Sleep was short. We needed to be at the gate to Machu Picchu before it opened at 6am. It was a half hour walk down there along the river. We also needed to shower and pack before leaving the hotel. That meant that rising at 4:30am. I somehow did before my alarm.
The previously bustling hotel was silent and dark. I sneaked out into the lobby to see if anyone from our group was there yet; they were not. With the lights off and the sun having not risen yet, I flashed my torch around the room. You know, like a criminal. I discovered the front desk manager asleep on the couch by the front window. Oops. Back to the room I went. In case you were wondering, the light from our room didn’t reveal too much through the window curtains, thankfully.
To make hiking up to Machu Picchu easier, we divided essential items and non-essential items into separate packs, the latter of which we’d leave in the hotel lobby and pick up upon our return. For once, there would be a period of not lugging a pack around. Hallelujah. My shoulders were grateful.
We assembled a few minutes after our scheduled time, but it was fine, we walked quickly. In the darkness of a pre-dawn Aguas Calientes, the six of us bravely strode down the hill to the riverside road, finding our way with headlamps and flashlights. Before the sun rose, points of LED light were the only visible signs of life in the area; our group walked abreast down the road. Other groups and intrepid solo hikers were both behind and ahead of us at a distance.
I shone my tiny LED flashlight onto the cliffs above and the river to the side. It’s amazing how powerful that little several watt device is. It illuminated objects hundreds of feet away pretty decently. Soon, we reached the fork that we’d passed the previous day and took the lower path down closer to the river.
The gate of Machu Picchu was closed. The two bridges across the river were illuminated starkly with fluorescent spots. In front of the gate stood a building for the crossing guards. A queue had formed at the bridge on the right, the entry bridge. It was an old-looking suspension bridge with dirty white towers. The left bridge, for exiting, was a temporary Bailey bridge. The bridge that had been there previously was the same design as the one on the right; it was washed away in a flood a few years back. That’s reassuring.
The wait in line seemed longer than it was. We were probably twenty people back from the gate at 5:40am, and the line only grew longer behind us as opening time approached. I had underestimated the appeal of a dawn climb to Machu Picchu.
When the gate finally opened a few minutes past 6am, the crowd flooded in. Guards at the bridge verified my entry ticket, ignoring the passport I also handed them. And then we were off, across the river before sunrise. The suspension bridge shook from our footsteps.
It was a short walk over the still raging Urubamba river. The sky vaguely started to lighten to a deep blue, revealing a thick layer of clouds above slowly becoming visible. Now among a steady line of people, we followed the direction of those ahead of us to a path on the side of the roadway. There were steps leading up through the strips of jungle between the snaking entry road switchbacks. There would be more than 1000 steps over about 300 meters of elevation change. I thought, the Point Reyes Lighthouse has 308 steps and I did that no sweat; this should be easy!
Well, the Point Reyes steps are only a few inches high and uniformly constructed from cement. The Machu Picchu steps were built mainly of large stones, sometimes over six inches tall. They were filled in with dirt and the sloping trail, leaving a variable gap and uneven terrain between steps. I also began the day carrying the pack, which burned out my already fatigued legs in short order. From the map on my phone (which was cached from the hotel’s internet), I counted the number of times the trail crossed the road to the top: 14. The path also gradually shifted to the right peaks of the road’s waveform, making the gaps between crossings more uneven, before it moved away from the road completely near the top.
By the halfway point (based on road crossings), dawn had completely broken, though the sun was hidden behind clouds. The view of the very curved valley beneath and behind was staggering and only getting better. I took a leisurely pace heading up, allowing many more intrepid adventurers to pass and keeping pace with those slower climbers for some relief. As much as I wanted to see Machu Picchu and perhaps beat whatever crowd would be there at the top, I did what felt best for my body. This, after all, was our final challenge — the last hour of our trek before we celebrate our achievement among the ruins.
Toward the top, I occasionally spied the terraced walls of the city. Very near the end, there were huts for weary travelers to take a break in, though, come on, push through, you’re almost there! Around this point, the thickness of the jungle up above started to thin, showing more of the sky through the foliage. I could hear people. I could hear vehicles. The finish line was in hearing range.
Then, finally, I crested the top, turned the last bend, and found the end of the trail. What I saw was a concrete plaza, the terminus of the entry road, and a very large crowd of people. Everyone was there: the German girls, the people we’d zip-lined with, familiar guides, other faces from the hot springs. It was like a big party, with another couple hundred anonymous guests along with us.
