Van Life Horror Stories: 9 Terrifying Moments From the Road

Van Life Horror Stories: 9 Terrifying Moments From the Road

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close up photo of fire

We love sharing the highlights of van life with people, but we’ve come to find that people are far more interested in our van life horror stories than any of our successes. People politely nod and smile through our long-winded explanations of newfound freedom, financial savings, and endless adventures on the road, before their eyes really light up as they ask excitedly, “has anything reaaaally baaaad happened to you guys?”

Perhaps it’s just rosy retrospection but when we look back on our time in the van it’s easy to recall it fondly with mostly positive memories. However, if we stop and think about it for more than a few seconds there has been a long list of van life horror stories or scary van life stories along the way. Disasters that draw excited gasps from sadistic audiences.

For your sick pleasure, we have dredged up nine of the most terrifying, frustrating, and painful memories we have been blocking out. From break downs to break-ins, getting ill to getting stuck, from getting lost and even going up in flames, these are our top van life horror stories!

Our Top Van Life Horror Stories

Car-Home Invasion

When it comes to van life horror stories, it doesn’t get much worse than waking up to find a stranger in the van with you. It happened to us in the dead of night while traveling through Mexico.

Palenque is the closest town to the famous Mayan ruins of the Palenque archeological site and to the waterfalls of Misol-Ha and Agua Azul. But beyond its proximity to some of Chiapas’ stunning historical and natural attractions, the town itself doesn’t have much to recommend it.

A city yet to capitalize on the tourism market that flocks here to explore Chiapas, Palenque has a reputation as a dingy and somewhat dangerous town. In our limited experience, the reputation is warranted.

Arriving in the afternoon, we elected to explore the city on foot to discover the charm we were sure others must have missed. After a couple of laps of downtown, we had to concede there wasn’t much here to attract tourists.

We felt a bit uneasy about camping in the car right in the middle of town and decided to park nearby to the tourist district at the eastern end of the town center.

After an expensive beer in a depressing tourist bar we decided to turn in for the night, excited to leave for the Palenque ruins first thing in the morning.

In a moment of madness, we decided to park and camp in an unlit section of a dark street, around the corner from the small tourist district. When looking for safe places to camp in cities the general rule is the more lighting and visibility, the better. At the time, already feeling uneasy about the city we thought if we were out of sight we might be less likely to attract unwanted attention.

A darkened street is an obvious setting for van life horror stories and should be avoided
A darkened street, is an obvious setting for a van life horror story and should be avoided

Around midnight, as we were falling asleep to the sound of the rain outside, someone came past the car and tried to open the locked doors. I yelled loudly and jumped out of bed, pulling back the window covers but couldn’t see anyone on the darkened street.

That event should have set off alarm bells and provided the motivation for us to seek out a safer place to camp for the night. But, tired and sleepy, we reasoned that it was just an opportunistic local who had tried and failed to make an easy score. They would have no doubt heard my yells, realized someone was in the car, and wouldn’t return. With that, we fell into an uneasy sleep.

In the pitch-black I awoke to a sound I had never heard before and hope to never hear again. Kelli’s piercing, blood-curdling scream seemed to go on and on.

“What’s happening?”, I mumbled foggily.

“There’s someone… in the car ” Kelli cried, shaking me violently.

“There’s whaaat…” I murmmered rubbing my eyes.

“…and now he’s getting away!” Kelli shreiked.

Drowsy and struggling to find my bearings in the pitch-black, I swung myself out of bed, fumbled for the door handle, wrenched open the door, and jumped out of the car. By the time I found myself on the dark wet street there was no one to be seen.

I clambered back into the car.

“What just happened?” I asked, now fully alert.

“I woke up thinking you were rustling about and asked what you were doing.” Kelli recounted, “But then I realized that you were fast asleep and the rustling was coming from the front seat. I looked up and I could just see the beady eyes of a man looking back at me! He must have only just realised we were in the car at that moment too because he paused for a minute. That’s when I started screaming and he took off.”

“Poor Kelli”, I whispered to myself stroking her fevered forehead, “she’s had a terrible dream.”

“No I haven’t you fucking idiot! Check the front!”

Sure enough, the lock barrel on our passenger door had been removed and a handful of items the thief had managed to grab in his panic missing.

Thankfully he had only grabbed an old raincoat and a camera lens. We were able to replace the lock barrel some days later in Mérida.

It would be a bit longer before we slept through the night.

Machu Picchu On a Budget, a Costly Adventure

With Kelli off exploring the Amazon with her mom, I decided to travel to Machu Picchu and hike to the ancient citadel myself.

My campsite near Sacsayhuamán, amongst the ruins of an Incan Empire, high above the present-day city of Cusco, a great base before setting out to see Machu Picchu solo

The day before I set out from Cusco, I ventured into town for lunch. In a stroke of bad luck I stumbled on the cheapest fried chicken I’ve ever seen in the bustling Mercardo San Pedro in central Cusco. The market is notorious for suspect food hygiene, but I hadn’t got the memo and I pulled up a plastic chair next to another couple of oblivious gringos.

