The day started super early at 3.30am. The plan was to have breakfast, get ready and get to the gate first. The control gate at Wiñay Wayna doesn't open until 5.30 but groups are let through in the order that they arrive. The aim is to be first through the control gate to trek the last hour or so of the trail in order to be the first to Intipunku, the famous Sungate.
Our group was not first. In fact, we were about 8th. We stood in the line keeping warm in the darkness until daytime slowly hit and the gate was opened.
As we followed the trail we could see clouds in the valleys below. We all walked together for this last section of the Inca Trail, as a "family". After about an hour we arrived at the Monkey Steps, a very steep and narrow set of steps that led up to the Sungate. The steps are labelled as such as most people choose to climb the steps on all fours. It was from here that we were treated to our first views of Machu Picchu.
What a sight! The Ciudad Inka de Machupicchu is artfully carved into the hilltop on the ridge between the Montañas Machupicchu and Huaynapicchu. We were standing above it just as Incan travellers would have done. After 3 and a bit days of trekking this view was the perfect reward. Reaching here in the traditional way made us all feel like we deserved to be there. We all felt it made the experience that little bit more special.
The Sungate was quite crowded which made it hard to get the perfect photo (a good reason to be there first), but the image will be imprinted in our minds forever. After some snacks and photos we made our way down the hill, with the scale of the site coming into focus as we went.
As we descended we passed a few "daytrippers" huffing, puffing and sweating their way up towards the Sungate. Having done the Inca Trail to get there we all felt they had no right to be struggling as they made their way up the comparatively easy, slight incline at such a low altitude. Especially the lady in heels(?!) and a gold shiny outfit, and the guy with his shirt off!
We walked quickly past sections of the site to reach the front entrance, where we all took advantage of proper clean(!) toilet facilities and overpriced food and coffee. After storing all our heavy luggage we then returned to the site for a bit of a guided tour.
First stop was the agricultural terraces. To be honest we don't think anyone in our group took in much of this part of the tour. sitting in the warm sun, we were all struggling not to fall asleep as Juan told us about how the terraces were not sufficient to supply enough food for all the residents and visitors.
We then wandered past the Temple of the Sun and through some of the residential areas, or those of the important people at least. The King's and Priest's residences. The walls of these important buildings are made from far superior stonework, with the almost perfectly squared stones fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle, with no gaps and no mortar. The less important buildings and houses by comparison are made from more irregularly shaped stones with larger gaps.
Our tour with Juan and Eddie ended on the other side of Machu Picchu by another smaller area of agricultural terraces where we were left to explore for ourselves. By this stage, most of the group were too knackered to properly appreciate the grandeur of our location. While a few people stayed to fully explore, the rest of us quickly completed the main route, taking in a few of the temples, the main square (complete with llamas and alpacas) the Temple of the Condor then back out the main gate.
We had little energy to do much else, and we also knew we had an extra day to explore since we were staying the night in the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the mountain. So we set our priorities in order and joined the rest of the group for a celebratory drink. Of course the restaurant recommended by our tour company as the meeting point was far more expensive than anywhere else in town, but after 1 beer while we were presented with our certificates, our resolve to defy their recommendation quickly disappeared.
We sat there all afternoon getting happily tipsy and laughing deliriously about our experience. There's something really special about sympathising with one another's toilet experiences that creates a really special bond between complete strangers in such a short space of time. By now we were all over sharing like we had been friends since birth.
Alas, our party was cut short as the rest of the group were on a train back that evening. We said some emotional goodbyes at the train station before finding our hostel and having one of the most deserved showers of a lifetime!