The first thing I did was sit down on the curb. Rest and be satisfied. There was no getting around the entry queue, so why not take a break? Our group assembled. Some went to use the restrooms (which were S./1 to even get into) while I sat and waited. We found our guide. Or he found us, I don’t remember. Braving the crowd, I entered a line which I deemed to be the fastest. It wasn’t. At the entry gate, an agent scanned my passport and my ticket — then I was in. There were so many people around already, I could almost not believe it. I figured most tourist would show up around midday, which actually I was right about, I was just taken aback by the sheer number at such an early hour.
The stony path ahead led under a canopy of trees, around a slight bend into the city. I immediately began snapping photo after photo. The first sights upon my eyes were the east side city terraces, the “industrial” areas, and the glorious steep peak of Huayna Picchu in the background. Farther to the right, the Sacred Valley, the Urubamba River, and the mountain Phutuq K’usi, which I jokingly dubbed “Chitii Pichu.”
See, Machu Picchu means “The Old Mountain.” It’s actually the name of the mountain that rises beyond the south side of the city. Across the saddle on which the city rests is Huayna Picchu, which means “The Young Mountain.” Atop that peak were built terraces and a small settlement, visible if you look really hard. Our trek offered the option to hike up there, but there wasn’t a chance I would be able to make it up, much less down. This third, unnamed-for-us mountain, is called Phutuq K’usi, and sits across the river from the entrance. Upon a quick glance around, it is the third most obvious geographic feature visible from the city. Since nobody knew the name or seemed to care about it at all, I called it “Chitii Picchu,” or, “The Shitty Mountain.”
I’m only kidding, Phutuq K’usi. I took a lot of photos of you and you’re not shitty. Honest!
Upon entry to the city, we immediately ran into llamas on the street. Naturally, some of us took photos with them. I preferred to keep my distance from a docile-looking, but still wild animal. They were nothing new. If they had been alpacas, however, I might not have been able to resist taking a picture with one of their adorable fur-enclosed faces.
Our guide led us up the left of the two main staircases in the city. Between the two there was a large gap that divided the southern agricultural terraces from the northern residential and industrial city. On one of and among the numerous terraces there, he gave us a long lecture about the discovery of the site, the farming techniques and engineering of the earth, what to look for in the city, and other random tidbits. One of his favorite things to say was, in response to a trivia answer, “If someone tells you this, do not believe them.” Did you know Hiram Bingham didn’t actually discover Machu Picchu? Did you know the sun wasn’t the main god of the Incas? 
I had no way to verify any of his claims, but I believed him because he was nice, had a lot to say, and, as a native Peruvian and veteran trek guide, he probably knew best.
Our guided tour lasted only a bit longer. We walked through the main gate of the city into a few of the former workshops and houses. Attention was paid to the closely-fitting stones of the entrance archway in contrast to the rougher construction of the city’s other walls. Trapezoidal doors and windows are a standout feature of Inca architecture. The walls are held together with clay mortar for the stones, much of which was now colored with a vibrant green moss. The floors of the buildings were typically packed dirt, though some of them had large slabs of rock, unmoved and carved from the mountain beneath. None of the original buildings have roofs anymore — some modern recreations at the site entrance and the gate to Huayna Picchu showed us what they probably used to look like: thatched straw supported by wooden beams. Some of the houses even had a second story that I assume had been built of wood, since fallen away.
In a temple, our guide showed us the kind of tools used for sacrifices, including ceremonial knives used for bisecting humans. Like the blade of an ax, except the handle is the dull side.
The narrow streets and high walls made this part of the city a maze. It didn’t help that some areas were roped off and other streets were made to be one-way for visitors. The view to the valley, however, remained gorgeous, especially with the ruins in the foreground. Soon, our walk through the city came to the edge of the central courtyard. Again, absolutely gorgeous. There is a solitary tree there I became particularly fond of.
On the west side, we happened upon the main temple of the city. It was constructed of very tight-fitting blocks, evident of wealth and importance. Some had dislodged over time, creating an unstable split in the back wall. The ground inside was a very neat, short grass, roped off to prevent access.
To its south, a disorganized field of large stone slabs and shards. It was almost a quarry or a staging area for construction. It was hard to tell which stones belonged to the mountain and which had been placed there manually. On the far side, the rest of the Sacred Valley became visible, which included the entirety of the first half of the previous day’s hike within view. The first thing I spotted was the homestead where we’d eaten lunch. It was the only clearing in the jungle below. Just to its left, the rusty train bridge. Farther down the valley that way, I could see the high-voltage transmission lines on the mountain ridges. Beyond those, the settlement at Hidroelectrica. Finally, above that, the long power generating penstocks sloping down the mountain.
