Our American friends’ alarm went off at 2:45am in the tent next to us.
“Good morning, Canada!” They shouted over to us.
“Good morning, we are up!” I shouted back. The porters were already moving about and our sleep had been brief. The Americans had been at the front of our group most of the trek, and they weren’t going to let any other group get ahead of us at the gate to Machu Picchu. We asked them to wake us up as we were determined to get there with the group.
We threw our stuff together and were out of our tent shortly after 3am. The Americans were already gone! We huddled in the dinner tent out of the rain (it started again overnight) as the porters ran about the site pulling down tents and packing up the campsite. By 4am, there would be no sign we were there.
The rest of the group joined us and with headlamps on, and we trudged off in the rain behind our guide. The campsites were all pretty close at Winay Wayna, and we could see everyone else getting packed up to leave. Despite the mucky trail (or poopy in more likelihood), we almost ran down the trail.
Ten minutes later, we were at the shelter and the gate to the trail to Machu Picchu. The rest of our group sat at the entrance. We were first! We turned off our lights and sat down on the bench to wait. I pulled out the warm breakfast sandwich the porters handed me as we left and devoured it. It was maybe early but it’s hard for me to resist a hot egg and ham sandwich. Then I brushed my teeth, since I hadn’t done that yet.
A few of our group headed back up the trail to use the toilet, while other groups filed down the path to wait under the shelter. Every once and while there was a foul smell which we assumed was llama poop and hoped nothing else.
By 4:30am the shelter was crammed full of people and you had to be careful not to get accidentally knocked off the edge if you tried to get by the group.
At 5:30am, the park ranger arrived and stamped our entrance tickets and opened the gates. Just as you read about, all sore muscles and the early wake-up call were forgotten as adrenaline kicked in and everyone raced off down the trail.
This is possibly the most dangerous stretch of the Inca Trail. It’s about 45 minutes of a mostly narrow, cliffside trail, which gets slippery in the rain. And it was raining again.
We were all bundled up in our layers to keep warm while we waited and now, for the first time in days, I was seriously sweating. My plastic poncho was trapping all the heat, and when I couldn’t stand it anymore I awkwardly pulled it off while I walked with some help from our guide. When some of our group needed to stop to catch their breath, I took advantage of the opportunity to peel off more layers.
Several of the other groups had already passed us, somewhat obnoxiously at times, and with each person who went by, I could feel my frustration mounting. Everyone was racing to be first to the Sungate, despite the fact there was going to be nothing to see with the rain and fog. I knew this but yet, I also felt that urge to go fast.
Then, we were at the base of the stairs that lead to the Sungate. You sometimes hear it referred to as the “Gringo killer” and for some reason, I was imagining hundreds of steep stairs. There’s good picture here that show it’s actually a relatively short staircase. For some, it’s easier to “scramble” up it on all fours and that’s exactly what Sumita did.
When we got to the top, the drizzle was miserable. We snapped a quick picture and were off to Machu Picchu. On a clear day, you can see Machu Picchu from the Sungate but it’s actually pretty rare that it’s clear at this early hour. People think they need to be there for sunrise but since the sun rises behind the Sungate, it’s actually designed to be seen from inside Machu Picchu. So, the rush to get there is really kind of pointless.
You don’t really “beat” the tourists either. I was surprised by how many people we met on the trail making their way out to the Sungate. The buses up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes start running at 5:30 am, so we were already meeting the first visitors.
When we got to Machu Picchu, it was a little overwhelming. Tourists were streaming into the ruins and we could only see what was immediately around us. The rain had let off but the lost city of the Incas was still lost in the clouds. We assembled in the area where you see most people’s Machu Picchu pictures and gathered ourselves.
“We are not not going to see this,” I kept thinking as I fought back tears. Call me a cry baby but after three nights of minimal sleep, 46km of hiking and 2 days of rain, I was getting to the end of my rope. Our guide suggested we wait 5 more minutes and he whispered to Machu Picchu to “show herself”. He had left an offering to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) the night before, which I assumed was asking for the same.
Then, as I was packing away my poncho, it happened. Again it was like magic. The clouds thinned and Machu Picchu came into view below. We scrambled to get pictures while one guide kept the other tourists away until we were done. In that moment, I was relieved our guides elbows were out and felt like they were fighting for us to be able to enjoy this experience as long as we could. We had come so far in such crappy weather.
A wave of relief washed over me and I finally felt peace with the trek. We were here and it was amazing.
