Josh and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to. When deciding our team name for the 2013 Mototaxi Junket, I’d asked Josh what he thought it should be, his reply “Um, no friggin’ clue bro?” which despite being an admission of a poor imagination and not an actual suggestion, I decided I liked it and hence forth we were known as team ‘No Friggin’ Clue’. And how apt that turned out to be.
Getting to the start line in itself was an adventure. From London to Cusco takes several days, three flights and 22 hours on a sleeper bus traversing the bumpy and windy roads over the Andes. Thankfully the bus was equipped with a cinema system, so to pass the time we drank beers which we’d smuggled on to the bus and the watched the movies of interest to us: For me, something with Emma Watson in it, and for Josh, a Star Trek film which he was watching for the umpteenth time. At some point I fell asleep and then slept for most of the journey, while Josh stayed awake forced to deal with the odours coming from the young man with motion sickness vomiting in to a plastic bag in the seat across the aisle from us.
At 3500m, Cusco was nowhere near the highest point of our trip, but we arrived only to find ourselves starved of oxygen in the thin mountainous air and even the simplest tasks, such as climbing the small flight of stairs to our hotel, became an arduous ordeal leaving us practically doubled over gasping for air.
We stayed in Cusco only one night, using our breathing difficulties as an excuse for spending the evening reclining on the roof of our hotel doing very little, which situated on a large hill provided a view of Cusco sprawling out below us. High as we were, we were still dwarfed by the mountains on all sides which were periodically dotted with large crosses and even larger statues of Jesus.
In the morning we boarded the train out to Machu Picchu. Surrounded by the elderly and infirm, we both suddenly felt very lazy not doing the four-day Inca trail to reach the alpine settlement. Diesel fumes from the train filled the carriage, rendering us both a bit light headed only to soon be accompanied by the pungent scent of citronella belched out of an electronic device attached to the waist of a rotund older woman.
As we arrived at Machu Picchu we pushed our way off the train thankful to be clear of the small-scale chemical attack, and set off for the starting point only to be dumbfounded where it was. Instead of the beginning of the path, we found ourselves surrounded by locals in stalls selling trinkets and other tourist fodder and inundated with restaurateurs trying to convince us to come try the alpaca. After a half hour of wandering around befuddled, we chanced upon a bus service which for a small fee offered to drive us to the summit. Exhausted and infuriated, we accepted.
After a perilous ride up a narrow road cut in to the mountain on which the buses seemed in constant risk of plummeting over the side or being pulverised by the other buses ripping back down the mountain we finally made it to our destination.
Built by the Incas between 1200 and 1450 AD and abandoned when Peru was invaded by the Spanish it was lost to the world aside from a small group of Peruvians until it was rediscovered by Yale graduate Hiram Bingham in 1911. Today, it looks anything but lost or abandoned. Positively crawling with camera toting tourists we had to throw ourselves in to the mêlée and compete with everyone else for space to walk, and taking a photo that wasn’t completely full of other budding photographers was nigh on impossible.
As the storm clouds grew over our head, we decided it was best to head back down to civilisation. The torrential rain soaked us to the skin as we disembarked from the bus so we fled to safety in a small restaurant filled with other sodden foreigners and finally ate some of that alpaca (it was good, if a little chewy).
We met that night in the small town of Urubamba – the start point of our expedition – with several of the other teams. We met an American couple on their honeymoon – Zach and Dawn – the latter of which had been studying Spanish for ten years, and the next team was an Australian couple – Steve and Brenda – who had brought 16kg of tools with them and had been diligently studying mototaxis for some months prior. Between them and most of the other teams we met, Josh and I suddenly felt very outclassed and totally under prepared. Figuring we had little to bring to the arrangement except our wit and charm, we set about trying to seduce our new friends to ride with us so that we may take advantage of their prized skill sets en route.
On the morning of October 11th, we met on a small dusty field on the outskirts of town to have our first taste of the glorious vehicle known to all as the mototaxi. Duncan, one of the organisers, jumped on one of the bikes to demonstrate how they worked and immediately the chain fell off and the bike abruptly came to a stand still. Brilliant. And frankly, it didn’t get much better from there.
