The day was finally here. Having got through three days of trekking in often trying conditions, it was now time to experience the magnificent, mountain-perched citadel that has captured the imagination of travellers the world over for decades. Machu Picchu is arguably the single most famous historical ruin on the planet – made even more spell-binding precisely because much of it remains a mystery – and it was always going to be the highpoint of my trip.
We’ve all seen the iconic postcard snap, and if you want to get this classic view yourself then the weather has to be clear and favourable. We, having had non-stop rain for two days, had hoped it would be all ‘rained out’ for the fourth and final day of our Inca Trail experience. But alas, when my body clock stirred me from an excited/anxious slumber shortly after 3am, it was to the all-too-familiar soundtrack of rain.
Still, this wasn’t about to deter me; as I’d learned from my experience in seeing the Northern Lights (albeit in a reduced capacity) two months prior in Iceland, initially unfavourable conditions can change. So I packed my gear away as quickly as possible before leaving our amazing porters to dismantle my tent, and hurrying to the final checkpoint ahead of its 5:30am opening.
This naturally meant a not inconsiderable wait huddled under a shelter, shivering from the early morning chill and our still-saturated clothes. Conversation among our group and those around was the classic mix of gallows humour, hopeful optimism and slightly delirious random chat brought on by the lethal combination of nerves, excitement, anxiety and sleep deprivation.
When we did finally get underway we were reminded that there was still some trekking to be done. To be fair, though, the winding path here was very easy-going compared to what we’d undertaken previously, and only entered difficult territory with the notorious ‘Gringo Killer’.
This is a near-vertical 50 step climb that takes you up to Intipunku, the ‘sun gate’, where you get your first glimpse of the famous ruins. Not all found this easy – indeed, one girl (not in our group) who crawled agonisingly up on her hands and knees, burst in to tears when she got to the top, causing her leaky mascara to run across her face. Why she was wearing mascara on the final trekking day is anybody’s guess…
So when we got to the sun gate we saw…nothing.
The entire valley was blotted out by cloud, which naturally prompted lots of sarcastic comments about how stunning the view was. But instead of moving on, we opted to wait, and our reward was a partial clearing of conditions, enabling us to make out a shadowed outline of the citadel silhouetted against the clouds. Thinking that this might just prove to be the best we got, we stuck around till the mist swallowed up the ruins again before walking down the final descent.
Once we arrived at the site the rain had stopped, and I was reunited with my friend who had previously quit the trail on Day 2, who had enjoyed a couple of nights of beer, showers, restaurant food and a warm bed in a hotel room. He was the smart one all along!
Unfortunately for us all, the cloud doggedly stuck around. More in hope than expectation we pressed on to the Caretaker’s hut above the entrance to the ruins – where the iconic postcard shots are taken from – and got some half-decent views of the ruins that were, ultimately, unsatisfying.
Our guide Diego summoned us for a tour of the ruins, which we joined with a heavy heart. It looked as though the weather would deprive us from fully experiencing what was supposed to be the high point of the trip.
To exacerbate the misery, we then had to endure some maddening Peruvian bureaucracy. We had to exit the complex to collect our ‘entry ticket’ (plus bus ticket to nearby Agua Calientes) and then join the recently arrived throngs of day-trippers to wait in line. Considering we’d already actually been inside the complex, this felt like a total farce that did nothing to lighten anyone’s mood, and had the knock-on effect that we were seriously flagging for Diego’s tour. Pretty much all of it went over my head.
Mind you, much of it is all speculation and mystery anyway, and despite my wet and exhausted state it was not without highlights.
I was able to appreciate places such as the Temple of the Three Windows, Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Condor. It’s not all temples of course – it’s believed to have been a living, breathing city with all that entails too. As an overall complex, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer feat of engineering – and the modern addition of the alpacas raise a smile as well.
By now, some of the group were so exhausted that they couldn’t contemplate re-climbing the steep, thigh-straining, calf-crushing steps back up to the Caretaker’s Hut. But a few of us were able to dig deep in to the reserves and muster up the energy from somewhere, and back up we went.
I could try to describe just how awesome the ruins are as they’re laid before you across the beautiful mountainside setting below. But to do so would be to lapse in to ham-fisted cliché. Instead, I will take a leaf from Mark Adams’ superb travelogue Turn Right at Machu Picchu, and say that it is the very definition of the Kantian sublime: overwhelming and beyond the capacity and limitations of human language. No one who sees it will forget it.
I lingered as long as I could before being obliged to catch the bus to Agua Calientes, a pretty town that seemingly exists to cater for the crowds headed to Machu Picchu. Here we enjoyed some well-earned beer and pizza and then on to Cusco, via train and another bus. It had been touch and go for a while, but we’d seen Machu Picchu in all its glory, and it will always remain one of the very highpoints of my time travelling.