On the morning of the fourth (and last) day of hiking, we began our day by being awakened at 4:00 am. I wish I were kidding. The reason for this is that trail to Machu Picchu opens at 5:30 am. The idea is to be one of the first groups in line to get going on the trail. Why? Because we want to hit Intipunku (the sun gate) before the sun rises.
Let me explain a bit here. The sun gate is not actually the sun rising. The sun gate is the spot in the mountain across from Machu Picchu that the sun first rises over, and thus when the first rays of the sun's light hit Machu Picchu in the morning. So it's not tecnhically the sun rise, but it is the first sunlight that hits the ancient city. Apparently, if you're there on time (and the weather cooperates) it's a beautiful sight to see.
We were not there on time.
And we were booking it, too. I mean, the trail from our camp to Intipunku had one really really (really) steep portion, but otherwise it was moderate ascent with a little bit of descent thrown in to keep you on your toes. I was practically running...at minimum I was at a fast trot. Rindee actually couldn't keep up with me. I think our guide was surprised. He kept saying that we didn't need to hurry, but I really wanted to see the sun hit Machu Picchu. I'm not sure it would have mattered if I had gone faster, though. The clouds were still pretty thick when we arrived at the sun gate. For example, the first picture below was taken at 7:35 am. The second picture was taken at 7:40 am, and the third picture was taken at 7:41 am.
The clouds moved unbelievably fast. We were actually relieved that we got to see the city at all. (Oh yes, that's actually Machu Picchu that we're attempting to take a picture of. It was our first glimpse of our goal.)
Some (sane) people choose to arrive at Machu Picchu early in the morning, and make their way to the sun gate from the city. This doesn't involve camping, just an overnight stay at a hotel in Aguascalientes, a bus ride to Machu Picchu, and a 45 minute hike up to the sun gate.
I'm not judging. :-)
Thus, as we headed down to Machu Picchu, we kept passing all these people in nice clean clothing with hair that had been washed in the last four days. They smelled like lotions and softener and perfumes. I couldn't believe it. I kept saying to Rindee, "They smell so good! And their clothes are so clean!!" Yeah, I think it would be accurate to say that by day four, I was good and ready to get back to civilization.
Before you actually enter the city, there's a point where taking pictures of Machu Picchu is excellent. We stopped here for a while for photos and discussion of the city we were about to see, and it was at this point that we began to be hopeful that the weather gods would be kind to us on our last day. The first picture below was taken about 10 minutes before the second.
Okay, I'll shut up now and post a bunch of pictures. First a little background, though. The last time I was in Machu Picchu, I was 16 years old. I had a point and shoot plastic Kodak 35mm camera. I didn't realize what I was walking into, and I ended up running out of film. I spent the rest of the time walking around the ruins and just absorbing the energy that comes from the mountains. It's ridiculous how powerful that place is. Not to get too "new agey" on you, but you can almost feel it humming. When I was walking around as a teenager, I would get as far away from groups of people as possible and just sit with my eyes closed and relax. But I never really forgot how frustrated I was that I ran out of film and couldn't capture everything I wanted to show my friends back home. (However, when I got my pictures developed, they came back with a personal note from the developer commenting on what beautiful shots they were. The site is really THAT gorgeous. Pictures don't even do it justice.)
This time, I didn't make the same mistake and took about 100 pictures of Machu Picchu. I'm not very good at editing, so I'm just going to stick a bunch of them up here for you to see. I'll try to put a description of what I was taking a picture of, but otherwise, I'll just let them speak for themselves. They are roughly in chronological order, so you can see how the light brightens as the sun came out (slowly but surely.)
The photo above is of an area that used to be a moat. It was another form of protection for the city. The picture below is the same moat looking upwards.
At about this point, I became fascinated with pictures of Machu Picchu through doors, or windows...any stone structure really. You'll see a few of these.
Ahhh...This is Intipunku from Machu Picchu. It's that little dip in the ridge of the mountain. See it? That's where the first rays of light would hit Machu Picchu each morning. There are actually temples set up in Machu Picchu so that on the summer solstice, that first rays of sunlight will shine through a window to perfectly hit a spot on the ground that will make a sacred shape. No kidding.
A word about the photo below. This was a guard house, and the highest point in Machu Picchu. When I was 16, I remember running (RUNNING) up to this hut in a race with my cousin (who was 36 at the time - whole new respect for the cousin...) From that high vantage point, he took a picture of me with the ruins behind me that won a photo contest at Butler University. Even though Rindee and I were exhausted, I cajoled her into heading up to that point with me to recreate that picture 14 years later. We didn't run.
Once we got up to that vantage point, we were able to take the following pictures.
And while I can't show you the picture that Rindee took of me to recreate the photo of sixteen year old Emily (because I look like a horrible version of thirty year old Emily in it) I can show you this one of the two of us triumphant at the top.
Immediately following this picture, we sat and enjoyed the view (and the warmth of the sun) for a while, and then headed down to meet with our guide to officially end our tour. We had two choices - take the bus down to the town of Aguascalientes, or hike down. Rindee was for the bus. I believe my exact words were, "Come on - we're so close! We started hiking, let's finish hiking!"
The town was five miles away. I don't think Rindee will ever forgive me.