Archive for the ‘The Van’ Category

Amazingly, Natalie rolled out of bed this morning at 7:15. It is a miracle. We opted for the rolling breakfast; coffee from hastily boiled hot water while we fill up at Pemex, some yogurt with granola deftly served from the back of the van between potholes and topes, and some fruit from the no-longer cat piss infested refrigerator. We had an incredibly long drive ahead of us, at least eight hours of rolling time, our longest yet and most likely the second or third longest of the trip. It was fairly uneventful, albeit bumpy and slow going. The cuota through Veracruz was in terrible shape and the road from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca is windy and steep. Really steep. So steep in fact that the van overheated about a kilometer from the summit. She up and quit, right in the middle of the highway, no shoulder, no turnout, just done right in the lane. We had to flag the passing motorists as they trudged up the hill. Luckily the road was so steep no one was going all that fast and the region is so remote that only five or six cars passed us in the 45 minutes and brand new 20 liter purified drinking water jug it took to cool down. Eight hours on the road turned into nine or ten by the time we added up our sojourn from just above sea level creeping up the mountains to about 9000 feet and traversing back down into Oacaxa at just about a mile high. We are camped at a really beautiful campground, slash agave farm, slash meszcal distillery and looking forward to hitting the world famous Oaxaca central market on Saturday, its busiest day.

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It is 3800 kilometers or 2300 miles from Cancun to San Diego, if you go the most direct route. Throw in a few side trips to Oaxaca (the city), Taxco, Michoacan’s Butterfly Sanctuaries and you are looking at more like 4370 kilometers or 2622 miles plus some extra hours for roads that aren’t exactly freeways. Say we average 80 kilometers per hour, that is roughly 55 hours of driving. We are rolling out of Playa del Carmen on the 4th of January and we need to roll on to Pershing Avenue on the 20th. 17 days. We need to average 258 kilometers or 3.2 hours of actual driving per day, plus stops for food, gas, military inspections (they love the van, so far the record is three searches in a single day), and whatever else the Aztec gods can throw at us; figure 4 hours in the car. Take out a day in Oaxaca, a day in Taxco, a day at the Butterfly Sanctuaries, a day surfing in Punta Conejo Baja, and the math gets considerably worse. Now we are down to 13 days: 364 kilometers average and 4.5 hours of driving. That leaves us with about 5+ hours per day in the car on drive days. Yikes.

At the risk of looking like the cruise director with my clipboard of activities, the rest of the trip looks roughly like this. Drive times are approximates based on road type and distance.

  • Tuesday January 4th – Bacalar, Quintana Roo: 4 hours
  • Wednesday January 5th – Isla Aquada Campeche: 5.5 hours
  • Thursday January 6th – Aqua Dulce, Veracruz: 5.5 hours
  • Friday January 7th – Ciudad Oaxaca, Oaxaca: 8 hours
  • Saturday January 8thCiudad Oaxaca, Oaxaca
  • Sunday January 9th – Cuernavaca, Morelos: 9 hours
  • Monday January 10th – Taxco, Guerrero: 1.5 hours
  • Tuesday January 11th – Zitcuaro, Michoacan: 5 hours
  • Wednesday January 12thZitcuaro, Michoacan
  • Thursday January 13th – Guadalajara, Jalisco: 7 hours
  • Friday January 14th – Mazatlan, Sinaloa: 7 hours
  • Saturday January 15th –La Paz, Baja California Sur: Overnight Ferry
  • Sunday January 16th – Punta Conejo, Baja California Sur: 3 hours
  • Monday January 17thPunta Conejo, Baja California Sur
  • Tuesday January 18th – Loreto, Baja California Sur: 6 hours
  • Wednesday January 19th – Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur: 7 hours
  • Thursday January 20th – San Diego, California, USA 10.5 hours

That comes to a total of 79 hours and an average of 6 hours per day on drive days. Slightly more than the overall, generalized math. Double Yikes. For the grand finale, the 9 hour drive to Cuernavaca will require us to be on the road at 8am; a feat that is virtually impossible for my late to bed, late to rise girlfriend. Triple Yikes.

