A Travellerspoint blog


Paul and Susie learn about differentials.

So, I am learning a lot about trucks. Driving a 1989 Trooper has helped me to gain a pretty broad Spanish vocabulary of truck parts, and meet lots of mechanics along the way. Just after entering Panama, Phyllis started to get a strange shimmy when we cornered slowly. We ignored it for the first little while, but it kept getting worse and worse. We visited a couple of mechanics, who checked out our front end and confirmed Paul’s suspicion that everything was ok under there… perplexing. We then moved to the unfortunate conclusion that it might be the rear differential. (For those of you who share my lack of technical know-how, since our truck is rear wheel drive, this part both allows power to move to the rear wheels, and allows the rear wheels to move at different rates when cornering as to not screech them.) This part is complicated to work on, and risks imminent failure if the gears shear themselves off. Basically, this is a reall¬¬y bad part to have to fix. The chatter kept getting worse and worse, and we decided that if we were going to find a skilled mechanic and/or parts anywhere, we would probably find them in the larger city centers- Panama City.

We arrived in Panama City and met up with David and Andrea to start the paperwork for the shipping process. By this time our truck was behaving super poorly, and in the back of both of our minds was the thought- why ship the truck if it’s just going to die? Paul drained the fluid from the diff, and found lots of metal in it (not a good sign), he replaced it with thicker fluid for the higher temperatures. We asked around and found a few leads on neighbourhoods to check out where there are many mechanic shops. The major stumbling block in Panama was the TRAFFIC. There is traffic like I have never seen before. We were lost most of the time, and driving a mere 5km through the city took us 2.5 hours. This was horrendous. The mechanics that we did find either could not locate the part on the vehicle, or told us to buy a whole new axle, or told us that it would take 5-7 days to diagnose and fix the problem. FAIL. We struck out here, and decided to ship Phyllis broken and deal with it later. We both realized this this was a risky move, and that we might be throwing away our 1200 dollars that it cost to ship her. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

When we picked up Phyllis in Cartagena, there was one thing on our minds- let’s get her to the mechanic. We visited a man named Nelson who told us he could fix axles, who promptly referred us to his friend Yonnie who apparently specializes in problems such as ours. This seemed sweet until our 9am appointment with him turned out to be in a gravel parking lot (not a shop) to which he was 2 hours late. We talked to him on the phone, and he told us to let his assistants take the diff apart, and that he would diagnose it and work on it when he got there. Paul caught the assistant jumping on the lugnut wrench trying to get the wheel off, who then broke our lugnut. We yelled to get him to stop. CUT. If you can’t take a wheel off a truck you don’t get to work on Phyllis. We peeled out of there no further ahead. Never did meet up with Yonnie.

By now we were getting pretty demoralized. We hedged our bets and went to the one place we don’t usually go. We hit up the Isuzu/Chevrolet dealership to ask them for help. They were surprisingly helpful and connected us up with a mechanic named Jairo. Jairo took our diff apart, and cleaned it. It looked fine to him- no problems. Sometimes it is hard to convince mechanics down here that you actually do have a problem. He did a few other things for us including new sway bar links, and leaf spring bushings. We put some thicker fluid in the diff for the warmer temps (as per the manual) and took her for a test drive. SHE WAS WORSE THAN EVER. Phyllis was barely driveable. She could not corner at all and made horrible noises. Jairo tried to console us by telling us that she was fine as long as you drive straight, and that he could order us a new differential from Bogota for 2 million pesos (1111$). Thanks, but no thanks. So we had a truck that was barely driveable (and could fail at any point), no leads for mechanics in Cartagena, and no way to acquire affordable parts- Lowest point of the trip.

