Broken Down & Stranded in Mexico – Vanlife Adventures in Baja

On April 14th, the day before Good Friday, we were cruising down Highway 1 in Baja, Mexico. Excited about our next destination, Bahia Conception, we were oblivious to the impending catastrophic failure of Slow Sally’s (our van) transmission and the long, nightmarish “adventure” that awaited us to get her back on the road. In this post, we share our story of what happened, the hoops we jumped through to get Sally’s transmission repaired, how much it cost, and the valuable lessons we learned from what turned out to be our most challenging travel experience ever.

What Happened?

Day 1 – Breakdown, 60 KMs North of Loreto, Mexico

We were driving north from Loreto through a picturesque desert landscape of mountains, sand, and cacti when suddenly, the van started losing power, and pressing on the gas pedal no longer generated forward motion. Luckily, we were able to coast to a nearby pull-off and park safely away from the narrow highway. Marc hopped out of the van, lifted the hood, and noticed there was transmission fluid dripping under the van.

After careful inspection, there were no obvious breakages, and we feared the worst – a transmission failure. To complicate things, we were in a remote desert area over 60 kilometres from the nearest town or cell signal, meaning we were really stuck.

Marc checking for fluid leaks, hoping to find an easy fix

Sally had been on the side of the road for over an hour when a transport truck driver pulled over to see if we needed help. When we explained what had happened, he offered to strap tow us back to the town of Loreto. Strap towing is both illegal and dangerous. We were hesitant to accept his offer but with the sun getting low in the sky, no other options, and the risk of being stuck on the side of the road for who knows how long, we took him up on it. After a stress-filled hour of being towed back to Loreto, our trucker dropped us off at the edge of town, in front of a little motel and restaurant. Our nerves were shot; we feared that we may be stuck in this spot, baking in the unforgiving sun, for several days over the Easter weekend. But at least we were safe for the night, had access to nearby amenities, and most importantly, had a cell signal to start making calls to mechanics the next morning.

Sketchy strap tow and a tense hour being towed back to Loreto
Happy to have a cell signal and be near a restaurant

Getting Our Van’s Transmission Repaired – Most Challenging Travel Experience Ever

Days 2 to 13 – Repair Attempt #1, Loreto, Mexico

We awoke early on Good Friday to the sounds of the highway and started our day with Huevos Rancheros at the little restaurant on the highway – necessary fuel for our big day of problem-solving. We spent the morning doing online searches for mechanics and making inquiries with locals using the best Spanish we could muster. Our online search was largely unsuccessful but at least 4 local people told us that “Nano” was the local transmission mechanic, and more importantly, that he could likely help us. Having only one option made for an easy decision. We called Nano immediately, hoping that he hadn’t already closed for Easter weekend. He was still open on Good Friday – yay! – and he came to our rescue. Sally had her second strap tow in two days and within a few minutes, we were safely tucked into Nano’s garage.

It didn’t take Nano long to confirm that our transmission was indeed dead. He recommended a rebuild and assured us that he had worked on many Dodge transmissions, just like ours. He was very confident in his abilities and estimated that it would take 5-7 days to order the parts and complete the repair. He also offered to let us continue living in our van while it was being repaired. We were super pleased with this arrangement and decided that we’d make the best of celebrating Easter in Loreto, a cute colonial town along the Sea of Cortez.

Colonial church in Loreto
Loreto malecon and waterfront
Gorgeous sunsets every night in Loreto

After 12 days in Nano’s shop, many delays, unexpected costs, and difficulty getting the right parts, we were told that Sally’s rebuilt transmission was installed and that she was ready to roll. We excitedly packed our things, thrilled to think that in a few hours, we could be camping on a nearby beach. Nano joined us for the test drive and for the first couple of blocks, Sally seemed as good as new. However, I soon caught a whiff of something burning. Within another couple of blocks, the transmission started mis-shifting. By the time we got to the highway, pressing the gas pedal was no longer producing forward motion (sound familiar?!).

We managed to limp the van back to the garage and after a quick inspection, Nano confessed that the new torque converter (an important part) was no good and that perhaps some other parts needed to be serviced or changed. Basically, he needed more time and money. We’d been slowly losing confidence in Nano over the 12 days that Sally was in his garage (many long stories), and this was the final straw. Feeling demoralized, we decided it was time to cut our losses and leave Nano’s garage. Had he been taking advantage of us? Was he incompetent and in over his head? Did he have a bad parts supplier? We’ll never know for sure but either way, it was time to start over with a new plan.

Marc pondering the next steps after the failed repair

Days 14 to 21 – Crafting a New Plan, Loreto, Mexico

The only upside to Nano’s failed repair was it allowed us to move short distances in low gear. We drove Sally carefully to the nearby RV Park, a bright and comfortable place to call home while we crafted a new plan. Starting back at square one, we posted our sob story on ‘Baja Talks’, a community forum for all things Baja, and immediately received an outpouring of help and support.