A mototaxi is by no stretch of the imagination a fine vehicle. Despite their ubiquity in Peru, they are poorly made in China and essentially a low powered motorcycle in which the back tyre has been removed and in it’s place a not particularly comfortable two-wheeled sofa crudely welded. The rear left wheel is attached to the engine by a badly conceived two-chain drive mechanism which results in the chains constantly slipping off and needing reattaching and a permanent desire for the bike to turn to the right requiring the driver to constantly turn slightly to the left to counteract this effect. As a bonus, they’re also terribly uncomfortable to ride whether driver or passenger. As Josh so succinctly summed it up a few days in to our trip: “my gooch is really taking a pounding on this bike, aye.”
Having done our trial ride, it was decided that many spare parts were required as if they couldn’t get around a football field without breaking, surely taking them over the Andes was going to punish them in ways we couldn’t imagine. After a long and fruitless walk around Urubamba trying to find the long list of spares (none of which we obtained, but Josh found an entirely unnecessary kitchen sink) we retired to a small cafe where the conversation turned to the perils we may encounter on the trip. Between the poisonous spiders, blood sucking bats, aggressive snakes and the Foreign Office’s dire warnings about highway bandits, I was beginning to feel rather nervous about our undertaking.
The departure day was scheduled for the 13th, and somewhat hung over Josh and I awoke early to pack our things and get ready – only to find my money belt with my driver’s license had gone missing. After consulting with the organisers who assured me I could most likely bribe myself out of any situation, we made our way to the town square where the local community put on a show for us and bid us well on our forthcoming journey.
Our first real taste of just how terrible the mototaxis are was the climb out of Urubamba. Unable to escape first gear we rung them out at about 9000rpm the entire way while only managing to achieve the pace of a mildly disabled jogger. Our oil was showing temperatures of 120°C within minutes of setting off and those with the provided plastic dipsticks promptly found they had melted off in to the engine never to be seen again.
By the end of the first day, the crowd of mototaxis had thinned out, and in addition to the Americans and the Aussies we had collected two other teams – Aaron and Greg, and Nick and Neil. Now ten people and five mototaxis strong, our group – which we later dubbed the Gringo Alliance – was ready to tackle the thousands of kilometres ahead of us as we wove our way through the land of the Incas.
In the following two weeks we encountered many hills, climbing to 4300m at one point and the temperatures dropping well below zero. We stayed in an array of lacklustre accommodations (and a couple of nice ones) and were forced to eat rice and chicken (“arros y pollo!”) for nearly every meal. Whilst tasty, the local cuisine does lack some variety.
Mertle (the turtle), as we started referring to our mototaxi, decided to completely die on us on about day three. As we could go no further, our posse had to choice but to set up camp in a small quarry surrounded by aggressive wild dogs who loomed around us all night and we were serenaded in to slumber by the beeping of large mining machinery just off in the distance. Steve and Brenda not having any camping gear suspended a tarpaulin off their mototaxi and slept out in the open air. We awoke in the morning light and suddenly noticed the all tarantulas. Never was I more thankful for our flimsy canvas tent.
After replacing the carburettor, we unfortunately found that Mertle was behaving just as badly as ever. Not wanting to hold the other teams up, we sadly sent them on our way while Josh and I tried to limp Mertle the 25km back to the city of Abancay for repair. Unfortunately Mertle didn’t get far; we pulled over at a gas station where a group of dishevelled homeless men and more smartly attired truck drivers were milling about. Once again our poor grasp of Spanish proved a hindrance, so Josh quickly drew an artistic rendition of a mototaxi on the back of a truck and thrust the piece of paper in to the face of any who would look trying to coerce them to take us and Mertle to the next town. This didn’t seem to get any traction, and the language barrier certainly wasn’t helping, so Josh kindly volunteered me to catch a local bus back to Abancay and try to find a mechanic. One of growing crowd of onlookers offered to escort me, so shortly thereafter we were rattling back to town on the local ‘colectivo‘.
Finding the mechanic closed (at just after 7am this wasn’t too surprising) my guide took me for breakfast where we were served a horrible soup at a small stand with unidentifiable bony chicken parts floating in it. Out of politeness I tried to force it down, but failed miserably. After consulting my phrase book, in my best Spanish I told him that I was ill and couldn’t eat any more. He didn’t look entirely sure what to do with this information, but nevertheless, he didn’t pressure me to eat any more. Shortly after, he convinced the mechanic to take me in his car back down to look at the bike and with a rigorous handshake and a pat on the back he cheerily left to start his day.