Before I left for Peru, my boss asked me to keep an eye out for solar panels and renewable energy and let him know what I saw. Well, there wasn’t any of that, however from this vantage point I could see an entire several hundred megawatt hydroelectric power facility. This was my favorite view from Machu Picchu, integrating ancient* ruins, some of my favorite hiking, and technology associated with my livelihood together in one place. Very cool.
It was here we said our final goodbyes to our guide. He was an awesome leader and companion, and many tears were shed among us. Vamanos, chicos. I soon wanted a higher point with which to look down upon the western valley. My target: a strucure on top of a steeply terraced hill in the center of the city. The space around the temple was beginning to fill with people and I wanted, naturally, to get a little bit of distance from them.
The low clouds had been constantly rolling across the mountain tops, as well as through the airspace of the ruins throughout the morning. The peak of Huayna Picchu was oft at least partially obscured, while other Andes peaks in the distance shifted and morphed as the clouds passed. Sometimes a few lonely clouds would float around the valley below. It’s a strange feeling to have that kind of perspective while still standing on solid ground.
The hill offered beautiful views over the city’s central courtyard and the empty stepped terraforming of the city’s north end, in addition to the western valley as before. Atop this hill was a shaped stone used for some kind of ceremonial purposes. It looked almost like an altar combined with a chair. I wish I could remember what the nearby guide had said about it; it was definitely of religious significance.
On the north side of the city was an open stone area with fully-constructed shelters, a control checkpoint for the trail to Huayna Picchu, and a large rock, aptly labeled “Sacred Rock.” It was pretty big, I suppose. Behind it was a sort-of open area with stones and a decent view of the north-eastern valley. I heard a train horn and instinctively scanned the visible train track below for a triangle of moving lights. There it was, a blue locomotive, driving up the tracks upon which we’d walked. There was nothing I couldn’t see below that I hadn’t already experienced the day before. I felt like a wise veteran of the Urubamba Valley.
From the north side of the city, we made our way toward the entrance via the eastern city. This side was mostly houses and industrial buildings as previously mentioned. They were small rectangular walled spaces completely covering the steep mountain side. Narrow passageways and stairs were in abundance. It was even more a maze than the other side. I could only imagine what the city would have been like with a bustling population and fully constructed buildings. Honestly, it kind of made me want to play Age of Empires in that moment.
*What I didn’t really realize was that Machu Picchu is less than 600 years old and was only inhabited for less than a century. It’s nowhere near ancient in the timeline of human civilization, which in my mind made its construction a bit less impressive. Don’t get me wrong, the civil engineering is impressive, as is the feat of simply getting the requisite building materials up there from the valley floor, it’s just that the Inca were barely as technologically advanced as the Ancient Egyptians, who were some 4000 years older. If the Inca as they were were still around today and just as isolated, they’d probably be a few centuries behind the rest of the world in that respect. But I don’t know, this was just my impression.
Speaking of civil engineering, among the houses in one spot there was a cistern with a system of pipes and drainage, all carved right into the stone. Some of the water trenches had deep sections to catch silt and slow down turbulent flow. Having just rained the previous day, there was plentiful evidence that the system was still working quite well.
Heading back to the start of the Machu Picchu loop, the extent of the southern agricultural terraces was clear. They covered the entire mountainside, from far below the main level of the city to well above it. Our next stop was the very top of those, for the “classic” Machu Picchu view. Unfortunately, the prevalence of the one-way street and the maze-like network of them made simply getting to a place within a stone’s throw a challenge. It was a few minutes before we ended up at the buildings and terraces below the entrance. Then we climbed, up one terrace at a time. Thankfully, this was our last climb of the trek.
From high up on the south side of the city, I could see even more of the eastern valley, including the entrance bridges across the river and the aforementioned railyard-type place nearby. It wasn’t nearly as scenic as the western side from a structures, as the city of Aguas Calientes was obscured around a bend, however the green monolith of Phutuq K’usi looked stunning in the clouds as the Urubamba wrapped around its base.
At the top of the city, there stood an empty house. This one had a roof, but nothing else inside. In front of it is a platform from which are offered one of the best views of Machu Picchu city. You know, the kind you see on postcards. I claimed a piece of earth and shot photo after photo. After all, this was the legendary sight I’d been picturing every time I’d even thought of Peru before the trip, as well as all throughout the trek. Even one I reached the city, I couldn’t wait to see that place in particular.