Sally parked at Romanita RV Park, Loreto
Renata’s – one of our favourite spots to drink lattes and plan our escape

Many possible solutions were suggested by members of Baja Talks and it was through this forum that we were connected with Michael from MexPat Movers. He worked with us to develop a complex plan to ship Sally over 1,000 kilometers north to Tijuana via transport truck, and then tow her by flatbed across the border to San Diego to a transmission shop that he has used for over twenty years. Although expensive and logistically difficult, the plan provided us with the confidence and relative certainty of success that we needed.

Day 22 to 25 – Shipping Sally, and Ourselves, from Loreto, Mexico to San Diego, California

‘Mexican Time’ is a term that defines the relative unimportance of schedules and punctuality in Mexico and the higher value placed on living in the moment. Mexican Time has an endearing appeal when you’re on vacation but when you’re trying to get things done, it can be wearing. After two weeks of living on Mexican Time in Nano’s garage, our nerves were already frayed as we waited for confirmation of Sally’s shipping time and dates. Rental car and motel arrangements were all on hold until we had confirmation, meaning that everything had to be done at the last minute. Would Sally even be able to make the 3-kilometre drive to the loading dock when the time came, we worried?

We finally received the call confirming the transport truck was ready for us and we rushed to the loading dock. Our hearts were in our throats as Sally bumped down the informal earthen loading dock. It was a tight squeeze – the driver had to shimmy out the back door – but she fit. We breathed a sigh of relief, confident that she was now on her way. We waved goodbye to Sally and her shipping crew, crossed our fingers for safe passage, and set off for 2 nights of tent camping as we made our way north to Tijuana in our shiny new rental car.

Sally just squeezed into the transport truck – phew!
Car camping on our route from Loreto to Tijuana

As we drove through the streets of Tijuana to our motel, we discovered a vibrant and modern city. We didn’t witness anyone being murdered or trafficked, contrary to what we somehow expected from the murder capital of the world. Our motel was budget quality but clean and the Zona Rio neighbourhood was lovely – a pleasant surprise and we hoped it was a sign that our luck was changing.

We awoke the next morning to discover that Sally had arrived in Tijuana a day earlier than expected. This was great news but it meant that we were suddenly in something akin to an episode of the amazing race. It went like this: check out of the motel, de- fur and drop off the rental car at the airport, Uber to the loading dock and reunite with Sally, coordinate a tow across the world’s busiest border, get to a bank to withdraw some USDs, unload Sally at the transmission shop in San Diego, find and book a Motel, buy some beer at the corner store, and crash in the motel room for the night. We were exhausted but relieved to have Sally in trusted hands.

Crossing the world’s busiest border at Tijuana

Days 26 to 31 – Repair Attempt #2, San Diego, California

Our transmission mechanic estimated 5 days for the repair, so we had a lot of time to kill in the San Diego area. With the pressure off, we decided to make the best of the situation and play tourist for the first time in a long time. We knew very little about San Diego before arriving; it wasn’t one of our planned destinations. It turned out to be our favourite big city adventure of the trip and a place that we would love to revisit under different circumstances. It was a refreshing change of scenery and after a month of stress and we finally started to relax.

Exploring San Diego’s waterfront
We loved visiting Balboa Park – a must see

True to his word, the transmission mechanic called on Day 5 to confirm that Sally was road-ready. We were cautiously optimistic but reluctant to get our hopes up after so many setbacks. We picked her up and to our relief, she cruised around the city as if nothing had ever happened. On-time, on budget, and under warranty, this repair was completely different from our experience at Nano’s garage.

We loved our time in San Diego, but we didn’t enjoy having to rely on motels, rental cars, and Uber rides. We were entirely ready to get back to our normal ‘vanlife’. Our first order of business was to get Sally clean. After a month of Baja sand, transport trucks, and garages, she looked like she was ready for the scrap yard. Ten minutes and $10 USD at the do-it-yourself car wash had her sparkling again. We spent the rest of the day running errands; it was a good opportunity to test Sally’s new transmission while also getting ready for the last leg of our trip.

Dirty Sally – with Nano’s original pricing quotes still on the windows
A happy crew and a clean van

At the end of the day, we finally did something normal. We drove to the pine-forested mountains east of San Diego and found a beautiful campsite in the National Forest. We toasted our long-awaited success with a couple of good local IPAs and pinched ourselves to be sure it wasn’t just a dream.

How Much Did It Cost to Get Our Van Back on the Road?

If you’ve reached this section of the blog, you’ve likely guessed that getting Sally back on the road was an expensive project. Many of the costs were indirect and could have been saved by having the transmission rebuilt pre-emptively at home. This was an expensive lesson to learn and one that we will keep in mind for future trips.

