Baja in my Westy: driving to Mexico in an '87 Volkswagen bus

Hello from Pea Soup Andersen's, en route to Baja California, Mexico, from Marin County, California. I made it this far. I have to admit I haven't always been so sure. I've been hoping to find myself sitting right here, writing exactly this post for several months.

It all started early last December. I'd failed to realize, after many years of owning air-cooled VWs and Porsches, that the battery/alternator light on my water-cooled VW Bus should not be ignored. If you're into Volkswagen vans, you've heard it before: I overheated and blew the engine on my beloved 1987, Dove blue, Vanagon GL Westfalia. On the water-cooled version, that light means the cooling system isn't circulating. Within a day I read an email on one of the various VW mailing lists I follow about a trip to Baja to see the calving gray whales. I decided that I'd fix her and go!

Her engine was dead. The cooling system needed to be replaced. The gas tank had developed a weird problem and was only letting me use 8gal of a 16gal tank. The automatic transmission needed a rebuild. Everything rattled and shook.

She was towed to Valley Wagonworks, in San Rafael, CA. Paul there is amazing. He really has as much of a feeling for these vans as he does an understanding of how they work. We talked a lot about motors. He recommended the GoWesty 2.3L. After a lot of reading I said lets do it (Samba Readers: I'd have loved to try a tencentlife/vanistan engine but I had no time!)

Once the motive power was taken care of, I went through the bus with a fine-toothed comb. Paul helped me find new seats for the ones that were too squished and old. New seals for windows and the pop-top. A new yellow acrylic three window tent. 16" wheels. Then I got crazy and added a third brake light, a jump seat and new bumpers! GoWesty plate steel bumpers look and feel tough!

I went about refreshing my entire camping set! For years I've used old cooking stuff in the van, and I'd never really bothered to assemble a complete kitchen. I added a bbq that I can store in the bus and attach as needed. Sought out the perfect sized cast iron cookware. All the bits and pieces I could think of.

And today, the trip began. I'm about 300 or so miles out of the Bay Area and headed to Los Angeles tonight. I'll be on the road for about 3 weeks, and while I am, I'll be reviewing the camping kit, the toys I've brought along (I assembled a solar kit with which I plan to power them all), I'll post some photos ...and hopefully, I'll have no stories of mechanical drama to share.


  1. Oh jeez. Good luck on the grapevine, I still have memories of extremely tense family road trips trying to putter over that part of the 5 freeway in a fully-laden VW microbus.

    1. I remember hitting the uphill portion of the 405 and my air-cooled Westfalia crawled to 25mph with the throttle wide open. I traded the Westy in for a GMC van that had a similar camper layout installed inside but without the pop up top.  The V8 gave me similar MPG as the Westy and came with AC.  

    2. Looks like Jason’s takin’ the scenic route if he stopped at Pea Soup Andersen’s.  They’re in Buellton, CA along 101.  And a delicious soup, it is.  Vegetarian, too, for those that care.
      I look forward to hearing more about this trip!

      1. Well, that depends if he went to the one in Buellton or Gustine. The 101 route is definitely more scenic than the 5, though a die-hard road tripper would take the extra time to take the 1.

        1. The one he linked to was in Buellton.
          Certainly a better way to head south..
          No reason to take 5 unless you’re in a particular hurry.

          1. True. I was just thinking of how I usually make that drive. Hopefully my kids will have that high speed rail line as an option.

    3. I remember my dad would get our 1977 Westfalia up to max speed (maybe 75mph) approaching the grapevine to make sure we had enough momentum to make it over the top. 

  2. Dude, it’s a VW – there’s ALWAYS going to be tales of mechanical difficulties! Like the time I drove 1100 miles in my 1980 Diesel Rabbit that had a blown head gasket. Or my ’87 Jetta GLI that had no working heat (in Maine!), and eventually broke its timing belt forcing me to sell it for scrap. Then there was being three years old and riding in the back of my dad’s Microbus, and clinging fearfully to the sides because I was certain that I was going to fall through the rusted floor (seriously, I could see the road through the holes).

    Ah, VW’s…and now I wouldn’t trade my 2008 Rabbit for the world.

    1. Yea, my wife and I have collectively owned 5 modern VW’s since 1995, and they’ve all been pretty damn solid.
      Her 2008 GTI is the newest one, and (knock on wood) is running great as it is about to hit 60K.  My 2005 Passat hit about 80K when I traded it for a CPO A4 quattro a year and a half ago.  Never had a lick of trouble with it or my Jetta’s before it.
      My A4 had one major glitch, but has been (knock on wood) worry free since.

    2.  I’m guessing there was more wrong with the ’87 GLI than just the timing belt?  That’s not worth scrapping a car over.

      My sister put over 200K on her Passat before trading it off.  Still ran well, but there was an emissions problem that was too expensive to fix to pass inspection.  In my adult life, I’ve owned two Jettas and currently a GTI, and other than shorting out one of the cooling fans in the GTI (under warranty), I’ve had nary a problem.

