Hiking the Inca Trail, Day 4: Race to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu

Sun Gate


“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

{See also: Preparation | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3}

Inca Trail elevation

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.

Machu Picchu

On our way, we saw the sun rise over a mountain, and the ancient city of Machu Picchu slowly lit up.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Conclusion

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.

{See also: Hiking the Inca Trail: Preparation | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3}

Inca Trail

Machu Picchu

Timid No More front cover Check out my book about completing 101 things in 1001 days: Timid No More.

101 things button #36 (101 things in 1001 days): Watch the sunrise and sunset in the same day.

101 things in 1001 days Beyond 101 Things: Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

About Marcy

I blog about trying to get out of my comfort zone, completing 101 things in 1001 days (and beyond), and writing my memoirs. My book: Timid No More.

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36 Responses to Hiking the Inca Trail, Day 4: Race to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu

  1. I want to hike the Inca Trail. I’ll have to get it on Kellie’s travel schedule.

  2. Rae Hilhorst says:

    You made me cry, while I am reading your post, congratulations on completing, what a trek and what a journey. xxxxx

  3. Abby says:

    Well done. I’m truly inspired. I know it was both a mental and physical challenge filled with magical moments too. And your kids – how special to have this experience you’ve given them!

  4. Abby says:

    Oh, and I also liked the group photos. Looks like most of your crew are college kids maybe? Having some adventure time between semesters?

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  6. Erica says:

    Thank you Marcy for posting your entire journey! I am leaving on Friday for cusco and my hike is starting on tuesday, and this has helped me so much. I am still very nervous but reading your experience has helped me become excited as well. Thank you!!

    • Marcy says:

      Thanks for your comment. Have a fantastic trip! It was an amazing experience. I would love to hear back from you about how it went. 🙂

  7. Suzanne says:

    Thanks so much for posting this really detailed blog. I am going to be hiking the same 4 day Inca Trail next month and will be celebrating my 65th birthday on the day we reach the Machu Picchu ruins. I live in Colorado and have been trying to do as much hiking on steep terrain as possible. We will see how it goes. I’ll be hiking with MUCH younger people. Again, thanks. I loved having the pictures and details of the hike.

    • Marcy says:

      That will be such a special way to celebrate your important milestone. I am sure you will have an amazing time. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and happy birthday!

  8. Sharon says:

    What a detailed guide on what to expect on the Inca trail.
    Thank you for this article Marcy.

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  10. Angela says:

    Thanks for the detailing your journey and the excellent pics . My husband Ray and I will go hiking the same trail with G-adventures leaving in a couple of days to Cuzco via Lima. We look forward to the trip and your insight has helped us to that much better.

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  12. Jess says:

    I really enjoyed reading your posts, it definitely gives me a better idea of what to expect on the trail.

    I’m just wondering what the group was like – were there any solo travellers? Or were others mostly travelling with friends/partners? I’m considering doing the trip solo after a friend dropped out, but I don’t want to feel like a spare part!

    • Marcy says:

      On this trip, there was only one solo traveler, but she made fast friends with everyone. I’ve been on other trips, though, and there have been several solo travelers in each group. With having dinners together on the trips I’ve been on, people get to know each other really quickly. I traveled solo one time, and I ended up loving it. I guess it could really stink if you end up with unfriendly people, but that hasn’t happened on any of the five group trips I’ve been on. Good luck!

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  17. Megan says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your memories of your trip with us. This was extremely helpful as I plan a mother-daughter trip with my teen. I’m considering doing the 5 day version of the trip so there’s a little less hiking each day, and a little more time at Machu Picchu, as the itinerary means arriving at the Sun Gate in the afternoon of day 4 and returning to MP the following day for an official tour and more free time. However, I wonder whether it’s worth it to do the regular 4 day version to arrive at the Sun Gate before sunrise. With the 5 day, we could hike back to the Sun Gate the following morning to get the morning sun but would miss the actual sunrise. But then there’s always the possibility it will be all clouded over and not matter. I can’t decide! What do you think? Is the sunrise spectacular enough to make plans centered around the possibility or probability of it? You’ve also helped me realize that I should consider the sleeping altitudes of the itineraries, as it sounds like your son really benefited from being able to descend for overnight. Thanks again!

    • Marcy says:

      Have a great time! It should be an amazing trip for you and your daughter. The 5 day route sounds great, and I don’t think you would need to change to see the sunrise. Like you said, it might be cloudy for all you know, and it was pretty difficult to get up in the cold in the middle of the night, so having a more relaxing time might work out well. Even with our getting there so early, it was still pretty crowded, too, so you’d probably never get to beat the crowds. I had a personal reason why the sunrise was meaningful to me (my 101 things list), but otherwise I think it would work out fine to arrive at a different time. Good luck 🙂

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  19. Chelsea says:

    I really enjoyed reading about your journey! I realize that you posted this quite a while ago, but I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for gear that you wished you had? I see you mentioned that you felt you didn’t always have the right stuff. I leave in just over a week! 🙂

    • Marcy says:

      I would recommend bringing enough variety of clothing to dress in layers. I was surprised how cold it got, but it was warm at times too. I wouldn’t pack a lot because it’ll add to what you have to carry, but I ended up wanting more clothing, and I was cold at night. (I was there during the coldest time of year, though.) I rented hiking poles and didn’t think I would really use them much, but they were lifesavers. Bring some sort of light, easy to put on shoes/sandals for hanging out at camp, in addition to your hiking boots/shoes. Maybe a deck of cards for hanging out in the early evening. Hope that helps. Enjoy! It was amazing.

  20. philip brent says:

    I hiked the Inca Trail in 1986 at it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. On the start from Ollantaytambo, I had food poisoning from dinner the night before in Cusco. I could not keep anything down for the 1st day on the trail and had breakfast of saltines and water the morning of Day 2 up to Dead Woman’s Pass. By the pass, I was back to normal and my partner and I sprinted down to the campsite, had a quick cold bath and settled in about an hour before any one else reached the campsite. I don’t know what it is like now, but then there were very few level tent spots and we learned that day that first in to camp usually got the level spot. Never came 2nd again. This trip led to a sense of adventure that has never left me. Congratulations

    • Marcy says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like a rough start! I had my share of slanted tent spots, but I wasn’t prepared to do any sprinting. It was an incredible trip, for sure 🙂

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