ItemCost in USDCost in CDN
Towing Van – Breakdown Location to Loreto$100$128
Transmission Rebuild #1 – Mexico$880$1,129
Transmission Rebuild #2 (+ transmission cooler) – USA$2,950$3,784
*Shipping Van – Loreto to Tijuana$500$641
Towing Van – Tijuana to San Diego$320$410
*Rental Car (1-way) – Loreto to Tijuana$640$821
Motel Fees – 6 nights$545$699
Uber Fees – 4 Trips$80$103
Total$6,015$7,715
*Cost After Anticipated Reimbursement of Insurance Claim

This table doesn’t include the less tangible costs, which are also worth mentioning. These include:

  • Investing countless hours of work in the rescue mission. We often spent entire mornings developing plans, costing and scheduling work, calling insurance, making reservations, going over maps and routes, etc.
  • Losing a full month of scheduled travel time in Northern Baja and Southwestern US.
  • Experiencing quite a bit of stress and anxiety due to the challenges and uncertainties created by the situation.

On the bright side, there’s no doubt that this will one day make a good story to tell around the campfire.

Lessons Learned from Our Breakdown Experience

  • Be Pre-Emptive – For a big or complicated repair (engine, computer, transmission) that you anticipate will soon be required, be pre-emptive and have the repair done at home prior to embarking on a big road trip.
  • Take Your Time – If your vehicle breaks down and the required repair is complicated, take your time and do a lot of research before committing to a mechanic. We felt that we’d done our due diligence, but we were rushing, wanting to get into a garage before Easter weekend. We later learned information about our mechanic that would have made us think twice about using him.
  • Consider Alternative Repair Options – If you’re in a location that doesn’t have a mechanic you think is up to the task of your repair, shipping the vehicle or part to a mechanic in another city or country can be a better option.
  • Understand Shipping vs Towing – Shipping a vehicle is different than towing it. Over long distances, shipping can be a much cheaper option (in our case, it was less than half the price).
  • Dogs Complicate Things – Breaking down while traveling with a dog can make things significantly more complicated and costly. Many cheaper/better travel and accommodation options were not available to us because we were traveling with our dog, Walter.
  • Cultural Differences Complicate Things – In Mexico and other parts of Latin America, locals typically want to be helpful and will often prefer to provide any solution (even a not-so-good one), rather than no solution at all. Initially, locals recommended Nano to us but later, with more prodding (after we became concerned with how the repair is going), some acknowledged that he likely wasn’t up to the task.
  • Mexican Mechanics are Great, but… – In Baja, there’s a mechanic on just about every block. We’ve used Mexican mechanics in the past and have been very happy with the service. However, for more complex repairs, it can be hard to find a qualified mechanic who also has the right supply-line connections to get good parts.
  • Being Stuck Sucks – No matter how nice a place might be, getting stuck there due to a vehicle breakdown can be a very unpleasant experience, particularly if the repair is expensive, uncertain, or not going well.
  • Living Out of a Mechanic’s Garage Sucks – We’ve often read of people living out of their vehicle in the mechanic’s garage to save money on accommodations and keep things simple. We thought living out of our van in Nano’s garage would be the best option for us. It would’ve been fine for a few days, but over a long period of time, it became unpleasant and not something we’d recommend.
  • Learn the Local Language (if possible) – Speaking the local language is a huge asset. Our Spanish is passable for the purposes of traveling but it would have been beneficial to be fluent. Improving our Spanish is something that we will continually strive toward.
  • Ask for Help – When you reach out for help with an open mind, people are very generous with their time and expertise.
  • Look for Silver Linings – Most challenging situations have a silver lining and it’s important to focus on that. For us, they were: exploring Loreto and San Diego; making friends with Nano’s dog Lindsay, who we swear is a person in a dog body; making friends with Brigitte, a fellow Quebecer at the Loreto RV Park; and drinking very reasonably-priced lattes in Mexico while problem-solving.

Helpful Resources


5 thoughts on “Broken Down & Stranded in Mexico – Vanlife Adventures in Baja

  1. Great story. You did very well!
    We had somewhat similar situation: when our transmission quit south of Miami, we also slept in the van at the shop. The new transmission failed less than 400km away ( bad torque converter), had it rebuilt again in New Orleans (took a motel then). Even after the 3rd txtion the shifting was not as smooth as with the original. But as soon as I got the drive shaft replaced (worn out Universal joints holding harware), it now feels 25yrs younger. 91D190V

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    1. Oh my gosh, crazy how similar your breakdown was to ours. Goes to show how complicated these transmission repairs can be, no matter where you are in the world. Glad to hear that yours is finally running smoothly! Ours seems good as new (although it does shift a little differently than before) and we really put it through some good tests going through the brutally hot Arizona desert and the mountains of Colorado.

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