6. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Day 4: Wiñaywayna to Machu Picchu (4 km)

We were woken before sunrise, not with the customary coffee and warm towel, but instead with noises from neighbouring campsites. The morning’s hustle and bustle would soon become evident; at 4 a.m., amid the Andean cold, a queue of four groups had already formed at the checkpoint, leading to the final stretch of the trek, which culminates in Machu Picchu. Despite the checkpoint not opening until 5 a.m., several groups had already queued ahead of us, and we were soon joined by several other trekking groups behind.

At long last, the checkpoint opened. By that point in the morning, we were raring to complete the last portion of our trek to reach Machu Picchu. Once our trekking permits were checked, and armed with head torches, we were on our way. The final part follows a straightforward stony trail winding around Machu Picchu Mountain. By the time we were halfway to Machu Picchu, the skies had brightened sufficiently for us to ditch our head torches, encouraging us to push on to Intipunku (the Sun Gate) in time to see the sunrise. After an hour or so of hiking, the trail suddenly ended at an almost vertical cliff face. We had arrived at the “gringo killer”, so named by Jamie and Marco. This final stretch required the use of all four of our aching limbs in lieu of the conventional hiking poles as we scrambled our way up the eroded steps. One climactic push – and we were there.

Suddenly, passing through the crowds congregating at Intipunku, the whole of Machu Picchu spread out before us in all its glory. We sat on the mountainside, watching as the rays penetrated the misty morning air and caressed the peak of Huayna Picchu, the rocky mountain looming over the Incan ruins. The sun’s rays expanded to eventually illuminate all of Machu Picchu, as we began to see tourists arrive in droves, buses snaking up the winding path to reach the most famous Incan ruins.

Intipunku once served as the main entrance to Machu Picchu. Dedicated to the Inti, the Sun god, Intipunku provides a fantastic viewpoint of Machu Pichu Mountain, Huayna Picchu, and the Urubamba River. During the summer solstice, the sun’s first rays are thought to pass through the gate, thus giving rise to its name.

Alas, we could not sit on the mountainside forever. As the groups began to accumulate behind us at the Sun Gate, it was time to descend from Intipunku to Machu Picchu. 40 minutes later (frankly, the easiest 40 minutes of the past four days), we entered the citadel of Machu Picchu through the House of Guards and the old city gate. Descending down to the main entrance and control point, we dropped off our backpacks and began our tour of the impressive citadel.

Machu Picchu, which broadly means “old peak”, was thought to be built at the height of the Incan Empire. Despite being quite close to Cuzco, it was never discovered during the Spanish conquest, allowing the structures to be preserved to this day. It was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham III, who was brought to Machu Picchu by a local farmer; it was also Bingham who led the excavation to clear the overgrowth, bringing this impressive site to international attention. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.

Long presumed to be a religious centre, Machu Picchu was recently revealed to be more akin to a sanctuary, visited by the Incan Emperor Pachacuti. It is situated high above the Urubamba River, which surrounds three sides of the complex, separated from it by sheer drops. The city itself is sandwiched by Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu, obtaining water from glacial springs for extensive agriculture. The springs were diverted into irrigation channels to provide water for the fields.

Machu Picchu is divided into two main parts; an upper town, housing temples and nobles; and a lower town, consisting of the main residential, agricultural, and storage sectors. The upper complex, containing the most exquisite stonework, houses the Temple of the Sun acted as the religious centre. Beside the Temple of the Sun, the exquisite, two-storey Palace of the Princess contains an antechamber with a smoothly carved chakana (Inca Cross). Also found here is Inti Watana, a flat altar-like stone which points directly at the sun during the winter solstice. These religiously significant areas were largely dedicated to Inti, the Sun God.

Surrounding these sacred sites are various temples and structures. One such structure is the Temple of Three Windows, containing a carved stone of the three levels of the Incan World. Another such structure is the Temple of the Condor, presenting a rock in the shape of a bird with extended wings. Descending along the cobblestone, the main square and the residential sector can eventually be reached. This sector is made up of kanchas (simple houses) with distinctly primitive stonework. These structures largely housed lower-class Incans, and probably were also used for storage. The main plaza, an open green space today containing several grazing llamas, distinctly separates the higher from the lower sectors, reinforcing the social hierarchy between the nobility and the clergy. This area is thought also to host mass religious and social ceremonies.

After the two-hour tour led by Jamie, we were due to hike Huayna Picchu (“young peak”), the impressive sheer granite rock face which looms over Machu Picchu. The mountain had great religious significance as its peak was the residence for high priests, and the sacred Temple of the Moon is nestled on the opposite side of the mountain.

The sheer face makes climbing the mountain seem difficult without hiking tools, but the climb is actually quite possible with average fitness. Nonetheless, the path to the peak is extremely narrow and exposed to steep drops. Thus, caution should be taken throughout the climb, and courtesy should be exercised by climbing in single file and allowing other hikers to pass you. The ascent takes about an hour and a half, but the peak provides a fantastic vista of the entire complex and the snaking road leading up to Machu Picchu. From the summit, a second trail descends to the Temple of the Moon, but this trail around the mountain requires another two hours to fully complete.

The steep, zig-zag climb up Huayna Picchu was arduous, especially after four continuous days of hiking. Our aching legs were ready to turn against us. The challenging climb was not helped by the quite substantial number of tourists both on the way up and at the summit, making it rather difficult to savour the moment. In fact, after four days of relative serenity, both Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu were an enormous departure from the Inca Trail, with hordes of tourists and local tour guides crowding the avenues of the relics. This certainly dampened our experience of the famous Incan ruins. Apparently, crowds thin as the afternoon approaches; if you have time to spare, I would recommend staying at Machu Picchu until sunset in order to enjoy a less hectic visit.

Finally descending from the summit of Huayna Picchu after squeezing through a narrow cave, we walked around Machu Picchu for another hour, imagining what it must have been like to stay in this fantastic complex. We then exited the ruins and took the coach to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the Machu Picchu Mountain. Aguas Calientes is not the most pleasant of Peruvian towns as it is rapidly gentrified and developed to cater for the growing numbers of tourists. In particular, it is known for its hot springs and massages, where many weary hikers can rest their muscles following the Inca Trail. Another interesting feature of the town is that there is a railway running directly through the town centre, and every so often, a blue train rolls slowly into the train station.

After lunch and a brief stroll around Aguas Calientes, we departed the town by train, squeezing our way through hordes of tourists and locals at the station. A three hour train journey alongside the roaring Urubamba River brought us back to Ollantaytambo, the famous Incan site near Cuzco. We then transferred to a small coach, and an hour later, were brought back to our hotel in Cuzco, just in time for a fantastic dinner, and the most comfortable sleep we had enjoyed in a long time.

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