Madaru moto - motorbike adventures in South America
I thought to myself: no harm in looking. Even if I just bought a bike and rode it around Peru for a while, second hand bikes here hold their value well. Many models over the 250cc size, even when second-hand, actually fetch double their new price in the USA. So I started visiting the Huayna Capac showroms again - though I shouldn't really call them showrooms, most of the new bikes were on show on the footpath or kerb.
I had not heard of many of the Chinese brands, like this one, called 'Fortte'. They looked rugged, and well built, but were about a fifth the price of a similar-capacity Japanese bike. Some of the smaller bikes even sell for less than $1000 - and come with a 1 year warranty.
Rugged Chinese bike with a plastic tank and military look
Or how about this "Strong" trike pick up for delivering your sacks of potatoes:
Or one of these:
These utility-type three wheelers are all powered by motorbike engines:
Or, how about this innocuous looking bike:
On closer inspection, you see why these bikes are not known by the same names in English-speaking countries: this one is branded a Wanxin:
And the model is a "Spanker 200" :
How about a KTM? Oh, sorry, its an RTM:
What about a Yamaha Lander (a fuel-injected bike assembled in Brazil, selling for US$6000?) Er, wait a minute, this is a Fukushima Lander, $1200, caburetted and assembled on the street here in Cusco:
This bike has all the bells and whistles, from an mp3 player with waterproof speakers to containers on its front crash bars:
One salesman showed me how the carburettor was stamped "Japan". But on close inspection it doesn't say "Made in Japan", it says "Standard of Japan". Buyers beware!
The Chinese know they are playing catch-up with Japan, but try and turn that to their advantage:
"Made for Europe" - is not the same as "Made in Europe" - but most Peruvian bike buyers would not speak English well enough to know the difference. And to them, 'for' sounds a lot like 'por', which easily could be misinterpreted as 'made by Europe'.
On the way back to La Estrellita, I passed a fire station, and could not resist taking this photo of a monument whose inscription reads "Homage, to the unrecognised bravery of all the world's firemen":
For a few days I looked, asked questions, took photos and notes of all the different models on show for later research on the internet. One day, when I was in the Ronco shop, a fair-haired man speaking excellent Spanish walked in, looking for a rear mono-shock. I struck up a conversation with him, and together we were able to find the best deal on a rear shock for his six year old Suzuki 350, which he bought in Colombia only a couple of weeks ago, and was hot-tailing it down to Patagonia because he wanted to spend New Year's Eve in Ushuaia. He often spends 10 hours a day riding. Although we ended up not being able to find the correct shock, we found a Chinese one close enough that a bit of welding and modification could be made to fit the Suzuki. Which seems to me to destroy the theory that Japanese bikes have an advantage - when it comes to the supply of spare parts - over Chinese bikes!
"I ride fast" he told me, "I can cover as much distance as a bigger bike, but I have to stay in the saddle a bit longer".
I liked Matt straight away. He was on a smaller bike - and second-hand at that! He said a smaller bike has many advantages - which I already knew - like lower fuel costs, and lighter weight when you need to push or change a tyre. He wore body armour and had what looked like and hand-made luggage rack bolted onto his rear.
We met up later in the best place for bikers to meet in Cusco: Norton Rats Tavern. Matt's fluent Spanish made him popular with this little barmaid.
Matt regaled me tales of lost treasure. I could have talked to him all night; I didn't doubt his stories for a minute, there is a lot of hidden treasure in South America, if you read the newspapers here, farmers and people demolishing or sinking foundations are often finding small caches. Sometimes gold coins are found when walls are demolished, little nest-eggs from years gone by that were forgotten about. I remember when I lived in Colombia, seeing beautiful trinkets for sale in small villages, made of gold-copper alloy, unearthed by farmers when ploughing. Such sales are illegal, but they happen. Of course, most of the big discoveries go unreported, and a growing problem is the indiscriminate looting of archaeological sites.
Here is Matt signing Norton Rats visitors' book.
I hope the bar owner, my friend Jeff Powers, publishes the book one day, it is a unique historical record filled with photos, maps, drawings and handwritten anecdotes of passing motorbike riders from all over the world.
