Woke up on time, faffed a little bit longer than I expected and decided to grab breakfast, since the ho(s)tel provided it from 4am. I'd decided what I knew all along: I wanted to climb the steps. It made little sense to walk all the way to the doorstep Machu Picchu and then do the last bit by bus. On the other hand, I was going to have to hurry or risk having to catch the bus just to get there on time. The queue for the bus was already pretty long as I passed it.
Fortunately I felt pretty good and set a brisk pace that overtook a lot of people. It was slightly eerie, retracing our path in the darkness, walking through a garden on the way to the bus depot, then following the unlit road, with only pools of light and hunched forms.
When I arrived at control booth, the queue had started to move, but I was not the only one from my group there: the two Canadians were sat by the road, one of whom, Trevor, was horribly ill. I lent them a head-torch as they had no light, but then joined the queue.
Once I was through the passport control, I could cross the Urubamba to the bottom of the steps. There were a few people around that I knew, but the ascent was purely alone despite the crowd. You'd think that with four days of intense hiking under my belt, plus several other hikes in the previous week, all at higher altitude than this, that I'd have little problem. The problem is that the steps aren't designed for walking up: each is around a foot high: the Inca jumped up them like freakish bipedal mountain goats. I had not run along the Salkantay trail in leaps and bounds; I had not spent the last 6 months doing step aerobics: I was, in short, unprepared.
The trail itself goes almost straight uphill for much of it, with some bends as you get closer to the top. The path intersects the road on which the buses drive up: the road heads back and forth, providing handy rest-stops with a chance of accident.
Doing all of this in the dark is still a strange experience, the main sensory inputs being touch, proprioception, and sound. The stamp of boots on steps, the heavy breathing, the strain of calf muscles, the bursting lungs trying to filter the thin air, the crunch of dirt road as you reach a break-point and the roar of headlamps as they pass. A head torch allows you to focus on the step ahead of you: inattention still leads to tripping.
In places the steps were probably original, protruding from the wall like rows of jagged incisors, rectangular in cross-section, with roots deep into the side wall.
As I approached the top, the crowd and the darkness thinned out, the sky lightening as both I and the sun climbed higher, until I reached the top of the path: the sun had further to go. Unknown to me, so had I.
I found our party and we waited to get the group together. Then we had to go through the turnstiles, showing our passports and tickets. The crowd was thick in the space, but still quite small relative to what I'd feared. We were probably quite fortunate that the train had not been running the previous day; it probably meant that the number of people that had reached Aguas Calientes was reduced. Also, it was still fearfully early.
After the entrance, we were told to climb up for another ten minutes... I may have screamed. My legs certainly seemed to, but I pushed on regardless.
Machu Picchu is one of those iconic locations, instantly recognisable. The thrill of seeing it with nobody in the city, during the golden hour, just like the photos that you might expect to see on postcards, was unmistakable. Bear in mind also that this was a place that I'd wanted to visit since I was 12 and I'd managed, by inattention, to be present and about to witness a sunrise on the winter solstice; of such significance to the sun-worshipping Inca that it literally was the beginning of their year. You will have to imagine my excitement.
I walked up to the watchtower, which is the only building that had been visible from various places on our trek, for obvious reasons. The city of Machu Picchu lay before me and beyond it the towering Haina Picchu, for which I had no tickets and, frankly, no strength to master the ascent. As I stood there, lost in the eternity of stone and laboured exhaustion, the clusters of people dispersed, seeking the illumination of the sunstone by the first rays of light to clear the mountain, altitude, a window or a temple: wherever they were led to believe would provide the best view.
I found the guide and the remains of our group and followed, listening to the fantastic stories of rediscovery and daily life. We circled the plateau until we reached the temple with three windows facing the east, fancifully entitled the Temple of the Three Windows.
There a group of people had already gathered, arrayed in an arc behind the altar. Beyond the altar stood a monolith, the three windows, the plateau, the river valley, a ring of mountains and the brightening sky. Behind us, the shadows of those mountains crawled across the red-gold bathed slopes of the Salkantay and its peers.
The people were engaged in callisthenic activity, led by an instructor, who called out the changes of the exercise in spirituality. I reminded myself that if it makes them happy then that is enough and does not make them look ridiculous. I even tried to believe it. I know that activity, keeping the head tilted back and certain sounds, fills the human body with euphoric chemicals: I begrudged them not those chemicals, nor even the inexplicatory, inexplicating, incomprehending certainties that come with them, only the intrusion of their mental engagement into my psyche.
Sunrise is such a special occasion; seldom appreciated, quotidian, but breathtaking when given your full attention. And so, in a combined sense of wonder, gratitude, beatific beauty at a golden event significant enough to require no extra gilding, losing ourselves in the bright, obscured edge of an otherwise unremarkable star painting the land, the works of man and our retinas with the life-giving product of intense fusion.
Once the sun had cleared the mountain range we made our way onward, around the structures that adorn the site, constructions intended to show the form of the buildings of antiquity, but with none of the graceful interlocking symmetry of the genuine article. Even so, there are still some exposed gems amid the fictive replication: the stonework of the … is incredible; the mirror pools; the rocks of the condor and puma, while perhaps fanciful in interpretation of the erratic, are too enormous to be anything than original, predating human occupiers.
And so we were guided around the main bulk of the archæological site, listening to the narratives contradicting each other, until we reached a point where the fellowship was finally broken, goodbyes exchanged and I could finally hasten out of the site to find the toilets near the entrance.
At that point I had a quandary. My train was not until after 4pm. Despite how late it felt it was barely after 10am. I headed back into the site and headed for the Sun Gate, which turned out to be a reasonably long walk up the side of Machu Picchu mountain. At the top of the climb was a large structure, with a number of people sat around, including some of the group. I sat and enjoyed the view, then headed back down towards the next diversion: the Inca bridge. This was much closer, but involved following a much narrower trail along the side of the cliff. It offered great views of the hydroelectric dam, the railway bridge and the plumment adjacent to the path.
While we were there, I was shown the face in Machu Picchu. Mind blown.
After that I headed back to the main area and explored a load of side paths and buildings that I hadn't yet seen, some of them quite vertiginous. I did another full circuit of the plateau, taking a slightly different route, then finally plunged into the medina to find a load of stonework that I would have missed otherwise.
And thus it was 2pm and the number of tourists had grown: it was time to head for the bus back to Aguas Calientes.