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Reflections on a trip way down south.
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tim_ha
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 10:40 am    Post subject: Reflections on a trip way down south. Reply with quote

On March 15, 2014, my girlfriend and I left our home in Boulder, Colorado to drive south in our 1986 EJ22 powered Syncro. Although our travel philosophy was not destination oriented, we hoped to make it to the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego, the southern most road in the world, excluding Antarctica. This post is not an exhaustive account of the trip, but a reflection on what it took to keep the vehicle going, what I did right/wrong, and an opportunity to post some photos from the trip. For those that are interested, a more complete account of the trip is on our blog at: www.subagonsouth.com

The Vehicle…
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I purchased the van in June of 2012 with the intent of doing an engine conversion and camper conversion with this trip in mind. I immediately started in on the engine conversion and over the next two years tried to go through all of the mechanical components in order to limit the number of breakdowns while far from home. I religiously followed this forum and found it to be an invaluable resource both for enlightening me as to what projects I needed to do before the trip as well as figuring out how to do them.

In addition to making sure that the van was mechanically sound, my girlfriend and I started working on the camper conversion roughly 4 months before our departure date. We stripped the interior, sound deadened, insulated, built cabinets, installed a house battery and solar setup, built custom roof racks, and installed the custom pop top that my dad built for us. It all came together at the last minute as we installed the pop-top and roof racks the day before loading up the van and setting off.
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The constant battle…
Looking back on the trip, it is easy to forget how much of a struggle it was at times to keep the van going. In actuality, we only had one serious brake down that stopped us in our tracks. All of the other problems were minor annoyances or non catastrophic problems that we could put off fixing until we were in a good place. That being said, the daily stress of fixing this rattle or that drip, worrying about the new clunk from the suspension or that sound that the transmission was making wore on me. I could’t have done it without my girlfriend there to remind me to look at where we were, make me lunch and break out a cold beer to relax and enjoy before getting back to work.
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The major breakdown…
High in the remote mountains of Colombia, we were climbing up a fairly mellow dirt track when catastrophe struck. My GF was driving and we suddenly just bogged down and the engine died. I had no clue what happened, but had her try to restart it. That was when I heard an unusual clicking sound from the engine and knew something was wrong.
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I almost immediately guessed that the timing belt had slipped and my interference engine had wrecked itself. An hour or so later, after pulling the exhaust to get to the timing belt cover (RMW exhaust) I confirmed my suspicions finding that the timing belt had slipped on the cam pulley of cylinders 1 and 3.
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Some really nice locals, and one of the few cars that passed us the next day helped get the beast turned around on the narrow track and aided us in rolling the 12km back down the hill to the little town of El Cocuy.
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We were incredibly lucky in the timing because our friend was scheduled to come travel with us 10 days after the breakdown. After weighing our options, we ordered up some rebuilt heads from Clearwater Cylinder Head in Florida which were delivered to our friend the day before she flew to Colombia. She brought us nearly 100lbs of auto parts and (illegally) walked right through customs, no questions asked.
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Needless to say, I got to know the local mechanics really well and was able to install the rebuilt heads in a dirt parking lot and get us back on the road. To this day, I still don’t know what caused the belt to slip. It slipped on the cylinder 1/3 cam shaft side and I found no signs of what could have caused it.
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Reflections…
Weight…
We were heavy. Our loaded vehicle weight was around 5800lbs. We brought a lot of toys, and much of the weight was on the roof. I knew going in that this was not the wisest location to add a bunch of weight, but the other choices that we made when designing the camper conversion required us to carry a lot on the roof. The nice thing about the Westy is that you can carry your heavy gear down low, and sleep up top. We were however, happy to be sleeping inside our van in the cold and relentless howling winds of Patagonia without having to do the gear shuffle twice a day. Although I like our setup, a lighter roof rack and swing out jerry can holder would help significantly.
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Shocks...
I upgraded the shocks to Old Man Emu before the trip after reading how much people like them in general. I failed to do enough research and find out how horrible OMEs are on washboard and dirt road. They were great on the pavement and in the slower off-roading situations, but with the amount of miles that we put in on rocky, washboarded dirt roads I would strongly recommend against them for this trip. I believe that they played a significant role in the bushing failures that we experienced as well as the fast (about 5,000 miles) failure of the lower ball joints (Meyle). I am currently researching options and leaning toward the adjustable Fox Socks setup from GW.

