“Life is a journey, not a destination.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Day 4–Wiñaywayna to Intipunku (Sun Gate), approx. distance: 2.5 miles (4 km), approx. time: 1.5 hours; plus a walk down to Machu Picchu
The final section of the Inca Trail was a surreal experience, part race, part circus.
We had gotten up at 3 a.m. to try to be the first group in the queue to register at the checkpoint, which opened at 5:30 a.m.
Upon awakening, I choked down a little bread and jam and a few sips of a thin quinoa porridge. I had not had an appetite for days, whether from the high altitude or the pills I was taking to prevent altitude sickness, or both, I don’t know, but I had an aversion to eating and felt depleted and weak.
I was also, though, at the point of being the most acclimated to the altitude and had four days of rigorous hiking behind me (we had hiked some archeological sites in the Sacred Valley the day before starting the Inca Trail), so I was also feeling at my strongest.
We had prepared everything the night before, so the next thing I knew after making some instant coffee that was too blazingly hot to drink, I was rushing through the darkness, still half asleep and feeling miserable.
We arrived at the checkpoint at 3:32 a.m. — the first group of the 15 or so groups at the campsite — and my group briefly celebrated before settling down for two hours on a cold bench to wait for the checkpoint to open.
The next group came in eight minutes after us, so there hadn’t been much time to spare.
We were first in the queue to hike to the Sun Gate. If we hiked slowly, the hikers behind us could pass us, so we were motivated to hike our fastest. (Lining up behind many groups as they took photos at the Sun Gate would delay our entry to Machu Picchu until after the sunrise and the hordes of tourists arriving by train and bus. Hikers: don’t you hate it when a busload of people are crowding the destination you’ve worked so hard to hike to?)
I sat cold on the bench in a nauseated, foggy daze until about 5:10 a.m., when my group started to prepare for the final section of our Inca Trail hike. One member of the group played music on his phone, and another led us in some gentle stretches. There were groans all around at our various aches and pains from three days on the trail.
My son David encouraged me, knowing my slower than average pace: “Mom, just go ham. You can take a break when you’re done. Just push yourself, OK?”
Our guide spurred us on as well: “This is the moment you’ve been training for. Find your rhythm and try to keep it up without stopping.”
A pre-race atmosphere clearly established, it took only a few minutes for our documents to be checked at 5:30. A starting gun may as well have sounded because I shot off into the darkness, suddenly invigorated and keeping up with the fast hikers in our group.
Most of this section of the trail was a smooth dirt path, heaven compared to the stone steps and jagged rocks we had spent so much time on. While the long-legged people strode ahead, I jogged on my short legs through the darkness with only my headlamp pointing out the obstacles as they rushed up to meet me. I was breathing heavily but rhythmically and enjoying the thrill of going as fast as I could with a graceful ease I had not yet felt on the trail. I kept this pace for perhaps 40 minutes when I slowed down on the steep, final climb to the Sun Gate.
At the Sun Gate, our whole group celebrated with high fives and congratulations for hiking the Inca Trail. We posed for pictures with Machu Picchu in the mist behind us before hurrying on to walk the final mile or so down to the site.
On our way, we saw the sun rise over a mountain, and the ancient city of Machu Picchu slowly lit up.
Hiking the Inca Trail was, for me, a difficult physical challenge, as I knew it would be, but it was an emotional challenge as well. I dealt with sleeping in a tent, not always having the right gear, preparing for bed after dinner in the dark, changes in temperature from cold to hot to cold again, tossing and turning through the night knowing I would need every bit of energy I could summon each morning, losing my appetite and feeling exhausted, getting a persistent cough, gasping in the high altitude, worrying about my kids (although they were much stronger than I)…. All of these things added to the challenge, but they added to the sense of accomplishment as well.
We hiked as part of a great group of people. Our guides, porters, and chefs worked hard to make our hike a success. I was very pleased with the travel company G Adventures, which organized our tour.
Finally at the “lost city” of the Incas, I enjoyed the guided tour, but what will most stand out in my memory is the first glimpse of the ancient city in the mist as I rushed through the Sun Gate, the hardest physical challenge of my life accomplished, and my family and new friends there to celebrate it with me.
P.S. Later in the day, as the group sat exhausted in a minibus returning to Cuzco, we saw the sun set over the mountains, just about twelve hours after we had seen it rise over Machu Picchu. It was time to rest.
Check out my book about completing 101 things in 1001 days: Timid No More.
#36 (101 things in 1001 days): Watch the sunrise and sunset in the same day.
Beyond 101 Things: Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.