We set off on the highway east in a rather ill-advised mission to the larger city of Barranquilla- one and a half hours from Cartagena. We rolled into the city limped Phyllis to a shop that specializes in 4x4s called Iguana 4x4. The owner of the shop Hernando was immediately receptive and helpful. He is fluent in English- and he understands what we are talking about! He knows about rear differentials, and understands what can go wrong with them! He knows how to work on them! Things are looking up. He was so helpful that he let us keep the truck there, drove us to the bank, and then to a hotel. We later learned that he was getting married in two days, and still found the time to help two disgruntled wayward Canadians. We started the search for parts and seemed to be well connected in the world of Barranquilla auto wreckers. The next morning we went back to the shop and spent most of the day waiting to hear news on the parts search. The Colombian model of the Trooper has a different rear axle, but the Venezuelan model (called the Caribe) has a match. This is great news. At about 3pm the news arrived that there was a part on its way. A local mechanic disassembled the rear diff, and also informed us that it looked as good as new. We were getting pretty sick of hearing that. When the part arrived, it was the wrong one. It was from a Colombian Trooper and would not fit Phyllis. BUT, Hernando had a look at the diff, and informed us that it was a Limited Slip Differential (LSD). This is a special and pretty rare part that would explain the incredible off road performance we were getting out of Phyllis. I won’t go into the details of how it works, because I don’t know how it does, but if you want to nerd out- click here. We went back to the hotel that night with hope that the wrecker could get the right part tomorrow. Paul was surprised he didn’t know we had that part since the guy who sold us the truck didn’t mention it, and Paul even verified with the VIN number that it didn’t came stock with it. It is a pretty rare option that we were lucky to have. Paul stayed up reading and researching all night, I went to bed exhausted and pretty frustrated.

When we got to the shop the next day Paul had a plan. We were going to replace the thick fluid with something much less viscous. An LSD needs special fluid to allow the locking mechanism to slide more freely. His theory was that because we had been using the wrong fluid, the plates were not able to slide against each other, and could be grabbing to make that chattering popping sound. This would explain why the thicker the fluid, the worse the problem. Hernando graciously allowed Paul to use the hoist and put the old girl back together. He drained the fluid, added the new stuff, and we went for a test drive. THAT WAS IT! She was all better. After 3 weeks of worrying and many trips too many mechanics, an extensive search for parts, and lots of emotion, it was the wrong damn fluid. We apologized to Phyllis and would like to thank her for being much more awesome than we initially thought. We learned a lot about LSD. Thank you Iguana 4x4 for being so friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.

Some of the photos are related to the post, and the rest are just from our trip in Colombia thus far.













Posted by SusieMiller 13:21 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)


backpacking from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia

Once in Panama we both got the obligatory Central American travel sickness involving sweats, and many many trips to the bathroom. Our travel plans for the country were interrupted a little bit with the recovery process, but we did manage to see some interesting places, and meet some very unique people. We spent a week and a half exploring the country, before tackling Panama City to start the process of shipping Phyllis to Colombia. We connected up with another couple, David and Andrea, to share the costs of the container, and travel from Panama to Colombia. There are so many blogs about this process, that I don’t feel the need to explain it again here, but I will say that it costs a lot, and that Panama City is not great for drivers. If you want to read more about shipping- click here. As per usual, we didn’t plan anything, and left all of the organizing to the last minute, so once Phyllis and the VW Kombi were safely loaded into the 40 foot container in Colon we had four days to get ourselves to Colombia. Common ways of getting across the Darien gap (a stretch of jungle connecting Colombia and Panama with no roads, no police presence, and dense jungle) include flying, and sailing. We went the more obscure route and took public transportation the whole way.

From Panama City we hired a man with a 4x4 Land Cruiser to take us to the tiny port town of Carti. This is in the semi-autonomous indigenous state of Guna Yala (formerly Kuna Yala or San Blas). The road was windy, and within an hour we had gone from the Pacific to within sight of the Carribean Coast. That was pretty cool. It winded its way along a ridge top and dropped in and out of low lying clouds; incredibly beautiful. This would be the most comfortable ride of the next four days. We got the Carti and were then in search of a boat operator willing to take us the six hours to the border town of Puerto Obaldia. We had been told that it should cost between 60 and 80 US dollars. The first (and only) man who was heading that way offered to take us for 100 dollars, which we tried to bargain. He was our only choice and he knew it. His price would not move, and eventually he took off without us. Lesson learned, bargaining is a fine art that should never be overdone. We spent the day in the hot and dusty port town, and ended up camping out there. While waiting we met many Guna people who were all eager to educate us about their politics and culture. Not a total waste of a day… we will try again tomorrow.

