El Cocuy Strikes Again

We realize that this post is out of order, but we are putting it up now to fill everyone in on our current situation. Don’t worry, we’re all safe and sound, and Chimera will be ok eventually…but for now the van has had a major engine failure and we are stuck in the little mountain town of El Cocuy, Colombia.

Our breakdown location, El Cocuy.

Our breakdown location, El Cocuy.

When we were researching this journey one of the blogs that thoroughly entertained and helped inspire us was Drive Nacho Drive, which follows the Pan-Am journey (and then the rest of the world) of a young couple from Arizona, Brad and Sheena, in their VW Westy named Nacho. The blog, which has now been published as a book, is very well written and often made us laugh out loud. We were inspired not only by the adventures that Brad and Sheena had, but also by all of the automotive trouble that they overcame. Nacho broke down over and over again, and every time Brad was able to get them safely back on the road and continue their journey. Then, when they were headed back down from the mountains near El Cocuy, Nacho’s transmission catastrophically failed. A transmission failure would have been bad anywhere, but it was particularly bad in Colombia, which at that time did not allow the importation of used auto parts (and new transmissions don’t exist for Vanagons). But even then they were able to figure it out and get back on the road, which is a very entertaining story itself, you can read it here.

When we drove up into the mountains of El Cocuy a few days ago we had the adventures (and misadventures) of Drive Nacho Drive in mind. We’ve been very lucky to have had only a few minor mechanical problems on the journey so far and couldn’t imagine having anything as bad as a transmission failure…

As we headed out of the little town we happily noted that we had just passed 10,000 miles since leaving Boulder. We were headed towards the national park, where we planned to spend a few days backpacking in the high mountains. We were driving slowly on the steep, winding road and enjoying the gorgeous scenery, when all of a sudden the van lost power, chugged, and died. When we tried restarting the engine we heard an awful noise. This was clearly very bad. Since dusk was approaching, we opted to roll backwards 50m or so to a fairly level spot next to an unoccupied old house, and spent the night there.

Not such a bad place to break down.

Not such a bad place to break down.

The next morning Tim put on his coveralls and dug into the engine. Throughout the day we had several friendly locals stop by to chat, as well curious farm animals.

Curious onlooker.

Curious onlooker.

This huge wooly dude was bound by two legs and still managed to scramble all around the hills.

Hobie was both very interested and very wary of the sheep that wandered up to snack next to the van.

Hobie snuck up and sniffed this big guy, then jumped back in alarm when it turned around and looked at him.

The cows here are huge and happy.

The cows here are huge and happy.

Before long Tim confirmed his fear that indeed the problem was very bad. It appeared that the timing belt had slipped, which likely meant that the pistons had hit and damaged the valves. This collision of the pistons and valves can only occur in interference engines, and Tim kicked himself for installing this type when he did the engine swap in 2012. Non-interference engines, by design, don’t allow this possibility. Tim corrected the timing of the engine and attempted to start it up with no luck. He couldn’t be sure of the damage without digging into the guts of the engine, but the outlook was grim. El Cocuy had struck again.

We started trying to figure out how to get back into town, which was about 12km downhill. We figured we could probably roll back down, but the van was facing uphill on a narrow road and we didn’t know how we would get our hefty beast turned around. As if they heard our silent call, a car suddenly came around the corner packed with locals heading back into town. The driver stopped and everyone piled out and started asking questions and chatting. They all wanted to help and soon enough they had pushed our heavy van around in a tight circle and we were pointing downhill. Without starting the engine (and only burning the brakes a little bit), we managed to roll all the way to a secured parking lot in the middle of town. The wonderful people who came to our rescue also happen to run a little hostel right around the corner from the parking lot, so that evening we were warmed up by hot showers and tucked into warm beds.

The immense kindness of the people here has continued to overwhelm us over the past few days as we’ve worked on diagnosing just how much damage was done and figuring out how we’re going to get back on the road. Tim has now disassembled much of the engine and has confirmed that indeed the pistons on one side of the engine hit the intake valves, bending them and rendering that half of the engine useless. Needless to say, this is a major engine failure. In medical terms, Chimera requires a full lung and kidney transplant.

Mechanic Tim disassembling the engine.

Mechanic Tim disassembling the engine.

If we were in the US we would probably look into rebuilding the entire engine or replacing it. But since we’re in Colombia the situation is rather more difficult. Subarus are uncommon here, so the correct parts are very difficult to come by. We made many phone calls to a Subaru dealer and Subaru repair shops in Bogotá with no luck. That means the parts must come from the states, which would normally mean paying exorbitant shipping fees and waiting who-knows how long for them to get here. However, lucky for us, in just over a week our good friend Elizabeth will be flying to Bogotá to come visit us. Elizabeth can now be our mule and bring all of the necessary parts to get Chimera’s engine purring again. In that sense the timing of this breakdown couldn’t have been better, although it is ironic that bad timing is what lead to the problem in the first place. We have now ordered two complete rebuilt heads, head gaskets, a new timing belt, tensioner, pulleys, and various other things that will all be delivered to Elizabeth for her to haul to us next week. With a bit of luck Tim will have Chimera back on the road in no time and the four of us will head off on new adventures with an almost new engine. In the meantime we’re enjoying the lovely little town of El Cocuy with it’s very friendly people and amazing mountain setting.

El Cocuy, Colombia.

El Cocuy, Colombia.

Stay tuned for an update of our progress and the stories of how we got here – our many adventures between Costa Rica and Colombia, including jumping through the hoops to get Chimera across the Darien Gap and all three of us swimming from a sailboat to a tiny island paradise.

10 thoughts on “El Cocuy Strikes Again

    • Oh I’m sure it could be more difficult…but yeah this is a pretty big challenge. We’re safe and happy though, in a great town with very nice people and should be able to get the repairs done as soon as our friend arrives. For now we’re taking the weekend to go backpacking in the mountains 🙂

  1. Good thing you got good ol Timmy as your man to fix ‘er up 🙂 Miss you Tim! Jealous of your adventures, good or bad!

  2. It’s unbelievable that your breakdown occurred in nearly the same location as Brad and Sheena’s. Are there any local myths about bad juju in the area??

    I’m sure glad to know that at least you are in such a beautiful and friendly spot with superb backpacking out the back door.

  3. Wishing you a wonderful backpack trip and Chimera’s complete recovery and return to the road. Buena Suerte!
    Marian and Kent

  4. Just stumbled across this through the Google Machine. What luck that you broke down in nearly the same place that we did! I know that you must be thinking that it’s bad luck at this point, but that won’t be the case in hindsight. After all was said and done, as we left South America behind en route to Asia, our forced stop in the mountains near El Cocuy went down as the very best part of our entire 13 month drive through the Americas. And it never would have happened without aid of mechanical failure. So keep your heads high, make the best of it, and rest assured that you’re living the very best of your experience right now! Best of luck, and leave a kiss in El Cocuy for us.

    • Thanks for the words of encouragement, Brad. We were excited to get your comment as Drive Nacho Drive was a major inspiration for us throughout our build and planning phases.

      We were fortunate to break down in such a beautiful location with very nice and helpful people and already look back fondly at our time there.

      Best of luck to you and Sheena in your new adventures. We look forward to hearing what you get up to in Seattle.

    • Eric, the belt did not break. The belt slipped on one of the cam shafts. I was never able do determine what caused it to slip but had to assume it was due to a faulty belt tensioner. The belt had around 15k on it and the tensioner was unknown.

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