This post covers the final day of our Inca Trail trek last July, culminating in a stroll through Machu Picchu!
“Day 4 – Machu Picchu in its Glory!
Total distance to be covered on day 4: 5km (2 hours more or less)
We leave the last campsite at about 5.00am on the final day (breakfast 4.30-5:00am). It is an early start in order to get to ‘Inti Punku’ (‘Sun Gate’) (2730m / 8792ft) before sunrise. This is the place from where you will have your first dramatic view of Machu Picchu (2400m / 7873ft) with the sun rising over it! After some time there, we will walk down the last part of the trail to the spot where you can take the classic photo (picture postcard shot) of this ancient city. Finally we visit Machu Picchu itself!
A walking tour (approximately 2 hours) is given by your guide and after this you can explore the mysterious city by yourselves. If you still have energy you can also climb Huayna Picchu (2720m / 8923ft)!!! It takes 45 minutes to reach the top, this walk is extra/optional and you might need to skip the Machu Picchu tour to be able to get a permit to climb this mountain.
You will meet your guide in Aguas Calientes (it can be reached by bus or on foot) for lunch and to be given your train tickets back to Cusco. Train included in all tours is the Cerrojo backpacker (to Ollantaytambo) and bus to Cusco.”
We awoke at 3:30am on our final day to hike up to Machupicchu, the icing on our trekking cake. We lined up at a control gate along with over a hundred other hikers (we were close to the front) and at 5:30 the control gate opened and let us through. From there, we felt like the line of hikers had taken on a life of its own and were being hurried along by some unknown force at a leg-numbing pace. The last little bit was a crazy scramble up dozens of Inca stairs to the Sun Gate, the original entrance to the holy site, Machupicchu. Lori and I don’t remember the last time we felt so exhausted and relieved and excited all at once.In short, we arrived at the Sun Gate in 40 minutes, a hike that should have taken about two hours, just in time to descend into the Machupicchu site and watch the sunrise.
We made it!!! Our Llama Path trekking group at Inti Punku (the Sun Gate), the original entrance into the valley and Machupicchu (which can be viewed behind us in the distance)
At the Sun Gate, looking west, with the Wayna Picchu peak to the right of the screen, the Machupicchu site at center, and the crazy bus access road leading from Aguas Calientes snaking into Lori’s left elbow.
From the sun gate we looked down into the valley, and there it was, Machupicchu. It was very surreal. We descended down into the valley and watched the first rays of the sun light the side of Waynapicchu and then the ruins.
You can’t visit Peru for the first time without visiting Machupicchu. It’s like visiting Egypt without seeing the pyramids, Athens without viewing the Parthenon. When we first started planning our trip, Lori and I had no doubt we would make the trip up to (arguably) the most well-known landmark in South America. For this reason, we knew we’d have a lot of company.
In the high (dry) season (March – August), thousands of people visit the city each day. Most people see Machu by taking a train from the mountain city of Cuzco up to the foot of a mountain, then taking a 30-minute switchback bus ride up to the site and wandering around the 500 year old Inca holy city for a couple of hours. The bus drops you off at the ticket gate, then you walk up a ramp which opens up to some stairs that you ascend for a view of the city and to snap the classic Machupicchu photo. By 10am, it can feel like Disneyland; swarms of people from across the globe snapping photos, towing the line behind a person holding an umbrella or flag or brochure.
I’m not really sure what Lori and I were hoping to get out of traveling up to the holiest of holy Inca sites. But we knew that we wanted to try and get more out of the trip than just a morning train ride.
As the years pass and the crowds swell, it seems to be growing increasingly more difficult to hike the Inca Trail. That, coupled with the fact that we love hiking, were reasonably fit and able to take on the challenge, and were able to get our hands on a very reasonably priced outfit, sealed the deal.
Hurry, hurry! The sun’s rising! Almost there!