The next day we found a boat. We were all relieved and didn’t hesitate to pay the 100 asked. The ride was reasonably rough, but we got to stop off at many of the Guna islands to pick up and drop off passengers, and rest along the way. It was incredible to see the densely packed inhabited islands interspersed with deserted ones. I wondered where all the residents got their drinking water though. If I had more time I would have loved to hang out here longer. It looked perfect for snorkeling, and swimming, the people seemed incredibly sincere and hospitable, and the weather was amazing. Step 1 complete, we spent the night in the tiny town of Puerto Obaldia and waited until morning when the customs office reopened to receive our exit stamps. Puerto Obaldia felt incredibly isolated. It has power only a few hours a day and seemed to be the type of town where everyone knew each other. There were no cars since it cannot be reached by road, and it seemed to move at a very relaxed pace. The following morning, the customs office opened late, and we were helped by a very serious man with no appetite for pleasantries.

Out of Panama, not yet into Colombia, we hired another boat to take us the 20 minutes to Capurgana. This was the roughest ride of the trip by far. When we reached Capurgana, I was surprised with how developed it seemed despite also not being connected to anywhere else by road. It was much bigger than its equivalent on the Panama side, and seemed to have the feeling of a tourist town without tourists. We officially entered Colombia, and were informed that we had missed the onward boat Turbo, so we stayed for the night. I would recommend Capurgana to anyone visiting the Carribean coast of Colombia. It is beautiful, relaxed, and had some good food and beaches. The diving is said to be amazing, and it is possible to make snorkeling and diving trips to the nearby Guna Yala islands, whose waters are fairly undisturbed and are supposed to be home to some very healthy coral reefs.

The final leg of our trip was the three hour boat ride to Turbo followed by two five hour bus trips to Monteria, and onward to Cartagena. Turbo is a gross, dirty, dangerous port town. When we stepped off the boat we were immediately swarmed with man trying to sell us bus tickets. They tried to hustle us for a cut of the price on to various bus lines. We got a bus, and as we were pulling out on our way to Monteria, the price hustler who helped us jumped onto the bus- perhaps unhappy with the cut he was getting- and tried to punch out the bus attendant. The worker threw him off into traffic and the driver grabbed second gear and peeled out. Holy crap! I was happy to be on the highway out of Turbo. The rest of the bus travel was fairly uneventful. We got into Cartagena at around midnight and slept for a long time. Rested and ready, there have been a few delays, and we are still working on springing our vehicle out of the port. Hopefully by this time next week we are reunited with Phyllis, her rear axle will be fixed, and we will back on the road. No more backpacking for a while.
















Posted by SusieMiller 13:13 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Costa Rica

Every shade of green

I had always assumed that a place like Costa Rica, which is incredibly developed for tourism, would be fairly predictable to travel. It is good to know that a place like this can still surprise you. Costa Rica has wild and inaccessible sections like any of the other Central American countries we’ve traveled. We beat up our truck pretty hard on the Osa peninsula, floating it through a river once, almost getting stuck another time, and enjoying (almost) every minute of it. We headed down the Pacific coast from Alajuela, enjoying camping in incredibly hot and wet weather. We are still very much in the midst of the rainy season. No matter the weather, we are stoked to be back on the road having spontaneous surprises and enjoying the company of quirky people.

Last week, Paul and I arrived in a small town called Puerto Jimenez. We drove around a bit looking for a place to stay and eventually pulled into a campground run by a very friendly man named Adonis. Upon checking in he informed us that “hay crocodillos”. Ok… there are crocodiles. I didn’t know what to make of that. Is it a warning? A threat? The price was right, so we decided to stay. We settled in and visited a local mechanic trying to source a new pin for our brakes (the mechanics in Alajuela, though cheap and fast, were a little bit smashy breaking an integral piece of our braking system and doing a very poor job of repairing it. Phyllis was now creaking and whining over every little bump in the road). We got the part for fairly inexpensive and decided to chill out and celebrate with a beer. Just as it started to get dark, Adonis came over to our campsite and informed us that it was time to feed the crocodiles. Another German roadtripper (also camping at Adonis’ site) had bought a large bag of meat, and we were told to follow them into the woods… with flashlights. A little nervous, I decided to follow expecting to find crocodiles in cages. Nope. Adonis started calling out to the crocodiles (both Cayman and American) and called them by names. “que linda” he says (how beautiful). All I am thinking now is- there are 20 odd live crocodiles five feet away from me. I am most definitely out of my comfort zone. Adonis starts breaking off chunks of meat and feeding the crocs, he tells us to stand back since the American and the Caymans fight over the meat sometimes. I wanted to climb a tree. In the end I was relieved to be back at the campsite, surprised at the turn of events that evening, and fairly impressed that I didn’t crap my pants.









