So here I am, waking up at the mechanic’s shop after my engine blew up in the middle of the salt flats. Latin American workshops are never a pretty sight and this one is no exception. The place is so full of cars that I can barely get out of the van. There is no roof, everything is outside and not covered against rain, winds and dust. There is no floor, it’s just compressed sand, littered with old and new parts and soaked with engine oil and gasoline. I did some research last night and everything seems to point towards a blown head gasket. Not great, but very much fixable. I think about changing to another mechanic in town that might be slightly less crazy. However, when I meet the mechanic again in the morning, he is completely different to yesterday: friendly and patient with explaining stuff to me, making drawings for the parts I do not know the Spanish names for. He also concluded that it is the head gasket, he says we can get one custom made here and he can fix it all for 400 euros in a few days. He’s clearly working on rebuilding engines all day so I guess I might as well let him fix it.
Quite quickly after starting the work we get the first hint the problems might be bigger. We cannot turn the crankshaft at all. That can’t be good… When we finally manage to take the cylinder head of the engine, we see the troublemaker: one of the pistons is completely deformed and stuck in its cylinder. Well that sucks… Bolivia is infamous for it being impossible to get spare parts locally and customs is supposed to be a huge pain for getting parts from abroad. Once again, I’m sure this will be the end of my trip and the mechanic seems to agree with me. He has one last idea. We can go ask the local mechanical workshop to see if they could restore my parts and adjust parts from other cars to make a working set. The chances are small but it’s worth a shot. We load the parts into the mechanics car and go ask the parts guy. The guy says it should be no issue and can restore the damaged cylinder head and cylinder, adjust a piston of another engine, custom make a head gasket and source new valves, piston rings and some other small parts. He would need about a week. The mechanic would need another 3 days. Total cost: 1000 euro, that’s way less than the 2500 Euro I had planned for an engine rebuild in the Netherlands before selling the van (to fix my ridiculous oil consumption). Now I’ll just have to look for a place to stay. The mechanic’s workshop is noisy, cold and the toilet is very dirty. Also with the shop being such a mess, the best chance of not losing any parts of my engine is by storing them in my van. Time to go hunt for a hostel.
Before I can continue the story I’ll have introduce everyone to my new hometown of Uyuni. It is a small town located in the remote southern highlands of Bolivia. How small you ask? Some 10.000 people call Uyuni home. A large part of these people work for the tourists. There are some 200(!) tour companies that organize tours to the salt flats and the lagunas. (Literally the only things to do within a few hundred kilometers.) How remote you wonder? Well the next city of any size is Potosi which is a 3.5 hour drive away. In the other direction, Uyuni is the last stop in Bolivia before entering Chile. But the border is still 3.5 hours away and Calama, the first city in Chile is another 2.5 hours after that. And about that highland portion: we are at 3700m above sea level here. Europe and North America don’t even have any settlements at these altitudes. It is located in a flat desert, the air is extremely dry and it doesn’t rain for months. This time of year temperature differences between day and night easily span 30 to 40 degrees. The wind is harsh and the sun is strong. After half an hour sitting in the central “park” (some benches underneath dead trees), I notice I got a sunburn, and I never get a sunburn. I look up the UV rating and it seems to be consistently at 16. Normal UV scales go to 11 and call everything above that 11+. This is what Wikipedia says about that: “A UV Index reading of 11 or more means extreme risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure. Take all precautions because unprotected skin and eyes can burn in minutes.” Also it tells you to avoid any sun exposure between 10:00 and 16:00. It’s weird because of the wind and the relatively low temperatures, you don’t really notice how strong the sun is until it’s too late. The air is dry and the wind strong so my lips dry out and the skin breaks in no time.
