San Cristobal de las Casas

The drive from Tuxtla Guterriez to San Cristobal de las Casas is an uphill slog, one that would test Ruby’s cooling system to the max. The former town being located at 500 metres and the latter at 2,200 metres, with a gap in between of only around 40km. After having some power issues with the van, we were a little apprehensive and did pull over a couple of times to give the engine a chance to cool down. On the whole though, we cruised without incident into San Cristobal and headed for El Encuentro park, located towards the east of the town. After a week in a loud garage with the endless crowing of the resident rooster, we were excited for some peace and quiet. 

The park was a great open space with a river winding its way through it and palalpas dotted around. it was the perfect tonic after our garage camp spot. We had only been there an hour or so before we were the only people and we had the place to ourselves. I wandered off trying to find a bit of phone signal, taking a trail out into the woods. While I didn’t have much join with phone reception, this pleasant little path through the woods climbs steeply up the hill to give a great view of the park below, with us, the only camper and was therefore worth the effort. 

I should have left it at that, but determined that we would be able to watch the latest episode of Line of Duty, I headed back with my laptop. I sat in a half built shelter to try and get the internet, and got stuck there until it was nearly dark, due to the thunderstorm that appeared from nowhere and the marble sized hailstones which fell down around me. After waiting for it to be just a bit wet, I legged it back to the camper. The change in altitude also meant a dramatic change in temperature. 

We thoroughly enjoyed our peaceful night in the park, so much so that we stayed for another. Using the time to clean our toilet, which was long overdue emptying. The plan was to stock up in the town and collect Lee’s passport, before continuing on towards the border. Passport collected, we headed for the supermarket. For some reason or another, the police were stopping traffic on the slip road we were driving on and while this in itself was not an issue, we had an unpleasant moment when they waved us forward and Ruby did not co-operate. She had no power and bucked her way up the hill in stops and starts. Embarrassed and dreading serious problem, we pulled over straight away. Something was seriously wrong. I tried swapping the idle air valve and it seemed fine for a little while, then we had no power again. We went to get our shopping and then some more fuel. We decided there was no way we were going to leave the last big town and drive to the border with a clear engine problem. We attempted to find a mechanic. Limping around town, unable to drive up even the slightest incline, we sort a place to stop whilst we researched an appropriate garage.

In the end, we ended up at Casa Baxal. A youth hostel in the southern part of the town. iOverlander had said they had some kind of garage, which definitely wasn’t true. The owner however, was very friendly. He waved us in and showed us around. He asked how long we wanted to stay, we told him that hopefully it would be just a night. He also said he knew a mechanic that would come out too, so we pitched up and decided tomorrow we would try and sort something out. 

The mechanic didn’t turn out to be much good. He arrived and poked a few things before declaring we needed a specialist with more advanced tools. He said he would come back the next morning and drive with us to this garage. That was fine with me, as there wasn’t much I could figure out without some test equipment. 

That night, Aimee, who we had given free run of the place after seeing that there were two more cats there already, scaled the neighbouring wall and landed herself in next doors garden. Then, because she’s Aimee, she couldn’t get out again. We didn’t hear her pitiful whines, until around 2am. Lee declared something must have happened and went to look for her. It wasn’t too long before she was found, but getting her out was another thing entirely. Fortunately there was a makeshift wooden ladder, so rather hastily Lee (Dressed in his special saving Aimee hippie trousers) climbed down into the garden to rescue our stupid cat before beating a hasty retreat in case the properties dogs or the owners appeared. Climbing over their wall in the middle of the night definitely looked a little suspect. 

This means we were not happy to have to get up at 8am for the mechanic, but things needed to be done. We were infinitely less impressed when he completely failed to show up. At this point, we resigned ourselves to spending Lee’s birthday here, rather than on a picturesque lake near the border with our friends. 

We were not the only camper van at the hostel, and the other couple and their kid came from Uruguay. They had the contact details of a German mechanic who they thought was very good, this appeared to be true as he was also very booked up. After talking to him for a while though, he agreed to fit us in the following day. 

We arrived at his garage, dripping oil all over the floor and I was a little embarrassed when he opened the engine bay and pointed to the fact that we had driven here with an HT lead completely out. The other mechanic had not seen fit to replace it. I assured him that wasn’t that real problem and we spent the next few hours running some tests on the van. In the end, we left with the diagnosis of excessive fuel pressure. I ordered a new part of amazon and we settled in to wait for it. We filled our time with trying to make money or baked items.

Lee’s birthday arrived and was a rather muted affair, I guess it didn’t feel like quite the same to celebrate in our current situation. We sat in our pyjamas in the vary bare main room of the hostel, that smelled strongly of damp and concrete, eating a large pizza and drinking Champagne (some things are tradition).

