Hiking the Inca Trail: Machu Picchu – Part Three

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 illuminate the most sacred space of Machu Picchu – Intihuatana Astronomical Observatory.

Machu Picchu from Intipunku
Sunrise – Machu Picchu seen from Intipunku

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 thought 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.

Machu Picchu Llama
One of my favorite shots of Machu Picchu

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 as 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.

Machu Picchu
Iconic Machu Picchu view

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 G 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 dense vegetation that made it almost impossible to see from above or far.”

Machu Picchu
Original status of Machu Picchu (at the bottom) when re-discovered by Bingham

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 sundial 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.

Machu Picchu's Intihuatana Stone
Almost touching the sacred Intihuatana Stone

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 1400s, 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.

Urban area of Machu Picchu
The urban area of Machu Picchu

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 5:00 pm 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.

Me at Machu Picchu
Me, with Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu Mountain on the background
Part one: Hiking the Inca Trail: The Sacred Valley
Part two: Hiking the Inca Trail: The Four Day Trek

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14 thoughts on “Hiking the Inca Trail: Machu Picchu – Part Three”

  1. Very good travel tale, I have been enjoying reading it. I was there five years ago. Great place. I have been living in Peru six month, and Machu Pichu was one of the most amazing things of the country. I don’t know, but his atmosphere is special.

    1. Thanks Edu. Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
      Yes, the atmosphere in Machu Picchu is special. Peru in general has a lot to offer; so much cultural richness with such a great vibe. With all honesty Peru is one of my favorite places so far.

    1. Thanks Jools! That is one of my favorite pictures of Machu Picchu. All those llamas and alpacas were really friendly to us. I guess they are used to tourists by now. 🙂

  2. Great photos Norbert. It sounds like a truly remarkable experience! You have done a very good job helping those of us who have yet to make it gain a better understanding of the more intangible aspects of the journey.

    Having volunteered in Quito, Ecuador for an extended period, we know something about the altitude. There are few things more satisfying than getting back to sea level and taking big, meaty breaths!

    1. Thank you Tandem! Yes, it is a remarkable experience that has to be lived in order to understand it fully. I’m glad these post helped you gain an idea of what the experience feels like.

      Ha! That’s true, nothing like returning to breathe the heavy air we are so used to!

  3. Wow wow wow!!! What an incredible journey to an incredible place. I wish that I had had the time to do the hike and not take the train. Your pics are gorgeous.

    1. Thanks Andi!! Oh, you should try it some time in the future! The journey is hard, but the experience makes it so much worth it! I would do it again if I have the opportunity. 🙂

  4. Thanks for taking us on the Inca trail with you – every time we read about it, it gets us more and more excited for our own hike there next year. Love the pictures, especially the one with the llama!

    1. You’re welcome Globetrotter Girls. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Oh, you’re going to have such a great time there next year. Looking forward to read about your experiences and see your pictures. 🙂

  5. I have been reading your tales with interest. In three weeks I will be in Machu Picchu. I cannot wait – judging by your experience no matter what I have read, seen or heard. It is going to blow me away. We unfortunately not doing the Inca trail as my mom-in-law will be with and she has eyesight problems. One question – while walking around were you walking on grass, paved stone or a path? We decided to sleep at Sacred Valley instead of rushing back to Cusco. I am bubbling with excitement.

    1. Thanks Kerry-ann! You are going to love Machu Picchu! And you’ll notice there that no blog post and/or images do justice to that place. Once there you will burst with excitement!! That is good, the Sacred Valley has a couple small villages that are really nice and are good to spend the night.

      The Inca Trail has a bit of all of the above. The first day was mostly dirt, gravel and grass paths. But from the second day till Machu Picchu the trail has huge Inca laid stones (paved), stone steps, natural rock segments (carved by the Incas), and dirt paths.

      Looking forward to read your experience! 🙂

  6. Amazing place and a really interesting history. I’m dying to go there one day!
    I’ve heard that the place is completely packed with tourists, but your pictures are incredible and there are barely any people around at all!

    So sad to hear about the beer commercial film shooting team breaking the stone…

    1. They allow up to 4000 people a day, so the place can get packed at certain point during day. But still, Machu Picchu is big enough for you to find a little corner with an amazing view and have it all for yourself. We were lucky that Machu Picchu wasn’t too crowded the day we went. You have to go there… I’m sure you will love it! 🙂

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