Sometime during that night, I awoke, shivering uncontrollably, my stomach churning angrily. The cheap fried chicken in the San Pedro Market had, predictably, betrayed me. I vomited the entirety of my dinner onto the floor beside me. After a hasty cleanup, I spent the rest of the night shivering and sweating my way through a horrible fever.

I awoke sick and shaky, but resolved to begin the journey to Machu Picchu and recover along the way. I should have listened to the universe trying to warn me away. Leaving Cusco I made it only a few hours down the road before I succumbed to nausea and the fever and I had to pull over to sleep.

I awoke a couple of hours later and pressed on. The fever hadn’t broken yet and I wasn’t able to eat. Eventually reaching the Cordillera de Vilcabamba.

Climbing to 4,000m, I began to feel lightheaded and delirious as the fever, combined with the altitude and the fact that I hadn’t eaten or drank enough during the day, started to affect me. After a couple of hours, the winding road began to descend again. As it did I began to feel better the fever began to recede.

Further up the road, as the sun disappeared engulfed by the towering mountains as night began to settle in, cars on the road had come to a halt and were beginning to bank up. It seemed a large tree had fallen over the road. After 30 minutes, some locals cleared the way and the convoy rolled on.

The road to Machu Picchu
The road to Machu Picchu, the beginning of a van life horror story

I pressed on for Hidroelectrica outside Santa Theresa (the closest you can get by road to Machu Picchu). If I could get there by 8:00 pm, walk to Agua Calientes by 11:00 pm, and get a bed in a hostel, I could be up at 4:00 am to climb Machu Picchu for sunrise.

Thirty minutes up the way another traffic jam was causing cars to back up. It started to dawn on me that this was not another tree coincidentally fallen on the road, but people purposefully blocking the road as part of a protest demonstration. It would likely go on for many more miles.

After waiting 40 minutes for this one to clear with no evidence that it would and feeling sick, I crawled into the back of the van and immediately fell asleep. I woke to the sound of traffic going past at about 11:00 pm and clambered into the front. I certainly wouldn’t make Agua Calientes tonight, but I could at least get as close to the start of the trail as I could.

It was slow going as I hit two more protests and plenty more obstacles that had been dragged onto the road. At 3:00 am, past Santa Maria, but still half an hour outside Santa Teresa I pulled off the road and fell asleep once more, exhausted.

Unwittingly, I had forced myself and my van down a one-way road as a series of makeshift blockades and angry protestors closed it off behind me. I didn’t realize at the time what a serious mistake this would be. A prolonged strike by local farmers over coca prices would escalate into protests and blockades that would cut off access to Santa Teresa for two weeks.

I awoke about 9:00 am, drenched in sweat. My appetite hadn’t returned in the slightest, but I choked down some cereal and over-chlorinated water. It was going to be a long day. I had to continue driving to the Hidroeléctrica at Santa Theresa.

From the Hidroeléctrica, I walked 13km to Agua Calientes along train tracks. It is a relatively simple and beautiful walk in the shadow of the Montaña Machu Picchu but it felt like a slog in my weakened condition.

In Agua Calientes, I purchased the ticket to Machu Picchu for 152 Sols (about $45 USD) and took a break for lunch.

The walking hadn’t coaxed my appetite back but I forced down some overpriced pizza and lemonade. At 2:30 pm I backtracked to the base of the Machu Picchu Mountain, pizza and lemonade now seeming like a poor choice. The ascent took about an hour, draining the last of my energy.

At the top, as I entered the site I felt revitalized, Machu Picchu is incredible and I was able to get a sense of the magnitude and magnificence of the original citadel amongst the mountain despite the hoards of tourists and preened llamas crawling over the crumbling ruins.

Machu Picchu Citadel in the afternoon light
Getting in and out may have been a horror story, but seeing Machu Picchu was incredible

At about 4:45 pm I began to the descend the mountain, and I was back on the train tracks leading me back to the van at Hidroelectrica just after 5:00 pm. As the sun began to set and the last of the stragglers past me by in the opposite direction on their way to Agua Calientes, I felt both lucky and stupid.

Exhausted from sickness, not enough sleep, not eating or drinking, and yet without the slightest appetite or thirst I cursed myself for putting myself in this position. I had to work at 4:00 am the next morning and a 2-hour walk in the dark still ahead of me. Still, as the sun set, and the full moon rose, filtering through the clouds and creating stark silhouettes of the mighty Urubamba Mountains towering above me and with just the fireflies to guide me along the train tracks toward home, I felt like I was experiencing something very special.

