The fourth and final day of the classic Inca Trail hike finally delivers you to Machu Picchu. Most groups camp at Wiñay Wayna the night before and wake up early to pass through a government control point. Our group wanted to be the first in line, so we woke up at 3:30am and made it to the control point 10 minutes before anyone else.
From the control point it’s about a 90-minute hike to the Sun Gate (Intipunku), where – after a final climb up some very vertical stone steps – you suddenly have your first view of the ruins of Machu Picchu. With our goal so close, we practically jogged from the control point and made it to the Sun Gate just before the first rays of sunlight began to hit the ruins. What an incredible feeling to see Machu Picchu for the first time on such an unusually clear day, after hiking for four days to get there, sweating and winded from the fast pace and the final climb to the Sun Gate.
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu, including an option that involves no hiking – you can take a train from a place near Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes and then take a bus from there to the Machu Picchu entrance. But I have to figure that the impact of seeing Machu Picchu for the first time is very different when you’ve put in some real work to get there.
I left Cusco in the late afternoon on a bus to Ollantaytambo, where I caught the Peru Rail train to Aguas Calientes. Making the trip with me was Matthias, a 28-year-old German engineer who’d stayed at my hostel in Cusco, and, like me, had used the hostel’s travel agency to arrange the bus and train tickets. Matthias was near the end of a three-week vacation. He’d been hit with some serious stomach problems in Arequipa and still hadn’t fully recovered, but he was determined to see Machu Picchu before flying back to Germany.
I couldn’t resist pestering Matthias with every American’s favorite question for Germans: “Why was David Hasselhoff so popular in your country?”
Like all the other Germans I’d asked, Matthias bristled humorlessly and paused to collect his thoughts before responding. He assured me that he himself did not like, nor ever had liked, David Hasselhoff. “And I do not know if he was really so popular.” Well, tell that to the hundreds of thousands of Germans singing along in Hasselhoff-induced bliss at the remains of the Berlin Wall on that magical First Night 1990.
Matthias and I checked into our Aguas Calientes hotel rooms and agreed to meet at 4:45am the next morning. Buses don’t begin leaving for Machu Picchu until 5:30am, but the line starts forming at 3am and I wanted to be among the first to go up. Most of the early birds were intent on claiming one of the limited number of passes for hiking up Huayna Picchu (also spelled Wayna Picchu, it’s the steep mountain that rises behind the ruins in most of the classic views of Macchu Picchu), but I just wanted to take photographs in the morning light. The sky had been perfectly clear on my first visit, and I hoped this time there would be pre-dawn mist floating across the ruins.
The weather, unfortunately, refused to bend to my will. No streaks of mist adorned Huayna Picchu and the sky was a uniform, washed-out gray. And yet, despite being disappointed about the photography conditions, despite doing hardly any work to get there, and despite the fact that I’d seen it before, standing in front of Machu Picchu was a powerful rush. Not nearly as intense as the first time, but still an extraordinary feeling. At the risk of sounding New-Agey, the place has a unique energy. “In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it,” said Hiram Bingham, the American academic who rediscovered the site in 1911 and brought it to the world’s attention.