Updated on February 20th, 2020
“Slowly the sun came up from behind the peak. It bathed Machu Picchu in a glow befitting of its iconic status. We had done it & there was our prize below!”
Machu Picchu, Peru
To visit the legendary Machu Picchu in Peru had been on my Life List for many years. I had spent 3 Amazing Days Hiking the Inca Trail to get there. On Day 4, I was to fulfil the dream & walk into this iconic landmark. To say I was excited is a huge understatement!
Hiking the Inca Trail was one of the final activities on my 21-day Absolute Peru Tour with G Adventures.
If you would like to see & hear all about my journey on the Inca Trail & Machu Picchu, please see my Podcast & Video Diary.
What do you need to know?
The Wake-Up Call
On our final night camping on the Inca Trail, we were woken gently at 3 am. I knew this was in my future so I had gone to bed in my clean & colourful trousers. I had read that after 3 days trekking it’s good to have a fresh pair of trousers which will look nice in the photos for the final day. The idea sounded great to me, so I had come prepared!
The early wake-up call was so we could join the queue at the gates of the National Park. The gates open at 5.30am. If you’re at the front, you get a seat for the wait. Once in the park, you have 1 1/2 hours hike to the Sun Gate, where you watch as the rising sun shines its glow onto Machu Picchu.
There were a couple of members of the group who were a little slower to get started that morning. After a quick breakfast, we moved to join the gathering crowd. Unfortunately, we had just missed our goal of a seat.
“I spent the next 90-minutes trying to stay warm, comfortable & cheery. This was a slight challenge as I sat on a polythene poncho on the cold concrete in the dark.”
We had only the view of the magnificent stars & each other to entertain us. But we made it through until the moment when the park finally opened & we were back on our way. The last section of the Inca Trail was fairly uneventful. It’s a lot busier than the previous days because it’s the first time you actually all start out together. Everyone seems to be in a rush to be the first there. A lot more overtaking occurs (pointless really as everyone gets what they are looking for at the end).
What are missing in this section are the porters. They spend the final day taking down our tents & hiking everything back to the company’s headquarters. The tragedy is that apparently few porters who work on the Trail ever get to see Machu Picchu itself. It’s their heritage & their job. However, they don’t get the privilege which is available to us as visitors to see this magnificent sight.
The “Gringo Killers”
After an endless 1 ½ hour wait & what seemed like a much longer than a 90-minute hike, we reached the final part.
“The “Gringo Killers” (as they are affectionately called) are 50 very high steps. They are the last obstacle you have to climb to get to the Sun Gate.”
Your poles are useless as you basically have the indignity of crawling on all fours to reach your goal. It’s funny how high many of the steps along the trail are. The Incas are legendary for many reasons, but I don’t think being particularly tall is one of them!
The end of this 4-day assault course was behind me. I stood with my fellow teammates. We watched as group after group negotiated the steps beneath us as we savoured the view. It was an immense feeling of achievement. We passed through a stone gateway & were ecstatic to see we were at the Sun Gate.
The Sun Gate
The Sun Gate is a section of stone steps at the top of a pass over the mountains. From here you can see Machu Picchu below. When it came into view, I was expecting to hear a fanfare in my head as the majestic monument loomed large ahead of me. Neither of these things happened! In actual fact, the Sun Gate is high up & although it was now light, the landmark itself was down in the valley. It looked quite small & was still shaded by the much taller mountains around the site.
I was travelling with my GoPro tucked into my top. This way it was available to film but kept both my hands free to clutch my poles for the walk (we called it “Boob Cam”!). As we found our spot & settled down to watch the sun moving to light up our goal, I bent over & heard a sickening clattering sound.
“Everybody at the Sun Gate looked around & winced as my camera crashed down from our platform & smashed on the ancient cobbles 5 feet below us.”
Luckily it was within a retrievable distance from where I was. Thankfully, it was only the outer protective (for a reason!) casing which had smashed. My camera was perfectly intact & ready for the moment ahead. Everyone at the Sun Gate breathed a collective HUGE sigh of relief. As, of course, did I!
The Feeling of Achievement
As we waited for the sun to follow its designated path & bathe Machu Picchu in its glow there was a sense of achievement & mutual respect among all the individuals sat around on the stones. Everyone had negotiated the Inca Trail to arrive at this point. There was a tangible feeling of pride.
Slowly it happened, the sun came up from behind the peak. It bathed Machu Picchu in a glow befitting of its iconic status. We had done it & there was our prize below! We took our time to take in the experience as photos were taken before we gathered ourselves for a final stroll downhill.
The Final Walk
My happy group, named by ourselves as ‘Cuy Banda’ (Guinea Pig Gang) had our victory photos taken & started the final downhill journey to Machu Picchu. It was a bit weird when we started to see people coming up in the opposite direction. They looked strangely fresh & clean. It took a while for the penny to drop that they had arrived at Machu Picchu in the other way, by bus. They had been there when the sun rose & were making their way for another perspective up the hill.
“I was happy to look exhausted & grubby having not been near a shower for 4 days. I felt I had earned my place. Although I did start to get a little irritated when they got in the way or didn’t look at us in awe!”
Going downhill was a challenge & my knees felt every step. Waiting for people to get out of my way when I was being bowled along by momentum made me a little frustrated.
When we finally arrived at the site it was heaving with people. It felt like a bit of a culture shock to see so many unfamiliar faces when I had spent so much time with so few. What was perfect was arriving in the sunshine & being met by llamas along the way. What was even better was to be reunited with clean & well-functioning toilets as we came out of the park for food & a freshen up before we got our official tour!
Joel, our guide for the Trail was incredibly knowledgeable & we spent the next couple of hours with him explaining all about the history of Machu Picchu and the theories around how it was built & discovered. To hear most of this we sat on one of the grassed terraces overlooking the impressive structure.
“It was a surreal & unforgettable moment. As we toured the site I was in awe as we had a vision of where & how these ancient people lived, worshipped & survived in this mountainous city.”
The city took thousands of labourers 50 years to build in the 15th Century. It may have been home to 500 people. No mortar was used in its construction as all the stones are polished, so they fit perfectly together. No gaps & no spaces between them. It’s a monumental project when you consider the time it was built & how it has lasted.
After the tour, we had as much time as we needed to explore & get the bus back into the town of Aguas Caliente. It was weird that it had taken such a mission to arrive at this point, but I felt no need to dwell. As the crowds swelled & the sun went behind the thick cloud I realised that our timing had been perfect. It was time to join the bus queue & head back to (modern) civilisation.
We reunited with other members of the group who had opted not to take the hiking route. With my friends, we spent the afternoon drinking Pisco Sours in a bar while recounting our individual tales from the last 4 days. We had to wait until 6.30pm for our train to depart to Ollantaytambo. From there we had to get a bus for another agonising 90 minutes to Cusco.
“Having had such a physical few days & 3 am start, by the time we arrived at 10pm. I was well & truly ready for my bed. But first, a beautiful, hot & much-needed shower.”
It had been an unforgettable experience & I can truly say that the satisfaction of seeing Machu Picchu was elevated to legendary status by the effort it took to get there. I loved every minute & would recommend the experience to anyone. If you want to read more about the journey or see & hear all about the Inca Trail, then don’t forget to check out my blog post 3 Amazing Days Hiking the Inca Trail, Podcast & Video Diaries.
What do you think?
Where have you been that the journey makes the destination?
What iconic site stands out to you in your travels?
What was your experience of the Inca Trail & Machu Picchu?
To see more of my photos from Machu Picchu please visit my Gallery page!