I arrived back at the van, drove back into Santa Theresa to find a camp. I fell asleep exhausted but secure in the knowledge that my difficulties had come to an end and tomorrow I would drive back to Cusco and await Kelli and Tracy, checking into a comfortable Airbnb two days later on Wednesday when they arrived. As it turned out, this wasn’t to be.

I awoke the next morning at 4:00 am to set the van up to teach English online for classes between 5:00 am and 8:00 am. Still reeling from the weekend, I struggled through the lessons.

The small amount of food I had consumed over the last 48 hours was doing summersaults in my contracted stomach. Finally during my last lesson, my bowels informed me they would be passing gas…but that was a lie.

I soiled myself. I decided it would be easier to finish up my lesson then explain the situation and I silently thanked god for both the miracles and the limitations of technology that allowed me to sit here teaching in my own excrement.

After the longest 15 minutes of my life had finally ticked by I was able to clean myself and some affected belongings up and begin the 6 hour trip home.

I completed the perilous 1 hour trip back toward Santa Maria, this time forced to keep to the cliff side of the narrow dirt road. Luckily (or so it seemed at the time) there were very few cars coming the other way.

Finally arriving in Santa Maria, my heart sunk. The isolated protests I had encountered on my drive here had escalated. Hundreds of farmers had amassed in town to shut down the roads out of Santa Maria. Exploring all three roads out of town, I found nothing but jeering, angry protesters, hitting my car and yelling. Despite my limited Spanish, one thing was clear, no pasaje!

This was very upsetting. The locals I spoke to were unable to give any estimate of how long protests might go on. Some thinking days, some shrieking excitedly that it could be a month or more. I was shattered.

I decided that there must be another way, and after careful scrutiny of the map decided it might be possible to drive out of the valley on a dirt track labeled 109. I spent the entire day ferreting out my way over some of the worst roads I have ever seen. I was taken high on mountain ridges and dropped right back down to the river again. Time and time again roads and offshoots turned into dead ends or goat tracks.

After a full day of exploration in which I managed to shake every single thing that wasn’t tied down loose from the van, I returned to Santa Theresa, utterly defeated and dejected. There was no way out for me and my little van. Tuesday passed with limited information filtering through Peruvian news services regarding the situation. I was restless and bored and fed up with the whole scenario.

On Tuesday evening I was able to talk to Kelli who had herself arrived in Agua Calientes via the railway which was still operational. We decided to wait until the following morning before deciding on a course of action.

On Wednesday, I heard back from iPeru national tourism agency and the Australian consulate both of whom suggested that the situation with the protesters had not abated and there was no way of knowing how long it might continue, the only way out was by taking the train. I decided to bite the bullet and buy a $70 USD train ticket to Cusco and abandon poor Pablo-Van-Go, promising I would return for him when the situation had settled.

Of course, when I went to buy the train ticket online I realized I had lost my wallet but after turning the van upside down, I could not fathom where. Either it had fallen somewhere deep out of sight within the van or someone had nicked it. I cursed, loudly, at my luck. Weeks later I would later recover the wallet from the very secure place I had hidden it for safekeeping.

Thankfully Kelli was able to buy a ticket online and email it to me. I stuffed what I could into my pack and set off once more for Agua Calientes and the train that would deliver me from this nightmare.

Ruta 28-B Rumble Through the Jungle

Our car was stranded near Machu Picchu as protests and road blockades preventing access to the district of Santa Teresa ran into the second week. After 12 days in Cusco, we were ready to get moving again and were growing more and more impatient.

Finally we received the news we had been waiting for. It was time to make the trip back to Santa Teresa to rescue our car and head for Lima and the coast.

With a long journey ahead we rose early, bags already packed and took a cab across town to Calle Inca where the colectivos (minivans or cars offering share rides) bound for Santa María were waiting.

After some negotiations in broken Spanish, we found a car that would take us to Santa María for 40 soles. After a long wait for a couple more passengers to fill up the sedan we were off.

We sped along at break-neck speed winding up into the mountains along narrow roads. Equal parts nautious and terrified.

After a four-hour journey, we piled out of the car relieved to have made it one piece. The price of the ride had doubled since we got in and an angry spat between us and our driver broke out in halted spanglish. The driver foolishly elected to negotiate the sudden price hike with Kelli, perhaps supposing she may have been the most sympathetic to his cause. I was happy to let him make this mistake. After ten minutes the driver began to sense the futility of his argument and threw up his hands, storming back to his car.

Finding another colectivo we continued on. We were taken along the narrow dirt road that snakes around a sheer canyon toward Santa Theresa. An hour or so later, after transferring into a third car in Santa Theresa, we finally arrived at the Hydroelectrica and walked across the bridge to the car park where I had left our van Pablo. We were excited to be reunited with our little van after so long. 

The owner of the car park greeted us wearily. He waved us over, looking concerned. He pointed out our front and rear right side tires which were completely flat, both of them. This was as perplexing as it was frustrating.

