The morning routine on Day Four was compressed. My forty-eighth birthday dawned with a knock on our tent at 03:30, but no tea to wake us up this morning. Everything was on a tight schedule so the porters could get the gear to the early train down from Aguas Calientes. The rushing was not helped by a heavy rain.
The checkpoint which lets on to the final stretch of the Inca Trail only opens at 05:30, once there’s enough light to safely navigate it. Nevertheless, we were queuing in a shelter from 04:30, presumably to make sure we were not too far back in the queue to get into the site. I’m not sure it really mattered in the end.
We spent an hour in our ponchos under a corrugated tin roof, illuminated only by the occasional mobile phone screen, listening to the rain. Not the best start to a day. Towards the end though, as the sky lightened, Andy brightened us up by leading the group in some callisthenics to warm us up for the final trek.
Once we did get moving, the trail wasn’t hard; there were no long climbs or descents and, while it got quite narrow in places, it was fairly navigable. It rapidly became a slow-moving queue of people as the groups followed one another. We were now low enough that the jungle really looked like jungle though; creepers slung between trees, strange colourful and big-leaved plants emerging from the pervasive mist. Someone remarked it felt like the set of Jurassic Park.
Over the previous days, we’d seen hikers in all kinds of gear; from the professional mountaineer, to the tourist in make-up and bling. Many people seemed to be wearing trainers which seemed crazy to me, given the state of the trail. On the final day, I noticed a couple of people wearing plastic carrier bags inside their trainers. I guess ankle support wasn’t the only thing they were missing in the torrential rain!
When we finally reached the Sun Gate, it was rather anticlimactic. Suddenly, at the top of a rise in the trail, there are a couple of columns. You go through them, turn left and find yourself in a crowd of hikers milling around taking photos. In the distance you can see Machu Picchu, but it is hardly a great view. I suppose, people remember this spot because it’s their first sight of the ultimate goal of their trip.
We took the standard photos and moved on.
After the Sun Gate, there’s still a fair way to go before you reach the ruins themselves. When you do, though, the rigours of the Inca Trail suddenly seem worth it. While you have probably seen pictures, I don’t think they, or any words I could conjure, really do justice to the reality of Machu Picchu itself.
The ruins are extensive, well-preserved and interesting, but it’s their situation which really makes the place special; nestled beneath the peak of Huayna Picchu and with precipitous valleys to either side. The sense of distance and scale you get as you look around at the sharp, sheer peaks of the surrounding mountains is quite incredible; awe-inspiring and humbling. While I wouldn’t recommend the Inca Trail trek to everyone, I would advise anyone who can to visit the site of Machu Picchu at least once in their lifetime. You won’t regret it.
Coming from the Inca Trail, you enter Machu Picchu kind of by the back door. Felipe gave us a half-hour in which to get photographs from the top of the site, before we had to drop down to the ticketed entrance to officially register our entry. This was when I most enjoyed the site. From the higher points you can appreciate the scale of the place and the surroundings. Standing there, looking at the familiar, picture-postcard view, but seeing it for the first time in living, breathing three-dimensions, I found a moment of profound satisfaction; I was finally standing in the spot I’d first imagined over twenty years ago.
In my tour-manager years, I’d been scheduled to escort a trip here but been cancelled at the last moment – after having done all my research and bought all the gear. At the time I was a little-travelled twenty-something for whom a long-haul trip to mystical Peru was a thing of dreams and, ever since then, I knew I wanted to complete that journey. And now I have.
As an older and perhaps more worldly-wise forty-something, the moment of realisation wasn’t quite as magical as it might once have been – particularly since I was tired and weary from the trail – but even so, as I drank in that view, there was a part of me that shed a tear of joy; finally, I had made it.