Around 6:30 A.M. on the fourth and last day of the Inca Trail, the trekking group my cousins and I were with made it to Inti Punku, “Sun Gate” – the ruins of a guarded fortress of Machu Picchu that also served as a control gate for those who had come from Cusco. For modern-day trekkers, it offers the first glimpse of Machu Picchu after days of walking, and also a view of the sunrise if conditions are good. Note the if. Hiking in rainy season, we had taken our chances with the weather.
We had woken up at 3:30 in the morning to quickly pack up our bags and get out of our tents so that our group’s porters could pack up camp and head off walking to pick up their pay and get home. There was then about an hour’s wait ahead of us in line at the entry checkpoint to the last leg of the hike, waiting behind other groups until it opened at 5:30. We sat in the dark and watched the sky slowly get lighter. Some were chatty, loud, and excited but me personally not being a great morning-person, I was half-asleep and groggy, leaning on a wall huddled, trying to stay warm. When 5:30 hit though, and the groups started moving, excitement rose for our last stretch of walking to Machu Picchu.
The terrain to Inti Punku is easy compared to the earlier days’ walking, so we breezed through it, excited at what lay ahead. We even conquered the Matagringos – the “Gringo killer” stairs, which consisted of 50 steep steps, without much fuss. We really wanted to see Machu Picchu. Rushing through the gate of Inti Punku, we found other groups already gathered.
I quickly analyzed the ruins, thinking cool, but then realized the disappointment that was thick in the air; our beautiful view and first peek at Machu Picchu was covered with the densest, greyest fog we had seen the whole trip. Being a bit naïve of where I was, I questioned: “are we supposed to see Machu Picchu?” to the response of a group member, “Yup, you’re looking at it!” Oh.
This is the point where I realized what I’ll call life lesson numero uno, one of many learned along the trail:
There is so much in life that is beyond our control, but how we react is crucial.
Disappointment was evident among visitors lingering around Inti Punku: we had paid a lot of money for the trek, we had walked so long, we had taken our chances with the rainy season and lost. But, there was also a clear attempt to overcome the disappointment. People took photos with the fog, ironic smiles and false excitement leading to genuine amusement. Our group joked that this was the best fog we had ever seen, that it had all the perfect shades of grey. We lingered at the ruins, buoyed by one guide’s affirmation that fog was volatile and could clear within minutes. Every hazy mountain peak we could catch a glimpse of gave us hope. We were disappointed, but accepted what was given to us and made it fun.
Our guide, Mario, finally told us to continue on; the fog just wasn’t showing signs of really clearing up. We continued walking down the switchbacks on the way to Machu Picchu. As we walked, the clouds indeed started to part – more and more became visible and we were giddy with excitement. Mario pointed out to us, off in the distance, “There it is – Machu Picchu!” We screamed in joy, jumping to look at it and take pictures, even though really it was just a small spot on the camera lens. Which leads to life lesson numero dos, borrowed from The Karate Kid:
Patience, young grasshopper.
Sometimes things will go your way eventually, all it takes is a bit of patience and perseverance. It is so easy to expect instant gratification these days with technology right at our fingertips, but there are still lots of things that only come with patience. Learning an instrument. Building relationships. Saving money for a car, or a house, or a trip. These things are no 3-minute spaghetti noodles, but when what you’re waiting for does work out, it’s incredibly rewarding.
Actually arriving at Machu Picchu was incredible – descending the path, we could see it in a misty haze getting closer and closer, until there it was – we were standing right in front of it. The famous mountain in the back of all the Machu Picchu pictures wasn’t yet visible, but the ruins were there, all lying quietly in front of us. It looked eerie in the fog, ancient and still. We spent almost an hour at that spot, taking pictures at every different angle possible and reveling at its immensity. The fog came and went, sometimes so thick we couldn’t see the ruins even though they were right there. During one foggy period, Elena saw her opportunity for a nap, never missing a chance for one when it arises!
