Driving a Vanagon in Belize!
As many of you know, my wife and I had a wonderful trip to Belize in
Central America last winter. In fact we enjoyed it so much that we took
another one this winter from January 9th to the 19th of 2012! We stayed
in the Placencia area again which is the southern shore town of Belize
and became beach bums. In this area of Belize there is many, many miles
of beach along the shore and a lot of it still doesnâ€™t have homes or
resorts along it. The Belizean government has wisely designated the
first 60 feet from the beach inland as public land. So if you wanted to
you could walk the entire beach from Maya Beach area all the way down to
Placencia Village at the end and no one could legally stop you. I think
it is 15 miles of beach!
Of course the excuse for coming down to Belize again was to work on a
customer/friends 87 Wolfsburg Vanagon. The van wasnt even running last
year if you will remember and I had to fly down with a bunch of parts,
really just guessing at what could possibly be wrong. It wound up being
several things but the most messed up thing was the gas tank. It was
full of really fine rust particles that were passing through the fuel
filter and clogging up the injectors. When I was here last year we
priced out just the shipping on getting a new tank down to Belize and
the shipping alone was something like $900! I wanted to get the van up
and running while we were there last year but even paying that much for
shipping the tank wouldnt have arrived until I was back at home in the
US. So I wound up waiting until I got home, packing up the new gas tank
and all of the other parts we would need, and shipping them down slow
boat to Belize. My friend Thorsten Kahl (a transplanted German) who runs
a VW shop in Spanish Lookout area of Belize took the new parts and
brought the van back to life! The customer was overjoyed! He came down
back in April of last year and got to drive the van while on vacation.
However the Air Conditioning wasnt working and in a place like Belize
where the humidity is a living thing that embraces you the second you
step off of the airplane, you really need AC.
This year, that was our mission. Get the AC up and running, put some
leak detector dye in the system in case there was a leak somewhere, and
install a new set of front shocks.
So we flew down all the way to Placencia this time instead of renting a
car in Belize City and driving down. We got to ride on a puddle jumper
from the international airport to the Placencia Air Port which has a
really, really short runway and is terminated on both ends by water
(ocean on one end and lagoon on the other). We flew Tropic Air and
beside some wind shear taking off rocking the tail back and forth a bit,
we had a smooth flight.
Again we were staying at The Placencia Resort and Residences. The van
owner also owns a residence in this resort which is a three story
mansion. I think it has 6 bedrooms and three and a half baths. With just
my wife and I there, it gets down right creepy at night especially when
the icemaker in the basement comes on and makes noises that sounds like
someone is skulking around the house. It loves to make ice about 3am too
just to really freak you out!
The van was parked inside a garage that had marble floors! And you know
the funny part. Even though this engine was rebuilt by the evil GEX, it
doesnt leak any oil whatsoever! Isnt that shocking?
So I had the owners squawk list for the van and what we would do was
get up and 6am every morning and try to watch the sunrise (was cloudy
every day though so that didnt really work out). Then we would eat
breakfast, I would slip into my jumper and do some work on the van for
about an hour. Laying on a marble floor under a Vanagon is surreal
experience believe me. Then we would go over to the resort and use the
internet ($50 per week!), to stay in touch with everyone at home plus do
orders, etc. for the business. That would usually only take an hour. Now
it is 9:30-10am and we would do whatever we wanted. Maybe we would go to
the beach. Maybe we would drive the van down to the village and get some
stuff. Maybe we would go to a cool place we found last year calledThe
Shak which is right at the end of the road in Placencia Village and
also right on the beach. It was a very relaxing vacation. I am usually
one of those people that gets restless if I dont have anything to do,
but after the first three days, I finally let that go and really started
to enjoy our time.
I told you folks I saw another Vanagon there last year sitting at the
end of the road in Placencia Village and it looked like it hadnt moved
in a while. This year, someone must have fixed it because I saw it a
good bit away from where it was last year in Seine Bight Village. That
was good to see that it wasnt just sitting there rotting.
Finally we got down to our last few days and I had to take the van to
get the AC work done. I had shipped the tools we were going to need to
my friend Thorsten Kahls shop ahead of time so that he would have
everything when I came down. Thorsten lives about two and a half hours
away in a place called Spanish Lookout in the Cayo district. This is
where a large group of Mennonites live and it is considered to be one of
the best places in Belize to get mechanical work done. I know it sounds
weird but where we were there really were no mechanic shops. There were
a couple of guys who would work out of their house and were bush
mechanics. That means they can do minor repairs or bailing wire repairs
to get you down the road a piece but you really wouldnt want them to do
something major. For that you have to get your vehicle to Spanish
Lookout or Belmopan area. We drove the van there and it is always
interesting. There is a bridge that is being built but for now there is
a temporary bridge across the river which is just some planks that
look like they could collapse at any moment. Then there are the old
cement bridges that we had to go over which were crumbling and bumpy.
Then there was a place on the Hummingbird Highway where a piece of the
road was washed away by a recent rain and if you went off the road you
would be going down the side of a mountain!
The road itself has to be driven on to appreciate. I think the only
thing I can compare it to is to the test track that manufactures use to
test cars to destruction so they can determine the build quality of
their vehicles. It isnt that bad of a road but if you drive on it you
vehicle is going to vibrate quite a bit. In the van the front doors were
rattling and I had never heard a Vanagon make that noise before. When we
got where we were going I checked out the doors to see if there was
something wrong with the latches but there wasnt and everything was
normal tightness. It is just the road itself that makes things vibrate
that normally do not. Then you have the Speed Humps every ¼ mile in
towns maybe every five to ten miles on the highway. I hate these things
with a passion but there is nothing you can do but live with them. They
are everywhere and sometimes they are painted so you can see them or
they have signs and sometimes not. They are about a 18 inches high but about
four feet wide and they go all the way across the road. If you dont
slow down to 15 mph and you hit one you are going to seriously damage
something in your front end. No fun believe me!
We got to Thorstens shop and we were supposed to replace the front
shocks and do the AC work. The front shocks needed replacing as you can
tell because the road had vibrated the lower shock bolt out on the
drivers side! I had never seen this happen before. I found the problem
when we first arrived and Thorsten sourced a bolt and nut so we were
good to go. New shocks installed we moved on to the AC. I replaced the
drier and several o-rings, pulled a vacuum on the system for about 30
mins and then charged it up with R134a. The system held and worked
great! We also put in the dye. Hopefully it will hold. We should know
about that soon.
On the way back we made a big mistake. We stayed and hung out with our
friend Thorsten too long and got about half way back when it got dark.
The roads in Belize are OK in the day when you can see and avoid the
speed humps, etc. At night was Vanagon sad headlights (square), it was
dangerous. I have poor night vision anyway so my wife told me to pull
over so she could drive. The lines on the road are faded to nothing and
the road itself is the same color as the dirt on either side of it. So
it isnt super obvious when you come to a turn and we were traveling
over mountain roads. I was happy to have her drive. Then you come upon
these black shapes in the road. They could be an 18 wheeler that has no
rear lights! They could be a farmer bringing his harvest of oranges back
to his barn with all of the workers sitting on top of the oranges in the
trailer that he is pulling behind his tractor. It could be people
walking along the side of the road, or riding bikes (at night). No reflectors! You have
to be aware of all of these things. I think it is best to avoid driving
at night in Belize whenever possible. We got back to the house safely
and were ready to enjoy our last couple of days before we left.
The van was running excellent the whole trip in spite of having itself
vibrated on the test track. I was really proud of it!
Want to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!