(Aguas Calientes, Peru)
July 2 was a travel day to Aguas Calientes (the gateway town to Machu Picchu), but I have decided to record my observations of the town in a later blog entry. Today’s post will focus on the first part of my July 3 visit to Machu Picchu and more particularly the hike to the Sun Gate.
The Inca Trail is a notorious 4-day trek (camping only) from near Ollantaytambo to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. The idea is to reach the Sun Gate at sunrise on the 4th day for the most dramatic first impression of Machu Picchu. A guide (and permit) is required to hike the Inca Trail and the number of permits is strictly controlled.
While it would be an unforgettable experience, my tour dispensed with the Inca Trail and instead transported us by train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calietes and then by bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu itself. A guided tour of the Machu Picchu is included, but we also had quite a few hours to explore the site on our own.
The other members of my group had done a lot of advance research on Machu Picchu and it was decided that we would hike to the Sun Gate and back before going on the guided tour. This would allow us to see what the Inca Trail hikers see when they arrive, without some of the discomforts of the 4-day hike. We also thought that walking to the Sun Gate first thing in the morning might be a better strategy given the intense mid-day sun that often shines over Machu Picchu.
On paper, it looked like a great plan. However, our map did not show elevation. While the guide at the Machu Picchu museum described the Sun Gate trail as “flat”, it was anything but. The reality is that the hike to the Sun Gate was a demanding slog up a trail that ranged from slightly uphill to nearly vertical steps. We were still 2800m above sea level, so the altitude also played a role.
Nonetheless, upon reaching the Sun Gate, we enjoyed a feeling of tremendous accomplishment. The views were astounding and we were able to rest and rehydrate in the shade. We also saw hikers arriving from the Inca Trail. Interestingly, when we asked them about the hike, they simply said that it was “long” and looked very tired. Given their reactions, I must admit that I don’t feel sad that I skipped the Inca Trail. I also wondered how much they would be able to appreciate the site itself after such a demanding hike. Machu Picchu is not built on flat land and requires a lot of climbing to get around.
After reaching the Sun Gate, it was time to head back to the entrance and take the guided tour. We had to take the same trail down; the people we passed on the way down looked more exhausted than we did when we were on our way up. The heat was clearly taking its toll on people.
Even if I were exhausted, however, I still would have been thrilled by Machu Picchu. Stay tuned for the next instalment of my visit to this incredible place – I’ll explain what it is and why it is so incredible.