The town itself does not have much to see. The desert climate makes everything gray and brown. The salt flats are still an hour drive away and the lagunas even more, so most tourists only stay here for one night to catch their multi day tour the next day. It is a weird place to be stuck. Everyone I talk to who has been in Uyuni before, tell me that they were so happy to leave Uyuni after one day because they were so done with it. Maybe it’s the Stockholm syndrome but after being stuck in this town for a while, I kind of started to like it. It’s an easy place to know your way around and know where everything is located. Market is every Thursday and Sunday. Most people working at the restaurants I visited started to recognize me after a few days and ask me how my car was doing. After a few days in town I noticed I had this song stuck in my head that I didn’t know. The days after that I would keep hearing this song somewhere in the distance, it didn’t matter where I was in town: out at the mechanic, in my room at the hostel or walking to the restaurants in the center. I thought I was going crazy until after about a week when I found out it was the song the gas bottle truck was playing announcing its arrival. Like everywhere in South America, cooking, heating buildings and water is done with gas bottles. This truck drives around all day zigzagging through town playing its song. This makes people run out with their empty bottles swapping them for full ones.
Even when Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries of South America, staying at a hostel and obviously the mechanic costs do add up. So for food I had to try to save some money. The hostel didn’t have a kitchen so I had to go out for food. For lunch this mostly meant this little restaurant a bit away from the main tourist drag. It was a pretty good combo of relatively cheap food (the four course fixed lunch menu of a salad, soup, meat with rice/potatoes and a desert was only 4 euros) and at the same time they had really good WiFi so I could try to figure out how an engine works. The lady was really nice and after a few days she asked why I spend so much time in Uyuni. After I explained my problems she would ask me how it’s going every day. I did not have to order my food anymore, I just sat down and the food came right away. She also didn’t mind me sitting there for a couple of hours, even it was really busy she kept telling me not to worry about keeping a spot occupied. Cheap dinner options were either burger and fries form some street vendors for only 50 cents (that is for both the burger and the fries) or to the local snack place called Chicken Pollo for some fried chicken. (This place was so cold that everyone was wearing a jacket, gloves and a hat inside the restaurant). On splurge days – when I had met friends, needed to celebrate something or desperately needed some comfort food – I would go to the touristy but really good pizza place (Spicy LLama is the best!) or a this a la carte restaurant which looked insanely expensive but actually was the same as all other tourist spots, just with way better food (Llama steak!).
The Hostel and Friends
Since I couldn’t sleep in my van (my engine was in there). I had to find a hostel. After a quick search I found a nice place halfway between the mechanic and the center of town. I found the place because a Dutch family had stayed there for a few weeks while they were waiting for their car to be fixed. Their reviews said it was the best cheap place they could find in town. The place is run by a really nice local couple: Wilma and Johnny. The bottom floor was used to serve breakfast in the morning and was basically their living room during the rest of the day where the kids would watch Youtube videos on the way too large TV.
I stayed in what is technically a shared room with two beds, but they never put anybody in the other bed. The walls are thin so it gets pretty cold at night. There are at least four blankets on every bed. The showers of course are of the suicide type which means I can get hot water, but not a lot of it. The whole building is heated by terrace heaters and open flame camping stoves that are in all the hallways. I’m surprised the cats never caught fire.
One of the nicest things about the place was the breakfast. It was enormous and somehow over the time I spend at the hostel my breakfast kept getting bigger, while the other guests kept getting the same. For extra atmosphere during breakfast the TV was playing some good music. It was the same playlist every day with loads of Boney M, Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dione, and artists like that. I thought they played it for the tourists but they started playing it louder when nobody was around.
Over the days I spend there, I sort of became part of the family. The kids greeted me cheerfully whenever I entered; I helped Johnny fix broken terrace heaters and I translated for Wilma. She speaks Spanish and Quechua, but most tourists don’t. So it was great practice for my Spanish to translate Salar tour information, bus times and how breakfast worked to heaps of guests. When I got back in the evening from dinner, they always made me some coca leaf tea. We would talk about the troubles with my van but also about back home. How come I speak four languages? I told her that when I was a kid and we would go on holidays to Italy by car and that in one day of driving we would go from the Netherlands, through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Switzerland to Italy. That would mean 7 countries and 5 languages in one day. This is the weirdest thing for people here. With a full day of driving from Uyuni you can only just reach Chile or Argentina and they still speak Spanish. If you want to speak another language you will have to drive to Brazil which is at least two full days away. Plus of course the fact that a lot of people here have never left their own country or even town.