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Plans seem to change daily on this trip. Maybe its not so much that plans change but that they aren’t really plans, more a rough outline of what you expect you are going to do. Back in Palenque we met some very cool Canadians from New Brunswick that were on a similar, albeit longer (jealous), sojourn. Ryan and Janelle have the first rig that I’ve envied on the road. Generally speaking I wouldn’t trade the van for anything else we’ve seen so far even considering the electrical problems. But I have to admit, they have a bitchin setup with their roof top, fold away tent that transforms their somewhat normal looking 4-Runner into a camping machine.

Straight from the Cazadores label

We first chatted with them after returning from the ruins and over a cocktail later on. The next day we compared battle vehicles and talked about stops so far and the next one down the road. We were heading to Mahahual or maybe Laguna Bacalar while they were going to fang it straight to Belize. Our 2:30 departure made it impossible to even make it to the state of Quintana Roo, much less to the Mexican Riveria coastline. We spent the night at a campground near Escarcega. It turned out to be an excellent stop as the owner showed up sometime around 10:30 a took us on a jungle hike to see “cat-monkeys”, throngs of deer, including one that was more mascot than wild animal, and the rest of the property. He and I climbed the tallest and rickety-est deer stand ever constructed. It was incredibly unnerving as the whole thing swayed in the wind with our 350lb~ish combined weight gave its 35 feet of Mexican engineering all it could handle.

The next morning we rolled out at the reasonable hour of 11:30 only to be derailed in Chetumal by the need to track down some groceries, supplies and most importantly propane refills. By the time we had managed all the errands it was pushing dark-thirty again and we opted to track down the campground just north of Chetumal. Over an uninspiring and relatively expensive platter of not-really-paella, Ryan and Janelle rolled into the campground, so at least we aren’t the only ones who can’t go more than a couple hours a day. We camped next door and set up a massive combined kitchen, tranquillo-ness and general laziness caused a one night stopover to turn into a two night stay and Emilie made us all crepes the second morning. We left Emilie in Chetumal and finally slogged it to Mahahual where we met our dive instructor and set up the full, proper, camp for the first time since the Pacific Coast.

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We finally got some rain. You would think after 3+ months in a tropical locale that we would have been rained on at least once. We’ve driven through spots that obviously had rain moments before we got there and we have heard stories of downpours the night before but in our whole adventure not so much as a drop had touched La Bestia, the van’s new name, gracias para Emilie.

The Mayabel, Palenque is the perfect mix of hostel, cabañas, restaurant, bar, pool, hotel and  RV Park inside the gates of Palenque. It was a fabulous place to stay outside of the super grumpy order taker woman in the restaurant, let’s just say that she and I did not see eye to eye on customer service. Emilie has taken to camping in her tent under or near the awning in order to partake in movie night or to cook and kick it with her super cool new Americano amigos. After a good night of meeting some new international friends from Mexico, Belgique, and Canada we retired to bed eager to explore the Palenque ruins.

Sometime in the middle of the night the howler monkeys ceased their monstrous moaning   and drops of rain started pinging the metal casing of the van. It was slow at first but the frequency of the sound of water against the tin echo intensified. I finally willed myself awake; fighting off the night’s libations to run through the checklist of possible problems that rain might cause us that were flashing through my mind. All the boxes were closed and locked, we were parked level so that the water wouldn’t come pouring through the new air conditioning as it had last time we washed her, the various tables and chairs that make up our camp were securely locked beneath the awning.  Only Emilie’s tent crossed my mind as a possible issue, she had staked out a square plot a few meters from the van and probably would be better off under the awning but I figured that she could take care of herself and if she needed to move to stay dry there was no sense in both of us getting wet.

