Car thoughts for driving the Andes; advice for what spares/car stuff to bring

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#1 Sat, 11/15/2014 - 12:03

Car thoughts for driving the Andes; advice for what spares/car stuff to bring

We're nine months into a trip from the US to Ushuaia, driving a 2010 Toyota RAV4 limited, 4cyl, AWD.  Currently in Santiago, Chile, we have criss-crossed the Andes all the way down, not shying away from difficult terrain. We spent a lot of time in northern Peru and Bolivia on marginal dirt/rock roads, and some time in Bolivia completely offroad. If you are just surfing your way down the coast, this post probably isn't applicable to you. Also, if you're planning on sitcking largely to paved roads, you can probably skip it as well. 

For everyone else, here are some thoughts:

AWD vs true 4WD vs 2WD: Either AWD or true 4WD will be fine. 2WD will be a PITA in northern Peru and will limit you in Bolivia. For instance, you may not be able to drive the salt flat with 2WD (depending on when the last rain was) and you'd have to be extremely risk tolerant, and skip a lot of sites, to take 2WD into Parque Avaroa. The RAV's AWD and traction control systems worked flawlessly for us. We never had a hint of getting stuck despite some challenging terrain.

4cyl vs 6cyl. The primary tradeoff is gas mileage versus high altitude performance. In Columbia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina gas will range from $4-$6.50 per US gallon. Bolivian gas will also be expensive unless you use a jerry can and fill yourself. A weak 4cyl engine will have trouble with hills at altitude. Our 2,500cc RAV4 flat out refused a couple of steep paved road hills in La Paz (minor inconvenience, we just went around), simply wouldn't go up a moderately steep hill offroad in Guatemala at 12,500 feet, and, in general, struggled with moderately steep hills above 12,000 ft off pavement. On paved or not-too-steep dirt roads, including Peru's Cordillera Blanca,  we took the car up to 16,500 feet without without problems (except in La Paz as noted). Given the savings on gas (my RAV has averaged 22MPG), I'm OK with the weak performance at altitude...although it had me worried a couple of times. A heavier vehicle or smaller engine might change that equation for me.

Tires: Buy the best all-terrain tires you can afford. IMO, this is the single most important upgrade you can make to your car. The unpaved roads are really rough on your tires and good tires are both difficult to find and very expensive in most of South America. They still sell a lot of bias plies, and my tires are almost twice as expensive in South America as they are in the US. I suppose you could go with true off-road tires, but the ride on pavement will be noisy and uncomfortable...and you will spend a lot of time on pavement. Also, buy a commonly available size. We went up a size on the RAV, as all-terrain tires in the stock size would be difficult to source in South America.

Road Clearance: My RAV has a little over 6 inches with the slightly larger tires, and this was not really enough for nothern Peru and southwestern Bolivia. Not putting in a lift kit is probably my biggest regret. You can do it with less clearance, but you will have some very very long stretches at under 10mph. Or you will need to change your route. Or you can just hit things with the bottom of your car. Not having installed a lift kit, I should have added a bash plate. Parque Avaroa in Bolivia was a little rough on the undercarriage.

Gas quality:  They use a different octane calculation in South America than we do in the US; I don't know about the rest of the world. Subtract, about 6 from the octane rating of South American gas to get the US (R+M)/2 equivalent. In Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bolivia, the gas at the pump is usually somewhere between 84 and 87 octane using the SA calculation, so 78-81 US octane equivalent. Aside from the noticeable power loss at altitude, apparently running thousands of miles on weak gas can impact engine life. We used octane booster, which was readily available and added about $3 US to the cost of a tank of gas.

Spares/car stuff?:  Knowing what I know now, here's what I would recommend: Windshield repair kit suitable for multiple dings; at least one extra set of brake pads (they are expensive and of poor quality in many places...I'd bring 2 for the front, 1 for the rear); 2 air filters (or put in a high-flow cleanable filter (K&N?); cabin filter; as many oil filters as you will need; recovery strap; hydraulic jack and quality lug wrench; jumper cables; battery charger; tire pump and flat repair kit; WD 40, lubricating oil, and a can of spray grease; paint scratch/chip repair kit; whisk broom for dust removal. If you have the space, you may want to bring motor oil (full syn is really expensive in SA - typically over $12US/liter), octane booster, windshield washer fluid (triple the US price, although still not a lot of money...but you're going to need it). Being mechanically inclined, I brought a very complete set of tools. Thus far all I've used is one screwdriver and a couple of wrenches, so I probably could have saved the space and weight.

