At long last, the day had arrived to make the final trek to Machu Picchu. We awoke around 3:30 am to get in line with the other groups for admission into the final stretch of the trail. This turned out to be quite a long wait, but eventually we were on our way.
As usual, the younger members of the group raced off ahead, leaving me behind with Uncle Kipp and our guide Alex. However, unlike previous days, I was feeling good from the start of the hike, so I raced off ahead by myself (carrying my own backpack for a change), eager to make it to the Sun Gate (Intipunku) by sunrise.
I didn’t take any pictures during this stretch of the hike, opting instead to leave my camera in its case so that I could concentrate on reaching the Sun Gate as quickly as possible. The hike turned out to be a bit longer than the roughly hour or so I was expecting, but I’m sure the faster hikers made it to the Sun Gate within that time frame. However, I did a much better job of keeping up on this day, so I was usually among other hikers, either passing them or being passed by them.
I eventually came to a set of narrow stone stairs so vertically inclined that ascending them was almost like climbing a wall. It was such a difficult climb, in fact, that the guides referred to it as the “Gringo Killer” and there was a logjam of hikers waiting to climb it. Some people hollered in triumph when they reached the top, which led me to believe that this was the end of the trail and that the Sun Gate awaited me at the top, so when my turn came to climb, I went all in, rapidly climbing on all fours like a monkey, making it to the top in record time.
I looked around. No Sun Gate. No Machu Picchu. Doh!
I still had about another 20-30 minutes to hike and I had just expended all of my energy and muscle reserves racing up the Gringo Killer. Additionally, I started noticing a pain in my shin that worsened with each step. It felt like a stress fracture or shin splints or something. Although it was probably the result of the cumulative effect of walking/running and climbing/descending on stone steps for three days, there’s no doubt that the Gringo Killer was the final nail in the coffin. Had I taken my time with it instead of flying up like a bat out of hell, I might have saved myself a lot of pain.
Anyway, I hiked the last stretch of the trail and finally arrived at the Sun Gate, where I got my first spectacular view of Machu Picchu.
When you stand here you are seeing Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains as the Incas did when they emerged through the Sun Gate all those centuries ago. This is the view that the bus tourists never see unless they make the hour-long trek up to this spot. As it turned out, I didn’t reach the gate by sunrise but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because the sky was overcast all day, which unfortunately resulted in some dulled photos, though I was still able to get some nice ones. However, in my excitement over finally gazing down on Machu Picchu, I neglected to take any of the Sun Gate itself.
Shortly after arriving I encountered the guys from Argentina and we exchanged some high-fives. I then walked down a bit from the Sun Gate and found a quiet rock overlooking the trail, where I sat down to eat breakfast while enjoying the pristine view and basking in the feeling of being at the top of the world in the middle of nowhere.
Although I still had another 45 minutes of hiking before I would actually get to Machu Picchu, this moment really felt like the end, the culmination of my four-day struggle. Everything I had gone through had been worth it just to be sitting here.
About 20 minutes later Uncle Kipp and Alex arrived.
After a few more moments of relaxing it was time to make the final trek down to Machu Picchu.
When we finally arrived, we waited in line to get the classic photo taken.
We then had to actually leave the park, meet up with the rest of the group, and then re-enter. On our way down we began to pass all of the bus tourists entering the park. I couldn’t help viewing them a bit like intruders, like “How dare you enter this sacred citadel that we have expended so much of our blood, sweat, and tears to reach? Be gone!” Or maybe I was just jealous that they looked so clean, well-dressed, and rested in comparison to us. 🙂
After hooking up with the rest of the group (and sadly abandoning my trusty walking stick, which was not allowed back in the park) we re-entered and followed our guide Freddy on a roughly two-hour tour. Rather than detail what I saw on the tour I’ll just let a few of the pictures I took speak for themselves.
My leg pain had gotten progressively worse as we toured Machu Picchu. By the end of the tour I could barely put any weight on it, so when Freddy asked which of us wanted to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu (the taller mountain that looms over Machu Picchu) there was no question that I would be opting out of that excursion. Everyone in the group except for Uncle Kipp and me went on the climb.
We still had about two hours left to explore more of Machu Picchu before we needed to leave, but since I could barely walk, we decided to leave early and head down to the city of Aguas Calientes. We had seen most of the major points of interest during the tour, but there was much more we could have seen (such as the view from the guard house), so having to leave early was a major regret.