Springs…
I failed to think about the weight of the vehicle on the original springs and regretted not putting some stiffer springs on almost as soon as we left the country. The OEM springs rode fine, but were quite saggy with the weight of the van which meant that the custom skid bars I built before setting off got quite a workout. In Bolivia, a friend brought us some syncro.org Westy springs which gave us a nice inch and a half lift for the rest of the trip.
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Pop-top…
The custom pop-top was amazing. It really made living in the van nice. Even when closed, it provides enough space for me to stand up and when popped it feels spacious and adds some nice ventilation. There are a few modifications to the hinge design that I would like to make, but there is no need to rebuild the entire thing.
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Cabinets/Kitchenette…
We love our cabinets. We got incredibly lucky with our first try and got almost everything right. We really like the brass latches that we used. They worked perfectly for our application. The Wedgewood 2 burner drop in stove worked great, and our propane would last us roughly 3 months cooking twice per day with no difficulty at 5000m elevation. The one modification that we want to make is that we want to change our gray water tank set up. It is currently difficult to remove the tank for emptying and got to be annoying to have to empty every 5 days or so. I plan to remove the internal gray water tank, cut a hole in the floor and either drain on the ground or into an external tank situated between the frame rails. Our favorite feature, is the slide out shelves that make great use of the space available. We stole the idea from Brad of Drive Nacho Drive. It is really amazing how much food we are able to fit in it and how easy it to access.
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Spare parts…
I did quite a bit of research regarding what spares to bring for this type of trip. I brought many of the high failure rate parts as well as enough supplies to hopefully be able to repair those things that I did non have spares for. I can’t say that I used any of the spares that I brought except for one CV joint. My biggest oversight was that I did not bring any spare suspension bushings. With the amount of miles that we drove on rough dirt, 4x4, and rough potholed pavement, the suspension took a beating. I did a quick visual inspection of the original bushings before the trip, but probably should have bought one of the full bushing kits available from various vendors. Of course, the OME shocks certainly didn’t help the longevity of the bushings.
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Tools…
I brought a very complete set of tools. This was one area I didn’t want to skimp on. I had read plenty of horror stories about Latin American mechanics and thus didn’t want to have to rely on one. Some things that I was very glad to have were RTV, silicone self-fusing tape, jbweld, 5min epoxy, various gauges of steel wire, a soldering iron, and an electric drill. It would have been nice to have a jack stand or two, but I don’t think that I would bring one due to size and weight. The best thing that I brought, were my coveralls. I used them all the time and they kept what few clothes I had from getting trashed. For the future, I will include a ridge-rest sleeping mat for added comfort while napping under the van.
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Security…
We were very concerned about the security of the vehicle and added many features to help lock things down. We added two RMW slide out drawers under the seats. I modified one to be able to fit a laptop. The other held our passports, important documents and some spare cash. I really like how unobtrusive they are; we rarely had anyone notice them even when being searched at borders and military checkpoints. We also made the storage under the rear seat lockable and made some hidden compartments throughout our cabinets. We were very lucky and didn’t have a single break in or theft the entire trip. That being said, we were also vigilant and cautious about the security of the vehicle. Lastly, it was amazing how much security our friendly aging pooch provided. We found that throughout the journey, people were usually scared of the dog and we learned to use that fear to our advantage.
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Consumption…
One thing that I have been thinking a lot about since returning is every day consumption. We were able to live an incredibly low impact life over the last year. Sure, we burned a lot of gasoline, but every other aspect of our lives was pared down to the bare minimum. Living off of a 15 gallon water tank, we learned to conserve every ounce of water. My favorite trick was using a spray bottle to rinse dishes after washing. Additionally, showering once or twice per week and using the great outdoors for a toilet vastly cut down on our water consumption. Our electrical consumption was next to nothing and was nearly all produced by our solar panels. The amount of trash that we produced was modestly reduced due to the lack of recycling available.
One major complaint throughout the trip was the amount of litter strewn everywhere. We take the cleanliness of the US for granted and found on our travels that there was a general lack of education regarding taking care of the environment. We learned that the indigenous people used to only produce organic waste and would thus just throw it wherever. Now, however, plastics have infiltrated every corner of the globe and these people still just toss their garbage, but it no longer disappears like the organics did. Some countries are working to change this, but as a whole, latin america was extremely dirty.

