“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.
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.
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!
Back to Civilization
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.