Peru Part 3: Machu Picchu
By Apryle Craig
To get to Machu Picchu, we could either take a tour bus (costs $) or hike (free). The tour buses drive a switchback road and the hiker route cuts the switchbacks, following a steep and relentless staircase built by the Incas. Both routes end at the same location, the entrance gates to Machu Picchu. Of course, we opted to walk to the Forgotten City.
We got up early to begin our hike to Machu Picchu from our hotel in Aguas Calientes. We found out this is really a 2-step process: 1) Walk the city roads to the hikers gate and 2) Ascend the staircase to the Machu Picchu entrance gate. Walking the muddy road in the darkness, we were unsure if we were going the right way until we started to catch up to headlamps. We were walking at our usual aggressive pace and figured we would pass these headlamps to be first at the gates. However, to our surprise when we rounded the bend we saw a line already about 150 people long.
A queue forms at a ticket booth just before the river that separates Aguas Calientes from the mountain Machu Picchu sits atop. At 5am, they opened the gate and checked tickets before allowing us to cross the bridge and begin the hike up the Incan staircase. We kept a brisk pace and turned the 150 people in front of us into 100, then 75. Topping out on the final few stairs, we saw that we had beaten the tour buses up the hill and passed all but the first 5-10 hikers through the gates. We looked forward to being one of the first to enter Machu Picchu that day.
My excitement soared as we went through the entrance booth and quickly found a lookout point. The sun had not yet broken over the horizon but it was light enough to snap a few photos of the scene before it was littered with the 2,498 other ticket-holders now flooding through the gates. It was everything I thought it would be and more. We found a sign pointing towards the Sun Gate. Would we make it in time?
Prior to visiting Peru, we had debated taking the Inca Trail to arrive at the Sun Gates for sunrise. To hike the Inca Trail, you must join an expensive guided tour and book far in advance. The route follows paths used by the Inca to reach Machu Picchu and ascends to a rocky saddle between 2 mountains where you get your first glimpse of the ruins. The hiking groups time it such that the journey culminates in these spectacular views as first sun illuminates the ruins.
This view alone may have been worth paying to join a guided hike. Still sweating from our ascent from Aguas Calientes, we continued up wondering if we could make it in time for sunrise. Along the way, Zach pointed out a unique medium-sized mammal ahead on the trail and we snapped a few pictures. We later identified this critter as a Coati, which is a relative of the raccoon.
We arrived at the Sun Gate with about 10 minutes to spare before sunrise. We were cold from the sweat and the windy perch between the mountains. We huddled together amidst the guided tour groups and had a snack while waiting. This vantage point showed the impressive size of the stone city, terraces, and lawns. The sun slowly overtook the jungle, mountains, and ruins. The mountain is often shrouded in a cloud, obscuring any view of the ruins, but today was gorgeous. What a great way to start the day!
As the tour groups were starting to pack up, we began our descent back to Machu Picchu. We found a side-trail to the Inca Bridge and followed it. We wrapped around a different side of the mountain and saw an old log bridge spanning a precipice ledge that was used as access into the city. We explored room after room, admiring the stonework. We learned about the rooms and spaces by overhearing guided tours and by using the excellent descriptions in our Peru tour book my Nonie had gotten me for Christmas.
Although there were a ton of tourists, the ruins are so massive that it rarely felt over-crowded. As the day progressed, wispy clouds moved in and out of the sacred valley, eventually settling in. As we were finishing up at the ruins, Zach decided to see how fast he could ascend the staircase from the morning. I waited in the ruins until it started to rain. When Zach topped out, we decided to pack it in for the day. The drizzle increased to a downpour as we descended the staircase together. We stopped in for pizza on the walk back to the hotel. Later that night, we got a late train out of Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo.
Train Ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes takes about 2 hours and covers around 24 miles.
Walk from Aguas Calientes (7500ft) to Machu Picchu via Avenida Hermanos Ayar – 1.3 miles. This road has very little traffic and looses about 300 feet from town to the trailhead. We left shortly after 4:30 A.M. in order to arrive at the trailhead for the 5:00 A.M. opening.
There was an extensive line at the trailhead. The hike from the trailhead to the entrance gate of Machu Picchu is a little over a mile with about 1500ft of vertical gain. The trail crosses the road a few times, and at this point in the morning a few buses are driving up so be vigilant. The entrance gate of Machu Picchu is around 9100ft.
Wait in line a few minutes, have passport and tickets ready then try to get a photo before the ruins are crawling with people. Our first mission was a hike to the Sun Gate, which is 1.1 miles from the entrance gate and gains 876ft.
Spent the day walking around the ruins then make the final trek back down the trail and back into Aguas Calientes.