We were extremely fortunate to have made it to the site just as the sun was illuminating Wayna Picchu, and subsequently, the rest of the city. It was really an amazing site, very energizing, very inspiring, and very unique.Though I had always associated Machupicchu with mist and fog looming, dark and dank (and indeed if you do a Google image search, 99% of the photos returned will present a Machu shrouded in clouds and mist), I felt all the more fortunate for having such a seemingly unique opportunity to view the holy site on a magnificently sunny, warm, and beautiful day.
A warm, sunny day at Machupicchu without a single cloud in the sky!
Sunrise bursting forth over the surrounding mountains and peaks.
Machu Picchu or “Old Peaks” is a pre-Columbian Inca site built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. It was abandoned just 100 years later, in 1572, as a result of the Spanish Conquest.
Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since the site was never known to the Spanish during their conquest, it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site.
The site received significant publicity after the National Geographic Society devoted their entire April 1913 issue to Machu Picchu. It was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
“International Historical Monument of Civil Engineering, Machu Picchu 1450-1540 A.D.”
The main visitor’s entrance at Machu Picchu. Trekkers who arrive on foot from the Sun Gate/Inca Trail must transit through the same gate as all other visitors who arrive by bus/train. As you can see, business is booming. No backpacks are allowed beyond this point (which we were absolutely fine with after having to lug our packs around for the last few days). They have a bag check for a small fee, restrooms, and a little restaurant. Even without packs it was easy to spot other trekkers (we were the stinky, dirty, haggard looking ones…).
A cut-away of the official map of Machupicchu. We entered on the trail from top-left. The “typical photo” is taken near #1. Waynapicchu sits off to the right, just off the page.
You can also find a full-size map at Machu-Picchu.info.
The Machupicchu site far surpassed our expectations. The city is so vast and so complete it defies imagination. And crazily enough, amongst the hordes of tourists that we surely felt would degrade the ruins into a Disneyland of sorts, we found moments of incredible peace and tranquility, sitting on plaza steps, walking through the holy rooms, or watching the local workers cut grass with machetes beside grazing Alpaca and Llama.
The mighty Machupicchu Llama, in all its stately grandeur.
Julian, our Llama Path guide led us on a 2-hour tour through Machu Picchu. Learning about Inca engineering was especially interesting (e.g. carving a rock to match the outline of the mountains surrounding the city, perfectly cutting the rocks to match together, the way the sun gate focuses the rays of the summer solstice sunrise through a window and onto a sacred point in the holiest room, etc.).
I’d like to remind you here as you peruse these photos that this is what the dead of winter looks like at 8,000 feet in these here parts. Not…too…shabby…
A view of the cultivation terraces and the “industrial zone.”
Above, is a photo of the cultivation terraces (looking east) and a few restored buildings. The Sun Gate can also be viewed in this photo by following the path (line, right to left) to where it intersects the divot in the craggy hillside.
Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. It is composed of 140 structures or features, including temples, sanctuaries, parks, and residences that include houses with thatched roofs. The site’s three primary buildings are the Intihuatana (“Hitching Post”), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.
The mountain peak in the photo above is Machu Picchu (the site’s namesake mountain). Like Wayna Picchu, you can climb to the top for a commanding view of the valley and surrounding area. I hear both are very nice and very worth the climb, but after having just walked 26 miles, our legs would have none of that, and we settled on viewing the two majestic peaks from the city — which had the added benefit of allowing us more time to explore the incredible ruins.
Our initial two-hour tour brought us by all of the hot spots, including the Royal Tomb (bottom portion of the photo above) which sits directly underneath the Temple of the Sun (top of the photo).
Above is the doorway that separates the lay people from the priests’ residence. The first thing you notice while passing through here is the striking contrast in workmanship with regard to the stone work. On the outside, the stones are placed together solidly, but certainly not perfectly. On the inside (and as indicated below) the selection, cutting, and fitting are all much more precise.
A section of wall in the Priest quarters. Take note of the precise fit of each stone.
This is the stone quarry from where it is believed that the majority of Machupicchu building blocks originated. Behind it, you can see visitors climbing the steps of the Sacred Rock.