Driving…
Driving down south can be a crazy, stressful, hectic endeavor. From the bath tub sized potholes to the unmarked and camouflaged speed bumps to the insane aggressive drivers, we saw it all and survived without incident. Although it was a shock to the system to drive around the busy streets that had seemingly no rules of the road, we found that the average driver was aggressive, but was also paying attention to the road. I find that in the US, drivers tend to turn their brain off as soon as they get in the car. In latin america, doing so can quickly end your life. The drivers that we experienced watched their mirrors, used their turn signals and emergency flashers to effectively communicate, used their horns, knew exactly how big their cars were, oh yeah and drove like a bat out of hell. Sure, there were some scary situations and white knuckle sections of road, but in general I can’t say that the drivers were better or worse than here in the States.
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Top 5’s in no particular order...
Countries:

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Colombia

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Mexico

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Patagonia (Not a country, but Chilean/Argentinean Patagonia)

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Bolivia

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Peru

Drives:
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SW Lagunas Circuit, Bolivia

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Paracas Peninsula, Peru

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Punta Canoas -> Punta Diablo, Baja Norte Mexico

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Monkey Trail and Drive to Playa Josecita, Costa Rica

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Cañon del Pato, Peru

Foods: Arepas, Fresh Tortillas, Papusas, Empanadas, Yuca Bread

Rivers: Rio Traful, Rio Baker, Rio Futaleufu, Rio Alumine, Rio Pulmari

Surf Beaches: Cerro Azúl, Peru
Ticla, Mexico
El Cardon, Mexico
Dominical, Costa Rica
Olon, Ecuador

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Our cute little van in front of a sweet Unimog.

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VW gathering in San Salvador (Dia mundial del escarabajo)
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Guatemala
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Patagonia sunset
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DenverB
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 10:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

amazing. you guys rock, hope to run into ya'll sometime out here in Colorado!
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 10:49 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Outstanding! Enjoyed the reading and images.
Going to check your website too!

Thanks for posting.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 10:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Shocked Applause


WOW man - great trip indeed!!


I'd love to see more. How about a local gathering/presentation? I'd love to get more details as this is something that I WILL do someday (it's a little harder with kids and all... but someday! )

I live in Louisville and work in Boulder (Gunbarrel) - hope to see you around!


incredible photos - really inspiring!
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 11:01 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

very nice write up and pics..

thanks for sharing..
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 11:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for taking time to post the pics and info.
Some great images and really useful overviews and insights.

I thought the 2.2 Suby was non interference? This was one reason I'd considered doing that swap. Anyhow....

Thanks again. I bet that journey was a life view eye opener!

Neil.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 11:47 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great report, great info, great photos. Can't wait to read your blog when I have more time.
Thanks for doing this!
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 12:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nice write up of your story. I'd love to do the South America trip someday, but I can't even keep my van going in the States.. Embarassed looks like you had lots of fun between the repairs.

Btw what was that Land Rover with the camper box on the back in the picture title Peru? The one all the way to the right in the picture with the sideways pop top. Looks kinda interesting. Was it a factory job or did they build that?
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 12:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Awesome stuff. Thanks for sharing, very inspiring.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 12:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for the compliments!

