After three days of biking, rafting, trekking, zip lining and generally challenging myself at every corner, the day had finally arrived and we were going up to Machu Picchu. We started at 4am, and after an unbroken eight hour sleep (thanks to three of the most tiring days of my life), getting up that early wasn’t actually as hard as it sounds.
At half four, we walked out into the darkness of a sleeping Aguas Calientes, overlooked by huge, shadowy mountains wrapped in low, misty clouds, and reached the long queue at the checkpoint. Everything was glowing with the artificial orange light of nighttime towns, and the crown hummed quietly with a strained excitement, lending my memory of it a surreal, dreamlike sense of suspended reality.
We got through the checkpoint at 5:25am and set off on the climb. The old Inca trail of 1,700 uneven, rocky steps, worn smooth by centuries of footsteps, cuts through the winding bus road and heads straight, and painfully steeply, up the mountain. The narrow staircase has become something of a traveller’s rite of passage, giving us all the right to scorn anyone who uses the bus, and rightly so; although maybe not a challenge for everyone, that climb up is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. The staircase is steep, each step is a different height, and the route seems to go on endlessly upwards through a dark green forest. Thankfully, the clean morning air was cool and fresh, and the darkness grew steadily lighter as we approached the top, until we were walking in pale grey dawn light. Every muscle in my body seemed stretched, my ankles already stiff from three days walking, and I ploughed ever, ever up; chest heaving, wheezing, drenched in sweat, but still pressing onwards.
It was a real challenge for me, but I managed the whole climb without a word of complaint. My chest bursting, my legs screaming, but a smile on my face, laughing and joking and ploughing forward. Thinking we still had twenty or thirty minutes of walking left, we rounded a corner and saw our guide, Heberth, stood just above us with his arms outstretched: we’d made it! I raced up the last stretch of steps as fast as possible, whooping, panting, and completely elated. Arriving at 6:10, we’d managed the climb in a really good time, considering that the average is an hour.
After a quick wash, a splash of deodorant and a change of clothes in the toilets, we were ready to head into Machu Picchu itself; our reward for the climb. Through the entrance, around the edge of the hill, and up still more steps, there it was. Just like all the photos but bigger, more impressive and more staggeringly beautiful than I’d ever expected.
Heberth gave us a tour of the site, starting in the step-like terraces near the entrance which were used to create varying micro-climates for agriculture. Although the tour took two hours, I was so excited to have finally made it that it seemed to go in a blur. We headed into the temple district, where the Temple del Sol has much neater, smoother brickwork than any of the other buildings, and explored all the stone passages and rooms. Heberth showed us how the doors hinged at the top, from chunky stone rings, rather than the sides, and how inside an Inca house there would have been no tables, so instead there are niches in the wall for storing items and eating. Random facts have stuck out of the massive amounts of information he poured out to us, like the fact that the Inca prince would have had fifty or sixty wives, but most of it was unfortunately lost in favour of the staggering views and general elation at being in Machu Picchu! I found the Temple of the Condor, with it’s huge, carved rocks that look like wings, and the school of astronomy, where two pools of water were used to reflect the stars and study constellations, particularly interesting, but after that I’m afraid I more or less stopped listening. The whole city was drenched in a thick, clinging mist that slowly settled with the dawn, so that the sky was grey and smoky and we couldn’t see the opposite mountains, or even the watchman’s hut at the top of the city. The mist made the Inca ruins seem all the more dramatic and mysterious, completely stealing my attention from Heberth’s fascinating tour, so that all I could do was look around me and take hundreds of photos.
By the time we reached the quarry, an area of uncut granite rocks towards the back of the city, the mist had begun to clear again, revealing the dark green mountains in front of us. Behind us, the sky was bright blue already, and we could see as far as the Humantay glacier in the distance, glowing white in the brightening sun. We were really lucky; according to Heberth it’s not usually clear enough to see the glacier, and even the week before it had been so cloudy all day that he could hardly see Machu Picchu!
Once the tour was over, finishing at the Sacred Rock – which is either the shape of Machu Picchu Mountain, or a giant guinea pig, depending on who you believe – we said goodbye to Heberth, and found ourselves free to enjoy a now incredibly sunny Machu Picchu as we pleased. We walked up to the Watchman’s Hut to soak in the quintessential view of Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu Mountain in the background, and take the ‘classic’ photo of the city, before sitting down to a surreptitious lunch behind the backs of the numerous guides and guards patrolling the site (food is forbidden in Machu Picchu, as is dangling your legs off the edges of the terraces, jumping, and whistling, for some reason). For anyone reeling in anger at my blatant flouting of the rules, I promise that we packed up every scrap of rubbish and carried it back down to Aguas Calientes with us, so our illegal lunch had no negative effect on the city.
After a long sit in the sun, lapping up the unendingly impressive views and recovering from the morning’s climb, we headed off to Inca Bridge. The walk, along a shady, leafy cliffside path round the back of Machu Picchu, was a really pleasant one past colourful flowers and gorgeous views towards the Hydro Electrico, and ended abruptly at the bridge. This is essentially some thin wooden planks set across a gap in the narrow rock path that hugs the cliffside, hanging over a horrible drop. It was all I could do to walk down the path that leads to the bridge, so I have no idea how any Inca, no matter how well balanced, was able to cross it!
The Inca Bridge itself might not have been particularly impressive, tucked away out the back of Machu Picchu, but the walk was a nice one. Better still was the walk to the Sun Gate, or Intipunchu, except that the sun by now was so hot that it made the not particularly strenuous walk pretty difficult! The thirty minute hike in the blistering heat, up and down still more rocky steps, was completely worth it, though. The view from the sungate is incredible; not only can you see across the whole city of Machu Picchu in the distance to Huayna Picchu, but you can also see the towering heights of Machu Picchu mountain on the left, and all the way down the mountain we’d climbed that morning to the river next to Aguas Calientes. The view from this vantage point really brought home how high we’d climbed, the river we’d crossed at 5am that morning was a tiny ribbon below us, glinting in the sunlight.
I sat in front of the Sun Gate for ages, staring at the gorgeous view and savouring the sense of achievement, the unfamiliar and delicious feeling of self-pride. My legs were dangling over the edge, the sun hot on my face but the breeze cool, my feet heavy and my legs tired, my whole body aching from the challenging four days of the trek, and all of it reminded me of exactly how far I’d come and how much I’d achieved in that short time. I’d faced numerous fears, pushed myself well out of my comfort zone, challenged myself and my fitness a huge amount and come out of it the other side to be faced with this incredible reward. It was perhaps one of the very few profound moments I’ve experienced in my life, and I wanted to relish it.
Eventually, though, we headed back down for one last look at the city before hopping on a bus back to Aguas Calientes, finally too tired to walk any further. We had dinner in town before starting a long and gruelling journey first by train to Ollantaytambo, then bus back to Cusco, arriving at about 11pm almost delirious from exhaustion. For anyone headed to Machu Picchu, no matter what trek, I don’t recommend a return journey the same night; stay in Aguas Calientes and take the train the next day.
Machu Picchu was one of the biggest highlights of my trip so far. A huge tick for my bucket list, a huge achievement for me, and just a hugely rewarding experience overall. An experience not to be missed!