So, starting where we left off at the end of the Salkantay Post, we have been walking along the railroad tracks from Hydroelectric Town for the past hour when it finally comes into view, the majestic little town living in the deep crags of the mountains, Aguas Calientes. The town is built on top of a river that spans the canyon, containing beautiful boulders that have been worn smooth by the flowing current. This makes for a particularly beautiful walk into the center of town. The town itself is small but entirely catered to the tourism industry. Dozens of restaurants and hotels line the narrow streets, an ample souvenir market with different tenders selling their wares sits smack dab in the town center, and the rumblings of steam engines can be heard every quarter of an hour as they bumble through the town square. This backdrop is set against the towering mountains on all sides, with living shadows constantly crawl as sunlight navigates its way past the omnipotent landscape.
We strolled into town around dusk, meaning that we needed to get settled in our hostel and grab dinner quickly to get an early nights rest. After all of the day’s excitement, it wasn’t terribly hard to surrender oneself to the embrace of sleep. It was, however, quite unpleasant to be awakened at the unholy hour of 4:00 am! Alas, today we were to reach our final destination, Machu Picchu. I did not know when in my life I would be able to make the venture a second time, so I wanted to make sure to get the full experience! That means waking up before the sun, strapping on your headlamp and setting out! The entrance to Machu Pichu opens at 5:00 am sharp, but the line can begin as early as 4:30 am. I was greeted by a group of sleepy-eyed adventurers congregating from the various trails that lead to the Incan city. Thus all were quite exhausted, yet unwilling to be one of the “day trip” tourists who have a nice breakfast, and take the perfectly functional bus up to the city. No, sir! We were battle hardened trekkers, and instead of making it easy we decide to take the stairs! (Not to mention the bus costs about $20 each way!)
So here we are, conducting final battery checks on headlamps, shoving protein bars in our mouths and stretching out our cold limbs in preparation for when the gate finally opens! Luckily it isn’t a mad dash to see who can get to the top first. We are civilized wanderers, not to mention the queue keeps us in check. (Side note: Make sure you have your ticket in hand at this point because there is a guard who will check to make sure you have it before allowing you to traverse the divide.) Once through the checkpoint, your off! I’m not kidding about it being dark, as the sun hasn’t even begun to surface, so absolutely make sure you have your headlamp, or you will most certainly die! These are not your normal steps, as they were made for giants, and are more like slabs that you must jump up one by one. I hope you like your morning workouts because you have about a 45-minute climb ahead of you, and that’s for the more fit individuals!
Your heart is pounding in your ears, your breath escaping in ragged gasps. The only sound around you is the trudging of weary feet forcing themselves ever onwards. There is a beautiful solitude in this task, as you feel both alone in your thoughts and at the same time feel like a part of the collective striving towards a single goal. And then the steps end. You have reached the plateau, and your first thought is of relief. Your second is, “those bastards!” when you see that the queue for the ruins entrance is already crowded by the cheaters who took the bus up! There seriously should be a special queue for those who hiked! It’s quite obvious when you look around which group one belongs to. Either you are stripped down and covered in sweat, or you are snuggling in your fuzzy jacket. But all of that is soon forgotten as the line starts to move. They are letting people in! The entrance opens at 6:00 am, and with the warm red glow of the sun beginning to kiss the sky, you want to be as close to the front as possible so you can find the absolute best seat for the sunrise! At the gate, you need to have on you two things! Your ticket, which should have your name printed on it, and your passport as an identification check. Without these, you become a very unfortunate person. Don’t forget!
The reason why you had woken up when clearly you should be asleep, hiked up a steep set of stairs when there was a perfectly good bus, and dealt with waiting in a long queue was for this moment. While the rest of the throngs are still busy filing through the tills, you have found your perfect spot on one of the ancient stone walls and have the most spectacular view of the surrounding mountainside. The sky is slowly turning from dull gray to a shining blue, while the mountains are engulfed in hues of red and orange as if lit on fire by the rising dawn. The quiet mist that has been hanging around your feet starts to dissipate, and the visibility of your breath starts to diminish. Eventually, the sun crests over the peaks in a blinding fashion causing you to look away for a moment, only to find yourself truly seeing the city behind you for the first time. As if reaching lines of golden light wash over the walls, casting dancing shadows at their feet, and the waves of dewy grass sparkle as if made of emerald. You have reached your destination: Machu Picchu, the culmination of Incan architecture and science.
Now it was time for our tour! Our guide had arranged for us all to meet at the entryway at 6:30 am, from which we would depart on our city tour.
I do very much recommend sticking with your group for the tour, as you gain loads of information about city structures and Incan culture that you just wouldn’t discover on your own! The tour only lasts a bit over an hour, after which you are freed from your shackles, and it is time to say farewell to your guide and the group who you have bonded with over the past five days. From here you can break off to take the iconic photos, explore more of the cityscape, or mountain climb! This last option is one you must register for at the beginning of your trek, as the entrance ticket cannot be purchased once you arrive at the site. There are two different mountains to choose from! Your first option is the famous Wayana Picchu, which boast a steep climb of cliff face and ladders with a few more ruins inviting you at the top! Your second option and my personal preference is Montaña Machu Picchu, which backdrops the city and much taller than Wayana Picchu! The entrance is at the top of the city, where you can take the iconic pictures you always see, which leads you to another giant staircase! This one is steeper than the last, and will take you about an hour and a half to reach the top! It is difficult, but the views from the summit are spectacularly rewarding! You are at the peak of the mountain ranges, and have a gorgeous panoramic view of all around you! The icy white peak of Salkantay is visible in the distance, and you receive a sense of wonder at how far you traveled. I recommend this hike if your legs are up to the task, and at only $10 supplement to your ticket!
The rest of the day is your oyster! Explore Machu Picchu at your leisure, but be warned that the tourist getting a late start to their day will start swarming in droves around 11:00 am. Also, don’t forget you still need to climb back down to Aguas Calientes! I booked a 6:00 pm train for my departure when making my trek booking, so when I arrived back down, I had about five hours of free time. A good two hours of this was spent perusing the local market in search of fabulous jewelry and trinkets. Another two hours of this was spent soaking in the local hot springs with my friend Jayne (not nearly as nice as the ones in Santa Teresa, but still nice), and it was then that we realized how much damage we did to our poor bodies. I actually couldn’t move at all the next day, and stayed in bed! Not to mention that a small bout of altitude sickness decided to hit me when I got back (like super-duper bad food poisoning!), so I spent an entire day being entirely inept once back in Cusco, so make sure you set aside time for recovery! I boarded the train after a short goodbyes dinner with my new dear friends, I looked back and said to myself, “Wow. I just did that…”
Shake a leg and get traveling!