Hiking the Inca Trail Day 4: Machu Picchu
See Day 3 here.
Our day started in the darkness of 3 a.m. Raven stuck his head out of the tent and glanced back at me.
“There are already people hiking down the the gate. I can see their headlamps,” he informed me.
Lizandro, our guide, had tasked the group with getting down to to the gate as early as possible and saving a spot for everyone. The shelter only held about 60 hikers on one long bench. After that, anyone showing up (and there would be at least 150 hikers) would need to sit on the muddy ground along the trail and hope it didn’t rain.
The trail to the shelter and the barred gate leading to the final leg of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu meander by Alpaca Expeditions’s campsite. Raven and I, last tent on the end next to the cook/guide tent had a great view of occasional headlamps disappearing into the thick foliage. The shelter was starting to fill up as groups queued for the gate opening.
“I’m going,” Raven said.
I insisted he stay long enough to have the hot drink a porter had just shown up with. There would be nothing warm to put into his system until we hit Machu Picchu… and that would be around 6 o’clock. Raven still felt woozy from the sickness that had gripped him the day before. Not to mention he’d had little to eat in over twelve hours. So he drank, hurriedly packed his gear and bag, grabbed his headland to discover the battery nearly dead, took mine, and headed down the dark trail hoping it led easily to the shelter and gate.
Knowing today was the day I finally arrived at Machu Picchu was all I needed to get myself going despite the coolness and the hour. I didn’t relish the idea of sitting on a bench for two hours in the damp dark, but sitting in the mud sounded less pleasant. I finished my packing while gulping on hot tea. Ready to go when Lizandro emerged from his tent, he was startled when he asked where Raven was and I told him already at the gate waiting for us. I grabbed two of the to-go breakfasts being handed out and followed Lizandro into the jungle, wondering how long and slippery a walk it would be. Raven’s headlamp grew dimmer by the footstep.
It turned out to be remarkably close. Our site must have been one of the last perched on the mountainside above the trailhead. We found Raven stretched full length on the bench, saving seats by napping on them. We were barely thirty feet from the locked gate.
Raven felt rough and as the hour stretched on and the sky finally showed a hint of light, even rougher. He ended up laying down in an out of the way spot and eventually coming back to sit on the ground, using my legs as a rest. Food helped some, but he kept his intake light. Around us, our group and other hikers stirred in restless excitement. I laughed to see a young woman reading on a kindle while three of the Alpaca guides huddled to watch a movie on an iPad. Modern hiking and waiting is far different from when I was a teenager!
I watched the world brighten and the backside of the mountain of Machu Picchu emerge from the darkness. Two hours of waiting ended as we were the second group ushered to the booth where passes and passports were checked. Then we were through and the last leg of the Inca Trail stretched before us.
It was light enough now to see our way without headlamps. Which was good, because the right hand side was a cliff. Only one section of this short jaunt had a steep climb, which I was already dreading, but most of the remainder skirted steep dropoffs on a narrow path. I admit I fell behind as my group of younger hikers swept ahead. Lizandro kept pace with me for a bit until he was sure that I wasn’t going to walk off the edge. After that, I had sections of the trail to myself again allowing the excitement to build. I was about to walk to Machu Picchu!
The one uphill section lead to the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu. It is fondly called “The Gringo Killer.” So I had very good reason to be nervous about this last marathon stretch. Though I’d caught up to my group several times, I’d lost them again after each. When I reached a section of nightmarish stairs jutting at angles that looked like something derived from by the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, I was with a group I didn’t know. After a quick relay that it was best to not try to use hiking poles was past back like the most important game of ‘telephone,’ people started scrambling upwards – on all fours. This was rock climbing more than hiking.
I stowed my poles and followed suit, ignoring a sense of panic when someone announced this wasn’t even the Gringo Killer yet. What could be worse than this?! Putting in a burst of determination, I pushed my way to the top and found at long last my group! They’d waited. Because that was the Gringo Killer. I’d made it… and expecting something horrible around the corner, hadn’t even thought it was all that bad. We took obligatory pictures of the gringos suffering, while the non-gringo’s of our group looked on. Lucky ducks.
Ten minutes later, we’d walked to the Sun Gate. It was just before 6 a.m. The sun was shining above Machu Picchu revealing… lots of fog. The world beyond the Sun Gate was completely blank. So much so even Lizandro joked, “Oh, they moved Machu Picchu over there!” He waved a hand to a patch of fog to his left.
We collapsed on the damp grass on the terraces below the gate, contemplating the hidden end of our journey while guides assured us it was incredibly common not to be able to see anything at this hour. But the fog would lift. Not to worry. With those words, we started down.
I saw Machu Picchu for the first time half way down to the primary viewing area outside of the main area. Neat rows of terraces and squares of houses emerged in a small gap in the mist before being swallowed again. The site stopped me and my breath. I hurried down the last of the path, hoping to see it again. By the time we reached the viewing area above the ruin, the sun was out and only a few wispy clouds threaded across the saddle where Machu Picchu sits.
The Inca Trail is an experience that culminates with Machu Picchu. Days of learning the history, walking through the landscape, struggling and overcoming ends at the gates to the ruin. Having done it is the reward. Getting the Machu Picchu stamp in my passport on the same page as the Inca Trail is my favorite souvenir. I was ecstatic to stand there and see Machu Picchu. I felt like I’d earned the visit. Walking through rooms I’d heard about for decades, seeing the close fitted rocks and the Inti Watana stone was a long held dream come true.
And I’m not going to tell you about it. This story was about the trail. There are a hundreds of articles on Machu Picchu and thousands of photos. I’d seen them before I arrived. I knew where I was going. I’ve been to other amazing places like Mount St. Michel and the Alhambra, but Machu Picchu took my breath away (and not just because of the altitude or the amount of stairs!).
It was the journey on the Inca Trail that made it truly special.