We took the 20-minute bus ride down to Aguas Calientes, a town that gives you a taste of both the beautiful (being surrounded by majestic mountains) and the tacky (the touristy shops and restaurants). The pictures below are a couple of panoramas I took with my cell phone, so they’re a bit messed up due to the quality of the cell phone software, but they give you an idea of what the town looks like.
The portion of the Urubamba River that runs through town is filled with giant boulders like these:
We headed to the restaurant where our group would be meeting. Uncle Kipp and I got there first since the rest of the group was still climbing Huayna Picchu. Alex had one of the waitresses show us to a locked room upstairs where we could access our large duffels, which had been carried here by our porters, once again proving what a great decision it had been to hire personal porters. It was a huge relief not to have to lug those massive things through the last part of the Inca Trail, up the Gringo Killer, and all day through Machu Picchu. Overall, I was very pleased with the Dos Manos tour company—they had everything down to a science. Even when I realized that I had left my train ticket back at my hotel in Cusco, they were able to easily secure me a new one, and the various drop-offs and pickups to get us home ran smoothly as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Since we had some free time while waiting for the rest of the group, we decided to try the town’s hot springs. Alex joined us and showed us the way. Unfortunately for my injured leg, it was a very painful, 15-minute uphill walk. We eventually got there and jumped into the hottest pool they had. Words cannot describe the glorious feeling of sitting in that hot spring after four days of relentless physical exertion. We relaxed and enjoyed some cocktails that had been delivered to us at poolside.
Later we returned to the restaurant and joined the rest of the group for our farewell lunch. After lunch we said goodbye to Freddy and Alex, who were getting an early train home, and tipped them very generously for everything they had done for us–they truly went above and beyond. Alex, in particular, had been like my guardian angel during my struggles on Days 2 and 3. Here are a couple of photos in tribute to our intrepid guides:
We then said our goodbyes to the rest of the group and exchanged contact info. Here’s a shot of the group from the previous night enjoying our final dinner on the Inca Trail.
So after four days of living among a group, it was down to just Uncle Kipp and me. We had a few hours to kill before our train left that evening so we walked around town, had some ice cream, did some shopping, etc. Finally we got the train back to Ollantaytambo, where we transferred to a bus back to Cusco. The bus dropped us off in a square in the middle of town and for a minute I thought I was going to have to walk uphill to my hotel carrying all of that luggage on my bum leg, but the bus driver hailed a cab, gave him some money, and instructed him to take us to our hotels. I said goodbye to Uncle Kipp after the cab dropped me off and then checked back in to the Hotel Rumi Punku. Finally, at around 11:30 pm, I walked through the door of my room and, just as promised, found the luggage I had left behind with the hotel waiting for me.
After unwinding and unpacking I collapsed into bed and slept until noon the next day—longer than I had slept in the previous few days combined. I decided to treat myself by renting out the hotel spa, complete with jacuzzi and sauna—I’d earned it. Between the hot springs and the spa, my leg, while still sore, was starting to feel better. I dropped off my rented sleeping bag and duffel at the Dos Manos travel office in the afternoon and then met Uncle Kipp and his friend Yuri that evening for a final dinner. Uncle Kipp was staying for a couple more days to stand as godfather to Yuri’s baby, but I was leaving the next afternoon.
The hotel was nice enough to give me a late checkout to coincide with my afternoon flight without charging me extra. I took a cab to the airport and was soon homeward bound. I won’t detail my misadventures getting home except to say that I will never fly American Airlines again if I can help it. I finally got back to Newark airport the following afternoon and back to home sweet home later that evening. And just like that, my adventure was over.
From the Sacred Valley to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, it truly was the adventure of a lifetime. I don’t know if I would ever again put myself through four days of roughing it like that, but I’m glad I did it. I challenged myself both physically and mentally in a way many people never will. It is an accomplishment I will always look back on with fondness and pride.
- My Trip to Peru, August 2012
- My Trip to Peru, Part 2: Here and There
- My Trip to Peru, Part 3: The Sacred Valley of the Incas
- Hiking the Inca Trail: The Journey Begins
- The Inca Trail Day 2: Detour Through Hell
- The Inca Trail Day 3: Almost There