In order to make it by the Machu Picchu checkpoint by the time it opened at 5:30am, we had an extremely early wake up call of 3:30am this morning. We had to get all of our stuff packed up and ready to go so the porters could drop it off at Aguas Calientes before they hitched a 6am train back to Cusco. As we were packing up the final pieces inside our tent, we heard a little pitter patter and realized it was starting to rain! And while it rains for an average two days in August, when it comes down, it doesn’t go away easily…
We set off after breakfast around 4:30am in the pitch dark and rain, and waited in line with the other 200 trekkers until the checkpoint opened. By the time we went through at 5:45am, the sun was slowly rising already but the rain was still steadily falling. We had about an hour of more up/down trails until we reached Intipunku, the sun gate, and another hour following this to get to Machu Picchu for a total 3 miles. Despite the rain, it was still a beautiful trek, going up and down more uneven steps through mossy cloudforests filled with orchids as the sun was still rising. The last haul up to Intipunku was rough – giant 2-foot tall steps up nearly had me on all fours!
It was shortly after arriving at Intipunku on our way back down that we had our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, enshrouded by even more clouds than usual today with the rain still going strong. Several more steps down (this was starting to hurt now), 26 miles later, we finally arrived at Machu Picchu in all its glory…and we were freezing and drenched. Machu Picchu (“old peak”) was located 2430m/7970 ft above sea level, so nearly the same altitude as Cusco, but it ended up taking summitting and descending 3 passes in order to get here – likely a big factor in why it remained undiscovered by the Spaniards, and for so long afterwards.
Francisco was confident (having supposedly sacrificed a llama to the gods earlier) that the rain would stop in an hour so we sat around defrosting over some hot chocolate, waiting for the rain to stop. Miraculously, it did, right at 9am when we were supposed to begin our tour. The poor llama did not live its life in vain. The rain held off for the most part, while we walked around the enormous complex of temples, houses, and viewpoints. Machu Picchu (reportedly) had around 114 total enclosures, which housed roughly 800-1000 people during its heyday. Many of the buildings standing were remarkably intact due to the perfect engineering employed by the Incas, which could withstand earthquakes although maybe not the jungle and snakes that had overgrown the site in the 350 years it remained undiscovered until Hiram Bingham “rediscovered” it in 1911. It’s amazing how precise the stone cutting was, where each individual stone fit so perfectly next to the adjacent ones that not even a piece of paper could be slipped in between. Another example of the engineering was the white granite houses that were designed to absorb heat from the sun, surely the Incas were well ahead of their time.
We learned that the cut terraces at this complex were not for agricultural purposes but rather for ceremonial and medical purposes. The temples all faced east towards the sun and the Incas must have been onto something because the sun rays coming through the window aligned perfectly with the sun gate on the two annual solstices, on 6/21 and 12/22.
After an hour and a half of wandering through the ruins, it was time for us to check in at Huaynapicchu, as our ticket only allowed us entry between 10-11am. In case we didn’t put our legs through enough steps, we now were voluntarily climbing another 1180ft up and back down. Time to strap on the walking poles again!
More on Huayna Picchu in my separate trip report: https://breakingintobusch.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/huayna-picchu-the-1180-foot-climb/.
Once we were finished, it was time to scoot on over to Aguas Calientes to meet up with the rest of our group, who opted out of Huayna Picchu and instead got to freely wander around Machu Picchu while we were torturing ourselves. Though they say we didn’t miss much since we caught the meat of Francisco’s tour, part of me wished I had just a little more time to take in Machu Picchu since we only had about 1.5 hours to explore what was supposed to be the focal point of the Inca Trail. But in this case, we found that the journey – the endless architectural and natural treats we stumbled across over the last 3 days (especially on Day 3!), and the sense of achievement – ended up really being the highlight. There’s a chance that with all the walking and 3:30am wake up call, we were also too tired to fully enjoy Machu Picchu unlike those that bused in…
After a 20 minute bus ride to Aguas Calientes, we met up with our crew at a restaurant for some much-deserved and much-anticipated beers and lunch (grilled trout and fries, delicious). After that, it was already time to come back to Cusco. We took the 4:22pm train back to Ollantaytambo, and after the 2 hour train ride, we were picked up by a Pachamama driver who got us back to our hotel by 8pm. Being back at La Morada Suites, we may have very well been at a 5-star hotel – I have never experienced a shower that felt so good and the bed felt like we were living in luxury!