Vanagon Nut wrote:

I thought the 2.2 Suby was non interference? This was one reason I'd considered doing that swap. Anyhow....


'90-'94 Suby 2.2's are non-interference. The rest are interference. Although not many people seem to have trouble with the interference engines, it is worth considering when looking for a doner. It obviously could have save me a lot of hassle to have found one of the earlier EJ22's.

DAV!D wrote:
Btw what was that Land Rover with the camper box on the back in the picture title Peru? The one all the way to the right in the picture with the sideways pop top. Looks kinda interesting. Was it a factory job or did they build that?


I think you are talking about the 70 series Landcruiser. That was a German couple's rig. By far the most common overlander vehicle that we saw on our journey. The europeans seem to have lots of options for similar pop up campers on those 'cruisers.



Farfrumwork wrote:
I'd love to see more. How about a local gathering/presentation?


We could schedule a gathering/presentation at some point. I have been meaning to try get together with Bavarianwrench as well.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 2:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Awesome report! For my suspension, I did some custom work to use off road Bilsteins and they have worked great. It is a little surprising to me that the OME are so bad on washboard, since Australia has so many thousands of miles (kilometers technically Razz ) of dirt roads.

Love the photos and the landscape.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 2:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

hans j wrote:
Awesome report! For my suspension, I did some custom work to use off road Bilsteins and they have worked great. It is a little surprising to me that the OME are so bad on washboard, since Australia has so many thousands of miles (kilometers technically Razz ) of dirt roads.

Love the photos and the landscape.


That's what I was thinking. I believe some of their sales literature even mentions this.
I got OME shocks because I intend to do Baja in the near future, so this is disappointing to hear. Maybe I'll replace my bushings before the trip.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 4:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

LOVE the trip report. The good and bad is really helpful for others considering such an adventure.
I would love to do that trip someday. Very Happy
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 5:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wow... fabulous photos and wonderful adventure! Cool
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 5:55 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nice!

Can you please expand on this little invention for storage within the clamshell??? I've been looking for the right "container" for that space. Looks like you used a drum that was cut-down and clips fashioned to secure the top...(?)

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 7:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

http://www.thesamba.com/vw/forum/viewtopic.php?p=7597328&highlight=#7597328
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 7:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Do have extra gas tank?,how much extra did u carry as it looks like some lonely country, never saw a single gas pump. Interesting trip just too fsr from Bo-jangles 4 me.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 8:38 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you for sharing such a rich experience with us. Love it all -- the van, you, your girl, dog, dad's help on the pop-top, details of roads, food, surf beaches, thoughts on do-overs. Quite the treat to read/soak in your photos with a cold beer on a 95 degree day here in Oregon.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 26, 2015 9:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

WOW!! That's what's up. The story and photos are awesome!
Thanks for posting this.
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 09, 2015 1:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

morymob wrote:
Do have extra gas tank?,how much extra did u carry


No extra gas tank, but we carried two 20L jerry cans which we would fill up if we knew we were going remote. I targeted having a ~500 mile range. I think in reality we were closer to a 450 mile range, but had no issues and only carried two full jerry cans a few times. We did always have one full one though.

Our water capacity was 25 gallons which allowed us to stay out for a max of 10 days. Again, we rarely carried our full capacity but were careful to have plenty in the reserve based on water availability.

hans j wrote:
It is a little surprising to me that the OME are so bad on washboard


I agree. We found them to be much too stiff to perform well on washboard. We aired way down, which helped, but for whatever reason, the performance with both stock springs and westy syncro.org springs was pretty poor.

I am currently researching and trying to decide how much to spend and what direction to go with the suspension. I am leaning toward some GW Fox Shocks, but don't know what spring to pair them with. Now that we are unloaded, I find the westy syncro.org springs to be too stiff.

Does anyone know if it is possible or have experience with fine tuning the Fox Shocks by opening them up and swapping in different flexible disks. Is this even worth while given the external compression adjustment?
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