It was five in the morning, dark and cold. We were waiting in a long queue of other impatient people who wanted to walk up to the Machu Picchu. We’ll get there before first buses and maybe have a chance to see sunrise at the Sun Gate. Our plan was perfect, we only needed to show our ticket to some guys who looked like something between army and police officers.
But let’s start from the beginning. Two days ago, we have finished Salkantay trail and got to Aguas Calientes. Small (but very touristy) town below Machu Picchu. After much needed rest it was time to walk up to finally visit this magnificent place.
We knew that it was possible to take a bus from town, with Peruvian tourist pricing it was more than $10 for twenty minutes ride. This was one of the reasons why we decided to walk. More important reason was that we wanted to see sunrise at the Sun Gate (Puerta del Sol). Buses started their journey up the mountain around six and that was too late for us.
Our phone woke us up at ungodly hour, it must have been around four. We jumped (maybe I exaggerate a little) out of bed and quickly got ready. Ticket checkpoint was not far, less than two kilometres from our hotel. Our plan was to get there before five, after that we should have enough time to walk up the old Inka trail, made of uneven stones, to the entry gate.
You shall pass
Me and Tana were surprised when we got there. Queue was already quite long, a lot of hikers keen to experience old trail. Or maybe they were scrooges like us, not wanting to pay a special tourist price.
So, our waiting began. After few minutes we saw familiar face, little further in front of us was Juliet, friendly girl we met on the way from Salkantay pass. We had a quick chat, complained about the queue and shared our excitement about Machu Picchu. She told us that we can stand with her, but it felt wrong to jump the queue.
Sometime later we finally saw some movement. Machu Picchu military guards started their shift and began ticket check. We had our passports and tickets ready, friendly smile on our faces. But there was a problem, even though we wished our controller “buen dia” he did not like our ticket. There was some problem, one guard was not enough, so he called his colleague. Both of them were looking at it and frowning. It didn’t look good, we thought that it was it, no Machu Picchu for us. But then they started laughing, asked us where we got it. I understood that this is not real ticket, just some confirmation and we’ll have to show it again at the top gate.
It was confusing, because we bought it on (one and only) official Machu Picchu website. We paid for it and printed confirmation that was displayed there. That was also the only thing we got, there was no email with pdf ticket or anything like that.
Anyway, we got through the guards and even made them laugh. It was time for a hike now.
Stairs, stairs everywhere
We crossed the bridge and entered vegetation. Few palm trees later we got on the road and saw the beginning of the trail – Camino Peatonal. It started with the nice stairs.
There were loads of people, everyone in good mood and excited, quickly going up. It did not take much time to get out of the jungle and cross the bus road. On the opposite side was arrow sign, pointing hikers to the right, where another path in the woods was waiting.
More stairs but little steeper. Energy and speed were slowly going down. But still nothing serious, tempo was OK and that was good. We wanted to be up there as soon as possible, to see the sunrise.
Few jungle / road crossings later and first people started to slow down. Mostly the ones who dressed up like it was a Sunday walk in town with few stops in cafes. Ballerina shoes and sandals weren’t the best choice.
My shirt was soaking wet but we were trying to keep the speed up. But it was more and more difficult. People were slowing down and it was hard or impossible to overtake them on narrow stairs. On one hand it was good as I was able to save some energy, on the other Sun was still moving.
In the end, it took us little over an hour to walk up there, sweaty (at least I was, Tana not so much as she had some magical power which kept her dry) but glad that we made it.
Through the gate
We got to small square in front of the entry gate which still was not open. Number of people was surprising, probably because there were already buses bringing them from town.
We stood in something that looked like a line, keeping in the line, not pushing forward getting in front of other people. Something that we taught since childhood.
After few minutes it was obvious that we were minority, everyone was going forward as far as possible, absolutely ignoring any order. I consider this behaviour rude and annoying, but nobody cares.
Anyway, we followed the flow and got through the gate. No one really cared about our ticket now, they had a quick look and we were in. Maybe because of the crowd, which was pushing hard to get through.
That was roughly the time when we realised there won’t be sunset viewing for us. One of the reasons were clouds, which just appeared, the other was that Sun was already up and shining (above the clouds). We didn’t know exact time, but later realised that sunrise happens roughly half past five in the morning, well before we finished with the stairs.
