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“Mark, you can’t finish the Inca Trail and not know that this was the end point of a pilgrimage.”

— Johan Reinhard to Mark Adams, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu,” p. 222

As a kid in grade school, I read an article about a magical city in Peru called Machu Picchu.

The huge building stones were fit together so tightly and with such precision that earthquakes couldn’t level them, and you couldn’t slip so much as a piece of paper between them. Looking back, I realize that might have been when I first got the travel bug. From then on, I knew I’d see this place with my own eyes someday.

In my third-grade mind, I figured you pronounced it something like “MaSHOO PiSHOO – kind of like a sneeze. On our trek, we learned about a fine but important point on the pronunciation. If you say it like most people do, MAchoo PEEchoo, you’re actually saying “old penis” in Quechua (oops!). The correct pronunciation is MAchu PICKchu, or something like that, and it means “Old Mountain.” 

But I digress.
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A must-read if you’re trekking to Machu PIcchu or even just visiting for the day.

There’s still a great deal of mystery and speculation about the Inca civilization and Machu Picchu in particular, even more than a century after Hiram Bingham “discovered” it. Most archaeologists agree that the Incas gave tremendous spiritual and astronomical significance to the city. This is borne out by Machu Picchu’s strategic alignment with other sites such as Llactapata and its numerous celestially oriented landmarks.  “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams is an entertaining book on the subject, and one we highly recommend for anyone planning to hike the Inca Trail.  

A while back, John and I set a goal to visit the fabled site of Machu Picchu the hard way. No cushy bus ride with the throngs of rank-and-file tourists for us. We would trek there over the Inca Trail. And earlier last month, the dream came true.

In our previous post, we described the four-day, three-night adventure that brought us to the Sun Gate, high above the hidden citadel. Here’s the rest of the story. 

A Mad Dash in the Dark

The third day of our trek on the Inca Trail brought us to the Wiñya Wayna campground, barely a ten-minute walk from the checkpoint for hikers to officially enter the Machu Picchu grounds and approach the Sun Gate. So our guide wake us out of a sound sleep at 3 a.m. the next morning? He wanted us on the trail by 3:20 so we could arrive at the checkpoint before any of the 200-plus other trekkers with different tour groups.

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A memento: the backs of our access permits carry the stamps for every checkpoint we passed over our four-day trek.

The checkpoint’s covered shed has very limited seating (but we were glad of the cover, because it was raining!). Our group got lucky and secured a spot on the bench near the front of the line. Since the checkpoint doesn’t open until 5 a.m.,  we had an hour-and-a-half wait in the dark – but a couple of porters had come with us and had sack breakfasts and hot coca tea at the ready. Alpaca Expeditions’ amazing service strikes again!



A Dramatic Reveal

After we passed the checkpoint and got the final stamp on our permits, we started the 1.5-hour hike to the Sun Gate. Also known as Inti Punku, this was once the main entrance into Machu Picchu and the primary approach on the Inca Trail from the empire’s former capitol of Cusco. Named for Inti, the Incan sun god, the Sun Gate is situated high on the ridge so that the rising sun passes through it every year on the summer solstice. In clear weather you’re supposed to be able to see the sun rise dramatically over the lost city, but chances are better that you’ll find yourself in cloudy and even rainy conditions as we did. 

After waiting a bit at the Sun Gate with quite a large number of other trekkers and peering into the mist where we knew “it” was, the clouds parted – and there was our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. It was a magical moment, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in our group! 

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Making our way along the last part of the trail. Not even the rain could dampen our spirits! (photo by fellow trekker Sam Cox)
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The team arrives at the Sun Gate, just before sunrise. (photo by Sam Cox)
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The hike to the Sun Gate has some surprises like the “Monkey Steps.” They’re so steep that you literally climb them like a ladder, using hands and feet. And did I mention it was raining?
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Just like that, the mist cleared and there it was. The memory still gives me goosebumps.
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Soggy but thrilled!

Back to Civilization

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We worked hard for this passport stamp!

As we hiked down to the main Machu Picchu complex, the spell of the Inca Trail began to break. We’d just spent three-plus days in relative solitude, visited some truly unspoiled areas, seen ruins that only a tiny percentage of visitors get to see, and experienced unearthly beauty. Thus it was a bit of a shock to re-enter the real world and encounter the HORDES of day visitors that were starting to converge on the site, even so early in the morning. From high at the Sun Gate, we could see bus after bus coming up the winding access road and could hear the whistle of the trains arriving in Aguas Calientes far below.