Our initial thought was that maybe the owner had punctured the tires and was going to try to extort us somehow as he ran off to get us a bicycle pump. We worked to put the spare tire on and pump up the back tire up in hopes we could make it the thirty minutes back to Santa Theresa before it deflated again. With the car park owner being so helpful, we began to doubt that it was he who orchestrated the damage.

Suddenly it dawned on me what had happened. Eleven days ago when I had initially tried to drive the car out of Santa María I had encountered a crowd of angry protesters, jeering, yelling, banging on the car and making it clear that I was not going anywhere. It must have been this encounter that one of them had managed to put a number of tiny punctures in each tire and the tires had deflated over the course of the last two weeks. Eventually, we had the car in a semi drivable state and set off on the return leg to Santa Theresa.

We rolled into the little town with our back wheel looking very sad. We tracked down the local mechanic, who after a brief inspection said he could fix the the five puncture marks he found. I was certain I’d seen at least three marks on each tire and had him test again but he was adamant he could only find two on the front and three on the back. We agreed to pay him 30 soles or about $10 USD. Forty minutes later, with the tires seemingly good to go we jumped back in laughing that finally this difficult day was all but done.

We started off again, once more braving the sketchy cliff-side roads between Santa Theresa and Santa María. About five minutes out from Santa Maria Kelli leaned her head out of the window to check the weird sound our front wheels were making. Sure enough, the front tire had deflated again. Nothing to do but laugh and get on with it at this point, we jumped out and put the spare back on.

Man changing tire
Only the beginning of our van life horror story through the Peruvian Jungle

It was now after five and the sun was setting on what had been a very long day but we wanted to put some kilometers between us and Santa María which had turned out to be a bit of a curse for us so far.

Just up the road we passed through the town of Quillabamba and tried again to have our front tire fixed. A busy garage surrounded by vans and tuk-tuks with five or so staff scurrying around doing nothing but prying off tires and rolling them to and from the shop seemed like a safe bet. Thirty minutes and 16 soles later we were assured that the last four punctures in the front tire had been found and repaired and we set off again.

We were heading for the coast of Peru, keen to get down out of the high altitude for awhile. We had two options to head back to Cusco and drive from there through to Lima or cut directly through the jungle along route 28b. A quick check of google maps indicated that we would shave three or four hours off the nineteen-hour trip if we headed straight through the interior without circling back through the Urubamba Valley to reach Cusco first.

What google failed to mention was the condition of the road. That evening we drove for another few hours along a road that steadily declined in quality and in width until we were shaking along a very dilapidated one-lane road (albeit still on asphalt). Tuk-tuks and trucks whipped by us in both directions as I continued trundling along at 20km an hour squinting into the pitch black. Eventually, we found somewhere to pull off, just off the shoulder of the road, and camp for the evening. After a quick dinner of grilled cheese, we crawled into the back of the van and passed out.

Driving along Ruta 28b in the Peruvian jungle
Route 28b might be the stuff of van life horror stories, but it is stunningly beautiful.

The following day we were woken by the sound of motorbikes and trucks hurtling past our makeshift campsite. After a bowl of cereal we began again, and the reality of the journey we had embarked on set in. We were to wind through mountains and valleys, jungles and scrub, waterfalls and cliffs.

At times the asphalt would end abruptly leaving poor Pablo Van-Go to bump along at 20 or 30 kilometers an hour violently shaking our poor little van and everything inside. The scenery was stunning but the distance and the speed at which we could travel were daunting.

We plunged on through the jungle-clad mountains and eventually climbed out of it onto an unnamed peak high in the clouds, before finally descending into another valley to reach Kimbiri a small mountain town. Kimbiri was larger than most of the little villages we had seen in the previous two days.

Kelli reassured me that Kimbiri was a large enough town that it all but guaranteed a return to sealed roads for the remainder of the journey. The town was a mud pit. Rain, heavy traffic, and roadworks (by the looks of it working on a dual carriage highway that would have been super handy had it been completed) had turned the remaining accessible roads into soup. We picked our way carefully through the town and made it out the other side.

The wild jungle of Peru on Ruta 28b
Stopping to contemplate the swollen river we would soon have to cross and the decisions that led us to route 28b.

On the other side of the town, a steep ascent to exit the valley was waiting. Unfortunately, Kelli’s optimism was unfounded, and rather than the promised asphalt we were treated to more thick mud and a widened road to slip about on.

Cars and semitrailers fanned out across the road, wheels spinning in the mud, sliding slowly toward the top of the mountain. Like some sort of high stakes bumper cars, turning was near impossible as the van slid this way and that and we tried to avoid the cars sliding down in the opposite direction as well as the lunatics that had decided this was the best time to overtake. After a tense half-hour we hit gravel again and were able to accelerate back up to thirty kilometres an hour. Just up the way we hit bitumen roads again and let out a whoop.

