Existing now in a foggy dream world, I paddle to the front of the line as engines fire up, signalling it's time to go. The smell of diesel burning without oxygen is threatening to bring my lunch back for a revisit, but I somehow find the energy to kick-start my bike. Hauling my lead carcass into the saddle, I ride off slumped behind the handlebars. Slowly the road begins to fall, and we drop into a tree-lined valley next to a river. Realizing we won't make Abancay with our sluggish pace, Flavio and I find the one-horse town of Chalhuanca on the map. There, a bottle of Pepsi and an anti-nausea tablet fixes everything.
Waking to the sound of chickens and donkeys on the only street in town, we saddle up in a clear, cool morning. The road out follows a vibrant river framed by steep mountainsides lit by the sun's early light. Thumping along at 50 mph, there's a magic in the air that's impossible to describe. Flavio and the rest of the gang are somewhere behind, and our only job is to hold the throttle open and enjoy.
Pilgrimmage to Picchu
Reaching Abancay, we are at around 7,500 feet and running well in the more oxygen-rich environment. There is little I recognize of this now sprawling, modern town, and my memory of the past is as faded as a worn snapshot. But there is one place I need to find. We gas up, and on slick, smooth tarmac start the serpentine climb on the Via de los Libertador heading for Cusco. It was here-somewhere-that I met Father Giovanni, but the exact spot eludes me. What we do know for certain is our final destination: the orphanage in the city of Moquegua that Father Giovanni once tended. We plan to present the funds we raised in the States-much-needed funds-to the impoverished children who live there.
I notice the others have slipped ahead, and that gives me the opportunity to gun the XR. I find the gang at a small guinea pig farm beside the road enjoying an impromptu tour given by the gracious host. The little pig is a local delicacy in these parts, and the farmer, with his wife laboring over an open fire in the dirt-floored kitchen, shows us his guinea pigs, vegetable garden, and fruit trees. He radiates a peace from his simple life in the unspoiled countryside, and it's with a sense of sadness that we ride for the bustle of Cusco.
Dropping out of the mountains with the sun already behind the high walls flanking the west side of the ancient city, we enter a maze of streets jammed with cars, buses and trucks. Like me, Peru has changed much over the years. Most of the main roads are now paved, and the modernization of places that had appeared nearly prehistoric to me back then is shocking. Diving left, merging right, somehow we make the center of town. Catching our breath and high fiving, we check in at the fabulous La Casona Del sol hotel.
Before sunrise the next morning, we eschew the bikes for a ride in a mini bus to the Inca city of Ollantaytambo. It was here I walked the ancient streets with Father Gio, toured the Temple of the Llama, and drank coffee in a dusty bar. These days the temple is walled off, and the old building with dirt floors is a modern restaurant with bright stucco walls. We marvel at the Inca architecture before boarding the train to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.
Heading up the tight, narrow road to Machu Picchu, we marvel at glimpses of the Urubamba River far behind as we climb. Situated in the clouds at 7,700 feet, Machu Picchu is known as the "Lost City of the Incas." Abandoned in the 1500s, it was re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian. What made the Inca flee Machu Picchu might never be known. But to feel the presence and aura as you walk here, it's clear it was a sacred place.