Completing the tough road to Machu Picchu

by Kim on October 17, 2012 · 47 comments

Read part one about our trek to Machu Picchu.

On day three we awoke to gray skies and low clouds but our spirits were high because our hardest day was behind us. Day three was what our guide called “the most beautiful day” because we would be hiking through three different Incan ruins and would, if the weather worked in our favor, be awarded with our first glimpse of Machu Picchu Mountain.

The hiking was up and down, not terribly difficult but not exactly easy either.

Hiking on day three

We passed Incan ruins built high in the clouds, the mist and fog lending an eerie feel as we explored the stone buildings. I couldn’t help but consider that these structures were built so many hundreds of years ago, without modern technology, and yet they last and last, through earthquakes and wars and everyday strains. Why don’t we build like that today?

Incan ruins day three

The evening before, back at camp, we’d been told to select a small stone from the ground to carry with us up the mountain pass we’d be climbing today. At the top of the pass, our last hard push completed, we were encouraged to leave the stone as an offering to the sacred Pachamama (mother earth). “Ask Pachamama for what you want,” said our guide, “And then let the mountain speak to you, let her tell you where to place your stone.”

Brian and I and our assistant guide, Juan, were the first to arrive at the top of the pass. When I’d gathered my breath I climbed a small, rocky hill and walked to its edge where I could look out at the valley far below. I closed my eyes and placed the stone at my forehead, asked Pachamama for only one thing, the thing I want more than anything else. Please give me the tools I need to make my wish come true, I said aloud to Pacchamama. Then I put a handful of coca leaves on the ground, placed the stone on top of them, and marched back down the hill.

After we’d climbed the third pass we were free to walk at our own pace all the way to camp. The hike was long, and there were whole stretches where I walked alone with my thoughts, content, and thrilled as I sometimes find myself these days, with where I have managed to end up, my own windy road. Excited, finally, to watch as I unfold.

Other times Brian and I would walk together, just the two of us, like we used to do so often in Oregon, some of our best conversations springing to life in the forest. Brian is always at his happiest amongst the trees and I think that it is this shared love of being outdoors that has held us together through the hard times. In the mountains we have always been able to find a deeper way to be honest with each other. Though I never called her by this name before, Pachamama has served us well.

Towards the end of the day, as we neared our last camp, the sun came out and we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Andes and the town of Aguas Calientes tucked into the valley below. When we reached the Incan terraces, the last ruin before Machu Picchu, Brian and I sat for a minute to take in the view. From my vantage point I could see hikers turning the corner and catching their first glimpse of the terraces. I watched as their moods lifted, cheers and smiles appearing on their lips. We could all feel the magic in those stone walls. We were excited for what was to come.

Incan terraces


The next morning our wake up call came early, 3:30 a.m. Though the sun was not yet out it was clear that the day was not as we’d hoped, the clouds were low and a warm drizzle fell steady from the sky.

We walked in a half-awake state to a cue that had formed outside the final passport check. The park employees did not begin work until 5:30 a.m. so we sat, waiting, hoping that the skies would clear.

Waiting to begin hiking to Machu Picchu

Forty-five minutes after we’d been ushered through the gates of the passport check we reached the Sun Gate. On a clear day, Machu Picchu is visible below, but on this day visibility was poor, the fog so heavy around us.

Misty morning at the sun gate

My spirits were low. I was tired, dirty, and I’d walked all this way for the reward of seeing Machu Picchu as the Incan’s had intended it to be seen. I’d wanted to know the depth of its isolation and get a sense of its grandeur by walking to it. And I had. But at the end of that walk I wanted to see it, dammit.

During the final forty-five minutes of our trek I tried to recover from my disappointment. It was still a great experience, I told myself, even if Machu Picchu wasn’t visible in the way I’d hoped. I kept up the internal pep talk, but my ego wasn’t buying it. I wanted clear skies, I wanted the sun, and I! wanted! to! see! Machu! Picchu!

Look!, someone said, pointing towards the horizon, and through the dense gray I saw a patch of blue sky, a ghostly mountain peak floating in a haze of clouds. Against all odds, it was clearing up.

A mountain peeks through the clouds

We walked closer and closer to Machu Picchu and as we did the sun broke through, casting penlights of warmth down on us. Finally, after twenty-six tough miles, we arrived at a terrace above Machu Picchu. We made it. And as if Pachamama was rewarding our efforts, a small section of Machu Picchu revealed itself through the fog.

Our first little look at Machu Picchu

I dropped my backpack, removed my jacket and waited. Slowly, slowly, the clouds pushed away.

Clouds clear in front of Machu Picchu

I’d seen hundreds of photos and television programs on Machu Picchu over the years but nothing compared to seeing it with my own eyes. 

Machu Picchu

It was worth every step.

Scenes from Machu Picchu