Driving in Peru along Ruta 28b
On the asphalt again!

We stopped around dusk, pulling off the road where we could. We quickly scrambled some eggs for dinner and crawled into bed to escape the bugs, it had been another trying day but we were cautiously confident that things could only improve from here as we began our descent down the Andes toward the sea the following day.

The next day, thankfully, we caught a break as we enjoyed some of Peru’s finest asphalt snaking down the Andes, glorious views of snow-capped peaks and mountain villages greeted us around every bend and we were elated to be able to start closing some of the distance between us and Lima.

Finally, around lunchtime, we reached the end of the infamous 28b in the town of Ayacucho. We stopped at a street-side stall for roast pork sandwiches and grabbed some supplies before setting off into the tablelands. Again the view as we descended from almost 5,000 meters was nothing short of spectacular and we happily snapped photos and recounted our own van life horror stories from the previous three days to one another.

That night we stopped at the Runayoc ruins in Huaytará where we found an incredible campsite above the ruins, completely devoid of anyone besides a couple of local stray dogs. As the sun set into the valley in front of us, we basked in the glow of our adventure and looked forward to the dream of reaching the Peruvian coast the following day.

Gas Fire in the Andes

Waiting for documents that would allow us to exit Chile with our little van, we found ourselves stranded for 3 weeks in the Atacama desert. Things were becoming increasingly tense in the tiny van.

Camping in the desert is a fantastic novelty that everyone should try at least once. But it comes with challenges. Dry hot days, freezing windswept nights. And sand. Everywhere. All the time.

As the days and weeks ticked by, lips chapped and tempers frayed and we were running out of lunar landscapes, salt flats, and wild flamingos to distract us.

One day we decided to head up into the foothills of the Andes which separate Chile from Argentina to the west. We were searching for the Lagunas (lakes) Miscanty and Miniques. The landscapes as we ascended the Andes were spectacular.

The landscapes were incredible!

As we climbed above 4,000m, the windswept mountains rose into craggy peaks topped with dustings of snow. As the sun began to set, the mountains were bathed in golden light.

We decided to set up camp for the evening and explore the lagunas in the morning. Pulling off the road, we found a seemingly sheltered campsite behind a small hill. Unfortunately, nothing could protect us from the chilling winds that whipped in off the icy mountains.

Our “kitchen” in the small van we toured South America was nothing more than a gas cooker that slid out from the rear of the car. Cooking outdoors was generally not a problem for us, but in the frigid high altitude conditions, it was challenging.

We had brought with us the makings of a stew for dinner. We failed to take into account a number of things. The freezing temperatures and the difficulty of cooking anything at this altitude given that here, above 4000m, water boils below 85 degrees. If you’ve ever tried to cook stew and rice in the bath tub, but also your bath tub is outside in the Andes, then you’ll understand how frustrating the process was.

Cooking Stew is a poor choice at altitude

We took it in turns to monitor the luke warm stew and rice as it bubbled along sadly.In between shifts, we would warm ouselve in the van.

I was counting down the seconds to the end of my third shift, stirring the food which didn’t seem to be getting any closer to resembling anything cooked or palatable. As the alarm sounded I ran to the driver’s side door and jumped into the car.

“Your shift Kel”, I chattered.

“I was just out there” she whined.

We began bickering until a dancing orange light caught my eye in the rear view mirror.

I jumped out of the car to run to the rear.

The gas hose connecting the gas cylinder to the cooker had caught alight, as I stood, starring in shock, the cloth material that lined the tempered glass cooker also caught alight.

Kelli ran up behind me, “what are you standing there for! Do something, throw some water on it!”

*nb: As it turns out, water is not good for putting out a gas fire. You should use a dry powder extinguisher. We had an extinguisher onboard but forgot in the heat of the moment.

I turned off the gas cylinder, grabbed a pot and filled it with water and threw it over the cooker and gas hose. Success! The fire was out!

Suddenly and with a sharp crack the entire glass top of the stove broke into thousands of tiny pieces as the icy water shattered the hot stovetop.

Relieved that our gas fire was out, we tidied up what we could before retiring to the van for a hearty meal of bologna sandwiches and Chilean table wine.

Neighbours Ablaze

close up photo of fire
What’s that smell? Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Traveling to Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland’s Central Highlands in outback Australia, we found ourselves camped in a free campsite just outside the tiny town of Springsure. A number of other travelers were also settled in for the night.

We were in the van, watching Netflix when a small voice called out from the darkness.

“Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but I am having some trouble with my van and was wondering if you could help?” An elderly woman stood at the end of our car looking apologetic.

Immediately annoyed that someone had disturbed Netflix time with something evidently so minor, I sighed and Kelli and I clambered out of the van.