After a group photo, we followed Mario to the official entrance of the ruins, where he would start giving us a tour of the site. It was amazing to walk among the ancient sacred city walls. We walked around various temples, the Sacred Plaza, the pyramid of Intiwuatana, the quarry, and other sites as Mario explained to us various facts about the construction, history, and functions of the site.
Built in the mid-1400s and only inhabited for a bit over 100 years, it was interesting to learn the world famous site lasted for so little, and was built relatively recently in history. A lot of the rocks are especially impressive for their size – how on earth did the Incans get them over there without the wheel!? Since there are so few preserved written documents from this time period, there are so many mysteries still surrounding the Incan civilization. Which leads us to (kind of heavy) life lesson numero tres:
Life is ephemeral, fragile, beautiful.
Loads of Incans dedicated their whole life to building this incredible city, and in the end it was left for rot and forgotten until rediscovered in 1911 and presented to the world by the American, Hiram Bingham. So many of us desire to make our lives mean something important, to be remembered. We write stories, sing songs, create buildings, paint pictures, take photographs, run for political offices, have children, hoping to prove to the world we were here, look, look at what we created, look at what we did. And usually we are forgotten anyway — such if life. But maybe, just maybe, someone will discover what we were, what we did. Whether it’s just one person, or 2500 people per day like at Machu Picchu, I think that makes it all worthwhile – it serves as a reminder to give it all you’ve got, always; you never know what will become of your time on earth. The possibilities are endless!
After our guided tour, we huddled under a awning as the sky quickly relieved itself onto the sacred site. We said bye to those who were heading off to hike some more, going up the Huayna Picchu mountain, and my cousins and I headed off to explore a bit more on our own. We walked around, hung out with llamas, and admired the views. Having woken up so early, we spent just about an hour more at the site since we were pretty tired. However, noticing the clouds really clearing for a clear view over the whole site, we decided to climb back up to the higher point of the ruins to get a proper look at the whole site before leaving. We were so happy we did! We got some wicked photos, and could appreciate it as it was meant to be seen – surrounded by lush, green mountains, the river flowing far below, everything clearly visible. It was absolutely beautiful. Here’s a photo we managed to take just before the fog returned:
Funnily enough, though, arriving at Machu Picchu, the highlight and final destination of the Inca Trail, was not necessarily the climax of the journey. It was beautiful and fascinating, as I’ve been explaining, but we had seen so many other cool ruins along the trail, that were less known, less appreciated, more out of the blue, that it made our arrival at Machu Picchu slightly less climactic than we’d expected (although still very exciting – don’t get me wrong!). I think it was a reflection of life lesson numero cuatro, one that I’ve explored before on my blog here:
It’s about the journey, not the destination.
If we had just wanted to see Machu Picchu, we could’ve done it in a day, taking the train from Cusco directly to Aguas Calientes. But, having the physical fitness and enough time to do so, we chose to take the longer route – the famous four-day trek. Our choice in itself reflects this ideology – we wanted the experience of walking along the same trail the Incans themselves used on their way to the sacred city. We felt the terrain on our feet, the altitude in our lungs, the challenge in our muscles.
It was an emotional, physical experience that I wouldn’t have traded for anything. It made our arrival at Machu Picchu that much sweeter, but also slightly less important; we had walked up and down so many stairs, we had slept in damp sleeping bags, we had used more than unpleasant latrines, we’d danced under the stars to Shakira to keep warm, and we’d gotten more excited everyday over popcorn than ever in our lives.
Exploring ruins along the trail.
That was all worth so much more than just getting to Machu Picchu. In our day-to-day experiences, too, this is so important. It’s awesome to have goals and to work toward them, but the journey towards attaining them, working day-in and day-out to afford something we really want, for example, can be appreciated as well. There is beauty in the mundane, the simple art of life as it’s being lived day-to-day.
There’s so much more to write about the trek but this is getting pretty long, so I’m going to keep this as Part One. Make sure to subscribe to my posts so that you can get an email notification when part two is up, as well as other future posts!