Inca Trail Day 4: Six Upper West Siders Discover Machu Picchu! (102 years too late)

Machu Picchu
Approaching Machu Picchu

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!

Daybreak on the Inca Trail
Daybreak on the homestretch of the Inca Trail
Our morning hike
Our morning hike featured more mossy forest, orchids, and the occasional downpour
Last haul up some crazy stairs to Intipunku, the sun gate
Last haul up some crazy stairs to Intipunku, the sun gate
Intipunku, once used as a control gate to the town of Machu Picchu.  Normally, one can get a first glimpse of the ruins, but with today's fog, we saw nothing.
Intipunku, once used as a control gate to the town of Machu Picchu. Normally, one can get a first glimpse of the ruins from this platform, but with today’s fog, we saw nothing.

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.

And now, our first glimpse of Machu Picchu coming down from the sun gate
Finally, our first glimpse of Machu Picchu coming down from the sun gate
Trying to replicate how this may have appeared in the newspapers circa 1911
Trying to replicate how this may have appeared in the newspapers circa 1911
Doug is excited that we made it!
Well, at least one of us is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed…

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.

Photo Aug 22, 9 49 49 PM
Arriving at the “Lost City of the Incas.”  It remained undiscovered under overgrown jungles for a full 350 or so years.
Photo Aug 22, 9 51 17 PM
We were surprised to hear that only 50% of the buildings were original, the other 50% were reconstructed
Photo Aug 22, 10 22 04 PM
Most of Machu Picchu was constructed in 1450 during the Imperial Age of the Incas, but only were actively used for the next 100 years until they abandoned it during the Spanish conquest
Photo Aug 22, 10 27 34 PM
More of the residential area of Machu Picchu
Looking down onto the Sacred Valley
Looking down onto the Sacred Valley
Windows were all facing east so the sun's rays could align.  Today, all we saw was the thick fog.
Windows were all facing east so the sun’s rays could align on key dates during the year. Today was obviously not one of them.

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.

Llamas grazing
Now the only residents of Machu Picchu, llamas were “placed” by the government here and along other areas of the Inca Trail and each was tagged for tracking purposes
After our trek up Huayna Picchu, the sun cleared and we could see Machu Picchu for what it was
At last, the sun finally cleared!
Really cool views from Machu Picchu's doors and windows
Really cool views from Machu Picchu’s doors and windows.  I loved the clouds for added effect!
We went down Huayna Picchu the same way we came, but hikers could also go down the other way (to the right) to go through the Valley of the Moon, which I hear is twice as scary coming down...
We went down Huayna Picchu the same way we came, but hikers could also go down the other way (to the right) to go through the Valley of the Moon, which I hear is twice as scary coming down…

Photo Aug 23, 1 43 52 AMPhoto Aug 23, 1 56 06 AMAfter 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!

Celebration lunch of grilled trout and a lovely cold beer
Celebration lunch of grilled trout and a lovely cold beer
We took the "Expedition Train," which was really cool because it had windows on the roof so we could enjoy views of the Sacred Valley.  Which we did, for 5 minutes before we all passed out...
We took the “Expedition Train,” which was really cool because it had windows on the roof so we could enjoy views of the Sacred Valley. Which we did, for 5 minutes before we all passed out…

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