      1. The engine repair would have been over $2K as the pistons not only destroyed the valves, but also damaged the pistons themselves. Then there was the heater core that needed to be replaced; the leak in the trunk that had made the whole area moldy; and the electrical system that was one short away from burning the car to the ground. And those were only the problems that I knew about.

        1. Ah, yes… the perils of the “interference engine,” wherein the valves (at their lowest point) would come into contact with the pistons at their highest point were the timing belt or chain to fail.  Most engines aren’t made that way anymore, I don’t think.  The 22R-E four-banger in my 1994 Toyota pickup was the last interference engine I owned.  I made sure to install a new timing chain (at 240,000 miles!) before letting my niece drive it to Alaska.

          If the timing belt breaks on a non-interference engine, then the engine just stops.  You’ll have to replace the belt (and thus reset the valve timing), but other than that it probably won’t hurt a thing.

          1. Why surprisingly?  I know Hondas were almost exclusively interference for a long time, whereas Toyotas were not (with exceptions like the 22R).  I see people online theorizing that variable valve timing is easier to engineer in an interference engine (though I can’t picture why that might be so).

            Seems to me, all else being equal, a carmaker might prefer to make their engines non-interference, to minimize catastrophic failures in the event the consumer neglects to change the belt/chain.

            But if modern performance and emissions standards dictate an airflow that can only be acquired through valves opening deep enough into the combustion chamber to potentially strike the piston if the belt fails, well, then who am I to argue with stoichiometric efficiency?

    3. Fred, you had the same lineage of cars as I did! My first car was a ’80 turbo disel rabbit, died the same way, and then followed that with an ’86 Jetta (got totaled in crash, nobody hurt)… ha!! My dad tried to hand me down his first gen new Bug, but that thing was a LEMON. More problems than you can shake a stick at!! (i’m not even exaggerating)

    4. Ah, the memories.

      My folks had a Beetle (a ’59, I believe) and I can remember riding in the back seat and watching the road go by through the floor.

  3. Always wanted a camper van…  I’ve had 2 Karmanns and three beetles, and loved them all (well, maybe “love” is too strong a word for the infamous Death Machine, but I respected it).

    I wouldn’t even consider putting a water-pumper in, though…  I’d rather put an air-cooled 911 six-cylinder & tranny in there!

  4. Vanagons are pretty damn cool.  I’ve got two, a full westy and a TDI vanagon.  They give me plenty of headaches.  I’ve been up and down the oregon coast with blown head gaskets, etc, etc…  I can’t tell if I’m a man with ideals, or just an idiot for owning two vans that constantly need attention. 

  5. Hard to believe that an ’87 Vanagon is vintage—in comparison to split and bay windows, they are fully-modern cars, but I guess it is 26 years old. Sheesh! Somethings never change… always carry spare parts (not that it’s too bad in Mexico) and never be in a hurry! (At least you’ll have a place to sleep!)

    Personally, I thought I was all done with air-cooled Vdubs until I drove a friend’s Beck Speedster earlier this week. That car is fun!!!

    1. we were driving my dad’s ’87 westie cross country, and this crazy huge guy at a 7-11 in West Virginia gave us the stink eye as we pulled up, and then asked “IS THAT A HIPPIE VAN?” as we got out. He was ok in the end, but yeah; up until the west coast, people totally relate them to the old 60s/70s VW vans…

      1. Back in ’89, I did a 3-month cross country trip in my 1970 Campmobile. Everywhere in the US and Canada we’d get big waves from other VW drivers. All except in California, where bay window buses were still considered too new or not special enough!

  6. Prepping for a trip in the old VWs bears more resemblance to getting ready to go offshore in a sailboat than  a road trip. Plenty of spares, gameplanning worst-case scenarios, sealing anywhere that looks leak prone, etc. 

  7. if memory serves, there are wells sporadically located on the side of the highway along the northern-most 1000kms of road in Mexico for out-of-water VWs. the problem is you’ll want to be going at least 120kms/p/h for that whole stretch just to get the hell through it. we did a similar trip (via Monterey) in 2010 and the north is not very friendly to out-of-country plates. expect searches and requests for bribes. as soon as you get to Guadalajara things get much, much better. 

    we had a powder-blue 1987 VW van for several years, then parked it for a few months after we blew the engine. a friend bought it for parts and a wheel fell off as he towed it home. the good old days. 

    1. the north is not very friendly to out-of-country plates

      If you’ve got Swiss license plates in France, Italy, Spain, etc, you’d better keep your car in a garage, because if you park it in the street, chances are somebody’s gonna puncture your tires or scratch your paint job.

      However, this is about Mexico and the authorities.  I cannot confirm nor deny your statement for North-Central Mexico, but I can tell you that Baja is mellower in this respect.  There may be military search points, but they are famously not up to the bribe games.

      Keep an eye out in the town of El Rosario, however, where the local cops sometimes try to “collect a toll” from cars that pass by “their town”, regardless of the license plates.  This became a newspaper exposé a month ago, so maybe those cops are gone.
      If you’re 100% legal and have balls of steel, respectfully tell the town cops that you’re on the federal highway and they have no jurisdiction on it, maybe you can both take the issue up to the Federales, see what Commander Barreto Martinez has to say about it.  Then watch swaggers deflate from postures.