Posted by SusieMiller 10:36 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (3)

On the Road Again

Back in Costa Rica heading south

Reunited with Phyllis in Costa Rica, we are super stoked to be back on the road. Paul and I flew down from the west coast and were expecting to find the truck in ruins. We were setting ourselves up for the worst, but found her fairly intact and much less mouldy than our vehicles at home will be after a winter of outdoor storage on Vancouver Island. Part two of the Pan-American journey starts this week. Over the summer, we had our doubt that we could make it happen financially. A slow fire season and significantly higher costs of living in South America made it tempting to head back to Mexico, though it felt like unfinished business. A late fall saved our bank accounts, and we are back on the road a month later than expected.

As promised, here is the detailed process for getting a truck out of government storage in Costa Rica:
1. Get your insurance. You will need regular old Costa Rican car insurance that can be purchased at the INS (institution nacional de seguro) office in Alajuela. It is super close to the airport and pretty straightforward, though you will need to take a cab. We ended up paying just under 20 dollars, but our permit is good for six months. Maybe if you request less time, the price will be lower.
2. Get your import permit. This has to be done at the Aduana Santa Maria (airport customs office). You definitely need your old cancelled papers, along with your passport, drivers licence, the vehicle title, and insurance papers. This should probably be obvious by now, but the vehicle owner must be present. We were helped out very promptly upon arrival. Mario, the super cute vehicle customs guy, started work at 10am when we arrived. He is without a doubt the friendliest and most helpful government worker we have met in our trip to date. He speaks great English, and is ‘the man’ around the office. Try to connect up with him if you can.
3. Go get your vehicle! Make sure you have all your papers for this step. They will need to see your permit, your insurance, and your ID. After paying the bill, we were directed to another counter where a man inspected our papers and gave us a ‘permission to leave’ paper that you give at the gate upon exit. We found Phyllis in a different spot than we left her. I am not so sure how anyone managed to move her without disturbing the contents inside or the tarp covering her, and without a key. Nonetheless, she was ready and waiting, and nothing inside her was too mouldy. Paul went to start her up, and she was quite reluctant. After a few minutes of coaxing, she roared to life, and the six odd employees cheered for us. We drove her back to Alajuela, and celebrated.

More to come in the coming weeks.

Posted by SusieMiller 18:53 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (2)

Life in the Pemberton valley

moving from the truck back into the tent

It has been quite a while since we flew back home to BC from Costa Rica, and left Phyllis there to weather the wettest months of the year. Paul and I are all moved back into our wall tent and work is in full swing. Adjusting to life in the tent has been pretty smooth, and the humid Central American jungle seems like a world away. Our living situation is pretty sweet in the wall tent. We are camped out on a friend's land, whose family has been generous enough to let us stay two summers in a row. We live simply with a woodstove for cooking, in addition to the barbeque and propane stove. Since a large part of our day is spent cooking, and dreaming up new dishes to make on the woodstove, we have started to think of our lifestyle as somewhat 'gourmet redneck'. No running water, and a very rudimentary outhouse built in one afternoon from a single sheet of plywood... it's perfect.

The Pemberton valley is in the Sea-to-Sky corridor that also includes the city of Whistler, and Squamish along the highway 99. It is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever done, and continues to attract droves of tourists, mainly in RVs and on motorbikes. It is not uncommon to come around a corner and see tourists out of their giant rental RV getting dangerously close to a bear to get better photos. More funny and scary encounters with bears in Whistler here The town of Pemberton is an odd mix of young families, extreme sports enthusiasts, farmers, and rednecks- and combinations of these (yoga with horses?!?). Just to the north of Pemberton is the reserve community of Mount Currie adjacent to where the tent is set up. Over the past few weeks we have taken in a few community events including the Lillooet Lake rodeo, and the infamous 4 x 4 rally. Here are some photos of life in the tent from the past month.












More stories and photos to come.

Posted by SusieMiller 13:34 Archived in Canada Comments (5)

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