It was almost everything I’d imagined, except for one small detail, pun intended: Machu Picchu isn’t all that big. We had just walked nearly the entirety of its roads (at least the ones that weren’t roped off) in just a few hours, which included numerous breaks and pauses for photos. Still, it was impressive, photogenic, beautiful, ethereal; everything I’d wanted it to be. The fog continued to roll in in pieces, offering an altered perspective of the environment every few minutes. The green of the city stood vibrant against the grey sky. I’d perhaps wanted a little more contrast.
Off to the west side of the upper terraces we took in our last sights of Machu Picchu. It had begun to rain a little, necessitating umbrellas and coats. Fog rolled in briefly, obscuring most of the city. When that cleared, the clouds glowed bright in the distance, finally giving me the contrast I wanted. I shot several panoramas. One day, I think I’d like to get one printed and hung across a wall in my future house.
Suddenly, pockets of blue sky opened up above, rain still falling from the sky. I searched intently for a rainbow, hoping for one near the city. Alas, the sun was quite high in the equatorial summer, however I did end up finding the dim rainbow down below and over the river. It was hard to photograph, but I captured what I could. The best photographs of it are in my mind.
We stayed up there for over an hour, enjoying each other and the wonder we could see in front of us. This was our crowning achievement, after all. Plus, there’s a pretty big chance I’ll never make it there again; I’ve got my future traveler’s eyes set elsewhere in the world, so I had to make this visit count.
It was, however, getting later in the day. Our sporadic breakfast was wearing off; our bladders weakening. It had already been nearly seven hours since we left in the dark that morning. As stunning as the scenery was, there’s no denying our own basic needs. So, we decided to leave for town for some much needed and deserved rest and relaxation.
On the way out of the city, I stamped my passport with a Machu Picchu stamp, off to the side of the inner entry gate. There was no line there, so I figured, why not? Well, it’s possibly illegal, but the fact that I was encouraged by multiple reputable sources to do it makes it seem more legit. I have no idea one way or another, and it probably doesn’t even matter. I think Machu Picchu looks nice among my visas.
We took the bus down from the top. This ride was far more relaxing even though the road down was more slightly-sketchy mountainside switchbacks. Maybe it was the lack of immediate cliffs or the fact that we’d already hiked across the road that made me not care about driving off the edge anymore. The hour-long climb and half-hour walk we made in the morning was traversed by bus in less than twenty minutes, dropping us off back in the center of town.
We quickly headed over to what looked like the nicest restaurant in town, a building right on the river that had a broad menu and the promise of cold beverages. In the spacious upstairs of that place we spread out on couches, ignoring the loud music blasting in our ears from all around. That place also had internet, so, you know, hello world etc.
I got another pizza there. I know, I need to broaden my tastes. I don’t even remember why I did. It was okay. I checked out the view of the river through the wide windows in the back of the room. The building hung over the edge so I could see basically nothing but raging brown water beneath. Lovely. In a century or less, this will all probably be washed away. Nature is, after all, merciless.
After lunch we walked around the marketplace across the street. I bought myself a totem of a condor standing on top of a puma standing on top of a snake. In Inca mythology, they represent the three levels of the world, or the tree of life, as it were. I had been mostly against buying souvenirs on the trip, but this was something that appealed to me since I first heard about the symbol on the trek. It fits nicely within my eclectic collection of trinkets from around the world.
We also returned to the hotel to retrieve our bags at some point, possibly before lunch, I don’t remember. The rest of the day was spent wandering the city. In the afternoon, we walked up to the hot springs that give the city its name. The way there was up along and across the river that split the town into the hillside; into tranquility away from the bustle. I was tired, but it was a neat little walk. I had been intrigued at the prospect of more hot springs. Upon sight of them, I quickly decided against going in — the pools were brownish and somewhat full of people. Not exactly my idea of relaxation. Instead, I opted to try to nap in a moderately uncomfortable couch inside. Chiptune Christmas songs on repeat nearby gave me a headache. My throat had also begun to become tight and raw; the sickness was beginning.
Somehow, we decided to get dinner at the same restaurant we had had lunch at, except this time we sat on the front patio along the street and rails. Starting to feel a little more ill, I opted to order a bowl of dieta de pollo. It was served in a square bowl and we perhaps even better than the last chicken soup I’d eaten. Dinner was slow, though that wasn’t exactly a problem. A train rolled by. We were going to take one of those home in a few hours.
