Tips for Surviving the Mototaxi Junket
I went into the Mototaxi Junket blind, not knowing what I was getting myself into. Here is some advice that I wish I had before I went to Peru. It is partially transcribed from the Adventurists’ opening meeting at the starting line, and the crash course we did with the Mototaxi mechanics prior to our departure. It’s kind of a hodge-podge, because it also includes injections of my “in retrospect” advice after completing the adventure.
Anyway, hope it helps future junketeers!
Mototaxi Maintenance & Junketeering 101
UPDATE 10/23/2014 – the Adventurists have killed the Mototaxi Junket! 🙁 RIP. So much for helping future junketeers. Nevertheless, I figured I’d keep this page up anyway to help anyone who decides to drive a mototaxi, or if the event ever makes a resurgence in the future.
THE MOTOTAXI, aka “Sofa Bike”
The mototaxi really is a hybrid between a motorcycle and a sofa. It is lovingly described as the worst vehicle ever invented, and after driving one the entire length of Peru, I can agree with that assessment.
Mototaxis are meant for ferrying people around town, not for crossing mountain passes, jungles and deserts, or for going long distances. Which is exactly what you’ll be doing on the Mototaxi Junket.
Here’s a video of Duncan from the Aventurists giving one team a crash course on mototaxi operation:
And here is a photo from the Mototaxi Junket guide with a close-up of the controls:
Mototaxis drive like a motor bike for the most part, but really poorly. A lot of that is because they have three wheels, and another big part is because they carry too much weight for the size of their puny engine.
The drive chain is connected to the rear left wheel, so the thing constantly wants to turn right. Left turns are a feat of strength. You have to constantly fight to drive straight, and it’s a tremendous upper body workout driving these things.
Shifting gears is done with your left foot, and the clutch is controlled with your left hand. On the right, there is a pedal and hand brake (for rear right wheel and front wheel); the brakes don’t work very well at all, so it is advisable that you use both brakes at the same time and also shift into lower gear if you anticipate needing to stop.
Top speed – about 65km per hour on a flat, downhill stretch. Average speed that I got over the course of the junket was about 25km / hour, over the varied curving/uphill roads.
Mototaxis are way underpowered – the 125cc motorcycle engine really struggles to pull the weight of 2-3 people plus luggage. Up hill, you will be in 1st and 2nd gear a lot, meaning that you will overheat if you don’t pull over and stop regularly. You will often go 10km/hour to 15km/hour up hill. Have patience…you’re going to need it to get over 4400 meter mountain passes.
Oftentimes, you’ll be driving tilted to the side due to the pitch of the road, and it will feel like you’re going to tip over. And every time you go around a hairpin turn (about every 30 seconds on some Peruvian roads), you have to come to almost a complete stop to avoid rolling because mototaxis are so “tippy.”
Going downhill, put your mototaxi into gear. The brakes are unreliable, so you should use the engine as the brake. 1st, 2nd or 3rd gear depending on the slope.
Very often you will encounter “Peajes” (tollbooths) where cars and trucks have to pay to pass. Tolls are done by number of axles. Since Mototaxis do not have axles, you don’t have to pay tolls. You instead drive through a little side road with a cone obstacle course, pass by the tollbooth and wave like the friendly gringo that you are. Some people have theorized that the reason mototaxis don’t have any axles is by “design” to avoid paying tolls. But I find it hard to believe that anyone put much thought into designing these things at all.
Your headlights don’t work for shit. They’re so dim you can barely see anything. You’re better off capturing a few fireflies in a bottle than using the built in headlights. If you insist on driving at night (don’t) — Definitely invest in a really strong headlight that you can wear on your head, and a second, even stronger light that you can mount on your dash to augment the useless headlights. I was risking my life driving nearly blind at night, until I borrowed a super strong headlamp from a team that was quitting the junket. It saved the day for me multiple times when I had to drive in darkness for a few hours, lest be stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere for the night. But if you can avoid it, don’t drive at night!
STARTING IT UP
Mototaxis have an electric push button starter and a kick pedal starter, but the electric starter really only works if you’ve been driving for a while and have charged up the battery.
The first few times you start your mototaxi in the morning, use the kick starter – your electric starter will not have enough of a charge to start the mototaxi because the battery drains overnight.
You might have to use the choke in morning when it’s cold.
Try starting without the choke first. Use choke after 4th attempt, open it (down) after it’s started, then put it back in closed (up) position. If it’s open, you will burn more fuel.
When starting, give it a LITTLE gas, emphasis on little. It starts much more easily if you only pull the throttle a super tiny amount – otherwise the engine will flood.
If you flood the engine, you’ll have to wait until everything evaporates to start it properly.
If you’re having trouble starting, first check that the Engine Kill Switch is not pressed in. This little red button has caused more wasted time than just about any other “feature” on the mototaxi.
If you’re still having trouble getting started, check your carburetor. They tend to get dirty or get disconnected and were the most common causes for my problems getting the damn thing started. All mototaxi mechanics know how to disassemble and clean a carburetor. You’ll be amazed at the amount of gunk and sediment these things get inside of them after a few days of driving.
