But once you’ve wobbled off from the start line what exactly will Peru throw at you? Here’s a look at the Panamerican Highway and the Amazon jungle sections of the un-route.
How to get arrested and your mototaxi impounded
Try and take the easy route. In a gloriously appropriate twist of the Peruvian highway code if you try and commit the ultimate sin of anti-adventurism by looking for an easy route you are likely to get arrested and see your mototaxi impounded.
Underpowered three-wheelers are illegal on the Panamerican Highway and quite right too. Where’s the fun in driving along a straight, flat piece of bitumen? Being run off the road by a massive truck is about the most interesting thing that'll happen, and we’ve heard it hurts. The heat of a long stint on the coastal highway could also result in your mototaxi engine spontaneously imploding like a dying star. At the very least you'll get a dent in your wallet. A junketeer who tried his luck with a short stint on Route 1 back in 2011 ended up paying a fine of $500 to keep his Mototaxi and avoid a trip to jail. In short, stop being a wuss and avoid it.
The Amazon Jungle Bit
It’s possible to follow the spine of the Andes mountains pretty much all the way through Peru, avoiding the Amazon jungle section. This is a very poor choice. Not only will you lose your mind somewhere in amongst the endless hairpin switchbacks, you’ll miss the chance to cross fast-flowing brown rivers on tiny boats with their engines screaming against the current.
You won’t get to trundle up to the top of a hill to gawp at mist covered rainforest stretching to the horizon in every direction. You'll miss the chance to barrel along on dark red muddy tracks through a remote region known for ruthless banditry and the transport of illegal narcotics. You won’t see the shocking results of intensive logging that brings the importance of Cool Earth’s work protecting the rainforests into sharp perspective. And you won’t get to experience an angry armada of golf-ball-sized flying bugs appearing from the forest at dusk. They latch on to your headlight like a tractor beam then initiate a suicide mission in an attempt to enter your body straight through your eyeballs. Not to be missed.
Bague Grande to Tarapoto
Approaching the region from the north as I did back in 2011 you really feel like you’re heading into the jungle once you pass Bague Grande. You hit a well used bitumen trade-route straight into the heart of Amazonia. One long road that takes you all the way through to Tarapoto, the biggest town you'll come across on your loop through the rainforest.
The traffic isn’t heavy but the vehicles are. You’ll have to sharpen your elbows and tussle with trucks and buses that pick up some impressive speed on the decent road surface. Long winding bends and no sharp corners means everything happens at a steady pace that's usually slightly faster than you'd like when you're in a Mototaxi at the bottom of the vehicular food chain.
The hills aren’t as steep as the pointy bits in the Andes that take a little piece of your soul with every sandy hairpin bend but they are big, long and unforgiving. You have to build momentum, keep the revs high and never, ever stop halfway up the hill unless you’ve stalled (big mistake), broken down, forced off the road or flagged down by Police. To crack these extended climbs in one go you must be at one with your tiny engine and the sensitive throttle, nursing the very best from your Lifan Trooper's 125cc of raw power.
When you’re heading down the hills you need to build up speed for that essential momentum by scaring yourself shitless. You have to grab your balls/ladyballs and go as fast as your sofa-bike, your internal mustard levels and your team mates' trust in your driving skills will allow. The upper limit of your downhill prowess is not set by the speedometer because it has probably already broken. Instead you make your judgements based on the feel of the bike juddering violently through both buttocks and the front wheel speed-wobble vibrating up through your forearms.
Don't worry, you'll know when it's time to slow down. But being brave and holding out for something resembling the sofa-bike's top speed gives you the best chance of making it up the next incline in one go. Occasional rests are necessary to ensure the survival of your engine and so your throttle hand doesn’t end up permanently clenched in the claw position you’ll come to know well as a Junketeer.
Despite what the guidebooks will tell you about never doing anything on your own anywhere this section is generally considered quite safe. The towns have decent hotels & guest houses and manned car parks and garages to stash your bike in overnight.
The atmosphere is friendly on this stretch and you'll be making good ground. Even still, everybody you meet will tell you not to drive in the jungle after 5pm. The reasons will vary but the most common is that the policemen patrolling these roads clock off to go and have dinner when the sun rapidly sets, making tea time open-season for highway bandits. I never found out if this is true and nobody did anything but call us stupid and say the odd prayer for us, but if you’re looking to get in as much trouble as possible keep driving into the night and let me know what happens.
If you choose to stop for the day when the locals advise you won’t need a clock to know it’s 5pm. At the crack of dusk the flying bugs appear from the trees on both sides of the road. Tiny black flies aim directly for your nostrils. Bigger wasp-like things will aim for your neck and your ears. The blimps of the Amazonian insect world, about the size of a ping pong ball, will fly straight at your eyeballs. Fuck knows what they are. The great thing is you can see them all swarming towards you in the beam of your headlight before their final approach up over the handlebars and into your face. You definitely know at this point you’ve hit the jungle section, just don’t open your mouth or worry too much about what they are. I reckon ignorance really is bliss in this case.
Tarapoto to Tingo Maria - the spicy bit
This is a potentially dangerous bit of the world. You’ll hear stories about bandits and illegal drug traffickers moving their goods through the region. Junket teams have so far not had any problems from either, but locals we spoke to agreed this is a dodgy stretch for a pair of clueless tourists in a mototaxi.
It’s a long and lonely stretch with very few police patrols. Instead you’ll come across checkpoints manned by the ‘ronderos’, the un-uniformed rural security service. From what I saw their job is to carry massive shotguns and look double-hard to put off highway criminals. They also collect a tip for their services from every vehicle, supposedly it's optional but not something to argue over considering the amounts they ask for are very small. In some areas they'll be very keen for you to take photos of them posing with their guns. So keen you won't have a choice, so I’d go along with it if they ask. We did:
The bitumen road out of Tarapoto will take you as far as a town called Juanjui. Then everything changes.
On the other side of town the bitumen runs out and you’re on dark red jungle tracks almost as soon as you leave the town centre. From here it’s off-road all the way through to Tingo Maria. This stretch is one of the most remote parts you’ll trundle through on the Junket, and one of my favourite bits of the whole adventure.
The driving is hard-going, the bike will bounce a lot and start to break, the tracks have big holes in them. You will skid across sandy gravel, get stuck in mud when it rains and showered with dust on the rare times you're passed by another vehicle. You never quite feel completely safe because of all the rumours and stories but everyone you come across is pleased to see you. Not a lot of tourists travel down this road overland. Even fewer drive themselves. Only Junketeers do it on a ridiculously ill-equipped sofa-bike. This road is why you signed up.
Once you've tackled the Tingo Maria to Tarapoto gauntlet you’ll need to find a mechanic whether that's Tarapoto or Tingo Maria. The off-road punishment you’ve just unleashed on your mototaxi will definitely have just done some damage. Even if you think everything's OK, go to a mechanic anyway, because you're wrong. I bet you they find lots of stuff wrong with it that you didn't spot.