As we hauled our raggedy and unwashed selves down the last little bit of the trail, we were met with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tourists who had just gotten off their buses and were tackling the mile hike up to the Sun Gate. We got more than a few odd looks, and when a couple of folks asked if we’d just done the trek, we realized what bragging rights we’d just earned. 

And here’s the rest of the story

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More and more detail comes into view
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Once inside we got an overview from our guide, Américo, who reminded us of the three spiritual realms of the Incas. The upper world is the realm of the gods, represented by the condor. The middle world is the earthly realm of living people, represented by the puma. And finally, the underworld is the world of the spirits, represented by the serpent.
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My friend and co-worker, Jenna Elegante, asked me to carry a picture of her mom, Patty, who passed away in 2011. I was honored to do it!
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The Intihuatana stone, located at the highest point in Machu Picchu. It’s believe to have been used as a calendar and for other astronomical purposes. The triangular bull-nose on the right points directly to magnetic north.
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The team takes a break in the sentry house.
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The Temple of the Three Windows was an important religious site for the Incas. The three windows face the rising sun and represent the three spiritual realms: the underworld, the living world we occupy, and the afterlife.
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Detail, Temple of the Three Windows
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The Temple of the Sun, one of the most famous landmarks at Machu Picchu. The sun had huge religious significance for the Incas. On June 21, the summer solstice, the sun shines precisely through the temple window on the right.
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The temple of Pachamama, Mother Earth, is directly below the Sun Temple.
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The Temple of the Condor. Whenever they could, the Incas used natural rock formations to their advantage when building Machu Picchu. Here, they figured the two big rocks looked a lot like a condor’s spread wings, and they just added the stone beak and talons on the ground.
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Large parts of Machu PIcchu have yet to be excavated and restored. A few years ago, UNESCO decreed that any more restoration had to stop if the site was to retain its world heritage status. The workers shown here are keeping it from disintegrating even further.
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Américo demonstrated how the Incas were able to lay the stones exactly on the level, using water vessels.
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The Incas devised an ingenious system for delivering water throughout the city. Sadly, the water has now been siphoned off by the luxury hotel that some misguided officials allowed to be built just outside the Machu PIcchu entrance. The water still flows, but artificially.
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Plenty of llamas were grazing on some of the lower terraces, to the delight of the tourists.

Next Post: Peru’s Sacred Valley 

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  1. What a mystical entrance, shrouded in fog…then the fog lifts and you have arrived! Incredible! Isn’t it surreal? Except for the throngs of people, it must have seemed magical. Do you remember when there was talk of making a cable car to Machu Picchu? That was voted down quickly, and I am surprised that the luxury hotel was permitted to be built. Such a shame they diverted the water from Machu Picchu to the hotel!
    Like you, I carried a photo of our young friend who died in a tragic accident several months before I hiked the Inca Trail. I had a little ceremony for him on one of the flat sacrificial slabs near the Sun Gate. Hiking the Inca Trail is a spiritual journey, at least it was for me. I suspect it was for you, too. I love these posts! Thank you so much for taking me on your journey!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh my goodness, a cable car?? So glad that plan never gelled. Yes, the luxury hotel seems so wrong and out of place. According to our guide it costs $1,000 a night for a room – so offensive in a country with so much poverty. But Machu Picchu is still a magical place. I hear there’s some talk of cutting back on the number of daily visitors. Hoping that comes to pass.

      The trek was definitely a spiritual journey for me. If anything, I got reminder after reminder of just how fragile our existence is here and what a wonder our natural world is. And how important it is to safeguard the planet, our only home. The Incas were a culture that understood the importance of nature and worshipped the sun, the stars, the mountains, and Pachamama. I honor them for that. The spiritual presence I felt on that trek was directly connected to those beliefs.

  2. Charles Wilsdorf Reply

    So glad you guys are living the life. Very interesting articles. Susan, you are the best writer I know I feel like I have almost been there now.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, thank you, Chas! Hugs to you and Teresa.

  3. It is an unforgettable experience indeed. We did the shorter hike, the last 10km of the trail, it was magical. You certainly had to work a lot harder than us, but I think it is so worth it. Love both blog posts😄

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      You still were able to enter and experience Machu Picchu in a way that few people ever can. Good for you!

