Updated on March 23rd, 2023
Hiking into Machu Picchu after completing 3 days on the Inca Trail was an unforgettable experience. Here is the story of my final day of this epic trek & what you can expect if you are planning on fulfilling this life-long dream for yourself.”
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. The itinerary also included a homestay on Lake Titicaca, exploring the Amazon Rainforest, the legendary Nazca Lines & epic Colca Canyon.
If you would like to hear the story, then why not check out my Podcast…or see the video for yourself!
Machu Picchu is the highpoint for the majority of visitors to Peru, & often South America itself. If the ancient Inca City was not awe-inspiring enough in itself, then it’s setting amongst the mountains is spectacular. Although built in the 15th century, the city was only known by the local Quechua people until 1911. This is when they chose to share it with American historian Hiram Bingham.
He spent the next few years clearing the thick forest in his attempts to map the immense site. In doing so he uncovered many of the Inca relics along the fascinating Inca Trail. However, much of the history of Machu Picchu remains unknown even today. The air of mystery makes it even more intriguing!
To access Machu Picchu the easy way you can take one of the regular buses from the local town of Aguas Calientes. The trip takes around 25 minutes. Alternatively, the less easy way is to walk from the town, some 8km uphill on a tight & winding road. The walk will take about 1 1/2 hours. But if you’re going to really earn your right to see this epic monument, then why not complete one of the Bucket List hikes to get there? My recommendation will always be the iconic Inca Trail, however, there are a number of other alternatives which you may like to consider:
2-day Inca Trail – a guided overnight route, taking on some of the key sights along the way
Lares Trek – a flexible option taking in a number of Andean villages along the way, followed by a train to Aguas Calientes
Salcantay Trek – a tough 5-day trek but the scenery is supposed to be amazing!
Inca Jungle Trail – includes biking & rafting as well as hiking. For more information on some of these options check out this post.
Hiking into Machu Picchu – What do you need to know?
The Wake-Up Call
On our final night hiking 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 Classic 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. It is a hard end on the Machu Picchu trek.”
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 Inca Trail 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 trek 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 Machu Picchu hike tour!
Joel, our guide for walking the Inca 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. The Incas didn’t use mortar in their 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. Finally, 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 & 3am 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 of the Inca Trail tour & 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. South America is home to many Bucket List sights & attractions which I have also been lucky enough to witness. Interested in Iguazu Falls or the glaciers in Patagonia? Maybe the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia? Or the legendary Galapagos Islands? Click on the links to read more.
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Well done! I think it must be quite an achievement to hike up Machu Picchu.
Thanks, Alma – it certainly felt like a huge achievement at the time!
I visited via train 15 years ago and I have always regretted not doing this hike.
Thanks a lot, Lisa for your comment. I’m really pleased I did the hike as I’m not sure how much longer I have to be able to make it (despite believing that I’m pretty fit, I am heading towards 50 next year!). Seeing Machu Picchu is an amazing experience but the icing on the cake was doing the hike to get there. I really felt like I’d earned it! We all have these slight regrets when it comes to the Big travel spots… I wish I had seen it 15 years ago like you – I’m sure the crowds were a lot smaller then! Thanks again for getting in touch.
Great job! Next time you are in Peru, make sure to visit us in Ica for a unique desert adventure. We are a small family business just 5 hours south of Lima, offering accommodation and desert tours – sunset in the desert, family hospitality, visit of Canyon de Los Perdidos or many local wineries. We make sure your stay with us is unforgettable.
Thank you so much for getting in touch & your place sounds amazing. I visited Ica in Peru but just for a short time & went on the dune buggies. It was great fun but when I next return I will definitely be in touch. Regards Sue
Love this! We also did the Inca Trail last year – it was the adventure of a lifetime. Reading your post brought back all the great memories!
Thank you & so pleased the post brought back so many good memories. I will check out your Latitude Adjustment blog & sure yous will do the same for me! Safe travels x
Getting to Machu Picchu was one of the most moving travel experiences I’ve ever had. When I saw the mountain tops between the clouds, I literally had tears in my eyes. Unfortunately, I was not able to hike. Although in Cusco I didn’t suffer as much from lack of oxygen as in Puno, I still wasn’t able to exercise. Already the 20 minutes walk on the rather straight road from the foot of the mountains to Agua Calientes was so exhausting.
Peru is pretty magic <3
Thank you Renata & altitude can play havoc with what you believe you can do & what the reality is. I definitely struggled when I first arrived but thankfully by the time I made it to Machu Picchu I had been living at altitude for nearly 2 months. Sue x
What an amazing experience! I can’t imagine hiking the Inca trail, I would be one of the people who take the bus 🙁 , though I’d love to hike it instead. I am prone to altitude sickness at much lower elevations, I can’t imagine hiking it, though it sounds amazing! I can understand why you’d feel such an accomplishment! And you know you deserve to experience the site. I wish I could do this hike; but I won’t mind taking the bus to at least see Machu Picchu.
Thank you Emese & the hike was a challenge, especially in the altitude. If you feel you are going to struggle then I would definitely recommend the bus. Sue x