About 5:30 in the morning we jolted awake to a loud pop, both a physical and audible collision. Something had just hit the van. The side door, previously closed and locked, had come slightly unhinged; sucking in the cool humid air. I scrambled to find some clothes so I could manage some sense out of the situation, still groggy and nowhere near cognative. Emilie, in her thick French accent started calling my name. I wrestled the door open to see just her head peering out of her tent under a mess of metal, plastic-canvas tarp, and the remnants of our camp. We had neglected to lower one side of the awning resulting in the nights accumulation of water festering in the awning until the weight of it became too much and the awning exploded sending the water cascading onto Emilie’s tent and pieces of the wreckage everywhere.

Natalie yelled for Emile to climb in the van and the three of us spent the next couple hours pretending to sleep in our cramped quarters, totally preoccupied with fixing our newest travesty. In the morning everything was soaked and the rain continued to come. Emilie and Natalie spent the day hanging out our sundries under the various unoccupied palapas while I repaired the awning. An incredible amount of white duct tape later and amazingly the awning is fully functional. We spent the rest of the day gathering semi-dry wood and meticulously maintaining a smoldering fire until we used a little gasoline to hasten the matter. The awning isn’t exactly good as new but I’m betting that it makes back to San Diego.

Oddly the position of the center rack supports jumped about four inches, out of the eight, only two moved. The sliding door, which has become progressively more difficult to open and close, suddenly opens and closes with a lot more ease, meaning that there was a tremendous amount of torque on the van that was somehow related to the awning. Weird.

The trip has been hard on the van. The old girl has all kinds of new issues; most of them created by the various topes, potholes and hazards of Mexican roads. I’m struggling with what I want to do with her when we get home. Right now, I’m focused on purchasing a mid-90s diesel sprinter, converting it to 4X4 and pillaging the van for the stuff that is still usefull and building a new adventure-mobile from scratch… but that changes daily.

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Pemex + No Luz = Malo

Yes I am filling the van with a gerry can next to the pump... ugh.

We have very rarely used the gas in the gerry cans on the back of the van. We mostly run through the annoying gauntlet of unlocking and removing them in order to fuel the generator to charge the batteries or run something else when we don’t have power. Only once have we needed to use one to get us to the next Pemex station. It isn’t like Baja in mainland, you don’t need to fill up at every possible location to ensure making it to the next one. Our usual modus operandi is to fill up when we have about 10 gallons left, which, equates to about 25% of our tank capacity. We push it from time to time if we know with 100% certainty that there will be a Pemex in time.

Dried shrimp with your motor oil?

Sunday was one of those days. We had asked where the next station was and we knew we could make it there with what we had. We pulled in with probably close to two or three gallons left in the tank; 20 -35 more miles with our incredibly efficient 460 cubic inch big block powered, 9000lb behemoth. The attendant didn’t even budge from her seat on the curb. “Hay Gasolina?” Natalie shouted from the van. “Si, pero, no luz.” Was the reply. Shit. The power was out. 35 miles is about 55 kilometers. It was 71 kilometers to Salina Cruz. No way, not even downhill with a kicking tail wind.

So we laboriously unlocked the gerry cans, lifted the 35lb cans into our thirsty beast of a girl, dripping gas on our clothes and on ourselves, but at least we could move on. And just as I was lifting the last can the power came back on. Perfect.

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Way back when, in Mazatlan, when we finally put the oversized alternator in the van we also replaced all the belts. They had all started to crack and wear with the varied climate changes we’ve gone through. The past couple days the new belts have finally worn in and started to screech and whine on start and with any acceleration. So Lewis and I broke out the wrenches and borrowed some pry bars to tighten them up. An hour or so later and no more screeching, my mechanic training continues.

On a less successful note, the refrigerator stopped working. We woke up one morning to the freezer defrosted throughout the fridge and the thermometers reading in the 60s. Bummer. Luckily, Jim at Tronocones RV Park / Casa Canela knew a guy in Zihuatenejo that had some experience with RV fridges. I explained to him that we had tried propane and 110 AC electric and neither was working. Apparently that rarely happens where it will just break with zero cooling on either setting. 99% chance that it was vapor locked. Im not familiar with the inner workings of ammonia vapor refrigeration but apparently it is pretty common when running the appliance while not parked on a level surface, which we do with pretty consistent regularity.