As the mechanic was fiddling with the bike, Josh and I stood and looked on, joined by the ever-growing group of curious locals about these two mysterious gringos and their mototaxi. Just as he was about to tow us back to town for further inspection, the other teams rolled back in to the station. “We missed you too much!” Steve the Aussie proclaimed. Total bullshit we suspected.
It shortly became clear that they’d taken a rather sizeable wrong turn and were forced to retrace their steps to get heading in the right direction again. Josh and I described our plans to put Mertle on a truck and the others quickly agreed that was a good idea. We dispatched Dawn to converse with the locals and quickly came back with an offer for 1000 Peruvian Soles (£220) they would put all our bikes on a truck and drive us to Huancayo several hundred kilometres away.
After heaving the five mototaxis in to the truck through sheer manpower, the doors were locked and the ten of us wriggled in through the mess of machinery not looking forward to the 12 odd hours the driver had told us the journey would take.
12 hours was evidently quite an ambitious estimate as it was a long and uncomfortable 27 hours later we arrived in Huancayo. Forced to sleep in the back of the truck in the cold mountain air (the driver had locked us in there), we all became mototaxi contortionists trying to sleep where we could, beanies, jackets and sleeping bags abound.
And so we trekked on, thankfully once Mertle the Turtle had her carburettor tuned by a professional she didn’t give any more serious issues. Others in our entourage had an assortment of problems: Nick and Neil had their bike catch fire, which was extinguished with a bottle of Inka Cola which resulted in a lovely marshmallow smell from the caramelised sugar, and Steve and Brenda had their rear brake lever snap off when it collided with a large rock on a rough road. When asked if they’d like to stop, Steve retorted “Nah, don’t need them. I’ve got front brakes.” Typical Steve. This almost proved a bad decision when careening down a hill at speed we encountered a roundabout almost sending them sailing off a small cliff.
The rest of the ride was an enjoyable, if somewhat taxing experience. We climbed mountains, traversed desert and sweltered in the heat of the jungle. Got mauled by mosquitoes every night and were rudely awoken by roosters every morning. There seemed to be animals everywhere, particularly stray dogs who either wanted to bite off your face or lick it, many of the former chasing our mototaxis down the road barking furiously. Peru is a land of diverse landscapes and climes. From snow in the mountains and the minus temperatures in Junin to over 36°C in the jungle; dressing appropriately everyday was a challenge. The road rules also seemed entirely optional, and in the end we drove like the locals: Simply doing whatever we wanted and aggressively honking before, during and after the manoeuvre.
We encountered many self-appointed armed guards on the side of the road demanding money, although they only ever wanted about about two Sol (40p) so it didn’t seem worth quibbling about and they were more than happy to pose for photos which made the bribe seem very worthwhile. Most of the other Peruvians we passed waved in delight, particularly the children, some of who would literally bounce up and down with glee as our bizarre caravan passed through their towns, particularly enthralled with the inflatable Kangaroo bouncing along atop the Aussie bike.
The only real malice we encountered wasn’t even aimed at us; we were informed one evening in the town of Tocache that the town was “closed” the following day due to a protest and we wouldn’t be able to leave. In the morning we found smouldering tires blocking the roads, and glass, nails and stones covering the bitumen. We managed to skirt around these obstacles with only one tyre fatality between us, but this was quickly changed and we were on our way keen to put some miles in between us and the angry mobs circling in the back of trucks shouting menacingly at all who passed. The modern day equivalent of burning torches and pitchforks we decided.
After driving practically the length of Peru in two weeks to the day, we arrived in Colan, just north of the town of Piura and just south of the border to Ecuador. The Adventurists (the organisers) threw us a party with fireworks and a truck of beer which the 50 or so of us polished off in quick succession. Our friends Danny and Jared in one of the other teams managed to break their chain just as they were coming in to Colan, so we pushed the bike in by hand which seemed like an appropriate conclusion to the stupidity of the preceding weeks.
The bikes were entirely unfit for purpose, and driving them the length of Peru was definitely not a sensible endeavour, but indeed, that was really was the point of the whole trip. An adventure was undeniably had and Josh and I raised over £1000 to support the good work of the rainforest preservation charity Cool Earth. It was with a heavy heart we parted with all our new friends and set forth on our journey back to England.