The Inca Trail (Camino Inka): Day Four (Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu)

Sixth in a series about the Inca Trail

This was it, the home stretch.  Our guides, Percy and Yaneth, wanted us to be lined up in front of the Wiñay Wayna checkpoint by 4:30 am on the final day of our trek.  The checkpoint didn’t open until 5:30 am, but the earlier we arrived, they said, the better our chances of being at the Sun Gate for sunrise over Machu Picchu.

I don’t think I slept past 3 am.  I’d love to say it was because of the anticipation, but we were next to a tent where the porters were talking loudly throughout the night.  In addition, it was difficult to get comfortable.  The sleeping bags only unzipped a little around the head.  During the first and second nights we were high in the mountains and the sleeping bags were nice and warm.  The third night, however, it was too hot in the sleeping bag and eventually, too warm outside it as well.

On Rachel’s advice, I put a few layers of Molefoam in a circular pattern around my blisters, leaving the blisters themselves aired out.  I switched back to my trusty Merrell Chameleon hiking shoes and the blisters didn’t bother me too much.  One of my knees was hurting from “The Gringo Killer” the afternoon prior, but not too badly.  Rachel, on the other hand, was in severe pain in both knees.  Breakfast was light, but we received a bag with snacks for later on (though they’d have to be eaten outside Machu Picchu).

We broke camp in the dark and made our way down to the trail in front of the checkpoint.  We sat against our packs by the trailside and waited for the checkpoint to open.  The stars were spectacular.  I was surprised to see my favorite constellation, Orion, in the Southern Hemisphere.  From my perspective it was flipped upside down relative to what I was used to.

Snapshot heading through the checkpoint. Probably the worst photo to open one of my blog posts, but it was too large a sea of text otherwise!  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

We were one of the first groups through the checkpoint, passing through around 5:40 am.  The trail was similar to the third day with rolling “flats”  and a sheer drop-off into the forest on the right hand side of the trail.  Within a couple minutes of passing through the checkpoint, Rachel yelled to me to wait for her.  She was close to tears from the knee pain.  One group and then another passed us.

The long days on the trail had taken their toll on mind as well as body.  My first reaction wasn’t supportive but rather disappointment, embarrassment, maybe even resentment.  Disappointment that we would probably not make it to the Sun Gate by sunrise.  Embarrassment that for a third day in a row, Rachel and I would be dead last in our group.  Resentment that Rachel was the one slowing us down (even though I’d been the slow one on Day Two).

It seems to me most people who can afford a honeymoon go places with amazing luxury.  I would have just as soon honeymooned in Bora Bora rather than rough it on the Inca Trail!  That luxury, perhaps, postpones the challenges that every couple eventually faces.  The day after we finished the Inca Trail, I looked back with shame on my thoughts at that moment of resentment.  While the relationship was strong, I realized I had to work on improving myself.

Regardless of my initial selfish impulses, I turned around.  I hugged Rachel to comfort her for a minute or two.  Yaneth came up behind us and offered Rachel encouragement, though she really just wanted a private moment to collect herself.  Rachel, despite her excruciating pain, sucked it up and we continued hiking.  (Can you tell that Rachel edited this paragraph?  Love you, dear!)

2 Day Four Sunrise
The final sunrise on the Inca Trail, around 5:55 am

As I walked and Rachel hobbled, the sky to the east caught fire with a spectacular sunrise beyond the mountain peaks.  I took few pictures, not wanting to do anything to slow us down.  There was a sharp drop off to the right of the trail down a steep mountainside with the Sacred River, the Willkamayu (Urubamba River) running below.  This was the very river (though by a different name) that we’d crossed on Day One.

3 Orchid
An orchid along the trail, one of dozens of species in the Machu Picchu Sanctuary

As we hiked, a large bird landed in a tree nearby.  We asked Yaneth what it was called.  After a hesitation searching for the correct English word, she answered that it was a turkey.  I later identified it as an Andean guan thanks to a field guide, Birds of Peru.  The book describes guans as “large, long-tailed, and long-necked birds resembling pheasants or turkeys” with a diet consisting mainly of fruit.

Rachel gave me a scare at one point climbing some stairs. She tottered and fell forward, precariously close to the edge of the trail.  She said when she felt herself losing her balance, she threw herself down to prevent just that from happening.

4 Ladder Staircase
Rachel climbing the ladder staircase

There was one challenge left.  It was another staircase that was so steep, it had to be climbed like a ladder.  It led to what Stewart calls a watchtower.