The three of us sauntered back over to her van, where I was quite surprised to find the interior of this lady’s van engulfed in flames.

The woman continued in the same soft manner as if she had misplaced a book. … “yes, my kerosene cooker seems to have caught fire…I’m not sure why, it hasn’t done that in the 30 years”.

I flew into emergency response mode, hopping from foot to foot yelling “what do we do, what do we do?!”

“Get some water you dick!” yelled Kelli, sensibly.

Other campers were now coming over to see just what all the noise and on fire car were about.

“Don’t use water!” someone yelled, “you’ll only spread the flames!” they offered. “Does anyone have a fire extinguisher?”

“Yes!” I yelled triumphantly remembering the dinky handheld extinguisher proudly mounted behind the driver seat . “We have an extinguisher!”

Kelli was halfway to the car.

Quick as a flash, Kel was heroically spraying down the blazing stove, the woman’s dinner and everything else inside the van.

With the fire out and the entire contents of this poor womans life, including a melted, thirty year old kerosene stove, covered in a fine white powder, the small crowd began to dissipate, many leaving final parting tidbits of wisdom as they left the poor woman to clean up the melted, powdery mess.

The old woman smiled apologetically at us. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything to offer you.”, she stammered. “That’s ok, you have enough to worry about.” I replied sympatheticaly.

Privately I thought she could have offered to replace the dinky fire extinguisher that had saved her van.

Mexican Short Cut

photo of corroded vintage white and red sedan on brown grass
A sign we should turn back? Photo by Mark Vegera on Pexels.com

We were delighted that my sister Isobel was coming to visit us in Mexico in November 2019. We had been exploring Oaxaca and were excited to show her some of the best spots we had uncovered. With only 10 days we set a quick pace to fit in the mountains, beaches, ruins of Oaxaca and the and culture and food of Oaxaca city.

Returning to Oaxaca City from Oaxaca’s beautiful coastline, we discovered a short cut that would shave an hour off our trip home. And learning nothing from any of the other shortcuts we had ever taken in Latin America, we enthusiastically set off.

As we turned off the main highway, the road quality immediately began to deteriorate as a potholed road took us past farms and small rural villages. As the houses became less frequent, things began to get really hairy.

The paved road gave way to a gravel road which eventually gave way to a dirt track. I stopped to survey my charts (Google Maps) and could see that the road would soon join up with a larger road where it would surely return to paved roads. Despite Kelli’s anxious urging to double back the way we came, unwilling to face the truth, I plunged further on into the wilderness.

The track continued to deteriorate and we continued to bump along down the washed-out old goat track refusing to accept defeat and drive back (humilated) to the coastal highway. The two passengers begged me to turn around as the car bounced along shaking loose anything and everything that wasn’t held down.

Eventually we could go no further. Google had betrayed us and led us directly into a trap. The road, which was now single-car width with large wash outs on either side, ended in front of us at a large rushing river.

There was nowhere to go but back.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room to turn the car around. With no other option, I embarked on a 17 point turn to try to turn the vehicle around on the narrow track.

Obviously, I couldn’t.

The car became stuck in the deep gutters at the edges of the narrow road. Now frantic, I leapt out of the car to check the damage. Realizing our situation Kelli and I resigned ourselves to digging the car out. My sister exited the car and backed up to get a better vantage of how this was going to play out.

With our rear wheels trapped in a large washout leaving the rear bumper resting on the sand. I set about jacking up the car to try to fill in the washouts that had trapped the wheels. After jacking up the car we were able to move some of the dirt, sand and rocks trapping the wheels, but suddenly as the car came free it lurched forward falling off the jack which was precariously balanced on the uneven gravel road. Now, even more stuck, I continued to dig.

After 10 minutes of wild digging in the dirt and sand, a bemused Mexican family came upon us three hapless gringos. Kelli turned the family and smiled ruefully, ‘el es loco’ gesturing to me and then to her own head to help them understand that I was a lunatic.

The family set about helping us free the car and with their help we were eventually free once more. I was able to complete my 17 point turn and we were facing the right way!

Finally free we parted ways with our saviors, shoving pesos and some cold beers in their hand before setting off, back toward the beach.

Dengue at the Border

Our plans to explore Ecuador’s mountain town of Mindo to the west of the capital Quito were cut short in dramatic fashion when Kelli contracted a mysterious disease.

On our first day in Mindo things were fine as we explored the beautiful waterfalls and mountains outside of town. When we returned to our campsite that night, Kelli was complaining that she didnt feel well and needed a rest.

Van driving along an empty road covered with trees
Making tracks in Ecuador

When she awoke she was in the grips of a violent fever, delirious and sweating profusely. Nighttime in regional Ecuador, we didn’t have a lot of options for medical treatment so Kelli elected to load up on paracetamol and try to sleep it off. Through the night she cycled through chills and shivers and sky-high temperatures soaking in sweat.