      Link to the article in Spanish:

  8. Jealous.  We had a cherry ’90 westie and sold it a few years ago.  It had to happen, but we still regret it.

    I’ve wanted to take my family down there to see Baja ever since I went down there by myself a few years ago. (I lucked out and BFG paid my way to work in a pit at the baja 1000) but I was always afraid that it wasn’t safe for my family or even just myself. It seemed like the trip I took would have been a lot more dangerous if we hadn’t had the support network of BFG and even then, I know some shenanigans ( to put it lightly) took place among our people. Someone, at one of the many (fully armed) military checkpoints along the way, was asked by the police to pull their RV to the side for a closer inspection (no, a little further to the side… Keep going…  keep going….) and left a couple and their teenage daughter in the middle of the desert.

    tl;dr – keep your wits about you and don’t stray too far from the pack.

    Oh – and one other oddity: when you encounter a slow semi (sometimes looking like they’re only held upright by the boxes they contain) on that windy mountain highway, they will put their *left* blinker on to show that they can see ahead and that it looks safe for you to pass them.  Good luck with that in the Westie. ;-)

  9. If you are going through TJ  Tijuana.  Let me know when  and will gladly beer you up and give you some tips.  am in the Travel , Trade and Adventure Business.   Facebook     Julio R. Garcia Granados   un official adventure  Ambassador

  10. my husband and I totally did a cross country trip in my family’s old ’87 Synchro from Delaware to LA. I FEEL YOUR PAIN. Thing didn’t go above 60mph going downhill. Also, fun story, broke down in the middle of Wyoming and found ourselves in a horror film. Literally. Spoiler alert; we didn’t get murdered. My husband and I made a comic about it, “the incident at exit 88”

    WESTIE FOREVERS! (which is what we called our van, because westphalia) Adventure guaranteed!

  11. Jealous of the trip, wish I had the time to do something like that. Someday. But what I’m more jealous of, is the fact that you have capable, knowledgeable experts nearby to help with the van. The West Coast seems to be chock full of great VW shops. Like you, I have an ’87 Westy (a Syncro, with a Subie 2.2), that I absolutely love, but which is suffering from the fact that I live in West Virginia where nobody has a clue on how to work on this amazing machine (and suffering from the salt as well). I’ve had some local mechanics do some work, which is fine if I give precise instructions (and often supply the parts), but they’re as likely to break something as they are to fix anything. I’d do my own work, but there are only so many hours in the day. Man… I need to get out of here.

  12. the battery/alternator light on my water-cooled VW Bus should not be ignored.[…] On the water-cooled version, that light means the cooling system isn’t circulating.

    So, is the light a symptom that the belt got loose and your water pump has stopped pumping?

  13. I just completed 5 weeks and 8000 miles from MD, through the SW and PNW and back to MD – in a 1987 Syncro Westy TDI. Zero mechanical problems, loaded to 5800 lbs, helps that I’m a VW tech. Drove the interstate at 70-75 mph most of the way, getting off onto a lot of US highways here and there. Only Snoqaulmie pass slowed us to 60 mph. I’ve done about 20 other trips like this in another similar Syncro, always made it home with relatively little problems. That van rusted away finally at just over 700,000 km. Nothing else like them on the planet.

  14. We drove with our boys all over the western states one year with or ’90 Vanagon Westy Multivan, which only has beds, no kitchen. I never liked cooking inside a van anyway, so we brought along portable things, like a fridge, camp stove, etc. – having two Eagle Scouts along helped, and we had a great time, except for the potholes in Wyoming and Montana, they ruined our tires, and that was the only mechanical trouble. I’ve lost that belt to the water pump twice; the first time, it blew a plastic line in the very back, and after I replaced it with the spare I carried, I had to melt the plastic closed with matches so I could get into town, a few hours of slow driving away. Second time was last week late on a Sunday nite, with no auto parts stores open and I didn’t have a spare belt, so I had my wife drive out with a pair of pantyhose, tied that on real tight, cut of the excess and drove home. Love that Westy. 

  15. That trip is going on my bucket list!
    I’m also a VW family member: my parents owned a ’67 Baby Blue Beetle, a ’72 A-Type, a ’88 Jetta GL; I’ve owned a ’91 Golf GL, a 2000 Jetta GLX (omg VR6 rocked!), a 2005 Jetta TDI Wagon (still on the road with 300,000kms, it’s been from Ontario to all over Newfoundland), a 2012 Passat TDI Highline with the Sports pkg – bought in November 2012, already has 17,000kms on it, and we fight for who drives it everyday *lol*… Such a sweet ride.

    If only they made the leg space a little bigger in the back seat of the 2013 Golf Wagon TDI, I’d buy it in a heart beat!

    1. The seats are OE Vanagon seats. The pilots seat came out of a passenger van tho and has like an extra 1-2″ of padding, so its a bit high but SUPER firm and great. I found some seat covers yesterday that work and even tho the upholstery is OK, I wanted to protect it. The Jump seat is OE but I left her behind for this trip. I wanted the space more than I needed to seat 5 adults.

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