So we were through the gates, walking on the old stone roads, following some signs and deciding what to do. Our tickets allowed us to visit Wayna Picchu, holy mountain next to the Machu Picchu. Number of visitors is limited, to preserve that unique place. We were supposed to be there between seven and eight. That gives us one hour to explore.
There were some arrows and we had phones with mobile maps, which actually helped. In Machu Picchu there are no information boards, if you want to know more, you have to pay for the guide.
We walked a little and saw direction leading to the Sun Gate, it was tempting to go there, but it was too far away. If we run, there was a chance to get there and back to Wayna Picchu in time. Instead of running we walked among the stone houses and terraces. It was interesting view, especially how nicely were buildings preserved.
We also met Juliet again. When we got to her, Tana clapped and whooped, like US tourists when they reach peak and celebrate. Julia wasn’t impressed or didn’t have same experience as we had. We talked a little and said our good byes, there was very little chance we’ll meet again, as she was leaving that very day. After that it was time to get ready for Wayna Picchu.
Entering Waynapicchu (or Huayna picchu)
We got to the small gate where they checked our tickets and wrote our name in the book, signature required. You are suppose to sign again when leaving, so they know no one was left behind.
Internet says that Huayna Picchu was a temple where high priest lived (with some virgins). It was a holy place with temples build on top and around the mountain. Only 400 people are allowed to visit it every day in two groups. One entering between 7 and 8, second one between 10 and 11 in the morning.
We have decided to walk up to the top first and then continue around the mountain and down to the caves and Temple of the Moon. This route should take roughly four hours.
Way up was busy, narrow and slippery. There are ropes and railings along the way to help. It actually worked as no one fell down. At first there was not much to see, but it got better. Especially once we got above all the dense vegetation. View at the Machu Picchu village has opened before us.
We already knew that there were loads of building when we walked between them, but from up here, it was finally possible to see it all. It must have been a lot of work, more than 2.500 meters above sea level on a steep mountain.
We safely got through steep stairs, sometimes called stairs of death. It looked like a place where people are dying almost on daily basis. But in reality, it was not that bad. Stairs are steep and slippery, but there are railings and ropes which you can hold to. It is not an easy hike, so you should be prepared (physically and equipment wise).
At the top
Scariest part for me was at the very top. There is not much space and every tourist want to get up there and take a picture. At least there are rangers trying to coordinate the chaos.
We got up there and waited in the queue on a very (really very!) narrow path. Once we got up, we took a quick picture (as everyone else) and then tried to go down. That was even trickier. It seems like no one wants to leave but rather take more pictures. So, you have to get around people on a path which is still narrow and slippery.
Somehow with the help of Incas gods we made it to safer part. From there most of the people return by the same way they got up; it is shortest path back to the Machu Picchu. As I wrote above, we wanted to explore little bit more and walk around the mountain.
At the bottom
This trail is not very well maintained, probably because almost no one goes there. I think that less than 10 people from our group went there. I’d like to say it was interesting, super and very exciting to go there but I can’t.
There was not much to see, once we left the peak there was a whole mountain between us a Machu Picchu. View on the other side was not much better as it was hidden by the vegetation. There were narrow stairs, wide stairs and muddy paths.
Temple of the Moon wasn’t that impressive. Maybe because of the false advertising as it is also called Gran Caverna (great cavern). Our expectations were big, but unfulfilled. Cave was big with some stones, doors and walls. But that was it, most interesting were the walls and the way how perfectly stones fit into each other.
It was a good place for some snack. We needed lot of energy to get back to the entry gate. Temple of the Moon is lower than the entrance which meant uphill hike. On very uneven stairs, sometimes it felt like scene from Monty Pythons Silly Walk scene.
One friendly snake encounter (he didn’t bite us so I guess he was friendly) was highlight of the return journey.
We made one more stop before leaving Waynapicchu, there is smaller peak near the entrance. Not many people visit that place, we met only one other traveller there, who was just going down. It was magical there, no people and wonderful view at the Machu Picchu which was right below us. It was really worth the effort to get up there.
Exploration and broken mirror
We signed the book, so rangers don’t look for us in the evening, and were out of there. It was time to explore Machu Picchu little more.