We spent the next couple hours touring the incredible site with our guides. We were lucky to have a guide who used to work at Machu Picchu and had a really good knowledge of the site. I couldn’t believe its size and how it seemed to continue around every corner, and it wasn’t even all of it! A portion of Machu Picchu remains covered with vegetation and will not be uncovered due to some UNESCO rules, according to our guide. It’s hard to believe when it was found over 100 years ago that it was nearly unrecognizable.
Mid morning, our tour wrapped up and we were free to explore on our own. The three of us had purchased an entry to the Wayna Picchu trail, but I was the only one still interested in doing the climb. I felt like I had to do it and the sunshine gave me no excuse now. There would be views!
Wayna Picchu looms high over the Machu Picchu ruins, often seen in photos to the right of Machu Picchu. It’s basically 200 feet of all stairs up the side of the mountain to a temple at the top. We could see the colourful specs near the top of the mountain. They were literally on the side of the top of the mountain.
One of the Calgary women had also bought the ticket, so we agreed to go together. I worried my backpack was going to be too heavy and was surprised to find out light it felt once we got going. There was a new energy about me and as we met others coming down, my confidence grew.Some were only in sandals. We may have hiked for four days but at least we were properly dressed for this. I would strongly suggest NOT climbing Wayna Picchu in sandals.
As we got higher, the stairs started to get more treacherous. The trail was a switchback of uneven steps arranged on the mountainside in twenty foot stretches. There was a heavy cable attached to the mountain we could hang onto but at times it was tricky to find footing and keep hold.
Near the top, the stairs got extremely narrow and short, leading up to terraces that supported the small Inca temple at the top. From there, we were able to continue higher until we were at the very summit. The whole time I climbed, using three points of contact just to be extra certain, I marvelled at the very idea we were could be on the top of this mountain. A wrong step or loss of footing could easily send you tumbling over the edge and here we were, perched out on a rock above Machu Picchu. It was incredible and terrifying all at once.
When we climbed down, we passed through a cave barely big enough to crouch with our backpacks and then rejoined the switchback trail. We caught up to an older Canadian couple who we had met on our way up, and I was amazed by their stamina. They had also done the 4-day trek and now they had climbed to Wayna Picchu also.
We signed out at 12:50 pm (you have to sign in and out because they limit access to it also). Our group was meeting at 1 pm down in Aguas Calientes, and we still needed to get in the bus line to catch the bus to town, so we made a beeline for the exit. It wasn’t until we finally sat down on the bus when the realization of what we had accomplished sunk in.
“We did this, and I just climbed Wayna Picchu to boot,” I thought. All summer I worked toward this, and now that it was over it felt amazing. We were all buzzing with the excitement of accomplishment.
My only regret now is that I hadn’t taken a few more photos at Machu Picchu. Not like some of the tourists’ photoshoots we rolled our eyes at, but a few more wouldn’t have hurt.
There was so much to do and take though and after four days with just our group, the thousands of tourists was truly overwhelming. When we got off the bus in Aguas Calientes town, it felt surreal re-entering civilization. Possibly because Aguas Calientes is a unique town on its own. Built along the railroad tracks as a waylay point for travellers, it looks a bit like a movie set. Sadly, I was too tired to snap a picture of it.
After a beer and a pizza, we said goodbye to our guides and were soon boarding our train for the long journey back to Cusco. Two hours on the train, another two in a bus, then a short taxi ride and we were back at the Antiqua Casa San Blas. We were delighted they had already moved the bags we left behind into our room. After a quick shower I crashed and for the first time in a week, slept soundly.
And that was it. I woke up the next morning craving coffee after avoiding it for all sorts of reasons on the trail. We lazed around for the rest of day, checking out some spots near the Cusco Square, enjoying our first pisco sour and meeting up with a former co-worker of mine we ran into on the trail. (I actually knew 2 couples hiking the Inca Trail the same time as us. It’s such a small world.)
As we traveled throughout Peru for the next week, we talked a lot about the trail. As difficult as it was at the time, we were all beyond happy we did it and actually felt great. We weren’t even sore the next day, although some scrapes and bug bites took longer to fade and climbing stairs still winded us.
The weather also got a million times better. The entire rest of our trip was sunny and warm, although the nights were chilly. We had missed the great views along the trail but we had some impressive ones in the Colca Valley and Lake Titicaca. You can’t win them all and if anything, I kind of want to go back and do the 7-day Salkantay Trail now. But maybe in the springtime when it’s drier.