lot of shit hitting the fan; drama llamas going crazy and being up shit creek without a paddle. Let’s not ever do that again. Never.