When we awoke the next day Kelli assured me she was feeling better and whatever had caused the acute fever had been dealt with by her impenetrable immune systme. I remained septical.

We decided to drive into Ecuador’s capital, Quito, to prepare for our drive to Colombia via the land border at Rumichaca.

We checked into the hotel and Kelli’s condition immediately spiralled. Her fever was back, worse than the night before and she spent the night in a state of delirium. We resolved to go the doctor the very next day.

The next day, Kelli woke up feeling inexplicably fine. Hungry but fine. Not wanting to waste time or money going to a doctor, she insisted we carry on with the plan of traveling to the Colombian border.

We set out to drive the four hours from Quito to the border. Three hours into the journey I asked Kelli a question. No response. I looked over, Kelli’s eyes were rolling in the back of her head she was only semi-conscious and was groaning from the fever which had suddenly taken her once more.

We still had one hour to get to the border and who knows how long to cross at the border into Colombia. Then a ten-plus hour drive straight through the dangerous southern area of Colombia where the ever-present danger of the guerrillas makes it unsafe for foreign travelers.

We could turn back now and try to find medical help in Quito, or we could plunge one and hope Kelli survived long enough to make it to Cali, the large city in the middle of Colombia where we might find some quality medical help. Conscious of our tight timelines and dwindling time in South America, Kelli was reluctant to spend her time doubling back to seek medical care in Quito. “Keep going!” she croaked weakly. Keeping with tradition, we abandoned reason and continued on.

We made it to the border and Kelli was able to pull it together long enough to line up and get stamped out of the country taking care not to let any of the Colombian border agents know how sick she was. After a few hours of queuing in various queues and shuffling various papers, we found ourselves on the Colombian side of the border with paperwork for ourselves and our car in hand.

It was late in the afternoon and we wouldn’t make it to Cali by sun down. Not wanting to be caught driving after dark, we endeavored to get to the busy but dangerous town of Pasto, two hours north of the border.

Here there was a car park where it was said you could camp overnight in the relative safety of the gated garage. Arriving on dusk we paid for a car park and fell asleep in the back of the car.

The next day Kelli’s condition hadn’t improved. We got up early to begin the final 8 hour drive to Cali. In and out of sleep, Kelli sweated and her head rolled around, as the car bumped along the roads and carriageways of Colombia’s south.

After driving all day and with Kelli barely conscious, we arrived in Cali late in the afternoon. Checking into a small hotel. Kelli exhausted, decided she would once again try to sleep it off.

The next day, with only marginal improvement, Kelli finally allowed me to take her to the hospital.

The Foundation Valle Del Lili University University Hospital is one of the best hospitals in South America, and even have an international service where doctors with good English are available to see foreigners.

Kelli recounted her symptoms and the doctor frowned. Dengue, malaria, or a UTI that had spread into the kidneys were his first thoughts but he would need to run a blood test to confirm.

Later that day the doctor called us to schedule an appointment to discuss the results. Aware that a diagnosis of dengue or malaria could be a serious problem, we were nervous to find out. We met with the doctor in the afternoon. He told us that it was UTI that had spread to the kidneys but would respond to antibiotics and bed rest.

Kelli’s condition cleared up quickly with the doctors prescription and we were able to continue traveling through Colombia.

Van life routine of morning coffee
Kelli recovering after days of battling infection

A Mouse in the House

brown wooden mouse trap with cheese bait on top
There’s a mouse loose in the house! Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

After an exhilerating weekend spent hiking Carnarvon Gorge in outback Australia, we returned to our van ready to make tracks back to the beautiful Queensland coastline.

When we swung open the rear doors, we were aghast to find a river of dried blood coating the floor of the van. Tracing the spill back to it’s source we found that it was not blood but in fact a package of liquid beef stock with one tiny corner expertly chewed through.

We also came to find teeny bits and pieces of food and mouse poo scattered throughout the car. It seemed a tiny visitor had helped himselve to a little of everything on offer in our pantry. After cleaning up the mess, we set off laughing at the midnight feast the little fella had enjoyed, presumably before returning to its mouse family and little mouse house. We did not suspect that we still had a stowaway aboard.

That night as we drifted off to sleep, Kelli whispered urgently at me, “what’s that noise!”. A faint scratching could be heard from inside the car as the stowaway emerged for another midnight rampage.

Without a mouse trap on board I began to setting up a variety of contraptions and devices à la Tom and Jerry, using pots, pans, pens and string, any zany mouse trap idea my half asleep brain could come up with.

Meanwhile, Kelli repacked all the food she could into mouse-proof containers, and the rest we took to bed with us to protect from the home invader.

It was now 1am and we had to be up for work in four hours. Despite how tired we were we found ouselves waking up every fifteen minutes, certain we could here the home invader rustling around in our drawers and cupboards.

