I could see my breath in the cold dark night. We were the first group waiting at a gate to cross the bridge to get to the base of Machu Picchu. It was well before sunrise and the only other people around were groups of policemen. It had been a long four days of hiking to get here, and now on day five we had 4,000 huge stairs ahead of us before we could get to the entrance of Machu Picchu. As we waited for the bridge to open, other travelers began showing up, 5 to 10 at a time. It wasn’t long before there was a huge line behind us. The gates opened, and we all headed up the hill.
Hiking up to the gate was no easy task, but luckily we weren’t hiking on the road that was going to be busing groups of less active travelers to the site. We were heading straight uphill and taking giant steps to do it. Most of us had to stop for breath every so often, but we were all trying to move as quickly as possible to make it in time for sunrise and so we could be among the first people to see the site for the day before it became overrun with more tourists. With a limit of 2,500 visitors per day, we were going to have some company as the day wore on.
After almost an hour of huffing and puffing in the dark uphill, we finally made it to the entrance of the site. We filtered in and I was surprised to see how large the area was and how uncrowded it seemed, at least for the first hour or so.
The architecture was very impressive, from the notched stones that linked together to create the buildings in the site, to the lack of mortar needed to keep the stones together, to the beautiful terraces throughout the hillside. We were guided through different temples, shown the still flowing water that was routed through the site in the 1400’s, and shown the proper way to move down the Inca stairs.
You could probably spend an entire day at the site and not see everything, however one day was plenty for me as the trek had taken a bit of a toll on me. Huayna Picchu, the pointy mountain overlooking Machu Picchu, is accessible to hike up a series of narrow stairs jutting out from the side of the mountain, but needs to be pre-booked a long way in advance for an extra $70 or so. We decided to hike Machu Picchu mountain instead, which was a significantly higher, harder hike. It didn’t require pre-booking, just $20 and the ability to ascend another few thousand steps over the next hour and half or more.
There are multiple great spots to see Machu Picchu below you, the stairs have resting spots every quarter of a mile or so with great views. The final half mile of the hike up the mountain was very tough to keep pushing, but luckily with some encouragement I made it to the top of the mountain and was greeted by a fantastic view. There’s a sign at the top, a great spot for photos, and a good number of tired hikers. Machu Picchu mountain is over 1,000 feet higher than Huayna Picchu and you can definitely tell from the top of the mountain.
After a long day exploring the ancient city we were all exhausted and decided to race down the thousands of stairs from the top of Machu Picchu mountain all the way to Aguas Calientes! This was extremely dangerous in some places as one small slip would have sent us on a quick trip to the hospital, but it was a blast. When we got back we ate some much needed food and played more drunken Jenga. I boarded the low cost train (there’s a high cost train with windows everywhere) back to Ollantaytambo and settled in for the hour and half ride. From there I found a bus that was reserved by the tour company to take me the rest of the way back to Cusco.
After seeing Machu Picchu it was clear to me why it’s considered one of the wonders of the world, and it was also clear why there are massage parlors everywhere in Cusco! I got back into town around midnight, found my hostel, and settled in for the night, so no massage for me. The next morning around dawn I would be heading off to Cartagena Colombia. As a side note, you may try the Cuy as long as you aren’t opposed to eating rodent. In my time spent in Lima on the way to Cartagena I decided to give the Guinea Pig a try and apart from being boney, it was pretty good.