  4. John & Susan’s excellent adventure! Great experience, and amazing pix. MP doesn’t look all that ‘touristy’. Hope that’s true. Keep ’em coming!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, MEBE! It WAS an excellent adventure. I wish I could say that MP isn’t touristy, but the truth is that it’s one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. The Peruvian government limits the the number of daily visitors to 5,000 in high season, but that’s still a LOT of people clambering over the ruins and fighting each other to get “the” photo. When we left out the main gate, it had a very Disney-like feel with bus after bus arriving and people queuing up, e-ticket-style, to gain admission. And that atrocious hotel looms right at the entrance 🙁 It seems like they could do a lot more to protect this sacred place.

      I’m not trying discourage anyone who wants to visit. Machu Picchu is a profound experience and everyone should see it. As it was I didn’t feel like we had enough time there, and I’m hoping we get to go back someday. Maybe a MEBE-JSP excursion??

  5. What an epic journey! Spectacular pictures! I really loved reading about your experience both on the trail and in Machu Picchu as well. I did not know that about the incorrect pronunciation, lol.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, we would never have known that if our guide hadn’t told us. Hmm, I wonder if he was pulling our “leg?” 🙂 It was fun to try and learn a bit of Quechua during the trek. I finally mastered “sulpayki” (thank you), which I was saying a lot to our fantastic porters and guide.

      Glad we have the shared Machu Picchu experience now!

  6. You wrote “My friend and co-worker, Jenna Elegante, asked me to carry a picture of her mom, Patty, who passed away in 2011. I was honored to do it!” That is so wonderful! But I’m not familiar with this, is it a ritual for trekkers, or had her mom wanted to go, but not made the journey? Mariah

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Jenna just told me her mom loved to travel (she was a flight attendant) and would have loved to see MP. I wasn’t aware this was a ritual, but after the post was up another friend of mine told me she had carried a picture of a recently deceased friend and did a little memorial service for him at the MP burial stone. So maybe . . .

  7. Susan, this is so inspiring! I’m glad you and John and the rest of the group made it despite the wet weather, and what a rewarding vista it was as soon as the mist cleared up! As you might have noticed I like taking detailed photos of ancient monuments, so I really appreciate your photos of the temples and the interesting nooks and crannies of Machu Picchu (I don’t see those photos a lot). By the way, I’m glad you shared with us how to pronounce the name correctly. I surely will remember it so I won’t repeatedly say old penis to the local people when I go there one day! 😀

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ha, thanks, Bama! Nothing like putting a fine “point” on things (sorry, couldn’t resist!).

      I know of your fantastic photos of the ancient ruins in Asia, which we hope to see someday. I really hope you can experience Machu Picchu!

  8. I’m really enjoying your blog! We’ll be going on the Salkantay Trek with Alpaca in just over a week, and I can hardly contain my excitement. I was homeschooled and my mom did a whole history unit on Ecuador, Peru, and the Incas. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated. This really will be a dream come true. Thank you for sharing your adventures!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Sara – so glad you like our blog! I would love to do the Salkantay someday. I know you’ll have a fantastic experience. Alpaca rocks! Isn’t it great when something we’ve been dreaming about since childhood finally happens? All the best.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Lisa! Busy getting settled in our new home in Medellín, Colombia so the blog has been a bit neglected. We’ll com roaring back soon! Tons more to report about our Peru trip.

  9. Sue Davies Reply

    Thanks for the pronunciation correction! Helpful to hear about your journey. Sounds amazing

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much for your visit 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Yes! The trick to beating the crowds at MP is to hike in, like we did, or be on the first bus up. It’s an otherworldly place. Thank you for your comment!

  10. Wow…thank you for sharing. As a child i always wanted to travel here. Maybe one day. I have at listed visited it through your eyes.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Aw, thanks for that! I hope you get to experience it in person someday – it’s unforgettable.

  11. Hi John and Susan

    What a breathtaking adventurous your Machu Picchu experience was! Hope, I will hug this magical city and enjoy what you could enjoy.

    And thanks for sharing your awesome story as it will help me to make my future trip to Peru wonderful.

    John and Susan, don’t forget share your next adventurous story.

    Best of luck

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