Wake up was set for 3 am. Excitement for our ultimate goal had the entire camp up a little earlier and hastily packing our personal daypacks. This was good news for the porters who had to strike the tents and run downhill to catch a train back to Cusco by 4 am. It meant they were going home to their families! How they made that train in that short amount of time, we will never know.
The porters brought us some hot tea and a breakfast snack bag to take with us to the final checkpoint, the official entrance to the famed Machu Picchu! The problem was, this last checkpoint didn't open until 5:30 am. Yawn! Everyone spread out on the ground to catch a quick nap and reserve their energy for the final challenge ahead.
The chaos that was about to unfold was not at all expected. As the checkpoint opened and each guide cleared his/her group, the insane dash for the Sun Gate began. We were still nearly a 45 minute hike from the Sun Gate and people were literally sprinting down the trail. So, what do you do when all that is happening? Just like lemmings, you run too!
At first I thought we might have been transported to Spain and we had a herd of angry bulls chasing us. All the peace and tranquility we had achieved in the previous days were gone in a flash as we jostled and pushed our way past people. Civility was forgotten on this part of the trail. No one wanted to let people pass. I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure Lori was still there and she was, with the same confused look on her face that I'm sure was on mine, "WHY are we running?!"
Fatigue and the ridiculously frenetic pace slowed many hikers down, but the final obstacle were the 'monkey steps' located just prior to the Sun Gate. These near vertical steps put a complete halt to all the running. We had to climb these steps almost like a ladder, hand over hand. Once that task was completed it was only a short five minute dash to the Sun Gate for what was supposed to be a spectacular first view of the world famous Machu Picchu.
To our dismay, our first glimpse of Machu Picchu was completely shrouded in heavy clouds.
Another 30 minutes of hiking would bring us to the goal moment that we had so long envisioned.
After a moment to soak it all in, we all headed down to the platform to get group and individual photos. By the time we arrived at the entrance, busloads of tourists who were all freshly showered and bright-eyed were already milling around.
They looked appalled and annoyed with us as we maneuvered into position to get our photos taken. Lori and I were thinking to ourselves, "We just walked FOUR days up and down mountains to get here. We deserve this photo opp more than you, so step aside!!" We later found out that all the people in our group felt the exact same way. We all laughed about it later while sipping pisco sours and beer. However, at the time, the annoyance was real.
We then got our guided tour of this historic site. We learned that many believe that Machu Picchu was a resort for the king and wealthy people of the Incan empire.
More of the Machu Picchu site still lies hidden deep below in the jungle, but these ruins are yet to be uncovered. It's chilling to know that there are other Inca steps in the surrounding mountains that lead to still yet-to-be discovered historic Inca ruins.
It was only believed that 750 people lived at Machu Picchu at any one time. Slaves did not build any of the structures in the Inca Empire. They used what was called an "Inca tax." If a family could not afford to pay the taxes for the year, family members had to give their time toward the construction of structures around the empire.
In total, we spent about three hours at Machu Picchu, exploring as much of it as possible. Once darker clouds started to move in and it looked like rain was imminent, we decided to take the bus back down to the town of Aguas Calientes. In this town we would wait to catch our train to take us back to Ollantaytambo. From there, we'd catch a bus back to Cusco.
Our train did not leave until after 6 pm, so instead of shopping, we all just sat around a local restaurant together and celebrated our major success. Double Dutch even taught us a fun drinking game that we played for hours. The time spent together passed in a flash. Before we realized it, we found ourselves running to catch our train!
I promised you a funny story about the Double Dutch nickname we called our friends from The Netherlands. Steve, from our hiking group, coined their clever nickname and being the good sports that Rene and Reni were, they never questioned it except privately with each other. When we asked them later about it, Reni told us that they both thought it had to do with "something adult or naughty" and were planning to research the term on the internet when they got back to Cusco. We all laughed hysterically and then told them the name comes from a style of jumping rope. I guess we can never assume that everyone gets our slang.
Click on a picture below for captions and a larger image.