Overlanding South America: The time we overheated and wrecked our engine

Scene: After a month of volunteering in a hostel, we are ready to start a new adventure to the magnificent and infamous Bolivian Salt Flats. We're driving up and down these killer mountains. The car's thermostat is heating up. It's at 80% heat. I'm like "J... I don't think it's meant to be that hot". He's like "Nah, it's cool." 

Note: Neither of us knows anything about cars...

The dial goes to 100%. I'm like.... "I dunno, that doesn't seem normal." Next minute, the car shuts itself off and we roll to a stop on the side of the road. We open the car up to check the engine. Heat is radiating from it like waves and there's a faint steam coming from it.

all the car stories - 8.jpg

J and me have no clue what to do. We have zero internet. We have zero knowledge of cars. We are in the middle of nowhere with a sizzling engine.

One of us says "Maybe we could pour some water over the engine, to cool it down." The other is like, "I swear that could be one of those things they say you should NEVER do." 

Next minute...

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Anyways, after some time, the engine has cooled down significantly. We begin driving again but the killer uphills start causing the car to overheat again. It turns itself off and we once again roll to a stop. J and I try to cool it down and wait, but the engine won't start again. 

We sit there in our van that won't move or start. We have a 2.5 tonne vehicle that will not start or move. It's not like we can push it or leave it or do anything. We have no idea what to do. There's nothing we can do or even know how to do. We feel truly helpless.

Eventually we realise that all we can do is rely on other people's help.

I flag a van down who stops to help us. They're super nice and tow our car to the nearest city, Potosí.

overlanding south america: rebuilding engine potosi

The van drops us off near a random mechanic and we have no choice but to knock on his door and try to explain everything to him. His Spanish is SUUUPER hard to understand though, we can barely converse with him because his accent is very thick and all his words seem to run together.

Later on, when we enlist a friend to help us translate, he explains that even he finds the mechanic hard to understand because the mechanic is actually drunk and slurring all the time hahahha. 

Anyways, safe to say, we switch to a different mechanic after a lot of yelling (not from our end) and awkwardness. Our new friend, José, finds some people down the road to tow our van. 

overlanding south america: rebuilding engine
overlanding south america: rebuilding engine potosi

On the plus side, we learn a lot about rebuilding an engine and how an engine works. 

What you're looking at below is called the "Cylinder Block" where the cylinders of a car sit. So our van was a 4-cylinder engine, hence the 4 cylinder block you can see. :) I thought that was pretty neat, hearing all these years terms like "6-cylinder" or "V8" and finally understanding what it actually meant. 

overlanding south america: rebuilding engine

The newly rebuilt engine takes the might of 4 men to lift back into the van.

overlanding south america: rebuilding engine

The best part of the entire experience was meeting José and his family. We met him when we posted in an "Expats in Bolivia" Facebook group, explaining our crappy situation and asking if anyone knew a good mechanic in Potosi. A woman responded saying her brother and father worked in Potosi and would come help us. They ended up helping us every step of the way, coming with us to visit the mechanic, buy items we needed, translating everything. We actually become friends with them after everything, they even took us out to yummy lunches and showed us around, and were a really cool and kind family. 

I'm really happy that we got to meet them, through this crappy situation. It's crazy how much they helped us despite us being total strangers. 

overlanding south america: rebuilding engine
overlanding south america: rebuilding engine


Some or most of this is going to sound pretty obvious if you know anything about cars. BUT IF YOU DON'T, then please read on, it may save your car one day.

1.  Always check your radiator and engine oil before a long trip, ESPECIALLY if you are going into mountainous/hardcore conditions that will be pushing your car. 

2. Always keep a few extra litres of water in your car, in case you need to top up your radiator.

3. The heat gauge of your car, when operating at optimal temperature, should be around the middle. 

4. If your engine heat gauge starts getting very hot / your car warns you the engine is too hot / the car turns itself off, then DO NOT keep driving. Stop immediately. Immediately!!! It is never worth continuing driving, because you risk fatal damage to your engine parts and the cost of an engine rebuild will make you cry.

And this is just one of many ridiculous car stories from South America haha....

See you next time!