In fact, we went to the train station directly after dinner, maybe an hour before our departure. The train station there was confusing: on sign boards they showed incomplete timetables with multiple similar destinations and various carriers, none of which were my train. I was a little lost, though the ticket held all of the necessary information and I waited patiently for instruction. Standing in the queue felt like an eternity; I couldn’t wait to ride the train!
When the gate finally opened, I walked over to the correct carriage and boarded, showing my passport to the attendant at the door. I headed up the steps, dropped my bag off at the cargo storage area and found my seat.
Shortly after that, a young Australian woman (another trekker) walked down the aisle in our direction, but she just happened to be calling out my name. What? She had my passport. I must have dropped it when I put down my bag. Whoops… Thank goodness for honest people.
The seats on the train were relatively comfortable. There were pairs of two with an aisle between. On each side, there were some that were clustered in groups of four, two pairs facing each other with a table between them. I was sitting there with two of my companions, plus a different Australian girl in a group of five, the other four across the aisle including the one who found my passport. Nice folks, those Australians. I definitely enjoy the accent.
The inside of the cabin was lit in fluorescent light. The walls were covered in a strange wallpaper. The table had a stylized map on its surface, showing the Sacred Valley between Machu Picchu and Cusco — our way home.
We began rolling out of the city just before dark. It was a slow ride along the river. Sometimes I could see jungle plants and cliff rocks illuminated outside by the cabin lights. We traveled through several tunnels. I had been excited for this ride since the beginning of the trek. Well, it got old quick. Bugs had begun to infiltrate the cabin, which was also steadily growing intolerably warm. Beverage service was provided on a cart that in one place read “Stow for taxi, takeoff and landing.” I ordered a coca tea to help my rapidly weakening throat. They also gave us little shortbread cookies that were decently tasty, apart from the fact that the paper they were wrapped in was nearly impossible to separate from them.
About half an hour into the ride, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I, and I know I’m a broken record now, just wanted a real bed. It was about a two hour ride to Ollantaytambo, which we passed with good conversation, watching the Australians play cards, and pseudo-naps. When town lights began to slowly become more numerous out my window, I figured we were nearing civilization.
We rolled slowly past another train. In the first few carriages were seats like ours, but with nicer lighting, drinkware, and with men in suits. As we continued, the carriages behind those became dimly lit, tightly quartered, and full of regular lower-class folks. Obvious income gap is obvious.
Indeed, eventually we slowed down to approach our train’s final destination. In Ollantaytambo, I got out of the car into a formidable sea of people, clustered tightly with my group to avoid separation. Off the boarding platform was a single road into town — on both sides were shops, people waiting, people with signs, people who wanted my business. In the dark chaos, I frantically scanned for the sign of our trek company.
A guide was there waiting. Thank goodness. Get us to the van and let’s get out of here. Well, there were apparently two groups from our company, so we needed two vans. We were led to a dark parking lot where another driver must have been waiting. The guide seemed to speak little English so I had no idea if we were doing the right thing. Whatever, I just got into the van, stowed my bags, and tried to sleep against the window. That seems safe, right?
I watched the stony streets of Ollantaytambo pass by. Our route was very windy through the town. I had lost all sense of direction. This was not a place we’d driven through before.
I woke up to thunder. The sky had opened up. It was pouring. Glad we weren’t stuck outside in that. It rained all the way to Cusco. I recognized the winding city streets the second we began to approach them. From the road in, the city was brightly lit below. It snaked down slowly, leading us to our trek hostel on that steeply curved one-way street.
We got out of the van as quickly as we could. It was still pouring. Cars had begun to queue behind us. They honked as if that made a difference. It was already 11pm. I didn’t want to deal with that, so I went inside in a hurry. Our company ordered us taxis to our hotel. I went into storage to retrieve my luggage, where I found it safe and sound.
Our taxis arrived in no time. Again, a queue of cars formed behind them. Honking. At 11pm. Good lord.
The ride through the city was quick. We were dropped off at our new hotel, a nondescript doorway on a narrow cobbled lane. Inside, a lovely reception area with a courtyard behind. At the desk, we checked in. They scanned our passports. It took forever.
Key in hand, we walked across the courtyard to our room in the far back of the hotel. I found a place on the floor to put my stuff. Organize it in the morning, I thought.
For now, we sleep.