I struggled for a long time wondering how I should start this story. The story of my last day on the Inca Trail. The day I would wake up before dawn, hike to the Sun Gate, and watch the sunrise reveal the ancient citadel, Machu Picchu. I finally settled on starting the story, not with my usual snuggly wake-up in the tent, but with the truth.
Day 4 – The Real Story
Let’s face it, when traveling in Peru there is a very real possibility of getting traveler’s diarrhea. For me, that possibility became a reality at 1:26 am the morning of our final day on the Inca Trail. I could feel my stomach churning, but I hoped I could will myself back to sleep. The man in the tent next to us was snoring so horribly, I was honestly afraid he was going to die that night. It was a violent sort of snore, with gasps, snorts, and gargles. With that going on and my stomach composing a symphony of its own, there would be no more sleeping that night.
I popped a couple pepto bismol tablets after a trip to the shit-smeared squat toilets and waited for my insides to stop hating me.
At 3:30 am our wake-up call finally arrived. I skipped breakfast, but snagged a couple snacks and stashed them in my pack for later. Then we all made our way to the checkpoint just below camp at Winay Wayna. We lined up and waited to be let onto the trail. Meanwhile, the porters packed up camp and we said goodbye for good. They hurried down a path toward town where they would catch a train to their villages.
We learned that many of the porters had never seen Machu Picchu. Trekking companies – if you are reading this, you should really send each of your porters to see Machu Picchu on their first trek. It doesn’t seem right that they work so hard and never get to see the end.
As we waited for the trail to open, People finished getting ready – brushing their teeth, organizing their packs, and bickering about who’s headlamp was dimmest. You could tell everyone was a little crabby. I popped a third dose of pepto bismol.
At 5:30 we were let onto the trail and started walking in the dim early morning light. Our headlights bobbed along the damp dew-covered trail. I was finally starting to feel better. We walked in a long line of trekkers that must have stretched for a mile. Everyone wanted to reach the Sun Gate by sunrise. Many trekkers were a little too eager, and jogged past us on the narrow, cliff-hugging trail – in the dark. It’s no wonder a few lives are claimed each year by falls off the Inca Trail cliffs. Don’t be stupid: the rest of us walked at a normal pace and made it with plenty of time to spare.
After an hour of downhill walking, the light was blue and dim, but I no longer needed my headlamp. I was finally feeling good, and thanking God for modern medicine.
The trail steepened and we started climbing stairs. We rounded a bend and were faced with the steepest set of steps I have ever seen. They call them the Monkey Steps. We climbed with our hands.
The Sun Gate – Intipuncu
I walked a bit further down the trail, and there it was, just barely lit by the morning light – Machu Picchu. It almost didn’t seem real. We were high above it, and could see the shadows slowly creeping east, their bright edge inching toward the ancient citadel. I walked down the trail beyond our group where I found a rock to secure my Joby gorillapod. It was the perfect place to take a time-lapse of the sunrise.
Sitting with my legs dangling off the trail watching the sun beams slowly make their way across the city was one of the most peaceful and rewarding moments of the trip.
I had been afraid after such an incredible trek and after all of the build-up, that seeing Machu Picchu would be anti-climactic. For some, maybe it is. Perhaps because I stepped away from the group and watched the sunrise with nothing to distract me, or maybe because I knew I had overcome real physical and mental challenges to get there, but watching the sun rise on Machu Picchu was a highlight of my trip.
Everyone talks about seeing Machu Picchu at sunrise, but this was so much more than Machu Picchu. One of my favorite views in all of Peru was when I turned around and got these shots in the opposite direction just as everyone else was gazing at Machu Picchu in front of us. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the entire area was. It was immediately clear why the Incas chose this location for such a sacred place.
Soon we were on our way down to the old city. As we walked, I kept looking toward the ancient citadel, watching it grow from a postage stamp to a sprawling complex. It was larger than I had anticipated, and I could see ruins spilling down the sides of the mountain. I imagined the entire mountainside must have been covered in terraces when Machu Picchu was in it’s prime.
We walked for about an hour, soaking in the views and letting the sun warm us as we approached Machu Picchu from above.
Historical Sanctuary of Machu Picchu
As we entered the main ruins of Machu Picchu, we suddenly became very aware of how gross we all were after trekking 4 days without a shower. We were surrounded by squeaky clean tourists who had taken the train. This might have been to our advantage, because it was fairly easy to claim a spot on the rock where everyone gets their classic “I was here” Machu Picchu photos. No one wanted to get close enough to mess with us.
We took a brief break after that, so we could all use a real toilet with a seat and everything. It was clean, modern, and glorious. We were gathering near the entrance when a woman came over to us, arm outstretched, holding a gallon-sized ziplock bag full of candy. “You guys look like you could use some candy,” she said.
“My mum warned me about this!” sputtered an Australian from our group, throwing his hands in the air. The rest of us burst out, “Yes!” and attacked the bag of candy like a swarm of starving vultures, completely forgetting the lesson our parents had taught us long ago. Never take candy from a stranger.
Sugar loaded and ready to explore, we marched back into the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
It was another gorgeous day in the Andes and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. I fought the urge to run into the Central Plaza and lay on the bright green grass to soak up the sun.
Manny guided us through the ruins and gave us a proper tour, explaining the significance of each structure and how the Inca accomplished this incredible feat of engineering.
Much of Machu Picchu is designed with the Inca Apus (Gods) in mind. The Inca had many Apus including Inti (sun), Mama Killa (moon) and Pachamama (Mother Earth). The temple of three windows faces East and the windows are positioned so that when the sun rises over the mountain on the June Solstice, it will shine through the central window and illuminate the granite pillar.
The temples and rooms for Inca royalty had the most pristine stonework, with perfectly smooth stone carvings and precisely positioned masonry.
The stonework at Machu Picchu was the most precise we had seen in Peru.
Not only did the Inca worship the sun and stars, but they also revered the mountains. Machu Picchu is positioned in the center of four great mountain peaks held sacred to the Incas. This massive granite slab was carved to match the silhouette of the mountain behind it.
Wandering the ruins, we admired how much care was put into the stonework – from the temples to the back alleys of the royal Inca grounds. But even the commoners neighborhoods were beautiful at Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was a fantastic place to meander and explore. You could easily spend two days here, especially if you’re climbing either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.
When our stomachs started growling, we knew it was time to take the bus down to Aguas Calientes to meet up with our group for a final goodbye lunch. I took one last look at Machu Picchu. But I wasn’t sad to be leaving. I knew I’d be back tomorrow.
Which mountain do you think we climbed the next day: Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain? Post your best guess in the comments and we’ll see who’s right!