The hostel was also a good spot to meet some people. Of course most people where only here for a day (very rarely two), but being able to not have to speak Spanish was nice. Luckily some of the overlanders do stay a bit longer. Like this, I met a Dutch couple riding two motorbikes at breakfast on my first weekend (mechanic doesn’t work Saturday afternoon or Sunday). A bit later an Italian guy on a motorbike joins us too. By the time we’re done with chatting over breakfast it is already time for lunch. We head for lunch together and after that explore the train cemetery. Just outside of town is a huge collection of rusty old train wagons and locomotives. Great to snap some photos and climb around. They all stay in Uyuni for a few days to get some work done on their bikes or explore the Salar. We get joined by three Swiss guys riding motorbikes. Like this I have some good entertainment for lunch and dinner for some days.
On one of the days when I’m heading towards the parts guy I spot a Dutch Unimog parked in town. I have a chat with the very friendly couple inside. The end up staying in Uyuni for quite some time and are always up for a chat and some advice on what I should or should not do. On the same day I meet an Australian family with three kids driving their car down from Canada to Ushuaia at my lunch spot. So all in all, life wasn’t too lonely in Uyuni. And on the days I didn’t find anyone to talk to or didn’t want to talk to anyone I could always watch a movie in my hostel room.
Back to business of the fixing of my van. Mechanics in Latin America are interesting, they are creative and there isn’t much they can’t fix. They will drop the stuff they are working on, just to try and help you out as soon as possible. On the other hand they often have no clue what they are doing and quite a few of them will try to rip you off. For this reason I never let anyone work on the van without me watching every move they make. Communication is another big issue. Mechanics never speak English and while my Spanish is fine, it does miss the level of detail needed to discuss major car problems. On top of that different countries use different Spanish words for the same parts. These guys could be particularly hard to understand and because they were often working on my car with three people at the same time I couldn’t really see what they were doing.
The first problem we had was getting the engine out. In my van the engine has to come out through the bottom. Most mechanics here do not have a bridge, often they only have one jack. So with help of wooden blocks and a lot of moving the jack around we got the van high enough up to get the engine down on a hand made trolley. With a broken crane we could move the engine on a home welded table supported by some wooden blocks to take the whole thing apart. There is no sorting parts or screws. Everything just goes on a big pile in my van. I didn’t like this at all but they where doing this with the other engines they were working on too and they all started and customers kept coming, so I guess that’s just the way stuff works down here.
Once all the parts were taken apart and brought to the parts guy, it was time for the manana-manana waiting game. In Latin America, your mechanic will not buy or organize parts for you. You either need to get them yourself or he might go with you to the place but you have to actually buy the parts. So here I would have to make sure the parts would be done, not the mechanic. The parts guy said he would need a week, so I thought I would go check after a day or 3. But no, according to the mechanic and the people at the hostel I should go check every day. So that’s what I did, every day I would go there and ask how it was going. The guy would show me some parts he was working on and said all looked good and would be done on time. Which of course was a lie. The morning he was supposed to be done, he said he needed one more day because one part doesn’t fit the way he wanted yet. But he assures me everything else is fine. The next day that part is done but he needs another day for another part. I make him show me all the other parts and let him confirm one by one that all those parts are done. Next morning he tells me he needs half a day more. It continues like this for a while, with all the parts being done tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if you get mad or even sit in his shop for days at a time. There is always something that needs a bit more work. The main reason for this seems to be that people never plan ahead here. They only look at the next task, without considering what might become a problem a few steps down the road. But finally after 12 days instead of 7, all parts are at the mechanic.