In the interim, we broke up our week with a hike, a nice chinese meal and some projects. It’s funny how easy it is to get stuck in a rut. We knew we would have some time to kill, and made various plans. We’d repaint bits of Ruby, work on our YouTube channel, and various other projects. But when you sit in the same place day after day with no actual deadline, it’s easy to put things off and lose the motivation. We did do a few useful things, like trying to get our starter sorted as it was being very temperamental and installing a new cat flap for Aimee.

We went for a sociable meal in town and met some new people while enjoying some pretty good Chinese food.

And had a much needed a change of scenery. Fortunately, we could walk from the hostel to this rather lovely viewpoint overlooking the entire town. It was a bit of a struggle, us being unfit and at altitude, but definitely worth it to break up the day. 

At the weekend, our part arrived. It took a little while and a little modification to fit, as I had to buy an aftermarket part as the original wasn’t available.

Soon though, we had it back together and ran it up to temperature, where the problem normally became apparent. Unfortunately for us, the problem was still there. Then we found a loose wire on the cam sensor and really thought we had fixed it… but no luck. When the engine reached around 90 degrees, it ran like absolute crap. I was bouncing some ideas around with a few other mechanics in England, but we had limited test equipment. We tried to make another appointment with Jurgen, but he had come into contact with Covid and was awaiting some tests. We decided to drive to another garage and try them. 

The other garage was the other side of town, we even cycled there the day before to see if they thought they could help, he seemed happy enough so the next day we limped across town. They spent several hours staring at the same page on the code reader, apparently disappointed that it hadn’t displayed the problem for them. We then waited three hours for his friend to come and compression test it. This was a big moment, as I had never been convinced our head gaskets would hold and I was really hoping we weren’t needing another rebuild. It was a massive relief when we read a solid 180psi across all the cylinders. We weren’t any the wiser of the problem though, when we headed off. 

The next day, after several people mentioning it, we decided to check the timing. I was pretty convinced that if the timing was out that the engine wouldn’t even start. Having experienced that previously with this very engine, but we had look nevertheless. I was a mixture of angry and relived when we finally pulled off the crank pulley and saw that it had clearly jumped a tooth. The auto-tensioner was leaking oil, quite possibly the cause. No big deal! Apart from being annoyed that I hadn’t checked sooner, we had a spare tensioner. We fitted it and it was then clear that it was broken too. Despite the fact that this is a non-interference engine (meaning the valves will not hit the pistons if the engine goes out of time), we still felt that engine timing was not something to be taken lightly. We resolved to wait another week, and order a proper timing kit in the meantime. 

These events had taken us around to my 30th birthday. I had hoped that we would have escaped San Cristobal by this point, but clearly it was not meant to be. Still, I can’t say I had a bad day. After spending a long time at the hostel, we decided to get out for the day. We headed back to a vegan restaurant we had tried earlier, Te Quiero Verde. Last time, the food had been fantastic and this time it was still pretty good, if not quite as great as before. We had a rather nice lunch and then decided to walk it off by climbing up the viewpoint in the middle of the city. 

This features a lot of stairs, but gives a nice view of the city as you climb up to the church at the top.

At this point it started to rain. We had entered the rainy season here and without warning the skies were subject to opening. This is the kind of rain that escalates from a few drops to monsoon in the space of minutes and we ran for shelter under the nearest available building. The good thing about monsoons, is that while they are heavy, it’s normally not for too long. With the whether looking pretty set, we grabbed an umbrella for the next downpour and headed to a nice craft beer bar. 

It was rather good to while away the afternoon drinking fancy beer, before heading to an even fancier restaurant. Casa Lum is about as close as you can get to Michelin star here, and my lovely sisters had given us the money to pay for it. We ordered some very expensive wine, and ate the best broccoli I’ve ever tried. All in all, it was a pretty good day. 

As luck would have it, our parts were not delayed in customs as we had experienced before and it wasn’t long before DHL delivered them to our door. This was good news as my birthday marked the start of the rainy season and we were now treated to a daily deluge. On the whole not too bad, unless you happen to be trying to collect your post from DHL that day. Then it’s wet.

With our new parts, the swap was pretty straightforward, and that meant that after five weeks at Casa Baxal we were ready to leave.

We said goodbye to the Uruguayan family and a sadder good-bye to the hostel cats. As always we had imaginatively named them Little Girl and Fat Boy. Fat Boy loved attention and also got on pretty well with Aimee, I would have been tempted to take him with us but we couldn’t take two more cats and we didn’t want to split them up, so on Sunday afternoon, we said our goodbyes and left the hostel for good. 

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