Crossing into Ecuador from Colombia marked the first time in three months that we had driven across an international border under our own power. The previous night we’d driven twelve hours, our long push culminating at a Texaco station high in the mountains where we set up camp. Shortly after our arrival all four of our tires were promptly marked by a band of rogue dogs, as happens every time we stop.
Having driven the last four hours at night, I hadn’t seen a rock in the road and hit it at around 45 miles per hour. The rock flung up and hit the propane hose that feeds our stove, creating a gash that caused most of our propane to leak out. I noticed the smell as we settled down for bed, and closed the valve so as to retain what little propane was left, and to avoid waking up dead. One more thing to fix.
The following morning, after a short visit to a church built over a gorge where a crazy person claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, we crossed into Ecuador to find the Pan-American a beautifully manicured four lane highway. We continued South to the town of Otavalo, and after a couple of uninspiring days there we were ready to say goodbye to the Northern Hemisphere.
By early afternoon we had arrived at the equator. We found a restaurant near the equatorial line, where we were welcomed by a bunch of cardboard cutouts of Dave Zimmern, the host of some American strange foods show. He had apparently stopped here and eaten a guinea pig, as evidenced by the myriad photographs, quotes, and faded cardboard cutouts of him holding said guinea pig. We spied several guinea pigs impaled on sticks over a fire, so we inquired. In a country where lunch rarely costs more than $2, we regretfully turned down the $20 price tag and instead ate what the locals were eating. The proprietor seemed extremely dismayed that we were unwilling to purchase one of her exorbitantly priced rodents. We paid the $2 for our lunch and made our way to the equator.
The equator, for all its fame and reputation, was about as interesting as a line painted on the ground. We checked it with our GPS and found it to be several feet from the real equator. It wasn’t merely disappointing in the way that your children don’t like The Rolling Stones as much as you do. No, it was really disappointing. Like the kind of disappointment you feel when your children quit their perfectly adequate jobs to go live in a van. This fact didn’t stop us from doing silly poses and, most impressively, planking the illegitimate equator.
A few small issues had popped up with Nacho since leaving Susacón, so we decided to spend a couple of days taking care of them in Quito; one of our inner tie rod ends had developed some slop, we now had a bad propane line, and we found – to my utter dismay and disbelief – that our new transmission had come with a leaky drive flange oil seal. As we drove, the bottom of our engine and transmission were being covered by a continuous drip of gear oil, which mixed with dust to create a nice oily sludge. Fortunately I’d picked up a couple of new drive flange oil seals in Panama on a whim, so I planned to replace the leaky one and be on our way.
We drove to Quito and found an enclosed dirt parking lot in the middle of downtown where we could camp for about $3 per night. Within walking distance were a whole gaggle of restaurants serving delicious – and virtually free – meals. Middle Eastern kebabs could be had for $1.50. Indian curry with naan and rice was $4. Our favorite lunch place turned out to be a nice Italian restaurant with crisp white table cloths and well-dressed waiters. Main dishes came from the wood-fired oven in the center of the room. The standard lunch included fresh squeezed juice, an appetizer, a large bowl of soup, a well-stocked salad bar, a main course, and a dessert – all for $3. Ecuador, with its $1.50/gallon gas and dirt cheap delicious food, was going to be a welcome relief to our budget.
I started off by repairing our propane line. As expected, none of the hardware stores carried the fitting I needed, so I improvised using things I had in the van. I ended up fixing it MacGyver style with a bolt and some plumber’s tape. Next it was time to fix the transmission leak. I drained the gear oil, cut away the safety wire and removed the CV joint – laughing to myself that I had ever thought I’d be done messing with CV joints – and then removed the clips and washers that held the drive flange in. Upon removing the drive flange it was obvious that the oil seal had been pressed in crooked when it was rebuilt. I compared my new seals with the crooked one and discovered that the shop in Panama had sold me the wrong seals. What? Another inept worker in the Latin-American car repair industry? Shocking!
I was unable to remove the seal without destroying it, and nothing I tried would cause it to straighten out. I cursed my luck and reassembled everything. I would have to deal with the leak, and resign myself to continually checking the oil level. It just never gets any easier!
The next day I went to several VW parts houses and found that nobody carried a tie rod for Nacho. One would have to be ordered from Guayaquil, which would take two days. It made me nervous because the parts guy never asked me what year Nacho was before placing the order over the phone, but he assured me it was the correct one. I gave it a 5% chance. In the meantime, Sheena and I decided to escape from civilization for a while, and make the trip South to go camping and hiking at Cotopaxi volcano while we waited. We’d just drive carefully so our front wheel assembly wouldn’t come apart.
Getting to Cotopaxi involved traveling over several mountains at or around 14,000 feet. At this elevation, Nacho operates at about 30% power since the fuel doesn’t have enough oxygen to achieve complete combustion. We repeatedly coasted down long stretches of freeway, and then chugged up long stretches in first gear. Eventually we arrived at the dirt road turnoff for Cotopaxi, which was followed by many miles of dirt road. Finally we arrived to our campsite at the base of the mountain; the wind whipped through our the nearly-frozen tundra known as our camp, while the temperature plunged toward freezing. Our camp was at a frosty 15,000 feet in the shadow of the even frostier 20,000 foot volcano.
The following day we donned our hiking gear and set off across the treeless landscape toward the volcano. Being above the tree line allowed us to hike cross-country straight up the side of the peak. We had grandiose plans of reaching the snow line and exploring the edge of the glacier than clung to the side of the mountain, but by mid-afternoon we had only climbed a little better than half way to the snow line.
We regretfully turned around and ran down the side of the volcano in order to make it back to camp before dark. We crawled into Nacho just as the sun crested the horizon, where we cooked dinner and made tea, raising the inside temperature to 65 degrees while outside it plunged below freezing. Sure they have mechanical problems, but you still can’t beat a Vanagon for overland travel.
We opted to spend one more day at Cotopaxi, choosing this time to hike in the other direction. In a failed attempt to locate the trail on our map, we ended up hiking all day along an abandoned road bed through the mountains. This marked the second straight day of not coming across another human here in the beautiful Andes. Another comfortable night in Nacho ensued, and then we were off to collect our tie rod.
In Quito we found parking in a neighborhood close to the VW shop. I crawled under the van with two wrenches and a tie rod puller; yes, I actually have a tie rod puller. Five minutes later we were walking down the street with a badly worn tie rod in one hand, and virtually no chance of finding the right part in the other. As we entered the parts house, the owner reached down and grabbed the part, holding it up with a big grin on his face. I held it up to the bad tie rod and, to my disbelief, found it to be the correct part. I happily paid him and walked back to Nacho, where I crawled underneath and easily installed the new part while fútbol moms drove by and pedestrians stared.
Having had our fill of Quito, we fired up our safer and more reliable Nacho and headed West. We were ready for some surf and sun, so we bid farewell to the mountains with a smile on our faces and a drip on our transmission.