Grungy trekkers chillin’ at the Stone Quarry, dude. I’m not entirely sure how that one guy managed to get that pack past Inca security.
Behold, the Sacred Rock, man.
Llama and Alpaca grazing on the Main Square in the shadow of Wayna Picchu.
They call this room the Temple of the Three Windows. Surprise!
The Intihuatana stone (below) is a ritual stone that was arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. “Inti watana” means literally an instrument or place to “tie up the sun,” or often expressed in English as “The Hitching Post of the Sun.” The Inca believed the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky. At midday on October 27 and February 14, the sun stands almost above the pillar, casting no shadow at all. Researchers believe that it was built as an astronomic clock or calendar.
Sadly, the Intihuatana Stone was damaged in September 2000 when a 450 kg (1,000-pound) crane fell onto it, breaking off a piece of stone. The crane was being used to film an advertisement for a Peruvian beer commercial.
Workers literally cutting the lawn of the Main Square with scissor sheers.
According to our guide, these steps were used by Incans to jump to their death, for whatever reason. At the end of the line of steps is a sheer drop into the valley hundreds of meters below.
A view of Machu Picchu (the mountain) looming over the holy site by the same name.
More workers cutting the lawn of the Main Square with scissor sheers.
The site is built on and around mountains that hold high religious importance in the Inca culture. The site may have also served as an agricultural testing station. Different types of crops could be tested in the many different micro-climates afforded by the location and the terraces. Scholars believe that these terraces were not large enough to grow food on a large scale, but may have been used to determine what could grow where.
The inside of a restored meeting complex.
Did you know…?
- There are over 500 varieties of potatoes in Peru.
- The Inca walked EVERYWHERE from Colombia to Argentina by foot! (they didn’t have horses and llamas can’t typically carry a person´s weight).
- The Inca had no currency and traded in food items.
- They were very advanced engineers and most of their towns have lasted far longer through floods and earthquakes than many of those fashioned from modern Peruvian engineering.
- There are over 300 types of orchids in Peru (even little baby ones!) and there are some that grow year round in the valley around Machu Picchu.
Spanish Corner: 3800 msnm means 3800 “metros sobre nivel del mar” (meters above sea level).
Time to re-apply! Actually, from the looks of it, we might’ve been a bit late on that one. The sun was pretty intense and we spent a lot of time basking in the glory of shade, taking in the sights and sounds.
Some time not long after midday, we bid adios to Machupicchu and the trail that we had come to know over the better part of a week, catching one of the buses for Aguas Calientes that departs every 30 minutes down a narrow road with a dozen or so switchbacks.
Originally, we had planned on spending that night in the town of Aguas Calientes, but decided against it after talking with others. And on our arrival we were glad we did as it was incredibly overwhelming in its outlandish touristy kitsch after not engaging with “civilization” for the past four days.We met Julian and the rest of our group at an overpriced Mexican restaurant (the prices were quite steep for Peru!) and boarded the train around 3:30 bound for Cuzco.
Our Llama Path tickets included fare on the “Backpackers Car” of the train, which was packed with sweaty Gringos who had also just come off of four days of trail trekking. As Lori and I typically took local transportation, there was something very foreign-feeling and wrong about the arrangement, but at that point in time we were really too tired to care.
Before arriving in Peru, I had pictured us riding the rails quite a bit. Sadly, however, all other rail lines that we attempted to take in both Peru and Ecuador had been discontinued, save for a handful of high-end tourist trains at $150 a ticket.
Due to landslide damage from the recent flooding, the train only took us about half way. We disembarked at Ollantaytambo and boarded a Llama Path shuttle which took us the rest of the way back to Cusco. We arrived around 7pm and it was freezing cold. We made the long walk back to what was becoming our old standby, Hospedaje Inka in the San Blas neighborhood, looking forward to hot showers, clean clothes, and a day off in Cusco before heading on to the next leg of our trip, Lake Titicaca!
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