Upside down fridge with cat suspect

The solution to vapor lock is to uninstall the fridge, leave it upside down for 12-24 hours, then turn it back over for another 12-24 hours. Reinstall and rock and roll. We jumped through the hoops and it appears to have removed the vapor lock but now it is not cooling all the way. I’m guessing we fucked something up with the air circulation and the fins in the back, so I’m going to give that a try, we shall see. It’s either that or the cat piss. Yep. Cat piss. Feline urine, not of urine therapy variety. There are a couple semi-feral cats on the property and one of them took it upon themselves to spray inside the refrigerator while the door was off and it was on the porch de-vapor-locking. I used bleach, vinegar, and the Mexican equivalent of Pine Sol. No luck. Still smells. Awesome

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We can’t win…

Natalie is finally feeling better. Nothing mechanical or electric broke down on the car today. I’m a bit worried that we may have fried one of the batteries though because its not taking a complete charge. Minor compared to our normal woes. The stereo worked the whole way, the AC worked 95% of the time but we may need to get a freon refill on the AC unit because it isn’t very cold.

We had a mishap of another kind on the road today though. The bike rack on the rear spare tire broke. We hit a bump and the screws cleaved right off. Awesome. Hollywood racks is getting a nasty gram from me. Luckily I have a pretty sophisticated cable lock for the bikes and that held them partially on. The rear tire of my cyclocross bike dragged on the ground for a few miles before the tool booth operator informed us of our problem. By that time the road had ruined the tire and the tube and possible the wheel. Hopefully we might be able to get it fixed in Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta.

Also, our brand new SteriPen has decided to quit working and our also brand new 5 gallon water cube leaks. So basically all the Aztec Gods are aligned against us but yet we push on.

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Beach Driving, Take II

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The last couple days we’ve been on Isla de la Piedras I’ve been helping out Warren (the RV park manager) with the internet and a few various related computer tasks to help him get ready for the influx of snowbirds. He and his wife Joyce have been really sweet and taken good care of us; making sure we get a chance to buy produce, water and assorted sundries off the delivery truck. Joyce made Natalie chicken soup when she was sick and they fed us dinner last night along with another couple that had just arrived. Dinners that don’t involve the camp stove or boiling water for dishes are much appreciated these days.

The RVers that arrived yesterday are a retired couple from Western Washington. They have a big bus that is converted into an RV. They had broken down earlier in the day but managed to get it jumped and made it down the road to the island. Barely. Well, sort of made it. They got just inside the gate and the rig broke down, sound familiar.

I hadn’t realized they were having issues until about an hour after they’re arrival or I’d have gone over and offered my now slightly higher than amateur mechanical skills much earlier. When I did wander over it was like deja vu on steriods; battery cables, volt meters, charge controllers all laying askew in various conditions. The van has a multitude of very weird custom wiring, but it is no match for this behemoth. Giant military batteries, a slew of golf cart “house” batteries, crazy charge regulators, multiple alternators, it was quite the scene. I wish I had the camera.

After a while it was determined that the giant alternator that you need to be less than 100lbs to get to and change had died and that one of the starter batteries had accompanied it into the afterlife. Well, I just so happened to have an extra marine deep cycle battery in a box on the roof. Ron Talbot and I had drilled holes and meticulously glued nuts into the box so it could be screwed to the rack and would be rather difficult to remove and steal. Check off the difficult to remove part. About 30 minutes later I had the battery off the roof and we had it in the bus/RV. She roared to life. 750 cold crank amps of pure diesel power. That got her out of the park drive way and into the assigned spot, time for a good helping of tequila for me.

It felt good to finally be able to help someone else out on this trip, be it computer issues or auto repairs it was a welcomed change to be on the other side for once. And with that, I hope that there are no more blog posts about auto repair. On to San Blas today as the surf here has gone lake-like, check the spot a little later for our locale.

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