Turns out Matt was also a mechanical engineer, who gave it up, he said, "because I like to work with my hands". Matt holds a few amazing cycling records - including a record coast -to -coast ride on a unicycle. Before he arrived in Colombia, he had ridden a bicycle he built himself from the US to Panama. One thing Matt mentioned that made me feel a bit better - albeit at his expense - was that, despite his extensive experience as a rider, he also came off his bike in Cusco when he hit those damned cobblestones.
One of the cyclists staying at La Estrellita was Paulius, from Lithuania. Paulius was interested in photography, and we experimented a bit making panoramas about a block away from our hostel.
Paulius rode all the way from Buenos Aires. He trekked the long way to Machu Picchu, only to be denied an entry ticket because he didn't have a copy of his passport, which seems a bit unfair since he offered to pay the top price which all foreigners have to pay. Unable to get in, he came back, to Cusco, got a copy of his passport and returned.
Although he copped a lot of jocular flack from other guests for his accent and being a chain-smoker, he was a really nice guy. Which makes it all the more sad the story he told us: when he was riding near Mendoza, in Argentina just a few weeks before, a 4WD followed him for a while, then forced him to stop. They pulled a gun on him and stole his new Nikon DSLR. Undeterred, he rode on and arrived in Cusco. Here he is about to set off for Lima:
I got stuck with a fake 50 Sole note, worth about US$18.50. It could have only have come from one of two places: a bank autoteller or a camping shop that has a good reputation. I think it was the camping shop, but I can't be 100% sure. The note has a slightly smoother feel to it and the colours are slightly different, but otherwise its a pretty good copy, it even has a proper watermark and silver thread through it. The fake is the top example, the bottom is genuine, they are actually almost exactly the same size:
There are even fake coins: the bottom one is fake, note the rust and skinnier llama:
Just my luck to be stuck with a 50! But, I have to admit, its only the second time in many, many years in Peru (the only other time was a 10 Sole note).
Time to make some decisions... to buy or not. I was tempted to buy a Yamaha AG200, a bike designed for farmers that Matt described as 'bulletproof'. Then there is the Lander 250, a bike assembled in Brazil with a fuel-injected Japanese engine that would be ideal for those 4000m+ Altiplano passes. I have no doubt at all the Jap bikes were better engineered and of higher build quality. But the Yamahas and Hondas were in the region of 5 to 6 thousand dollars. And I wonder how many mechanics know how to tune EFI moto engines on the Bolivian backroads.
Having lived in India and seen how reliable they are, I would have bought a Bajaj, but I saw no off-road models here in Cusco (called 'dos caminos' in Spanish - dual road/trail). I don't think they even make one. Incidenatlly, I came across this Chinese bike that looks very much like a Bajaj:
According to some things I read on the net, Qingqi bikes were among the best of the Chinese, but they too were quite pricey... but then again, you get what you pay for (usually).
One bike that caught my eye was the Ronco 'Demolition 250' which puts out a claimed 23hp - more than the Yamaha, due, its sales hype claims, to its balance shaft. It came with knobby tyres, inverted forks, electric/kick start, monoshock, high ground clearance, and a rear rack... it seemed to have everything I wanted ... except a fuel guage. The price was a reasonable 4800 Peruvian Nuevo Soles - about US$1700, with 1 year's warranty and free services, and a free helmet and pair of gloves (both of them of 'el cheapo' quality)
Adelina, the owner of the Ronco dealership, assured me I would have the number plates and be riding around within 14 days; she had sold one recently to a Spaniard resident in Peru and knew the process.
The "Demolition" could be ordered in three colours - Black, Red or Orange. The latter two colours were special order and required a deposit. Another feature that seemed to be in favour of the Ronco is that it is a clone - there are other models, like this Senda, which look identical - so parts might be easier to get. They are all made by the Shineray company of China.
Against the advice of several amused bystanders I ordered an orange model, mainly because I thought it would be more visible to other drivers, and therefore safer. Later I thought orange would be a good choice for two other reasons: my father was born in a town called Orange, where he met my mother, who was born in the Netherlands, where the national colour is orange! And, my friends Pete and Steve once had a band called Demolition (not that I ever saw them play). I hoped this bike would demolish the thousands of kilometres of roads and trails I planned to ride... but not demolish me or my bank balance!
After a four day wait the bike arrived in a box from Lima...
I paid the balance...this was to be the first new vehicle I have ever bought in my almost half a century on planet earth!
Two mechanics - Adelina's husband and brother in law - then set about attaching the front wheel, handlebars and hooking up the electrics as I watched.