The vehicle gets 60-70km per gallon with 2 or 3 people on flat road, uphill much less.
Fuel tank = 3.5 gallons.
Use 90 octane fuel – don’t use lower octanes…84 is bad quality.
The fuel tank lever – horizontal is off (turn off when you’re working on the mototaxi). Normal is down. The reserve tank is accessed when the liver is pointed up. The reserve tank contains two liters…use it to get to the nearest gas station if you’re running out of fuel.
When you put the mototaxi on its side to work on it, it will more than likely leak fuel. This is normal.
“Not changing your oil is best way to blow up your mototaxi.” – Duncan, from the Adventurists.
The Mototaxi mechanic hired by the Adventurists recommended changing the oil every 3 days or every 300km – a complete change, not a top off, “because you’re driving up a mountain.” Note that I changed the oil about every 300k during the junket, but several times was scoffed at by the guys at the lubricante shops because the black oil that was pouring out was still “good.” Nevertheless, better to be safe than sorry.
Before you start the engine (when it’s still cold), check that the oil is up to the marker on the dip stick.
Your mototaxi holds 1 liter of oil, no more. Oil, conveniently, is sold in 1 liter bottles almost everywhere.
Use SAE 50 oil.
To change the oil, turn a small bolt under the mototaxi, use a 17mm spanner to open. Try to change oil at a “Lubricantes” shop or a mechanic, because they will have bins to capture the used oil and dispose of it. Chances are they’ll probably just go dump it in the river, but at least you made an attempt to dispose of it properly.
Most “Lubricantes” shops will include free oil change service if you buy a bottle of oil. Oil usually costs between 12 and 24 Sol per liter throughout the junket, including oil change service.
Use brush and put grease on chain, more often if driving through dirt and mud.
Your chains should be loose enough so that they can move about an inch up and down, don’t make them too tight.
Need a tool to adjust tightness of chain / Tensor tighten. Any mechanic can do this, ask them to “Aflotar la cadena.”
You should buy extra removable links (1 sol each), can use them to repair a broken chain. Seriously. It’s not hard to fix a broken chain if you have this one essential piece. I found myself stranded on the side of the road for 3 hours once because I didn’t have an extra link (and was being “helped” by a friendly local who thought he could fashion an extra link out of a piece of coat hanger – it obviously didn’t work).
One day on the junket I was overheating a lot, and some random guy told me that it was because I didn’t have enough grease on my chain. He lathered up the chain with a TON of grease, and sure enough the overheating problems stopped. I’m not sure if this actually solved the problem, or if it was because I finally stopped for long enough to let the thing cool off completely, but it’s food for thought.
OTHER MAINTENANCE TIPS
Tools – bring spanner wrench 10-19mm and spark plug spanner 18mm to change. Also good to have an adjustable spanner (crescent wrench).
Spark plug is DP9. There are many types, DP9 is good for cold weather. Should change every 100 hours…after that it will lose power and you will have trouble starting. 17 turns to tighten the spark plug. You need a special spanner (deep 18mm) to change sparkplugs. (Note: I never had to change my spark plug for the entire junket.)
Carburetor – you can adjust the amount of fuel it consumes – one notch up more, one notch down less (in mountains maybe move up a notch?).
You can use screw driver to turn a small screw on the carburetor to adjust the minimum (idle) RPMs – the minimum should be set at 1000 RPM. If you’re having trouble idling – for instance, engine dying when you’re idling at a stop light, turn it up higher. One mechanic I went to set the idle at 3000 RPM in the mountains because my mototaxi’s engine kept shutting off.
Our mototaxi brand is “Lifan” (?), a knock off of Honda but you can use Honda parts.
SAMPLE SERVICE PRICES
Typically, 15 sol for general service.
Tightening the chain / basic maintenance – 5 to 15 sol.
New carbeurator = 65, if you have your own cost 5 to change
New clutch = 55-60 sol, or can change discs inside for just 10 sol or so.
Up in the mountains, they will try to charge you more. But no matter what it will be much cheaper than what you pay a mechanic back home.
Always ask how much it will cost before you start the service.
TIPS FROM THE OPENING MEETING
First off, people have died / been seriously injured on the Mototaxi Junket. This is called the “how not to die talk.”
(In 2012, an Irish team drove off a cliff and one junketeer died. This is a seriously dangerous event.)
“The #1 reason you won’t make it is because you drive like a DICK.”
Don’t drive at night. It’s incredibly dangerous. Only do it if you absolutely have to.
Bus drivers are the worst drivers, ironic because they have the most lives on the line. Truck drivers are the best. Truckers are great mines of information on road conditions and routes. Truck stops are also great places to eat – cheap and hearty meals.
You don’t have to be a good mechanic, you just be able to charm someone to get you to a mechanic.
When something goes wrong, relax, drink cup of tea, and think. Don’t freak out.
The hospitality is humbling and mind blowing here in Peru. Don’t be a dick.
