The wake up call for the final day of the hike was 3:30 a.m. I eschew any wake up call that happens at an obnoxious time, for example, 3:30 a.m. But on this particular morning I flew out of my sleeping bag ready to hit the trail. It had been a long, life-changing hike, and I was ready for the big finale. I was also growing weary of my filthy hiking pants and sports bras, and I knew at the end of the day there was a hot shower waiting for me. It was somber that morning at breakfast. Maybe we were all just sleepy, but it seemed like there was something in the idea of this journey being over that made us all a bit more contemplative than we had been. We loaded up our gear for the day, and I dug to the bottom of my pack to bring to the top something I’d been waiting until Machu Picchu to break out. Before I left, the boys had given me a Pokémon plush to bring along, 1) because they wanted me to have something of them with me (as if any part of me is ever without them) and 2) because they wanted to see a photo of it at Machu Picchu. I was merely glad they wanted me to carry a plush instead of, say, a rock. Either way, today it would fulfill its destiny and Pichu would visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu with me. The boys would be thrilled.
As with every morning on the Inca Trail, we headed to the passport station to be checked onto the trail for the day. The reason for the early morning wake up call was so that we could get onto the trail and through the Sun Gate in time to watch the sun rise on the ruins. The passport station did not open for a while, so we stood there in a line in the dark with other hikers, headlamps on, waiting for daybreak. This only added to the novelty of the day and our growing anticipation.
Finally the passport station opened and we were on our way. The sun began rising so we could jettison our headlamps and enjoy the last of the scenery on this hike. We were slowly heading our way up to the Sun Gate. I stopped a lot on the way to the Sun Gate. Not because I was gasping for air or needed to lower my heart rate but because I knew these were our last couple hours on the trail and I wanted to soak it all in. I stopped to take mental photographs and simply to be present in the Andes and appreciate all I had done to get to that point. It’s easy to rush to the denouement when it was the whole impetus for your journey. But, over the course of the past three days, I’d had the opportunity to focus solely on the journey. It transformed what would have been a great trip into a life-altering one. It’s our rushing through life to the next big thing that ruins us.
The last section of stairs you climb are aptly called the “Monkey Stairs.” This is because you more or less climb them on all fours because they are so steep. There’s no way to capture adequately a photo of these stairs, but imagine that you’ve just hiked nearly 27 miles, slept on the ground for three nights, and are dog tired from getting up at 3:30 a.m. To make matters worse, you’re wearing a pack. You approach a significant length of steps. They are uneven, worn, high and, frankly, the last thing you want to see at this point, but they are the final obstacle between you and Machu Picchu. You suck up your pride and begin climbing, hands on the stairs ahead of the ones your feet (or knees) are on so you can keep your balance. No point in getting this close to Machu Picchu and then injuring yourself so you can’t walk around and experience it.
When we got to the top, I realized we had reached the end of our hike. I hadn’t realized it was that close. At the top of the stairs is a sign that tells you that you’ve finished the Inca Trail. With a bit of melancholy, I took this photo of the sign to mark the occasion. I looked ahead of me, but the Sun Gate sits around a corner and there are people at the top resting from the stairs. The view is obscured. I finally summoned the courage to walk ahead to find the actual Sun Gate and see what I’d only read about. The Sun Gate itself is not something special to look at. It’s not a gate of any sort any longer, just a bit of ruins with windows overlooking the scene ahead.
I walked through the group of people gathered there, and it took me a minute to adjust myself to the view and what I was seeing. You’re still a hike away from Machu Picchu. It is there ahead of you and you can make it out, but it is a faded image in the distance. Because it’s still a way off, there’s some sort of mental acknowledgement that you’ve made it but the excitement of being there hasn’t kicked in because, well, you’re not there yet. The Sun Gate is an excellent spot for a photo-op, though, so we hastened to get that done while we waited for the sun to begin lighting up Machu Picchu.
We had timed our hike perfectly because the sun was on the hill directly behind Machu Picchu but it hadn’t yet landed on the ruins themselves. We all realized we needed to move it in a hurry if we wanted to hike the 1.5 miles down from the Sun Gate to watch the sun slowly sneak over the ruins until they were totally bathed in sunlight. The weather had been with us the entire trip. We’d encountered not one drop of rain, and the sky this day was again clear. There were no low-hanging clouds to obscure our view. It was literally a picture-perfect day.
I found speed in reserves I didn’t know I had while trying to reach Machu Picchu and enjoy it a bit before the crowds became insane. I am not afraid to admit I was nearly skipping my way down the last of the Inca Trail from the Sun Gate. I had done it. There I was. And there it was. My lifelong goal of being at Machu Picchu could be crossed of my bucket list. There aren’t many things that can eclipse the feeling of a long-term goal achieved. All that’s left is to savor it.