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Latest update: 13 March 2023

In the Tulum area, you can rent cool Volkswagen vans to explore the area. I want a road trip through Quintana Roo, and I want it now! Luckily, my two travel buddies are also enthusiastic and ready for this adventure. And it will be an adventure…

Tinker with the van

We can pick up the Volkswagen van in Tulum. We catch owner Martin in discussion with his mechanic. The engine is under the van. That doesn’t seem right to me. Martin explains that something is wrong with the oil, but everything will be fine if we return in an hour. To accommodate us, we can return the van an hour later on our last day.

Meet with the Kombi

When we return, the mechanic continues working while Martin explains the van (the Kombi). He shows, among other things, how we conjure up the four berths, how the gas works, and where the spare tire is (which we need an hour after departure, more on that later). We get extensive instructions on how to deal with the clutch, the maximum speed, etc. The motto: treat the Kombi with love. The mechanic and Martin quickly speak Spanish, and what I manage to catch doesn’t encourage me. “Well, what do I know about it,” I say to myself. Their conversation concludes that we occasionally have to check the oil level and top up some oil if necessary. We can manage that, surely.

We have an oil leak!

We plan to admire the sunset at Cobá on the first evening and then drive back a bit for a campsite. I have active Whatsapp contact with the owner before departure because the campsite is difficult to find. But we’ll never get there.

After about 45 minutes, I cautiously mention that I smell oil and something burning. My travel buddies agree. The background buzz of an old van makes way for loud noise. We quickly put the Kombi on the side of the road. The back looks like someone threw a bucket of oil over it – an oil shower. Smoke billows from every nook and cranny. Help!!! Does it catch fire like that? What are we supposed to do? Is there a risk of explosion? Do we need to get all our luggage out asap? Do I have to keep a safe distance? I’m so clueless about this. And unfortunately, the gentlemen I travel with are no better.

Keep calm

I can see our whole trip falling apart. The drama quickly becomes even bigger: add a flat tire. The three of us walk silly circles around the van and have no idea what to do. We first let the van cool down and then check the oil level. That seems a bit redundant to us (all oil is more or less spread over the Kombi), but Martin wants a photo. We are in speaking with him via Whatsapp. He remains very calm: nothing to worry about; replace the belt and continue.

We first push the van to a safer place. We are next to the highway, and dusk is setting in. I make a valiant effort to help push, but I can’t open a jar of peanut butter yet. Fortunately, a friendly tourist stops, and he helps the men push while I maneuver the van into a side road.

Help from a Mexican hero

Ready for step 2. Changing the tire. I want to trust my travel buddies, but they have never done that either. We take the jack out of the van and study it carefully. No idea how this works. Fortunately, there is YouTube, but we can’t figure out how to get the jack back down. And yes, I know, usually, that is the reverse action of raising the jack. Not with this one.

Meanwhile, a Mexican family parks their car next to us. The man gets out and lends us a hand. Well, a hand… The man immediately dives under the vehicle, is covered in dust and other dirt, and replaces the tire pretty much on his own. My friends look a bit lost and hand some tools here and there or help look for stones to balance the jack on. Because the jack is too small, says the Mexican.

Meanwhile, I stuff the kids in the backseat of the car full of candy. As soon as the tire is replaced, the man removes a tube from the jack, screws it in a different place, and lowers it that way. We could never have figured that out on our own. We are so very grateful to this family. That man is a hero!

Makeshift place of destination

The photos we send Martin are now also worrying him. He still allows us to drive to the lake in Cobá, but not a kilometer further. He will then send a tow truck the following day. We can go to the Cobá ruins, they work on our van, and we can then continue our road trip. Sounds like a plan. We drive to the lake at a snail’s pace and park the Kombi.

Exhausted from all the tension, we plop down on the couch and treat ourselves to a beer. Luckily we had already done some shopping. However, we still have to get in the mood for an evening of wild camping. Oh, and we have to cancel the booked campsite. A waste of our money, but what can you do?

Wild camping: not so successful

Wild camping at this location is not that much fun. We are told there are crocodiles in the lake, and since wild camping also means urinating in the wild, every breath of wind, every crackling leaf scares me. Or rather, I’m scared of everything. It cools down quickly in the van. When we cook, it quickly becomes pleasantly warm again from the steam that pulls through the van. A few hours later, it’s bedtime. There are four sleeping places in the Kombi. We pull out the sofa downstairs, so there is room for two, and the roof can be raised to create two more sleeping spots. It’s a bit of trial and error before we’re all installed, but it’s doable. Good night!

Correction: not goodnight, what the f(*#( is that?! All night, a pack of street dogs swarms around the van. It starts with a bit of running around the van, grows into a single shrill bark, and then bursts into the who-can-bark-the-longest competition between the dogs. As soon as the noise dies down a little, a new friendly four-legged friend joins the group to crank up the concert again. The van is, of course, an intruder on their ‘property’, and they probably smell us too. So we lie as still as possible to not give them new reasons to get excited.

When the dogs don’t wake me up (or keep me awake), my travel buddies do. The men have small bladders. And every time someone turns around in the van, everyone feels it. Let alone when you go out of the van to pee and then return. Oof, what a hellish night.

The van on the lake.

The Kombi, new and improved

We agreed with Martin that the tow truck would arrive at 7 o’clock. So we get up early and have breakfast in the van. Around 8 o’clock, there is still no tow truck, and we decide to visit the Cobá ruins. Martin promises that we can leave the key in the van and everything will be fine.

Finally, the van gets picked up around 9 o’clock. Until 2.15 pm, we are hanging out at the lake, bored. We are tired of the lack of sleep and slightly grumpy because following our carefully mapped-out route is no longer an option. Martin brings the van with a new engine (from one of his other Kombis) together with endless excuses. He is very committed and finds the whole situation at least as annoying as we do. Martin really tries his best; we can’t possibly be mad at him. He also gives us back the money for one night’s rent.

The road trip can begin

In good spirits, we leave for Valladolid. The Volkswagen van drives like a charm. At least for a while. Because soon, we notice a new sound: as if the tire is constantly rubbing against the van. We don’t see anything strange when we get out, so we drive a bit further and tighten the tires in a parking lot. Imagine a tire rolling off! We check with Martin whether he thinks continuing is safe, and he gives the green light. From then on, with due concern, we drive through Yucatan in our van. And really, it’s fantastic.

Enthusiastic about the Volkswagen van?

Are you curious about our route? Check out the blog: Mini road trip in Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Despite all the setbacks, I would still recommend the van. It is an old Volkswagen van, so it definitely has specific instructions. But if something goes wrong, Martin is there for you. He’ll do everything he can to make things right again. The chance you will have as much bad luck as we did is slight. Martin and his mechanic check the van thoroughly after each rental period. And even though it is of no use to us, we have been assured about 832 times: “This never happened before!”

Volkswagen Kombi in Mexico, a love-hate relationship.

Martin rents out the Volkswagen vans through his own site. He has several Volkswagen vans, so it’s difficult to choose!

More Mexico inspiration?

blog overview Mexico

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First published: February 2018 The article has been updated since.

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