The Inca Trail: Day 4 – The Sun Gate and Machu Picchu

Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.

It’s common for hikers of the Inca Trail to wake up super early on the final day of the trek to try to arrive at Inti Punku, the “Sun Gate,” by sunrise. Inti Punku is the Inca site that offers weary trekkers their first view of Machu Picchu–a symbolic end to the Classic Inca Trail. Many trekkers race to get there first.

Winay Wayna to Machu Picchu
Approximate Distance: 2.49 miles
Starting Altitude: 8,692 feet
Maximum Altitude: 8,829 feet

We had come a long way since KM 82 and weren’t that concerned about being first (as if that was even a possibility for us); so we slept in until about 3:30AM. We packed our bags, ate a quick breakfast of porridge, accepted the bagged lunches the porters had prepared for us to enjoy later that day, and said our goodbyes to the porters. They left the campsite to take an alternate path down to Aguas Calientes, where they could catch an early train home.

We had a short hike in the dark to the Control Station, which I’m guessing opened at about 4:30 or 5 AM. I hadn’t thought to pack a headlamp and our guide Jhon kindly traded my flashlight for his since I was using my walking poles and needed both hands. By the time we arrived we were waiting behind several large groups and only one small group arrived behind us by the time the station opened. At the station, park rangers do one final check of passports and then you’re off to race to the Sun Gate. And even though we weren’t in a hurry, it did feel like a race.

As it began to get light it became apparent that we weren’t going to be at the Sun Gate for the start of sunrise. In fact, in seemed impossible that any trekker who was waiting for the Control Station to open that morning could make it to the Sun Gate while it was still dark. Perhaps all those stories of being there at sunrise take place at a different time of year?

Anyway, the final portion of the trail was very narrow. With so many people headed for the Sun Gate at the same time we ended up forming a single-file line, which meant trying hard to keep pace so as not to slow down those stuck behind me. At one point we encountered a traffic jam and we couldn’t see why people were stopped. We thought maybe a large group was just resting so Jhon decided to pass. When we got closer to the front, I heard someone in the large group say, “we’re stopped because people are using the bathroom up ahead.” And sure enough, the next thing we saw was some guy peeing into the side of the mountain with it all running back onto the trail. And he was taking a long time. Several things were going through my head at that point and none of them were very nice. For example:

  • A woman would just have to hold it and deal with it–what a wimp!
  • How rude for him to hold everyone on the trail up when we’re all anxious to get to frickin’ Machu Picchu!
  • What could he possibly have consumed for it to be taking so long?

After Jhon scolded him for not peeing away from the mountain, we managed to pass by, carefully hopping over this guy’s pee, and were suddenly at the front of (this) pack, which felt pretty remarkable. By the time we made it to the most challenging stairs of the trail, we had caught up to another group and another group had caught up to us–we were all in this together. These last, steep stairs required me handing my walking poles to Brian and using “all fours” to climb up the side. I don’t know how Brian did it with his backpack and my poles to hang on to, but he managed as well. I wish we had a photo of this but we were on a mission of just MAKING IT TO THE FINISH! (Check out this excellent blog to see their picture of those final stairs.)

Finally, we were there. It was 6:44 AM.

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Our first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

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The Sun Gate at 6:45 AM!

There were tears. I hugged Brian. I was astonished that I had made it because there were times I thought I wouldn’t. I stood off to the side and watched as others made it to the Sun Gate–I enjoyed seeing their tears, hugs, and expressions of astonishment. It felt really nice.

At this point along the trail, Machu Picchu is still far off in the distance. And after seeing so many impressive ruins during our hike, I honestly felt the view from the Sun Gate to be a bit underwhelming. But as we descended toward the lost city of the Inca, we were greeted by incredible views–the light changed with each step as the sun rose higher and clouds billowed through quickly, creating an exotic, misty scene unlike any other.

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Now that’s what I’m talking about!

We began seeing people coming from the other direction–showered people who arrived on the first bus from Aguas Calientes, who were determined to hike up to the Sun Gate. I also noticed my knees were beginning to ache and I suddenly wondered if they were the smart ones–arriving at Machu Picchu fresh, rested, and ready to explore! My exhaustion seemed to be just catching up with me and I started to fear I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the site appropriately.

There was also a smug sense of superiority shared by all of us who completed the trail that morning. We deserved this. Not only that, but this place belonged to us, at least on that day. Several of us discussed how unfair it is that the park doesn’t open until later for those arriving on the buses. That attitude was hard to sustain when you sensed the joy and awe expressed even by those who took “the easy way.”

But seriously, if you don’t think hiking the entire classic Inca Trail is for you, you can plan to arrive to Machu Picchu on the first bus and then hike up to the Sun Gate. You’ll get to experience what walking on the Inca Trail is like because much of that portion is original trail. You’ll feel the burn of the altitude and difficult steps and you’ll get to see the same view those of us coming off the trail got to see. That will probably be how I do it next time!

We took our time descending from the Sun Gate because the views and photo ops were numerous. All those coming off the trail are required to walk a side route through Machu Picchu, exit the park, then re-enter with tickets. The entry plaza includes an eating area, gift shop, and pay bathrooms. You can bet I splurged 1 sole for use of the latter! We were required to check Brian’s large backpack and my walking poles before re-entry–and once again, they checked our passports (you pretty much need your passports everywhere in Peru–at the hotel, before boarding a bus, before entering certain tourist sites like this, etc.).

Jhon gave us a wonderful tour of Machu Picchu before leaving us on our own to explore. I’m not going to lie; I was so exhausted by this point and suffering some major knee pain–it was all I could do to keep up, since it involved lots of climbing and descending and I was now without my crutches, er, walking poles.

It was strange saying goodbye to Jhon, who we had spent every waking hour with for the last five days. But we knew he had to go back to his real life, which probably doesn’t include waiting around for a couple of gringos to catch up with him all the time. We had the opportunity to thank him and tip him before taking one last photo.

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Parting is such sweet sorrow!

 

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4 responses to “The Inca Trail: Day 4 – The Sun Gate and Machu Picchu

  1. Pingback: Bolivia and Peru – Summer 2014 | my ahas·

  2. Simply amazing. I love that you guys got to do this, and you should be proud of yourselves. Not that many people, relatively speaking, can say they got to do this. And LOL about the peeing guy!

    • Thanks, Kelly! I’m sure I’ll remember this as one of my biggest life accomplishments. Not being a very athletic person, it felt amazing to complete this trail. I don’t think I’d worked that hard physically to achieve something since high school marching band days.

  3. Pingback: The Inca Trail: Day 3 – It’s a Long, Long Road | my ahas·

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