The next day, having checked my pots and pans, only to find them empty, it was off to get real mousetrap from the hardware store. The woman at the hardware store recommended cheap sticky pads to catch the mouse. “Perfect!” I thought naively, the sticky trap will stop the mouse in its tracks, and in the morning I will be able to free it back into the wild, how humane.

That night we baited the new trap with popcorn (a mouse favorite judging by the number of kernels spread throughout the vehicle) loaded up our bed once again with all the foods we couldn’t mouseproof, crawled into bed next to the groceries, switched off the lights and waited. We didn’t have to wait long before the scratching of the mouse let us know that the mouse was on the prowl. We waited a few more minutes until his panicked squeaks informed us that the trap was sprung.

“Aha!” I screamed at my vanquished foe, switching on the light and jumping out of bed. My triumph was fleeting as I saw the poor mouse tied up in knots, with its head, fur, feet and tail all stuck to the glue trap. This mouse was not getting free from the trap.

Guiltily I carried the trap and tiny mouse to a trash can nearby. And closed the lid.

Back in bed I felt relief but very sorry for how we’d gone about catching the mouse. As I drifted off into an uneasy sleep I could almost hear our little friend again, scratching away through the car…In fact, I could swear I could hear a mouse! There were of course more mice in the house!

We had only bought one trap and that trap was now at the bottom of a trash can. We spent another night being terrorized by wild vermin.

Day three of the mouse house standoff, saw us back in the hardware this time to find real spring loaded traps that would end the mice as quickly as possible.

That night we, prepared for siege one final time. Groceries were loaded in the bed, traps were laid. And the pantomime of going to bed staged once more. We took out the last two intruders that night. And finally fell into a deep restful sleep.

Poison in the Mexican Mountains

Early January 2020 we were enjoying the new year in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Southern Mexico. We were loving the small and surprisingly multi-cultural mountain town which seemed to have an endless list of international restaurants. Korean, indian, thai, burgers, the list went on and on.

The international food on offer in San Cristobal is amazing, but beware, food hygiene is problematic throughout Mexico

Naturally we decided to try them all. It was a tough task and as we entered our second week in San Cristobal, we realized we would have to step up the pace. We headed out one evening to sample several restaurants along the popular and busy central walking street of Real de Guadalupe.

Having survived street food stalls all through Central and South America, we felt pretty confident dining at popular sit-down restaurants in the bustling tourist town.

After a successful outing sampling some Spanish tapas, Argentinan empanadas and a couple of glasses of wine we headed home to get a good night’s rest for the next day of foraging.

The following morning we continued our mission heading out for breakfast at a local cafe. Dappled sunlight warmed the courtyard of the quaint cafe. The coffee smelled strong and the American-style breakfast bagel looked perfect, across from me Kelli prepared to take down a heaping plate of spicy chilaquiles. Perfectly content, I smiled, it was going to be a good day.

The last supper before one of our most horrendous 6 days of travel ever

A deep, verberating rumble, shook me from my trance like state. “What was that?” I asked Kelli gripping the table in case there was an after shock. “What was what?” Kelli looked up from her corn chip and egg mountain. As the another earthquake set in I realised the tremours were coming from deep within my bowels.

Not sure I would survive a third attack I set off in a controlled shuffle across the courtyard toward the toilet.

I emerged 20 minutes later. “We have to go” I grunted through clenched teeth.

Outside the cafe, as I limped toward where our car was parked, Kelli, was finding it hard to stifle her laughter. Suddenly she stopped dead. Frantically looking around she suddenly darted inside the restaurant beside us. “EL BAÑO POR FAVOR!!!”, I heard her wail from inside.

When she emerged she was pale and shaking. As our situation rapidly deteriorated we quickly realized we wouldn’t be able to ride this particular situation contained in the van. We needed to check into accommodation ASAP.

We found a little bed and breakfast in the center of town. Happy to find anything that would allow us to check in right away.

If we had had our wits about us we wouldn’t have booked something with a shared bathroom. But now it was too late. There would not be time to move hotels. We needed to be within shuffling distance of a bathroom at all times.

We entered the most hellish four days of our lives. Splitting our time evenly between the bathroom where we rocked on the toilet silently weeping for hours and the sweat-soaked bed where we writhed around deliriously praying for sleep or death or any respite from our churning bowels and feverish nightmares.

After four days without eating and drinking only tiny sips of water that would inevitably trigger waves of vomiting and diarrhea, we finally got to a point where we could stomach some instant noodles and Gatorade.

Although our stomach problems continued for another three days the worst of it had passed and we could slowly recover. And importantly, start to appreciate our new ripped physiques.

It still amusing to think that after eating street food all over the world without any major incidents it had been a sit-down restaurant that had done us in.

What did you think of our van life horror stories? Pretty scary or not that troubling? Let us know your own van life horror story moment in the comments below!

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