A final note on Toyotas in SA in general, and RAV4s in particular. The notion of Toyota parts availability in South America is a bit of a misconception. Many of Toyota's South American vehicles share a name with their North American/European counterparts...and that's it. The RAV4, for instance, is very different. Different engine, less capable drive system, different electronics, fewer air bags, limited pollution control. Most parts are not interchangeable with the US RAV.  The dealer in Chile told us that this is pretty much the case across the Toyota line. Our car threw some codes related to the evaporative emissions system and the Toyota dealer did not have the information to properly diagnose the problem or, at first, make the repair. Ultimately, they received the latter from Toyota Chile, but it wasn't a simple process. They were unable to diagnose a problem with our cruise control, because South American Toyota's do not have this feature and they could not get the wiring diagrams for our car. I don't know the extent to which this is true with other brands, but you should probably do more research than I did if this kind of thing is a consideration in your buying decision. On the plus side, in South America our RAV is worth almost twice what we paid for it in the US. So, if we can figure out a way to sell it we should do OK.

Happy to answer more specific questions if you'd like. We have about 8 months more to go (Patagonia, Argentia, Uruguay, maybe Brazil), although I think the really challenging terrain is behind us.




Thu, 01/01/2015 - 20:41

More thoughts on the same subject !

Good info from Mike and Kerry.   Like them I am only in Santiago after 8 months on the road.  Would make a couple of comments / additions though so others setting off can get some more ideas to consider.  I am in a RHD Toyota Troop Carrier with a V8 turbo diesel engine, and this has NO problems in the mountains once the Turbo kicks in - She romped over the Andes - Several times !!  And I am still getting 22 - 25 mpg !!! Sometimes big engines give you better gas mileage because they are not working so hard !  Totally different animal from a petrol engine in the mountains, and also had no probs with fuel quality.  And diesel is cheaper than petrol all the way down - Yay !!!

Re Toyota dealers, I have had a totally different experience.  Although they sell diesel Troopies in Central and S America, they are all 6 cyl - No V8's.  In the US they don't even sell diesel Toyotas.  Yet Toyota in the US gave us brilliant service - I just had to supply the oil (from O'Reilly's) and filters (also O'Reilly's). In central and S America I continued to use Toyota dealers every 10000 kms and every one has been brilliant.  In Panama they found I had a water pump problem and even though they do not sell my engine down there, they found a new (and correct) water pump in country somewhere and then fitted it by working over time until 10 pm to finish it because I was loading it on the boat to Cartagena the next day.  Bloody brilliant. 

In Cusco they changed all my suspension bushes for me - And on no occasion anywhere have I had to book it in - I just roll up first thing in the morning, and they start work on it.  And I have not found them expensive - Certainly a lot cheaper than I would pay at home in Australia !!  And I am more confident of their work than I am of some of the roadside mechanics !!

I think the point with spares is that while your RAV 4 (or Troopie) may be slightly different than the local one, many consumable parts WILL often be the same - Brake pads, etc.  More importantly, if they know how to work on a Toyota, they will know how to work on yours.  But then I bought a Troopie because they DON'T have too many electronic bells and whistles - no cruise control, no electric windows, no fancy engine computer systems, doesn't use synthetic oil, etc.  That is why they are so popular.

As far as engine faults is concerned, I can strongly recommend the fitting of a Scan guage  to any car making a long trip like this.    For about 160 bucks and NO wiring requirements (it is a simple plug in) it not only tells you what your engine is doing under normal driving (it is like having 8 extra guages in your car), but also, when an engine fault light comes up, allows you to find out what the problem is, know whether it is serious or not, and also turn the light out so you can continue on yor way. (Especially important if you have a more modern car that goes into "limp" mode if a light comes on)   Tells the garage what the problem is too !  It has saved my bacon a couple of times. 

As for engine issues, you can download a manual for your car from the internet for free and carry it on your computer.  You can get them in Spanish for many cars.  Even if you can't use it, you can show it to the mechanic so he can use it !

As far as tools is concerned - I worked on the "trip-ender" basis.  If you are stranded out in the wilds by a problem, is it a trip ender ?  Failing brake pads aren't - You can limp into town.  But a fan belt means you cannot move.  So carry a fan belt.  Leaking water hoses are an issue - You can;t carry a spare of EVERY hose !!  So I bought a roll of special rubber tape for about $20 that stretches and is water / heat proof and will enable you to fix any hose so you can get into town.  Tyres ?  Get good off road tyres, even on a car, and carry a can of "goop" and some tyre "plugs", and a good air pump - Once again, this will allow you to get to civilisation to get the real issue fixed.   Oh, and put NEW tyres on in the US - They are SO cheap there !!  My $300 (each !) tyres I had fitted in Australia were half shot after all the dirt roads in Alaska and the Arctic, so in Houston I got 4 brand new new (same make and size) for $120 each ! These will easily get me round S America.    Starting off with half worn or cheap tyres is false economy on a trip like this.    And I carry fuel filters because they are just not available for my car anywhere - But that is about all.  A windscreen repair kit would be useful - I fitted windscreen tear-offs instead - They just prevented anything damaging my windscreen. 

Good advise from Mike and Kerry - Just wanted to add some more.

Mike / Kerry - May see you in Pataginia ? You can't miss my car - It is now COVERED in stickers !!  See it here    I came back to Perth for Christmas and will be back in Santago on 12th Jan, heading south to Patagonia etc. Going to see how far I can get down the coast, then cut back into the mountains - Maybe !!