6 Home Stretch to the Sun Gate
The home stretch to the Sun Gate

We were so close to the end of the hike.   Within minutes, it was just one more “flight” of stairs between us and Intipunku, the Sun Gate.  I hiked up ahead, but I didn’t go inside.  I wanted Rachel and me to get our first look at Machu Picchu together.  It was now 7:15 am.

7 Sun Gate
The Sun Gate
9 Rachel on the way
Rachel hiking the home stretch

Then we were there, alone despite our guide and the throngs of hikers, sharing that moment of exhilaration when the journey and sense of accomplishment becomes real.  This is what we saw:

Machu Picchu Sun Gate
Machu Picchu as seen from the Sun Gate
10 Superzoom MP
I borrowed Rachel’s superzoom again to scope out the city from this high angle

Intipunku was at an altitude of 2,720 m (8,924 ft).  There was going to be no more uphill between here and Machu Picchu, but the downhill had to be taken gingerly with Rachel’s knees.

11 Machu Picchu
Wide view of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu.
14 HP
Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu), the mountain that forms the backdrop for so many pictures of Machu Picchu

The trail headed towards some ruins on the outskirts of Machu Picchu.  I’ve been unable to determine what its name is, but it’s built around what I assume is a sacred rock (Percy said these are common among Incan ruins).

13 Ruin near MP

16 More Ruins

17 Sacred Rock

Yaneth stopped to scold some young women who were carelessly climbing on the ruins.  Machu Picchu survived half a millennium of earthquakes, heavy rains, and jungle overgrowth in remarkably good condition, but its own popularity may now be its greatest threat.

18 Flowers

19 Just Married
We’d taken one or two photos with that sign every day of the trip but none more triumphant than this one. Photo by Yaneth.
20 High View
View of Machu Picchu taken from just past the ruins with an unknown name.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

By this point, the trail was filled with day trippers headed the other direction.  We were still quite high above the city, though the trail was in good condition with a gentle slope.

21 Home Stretch

22 Lizard
Yaneth spotted this lizard in a crevice. It may have been the only non-avian wildlife we saw on the Inca Trail!

The descent from the Sun Gate only took an hour, but it seemed like it lasted forever.  My knee and blisters were forgotten as we got closer and closer.  And then we were there, walking the path among the terraces of the agricultural sector.

There are places in the world whose reputations create impossible expectations and a visit is sure to cause disappointment.  Machu Picchu is not one of those places.  It is every bit as incredible as we hoped for, an engineering marvel in the most picturesque of locations.

Looking back, I feel a pride at having accomplished the hike while still remembering how humbled I was by the experience.  The low daily mileage had lulled us into a false sense of security and led us to overestimate of our physical condition.  It turned out to be a very tough hike.

23 Almost There

24 High View

25 Sweet View
A sight for sore eyes.

Either way, the hard part was over.  Large backpacks are not permitted inside Machu Picchu, so we had to exit at the main entrance (where the day trippers enter) and pay a small fee to check them at the luggage room.  I wasn’t particularly sad to part with the weight for a few hours.  We were reunited here with the rest of the group, who charitably said they hadn’t been waiting for us long.  After scarfing down a snack (food is also prohibited inside), we lined up to head back in to explore the site.

Date: Saturday, August 22, 2015

Distance: 5 km (3.1 mi)

Duration: About 2.5 hours

Scan 153500000
Certificate we received later in Aguas Calientes

Series on the Inca Trail (Camino Inka)

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (background)

Introduction (Cusco to Ollantaytambo by Bus)

Day One (Piscacucho to Wayllabamba)
12 km (7.5 mi) distance, +300 m (984 ft) elevation

Day Two (Wayllabamba to Pacamayo)
11 km (6.8 mi) distance, +1,200 m (3,937 ft)/-600 m (1,969 ft) elevation

Day Three (Part I, Pacamayo to Qunchamarka AND Part II,  Chaquicocha to Wiñay Wayna)
15 km (9.3 mi) distance, +350 m (1,148 ft)/-1,300 m (4,265 ft) elevation

Day Four (Wiñay Wayna to Machu Picchu)
5 km (3.1 mi) distance, +40 m (131 ft)/-265 m (869 ft) elevation

Inca Trail’s End: Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu in Infrared

Identifying a Hummingbird at the Inca Trail’s Second Pass


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