So now it’s back to the mechanic and watch three people work 9 hours a day without being able to talk to them much. Fitting with the music in the hostel, the mechanic has his radio tuned to a channel with a playlist which isn’t longer than half an hour with some reggaetron. With the whole not planning ahead thing we obviously have to go back to the parts guy a few times. (The valves don’t close properly, the new piston is 1mm too tall, some small pin is missing, etc. etc.). After four days of work, they managed to reassemble the engine and get it back in the van. Without any of the cooling or sensors connected we give it a first test start. It barely starts and is pretty unstable, but according to the mechanic this should be an easy fix. The next day they spend all day assembling the last bits. Once they are done we start the engine again. It still doesn’t start very easily and is quite unstable. According to the mechanic this is normal and should go away after running it stationary for a few hours. Surprise, surprise! It doesn’t. But they change the timing of the injection pump and now the engine starts beautifully, runs very steady and there is no more smoke. I am so happy and so I tired. The only thing I want to do now is leave this place and never come back!
The End (NOT!)
I drive the van to the hostel to show it to my new family, they really like the van and are very excited for me that I can finally leave. It’s too late to leave town today, but at least I’ll go to the car wash to get all the evil salt from the Salar cleaned of my van. Cleaning the van from the in and outside takes them more than an hour. During that time I entertain myself with the owner’s dog that only seems to play fetch with rocks (he doesn’t care about sticks or balls, I’ve tried), the problem with rocks is that once they land between the other rocks, they’re kind of indistinguishable. Anyway, my van is clean and I drive it back to the hostel so I can head for the Chilean border tomorrow. At least that’s what I tried. Only 50 meters from the car wash my engine sputters, dies and refuses to start again. I thought maybe they accidentally loosened something while pressure washing my van, but nope. I quickly notice about two centimeters of air in my diesel line just before the diesel pump. That should be the problem. It’s already getting dark and the mechanic is definitely closed. I walk back to the car wash and convince them to let me leave my van there for the night and they help me pushing it there. Tired and annoyed I walk back to the hostel. Wilma made me quinoa dinner from her own quinoa field to celebrate my fixed van (they don’t offer dinner service) . The van might not be fixed, but the dinner and the bottle of wine do help with my mood.
The next day I head back to my van to check again. Anytime you have a broken down car in Latin America, you will have a large group of men come up and suggest and try fixing it in no time. This was no exception, but after an hour of trying everything we didn’t get it to work. I really didn’t want to talk to the mechanic again. So I went to another mechanic that was highly recommended by other travelers (yes, I should have done that to begin with, but I didn’t). It is a Sunday, but he works every day. He joins me to the car wash and has a look. He can’t fix the problem there and will need to tow me to his shop. He is quite busy so we only manage to get my van there by the end of the day. On Monday morning it becomes clear that the other mechanic had damaged the diesel line while rebuilding the engine. We fix that and soon enough I’m ready to go. After the first 40 km I stop to quickly check everything. The oil is quite low… Maybe it’s just everything settling.. I add some additional oil and head on. That night I sleep in San Cristobal, a tiny tiny town on the way to the border. I check the oil before going to bed and the level is the same as after my top up at the last stop.
The oil is still the same the next morning, so I’m hopeful all will be good. After another 30 km drive I check again and nothing changed. But another 40 km after that I’m almost a liter down. It’s clearly no good. I’ve lost almost 3 liters since leaving Uyuni. The engine is clearly in a bad shape. It’s 150 km back to Uyuni or about 500 km and a few 4400 m high passes to Calama in Chile. So turn around and head back to Uyuni. I manage to get to Uyuni, but only because I always carry plenty of oil. There was no option to buy anything on the way. Back at the new mechanic’s workshop we conclude I’ve lost 7 liters of oil in only 300 km. The engine normally contains about 6 liters. This sounds like another rebuild….
Now I’m back in Uyuni with a broken engine, 23 days and one engine rebuild after getting stuck on the salar. I don’t think my travels are going to be easy again any time soon.