Police. It’s a game. Play it. They see gringos and think “payday.” Our job is to play the dumb gringo and not pay bribes. You don’t speak Spanish, you’re just here for a laugh, hahaha, give a big dumb smile, say you’re going to Cusco, hahaha. Smile, and don’t get angry, don’t let on that you’re nervous. Good tactic is to smile and wave at cops as you drive by. For the most part, Peruvian cops are on the level and trustworthy.
Oftentimes, it’s better to play dumb and pretend like you don’t speak / understand any Spanish. Use the line “No fume español” – “I don’t smoke Spanish.” – works wonders.
When asking for directions — ask “which way?”, don’t ask “is this the right way?” And always ask multiple people.
If you pull into a city and don’t know how to get somewhere, hail a cab and say “I’ll follow you.” It will usually cost you two or three soles. Worth every penny and it prevents wandering around aimlessly.
If you’re not having fun, stop, change something and then carry on. (Usually trying to get too far too fast…slow down.)
Only call the Adventurists emergency numbers if absolutely necessary. You are on your own, that’s what you signed up for.
Don’t abandon your mototaxi! Try to get it to the end by any means necessary. That may mean you have to load it up on a truck and drive it to the finish line, but it will be cheaper than losing your entire deposit.
The single biggest danger is driving off the edge of a mountain. Drive slow and do not drive recklessly. Guard rails are sometimes few and far between.
Landslides are common.
You will often encounter construction zones with roadblocks / one way traffic control for up to 6hrs.
There are unofficial road checkpoints set up by “Seguridad” people with guns. They ask for money. You don’t have to give it to them, but that won’t make them happy. I gave them rubber duckies instead of cash.
Highway robbery is possible in some areas (has not happened yet on the Junket, but don’t take more than you can afford to lose.)
You can and will break down between towns in places with no traffic…someone will come across you eventually and help you out. Don’t stress out.
The jungle roads not are not as bad as the guidebooks say (but they are bad).
Avoid the drug areas. (Ask truckers / locals.)
Police are amazingly friendly to smiling tourists.
Take regular breaks (every 2hrs).
Don’t drive at full tilt all day.
Slow up hills.
See a mechanic every 3 days just for laughs and to find what is about to break. Good mototaxi mechanics are really good at foreseeing problems, because these things break down constantly.
Honk your horn incessently when you go around a blind corner. This is your single best safety device. In Peru, honking is not considered rude. It’s more like saying “I’m here” or “I am acknowledging that I see you.” Always honk when you pass someone.
Keep right. You will get passed a lot, and also have to pass a lot of slow moving trucks going up hill. Vehicles coming in your direction on curvy mountain roads are almost always over the center line, so if you don’t want to die, keep right.
COMMON MECHANICAL PROBLEMS
Chains snap or fall off. A lot. Single most common problem I encountered.
Splits between carbeurator happen. If you’re having problems starting, more often than not your carburetor is dirty or not connected well. Get a mechanic to clean it out every 3 days.
Clutch cables snap.
Throttle cables come loose / detach.
Engine rebuilds are possible, but try to avoid them.
Reasonably sized towns will have spare parts and mechanics. Some towns have tuk tuks, some have mototaxis…they are similar, but different vehicles.
If have to take a truck because you’re broken down, pay half up front and half at end.
Bring a jerry can with extra fuel, and don’t buy low quality fuel.
Legally you have to wear a helmet, but most people do not and police don’t care unless they’re trying to make a quick buck. 99% of mototaxi drivers never wear helmets. (I never did on the entire junket and never had any problems.)
It’s better to stay in a guesthouse than camp…you might have to camp if you break down at night. Usually some kind soul will invite you into their home if you are stranded. Guesthouses are cheap in Peru, ranging from 20 sol to 100 sol per night. (Note that 90% of Peruvian “hospedajes” only have cold showers.)
You can not drive a Mototaxi on the Pan American highway. It’s Illegal (and boring).
Altitude – the higher mototaxis go, the worse they get.
Up hills – yes, you will have to push. There’s a lot of up hill in the 2nd week of the junket (Andes).
Mail at least half your stuff home at the starting line, you don’t need it. Seriously. Every extra bit of weight makes your mototaxi run worse.
Waterproof everything. You will get WET. Bring waterproof shoes, pants and raincoat. Consider buying a motorcycle poncho.
Don’t rely on maps, talk to locals, but don’t trust their directions.
Dogs are not your friends! Peru is swarming with dogs, both stray and “pet” street dogs. Dogs love chasing after mototaxis and nipping at your ankles. I was chased/barked at by hundreds of dogs and bitten twice while driving the mototaxi…luckily neither bite broke the skin.
Don’t get cross with your teammates.
Do a thorough maintenance check every hour. You’ll be amazed at how many bolts and nuts will rattle off your mototaxi and fall out on the highway. (I lost the one that holds my exhaust pipe on to the mototaxi four times in fourteen days.)
Gesture what’s broken to people, you won’t know the words.
Avoid Huanaco – lots of drug dealers and prostitution, it’s a city near the middle of Peru. (This is advice from a Peruvian — but I ended up staying there and had no problems.)
“An adventure is never an adventure when it happens. An adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.” -Tim Cahill