There were loads of places to see. Near the Huayna Picchu entrance is a Sacred rock – natural, uncut stone which has a shape similar to the mountain behind it. From there we walked between houses and stone walls following different arrows.
We saw main square (Plaza principal) which is quite a big space with nice garden and terraces above it. Not far from it are walls with doorways, there is a group which even has a name Groupo de las tres Puertas.
There was a one place with big concentration of tourist groups. They were all waiting to get to the small area with the Condor sculpture. It should have been some worship place. We waited for few minutes before we finally had a chance to see that sensational thing. It was a triangular stone on the ground with some dent at one vertex. Right next to it two more curved stones. It was really difficult for me to see the condor in that. I think that it represented head of the condor with the rock above it being its body and wings.
We also saw Casa de los Nobles – as the name says it was fancy house for the nobility. It was said that city was divided for the nobility and plebs, if I remember it correctly better parts of town were forbidden for normal citizens only allowing the nobles (and I guess their servants). After that we followed trail up and visited other temples (Templo Principal and Templo de las tres Ventanas).
Above the town
We got out of the walled areas on top of the terraces. There was a nice view at the Huayna Picchu and buildings below us. It was early afternoon and a number of visitors was at its peak.
We stopped at one view and were lucky enough to be in the earshot of one English speaking guide. What he said to his group was quite interesting. He was obviously describing buildings, plazas and their purpose. Then one person asked how do they know it. His response was quite unique as he told them that roughly 5 – 10% of the information they tell the is based on scientific and archaeological facts. Another 10 – 15% is very good guess, kind of supported by research and rest is a wild guess.
It was little bit shocking, along the other thing that should have been quite obvious. Machu Picchu is few hundred years old and when they found it in the early 20th century it didn’t look as nicely as it does now. Not many walls were standing at that time, definitely not as many as there are now. Lot of the buildings collapsed and stones were scattered on the ground.
Restoration was still in progress when we were walking around with Tana. There were areas closed to the public with stones prepared and people in builders overalls ready on site.
The Sun Gate
It was not too late weather was reasonable so we decided to visit The Sun Gate – Puerta del Sol. It is little further from the centre, roughly one and half kilometre hike. Trail was good with nice views on the way.
There were two more possible detours on the way to the gate. One of them leads to Inca Bridge the other to the Machu Picchu mountain peak. Inca bridge should be freely accessible but mountain peak was same as Huyana Picchu. Number of tourists per day is limited and tickets cost more money.
We didn’t visit any of these two places, but heard that they are also nice and interesting.
Sun Gate was popular destination, we were meeting tourists going to and from there, quite a lot of them from Asia. Except quick encounter with good looking lizard who was warming up on the stone nothing special happen.
Stone steps lead to the Puerta del Sol. Big stone wall with a gap in the middle and some additional walls around. Sadly (as in the rest of Machu Picchu) there were no information which would explain what this place was and what was its purpose. Internet said that it was part of the fortress which was guarding one of the ways from the Machu Picchu. There were some other articles which says that Sun should appear there in the morning.
It was nice to sit there on the warm rocks and enjoy the views to the valley and the other side of ancient town. Sadly, time was running fast and we had to start our journey back.
Down the hill
Path from the Sun Gate was easy to follow, but we got little lost in the narrow roads between the houses. Even though there were arrows pointing to exit it was not easy to follow. At least it gave us a chance to see some of the native residents.
We met few llamas grazing on the grass. I guess it was a better and more ecological option then running around with lawn mower. They were cute and slightly decorated in a traditional Peruvian way.
Anyway, few wrong turns later we managed to find the exit and were on the way out. Right before exit was a restaurant (one and only we found up there) with quite a touristy prices. Luckily, we came prepared and had our own food which kept us up and running for the whole day.
From there it was few steps to the busses, which were as expensive going down as they were going up. We still had some energy left and enough time to walk down and that’s what we did. Well, we partially walked and partially run, it was easier going down than up. We were accompanied by a few dogs, who somehow appeared up there. They were friendly and looked happy when we were running with them.
Last few kilometres from bottom control station to Aguas Calientes were easy, even though our muscles and joints were little sore. Seeing Machu Picchu was unique experience. Little disappointment caused by lack of provided information and heavy reconstruction was easily matched by a chance to see this ancient place with our own eyes.