I’m at Intipunku – the Sun Gate. Machu Picchu is still covered by the early morning shadows. As the sun rises, it starts casting its warm rays over the mountaintops, slowly getting closer and closer to the ruins – as if it is flirting with them. I see time pass by as the misty morning air clears and the shadows hide under the valley.
Then, the first rays hit the summit of Wayna Picchu Mountain and slowly slide down until they illuminates the most sacred space of Machu Picchu – Intihuatana Astronomical Observatory.
There is no way of describing the feeling of setting eyes on Machu Picchu for the first time as the sun rises over it – revealing all its power and glory.
Machu Picchu –Old Peak in Quechua– is both the most impressive and least understood of the Inca ruins. This self-contained city is though to have served as a secret ceremonial city. Its secrecy was well guarded by its location – protected by the surrounding mountains and invisible from below. It is not mentioned in any of the chronicles of the conquistadors and modern day archeologists can only speculate on its function. In fact, Machu Picchu obtained its world-class importance because it is one of the only ruins not destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors.
Local Quechua farmers knew about Machu Picchu for centuries, but they kept it secret with hopes of protecting this sacred place and the families living there. It wasn’t until July 24, 1911; when an 11-year-old boy led the Yale Archeologist Hiram Bingham (who was searching for Vilcabamba – the Inca’s last stand) to the hidden and forested site. Soon after that, Machu Picchu and its mysteries became a global icon.
The sun is now shining brightly over Machu Picchu. I have just witnessed a beautiful performance between the sun and Machu Picchu – a dance of time, lights, and shadows that have exceeded all the expectations I have been playing over and over in my head for the last 4 days.
I have one more kilometer to hike from Intipunku, 2,700m (8,858 ft) to the farming terraces of Machu Picchu, 2,450m (8,038 ft).
Once at the terraces, instead of running through the ruins like kids do during their long awaited school break, I sit down for an hour with my friends on one of the high terraces overlooking Machu Picchu, with Wayna Picchu on the background. We rest, we breathe, we absorb, we admire. No matter how many photos you’ve seen or how many stories you’ve read, nothing can prepare you to the surreal feeling of being there.
I’m here; surrounded by the grey granite walls, twig roofs, green lawn terraces, and tall Andean mountains. I open myself to all the possibilities this experience could be: spiritual, physical, educational… anything.
Now it’s time, Machu Picchu is calling me. Oddly, for Inca Trail hikers, in order to officially be in Machu Picchu, you have to go out of Machu Picchu first. Without knowing, I have been inside “Machu Picchu” for 4 days!
Once I get my passport stamped at the entrance (just for fun) I begin my guided exploration with Fernando, our Gap Adventures guide, and the rest of my tour companions.
We cover places like the guardhouse, the main gate, the agricultural zones, the “qolqas” (storage), the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor, the Temple of Three Windows, the Sacred Square, the fountains and baths, among others.
I’m marveled by the ingenious architecture and state of the buildings, but Machu Picchu didn’t look like this when it was re-discovered by Bingham. “You see on that lower part” points Fernando to an area full of crumbled building foundations surrounded by grass and debris, “that’s the condition of how Machu Picchu was found, covered with a dense vegetation that made it almost impossible to see from above or far.”
I am even more amazed by how the restoration took this complex from crumbled granite rocks foundations to the icon we all know. Still today, they are discovering more terraces hidden under the dense forest cover.
Finally, we reach Intihuatana Astronomical Observatory. This is the highest and most sacred space of Machu Picchu – the space first lit during the sunrise. In its center lies peacefully the Intihuatana stone (“hitching post of the sun”), the most sacred and powerful stone of the whole complex. It is a sun dial that marks precisely the equinoxes (March 21st/September 21st), solstices (June 21st/December 21st), and other significant celestial periods.
Today the Intihuatana stone can’t be touched (thank you Cuzqueña beer for breaking the stone on your commercial shooting). Some say the spirits that reside on the stone left after it was broken. Who knows… I get close to it and extend my hand until it almost touches the revered stone – as if some of its power will get magically transferred to me. Power or not, this stone is a piece of ancient art.
Losing track of time while exploring the ruins is easy; this place feels like another world that absorbs you with its powerful energy.
After finishing the guided tour through the sacred areas I roam the complex on my own, exploring the residential areas and imagining how life must have been in the 1400’s, when over 500 people lived here. I can see the terraces full of crops, the natural spring water flowing through its canals, the buildings with wooden roofs and textiles, the llamas eating the grass, the robed priests giving their sacred ceremonies and meditating, the citizens walking around the courtyards, and the workers performing their agricultural duties.
Eight hours have passed since I arrived and I still can’t get enough of Machu Picchu. But now it’s time to leave to Aguas Calientes to catch 5:00pm the train back to Cuzco.
I don’t want to leave, but I say goodbye to Machu Picchu in a cheerful way. Hopefully we’ll see each other in the future.
Doing the Inca Trail and visiting Machu Picchu is a journey experienced on many levels. There is the physical challenge, the spiritual and metaphysic connection, the historical background, and the cultural absorption.
There is some sort of energy that emanates from this place. Is it the altitude? The pristine quality of the ruins? The coca leaves? The pure air? A spiritual connection? Or, a combination of the above? I don’t know, but the space truly feels special and unique in an unexplainable way.
Reflecting on my Inca Trail challenge still feels like a rush of blood to my head. It has been an amazing accomplishment that has pushed me over my limits and has rewarded me for all my achievements with its biggest jewel – Machu Picchu.Part one: Hiking the Inca Trail: The Sacred Valley Part two: Hiking the Inca Trail: The Four Day Trek