Salkantay trek (day 4): Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu
The grand finale to what has been an absolutely incredible trek beneath towering snow-capped peaks and through vibrant cloud forest, today is the day we finally get to see Machu Picchu (or, in my case, see Machu Picchu again!). Anticipation is thick in the air for all of us, and the sight of the wild and mysterious Incan citadel illuminated by golden morning sun rays is almost too good to believe. It was never high on dad or Eileen’s bucket list, and yet we all leave feeling like we experienced something truly magical today. Only Machu Picchu could follow the surreal Laguna Humantay and Salkantay Pass AND STILL leave us all speechless.
Trail stats: Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu & Huayna Picchu
Elevation gain: 860m
Highest elevation: Huayna Picchu (2,720m)
Trail hours: 2.5hrs
Highlights: Hiking up to Machu Picchu in the dark; clear skies and incredible golden sunrise at Machu Picchu; summiting Huayna Picchu for amazing views of Machu Picchu and the Andes in the distance
When the alarm goes off at 3.55am this morning, I fly out of bed, shove a few last minute things into my pack, and hurry downstairs to meet dad and Clara, the only others from our group who are hiking up to Machu Picchu instead of taking the bus. Headlamps on and excitement high, we set off from the hotel in the pitch black.
The walk to the checkpoint is only about 20min on flat or downhill roads, so we are layered up for a dark and chilly wait in the queue. Thankfully, it’s practically tropical this morning compared to the cold we had a few days ago, so it’s a comfortable stroll and a pleasant morning by all accounts.
Exactly at 5am, guards begin shuffling people through, checking our passports and Machu Picchu tickets to make sure we all have 6am entrance to the ruins. There are only a few people in front of us, so we are through the gate in a matter of seconds, leaving us with an hour to climb the 1,800 steps to Machu Picchu and meet up with everyone else at the main entrance gate.
Despite warnings from Nico that it would be horribly humid and we’d finish the walk drenched in sweat, it’s actually a really pleasant temperature and the emerging sunrise makes for some wonderful mountain silhouettes as we wind through the lush jungle vegetation (but unfortunately the low-lighting does not lend itself to amateur photography, so I don’t have quite as many pictures as I’d like).
After 45min, we reach the end of the Inca-made trail to Machu Picchu and see the rest of our group frantically waving from the front of the queue. They actually left the hotel about 15min before us, but they made it onto the first bus so that we could all be among the first 30 people into Machu Picchu this morning. Only seconds after slotting into the queue behind Eileen and getting my passport out, the clock strikes 6am and the site is officially open. Excitement is at boiling point.
It’s pretty light by now, but the sun still hasn’t crested over the mountains yet— this is truly the most magical time to be at Machu Picchu, just in time to catch the first light. Last time I was here, we were peering through a thick layer of fog trying to catch a glimpse of Huayna Picchu and the beautiful ruins below, but this time the sky is entirely clear and picture-perfect sunbeams are starting to appear, bathing the green mountains in a golden light. Everyone is far too distracted by the view to listen to Nico’s prolonged history lesson, so we run around trying to capture the ever-improving beauty of this World Wonder instead.
After about an hour of photos and intermittent attention to our guide, we finally feel ready to move on and continue as a group through the site. Nico shows us incredible temples and houses, explaining the advanced masonry techniques employed by the Incas, and we enjoy amazing views in absolutely every direction.
At about 7.55am, Nico drops us off at the entrance to Huayna Picchu, the mid-sized mountain visible in every photo of Machu Picchu, for our morning climb. The rest of the group is climbing Machu Picchu Mountain or not climbing at all, so we say goodbye to Nico here and make plans to see the rest of the group on the train to Ollantaytambo this afternoon.
This climb has been described as short but incredibly steep, and this perfectly captures our ascent of Huayna Picchu. We are at the summit in under 45min, but we have to climb hundreds and hundreds of stone steps (some even on our hands) and pull ourselves up steel cable to get there. The view from the top, though, is so incredibly worth it.
We ascend all the way to the summit, but quickly backtrack a few dozen metres to a much quieter series of terraces that offer essentially the same views but without any of the tourist mayhem. Dad, Eileen, and I sit here for over an hour just enjoying the sun, some mid-morning snacks, and the impossibly beautiful view of Machu Picchu below. It is with some reluctance that we make the journey back down around 11am.
Following the one-way route around Machu Picchu, we get to explore a few more fascinating ruins before popping out of the gates. Since we climbed one of the mountains, our tickets actually allow us a single re-entry today, but the last several hours have seen things really heat up here in the jungle (not to mention that we’ve been walking around for the last 8hrs already), so we make a quick decision to head to Aguas Calientes for lunch instead. As lovely as it is, Machu Picchu is definitely best enjoyed in the early morning when the crowds are minimal and the heat is bearable.
We manage to time our return down the mountain perfectly, waiting only 10min for a bus (not even I feel like walking down the stairs right now) instead of the usual hour. We spend this extra time enjoying a slow, delicious lunch of garden-to-table salad and alpaca pizza before Eileen and I get hour-long hot stone massages. The divine combination of cheese AND a massage are definitely enough to make me forget the 20,000 steps we did before midday.
Finally, the time has come to regroup at the hotel, grab our bags, and make a beeline for the train station. We make it on for our 4.22pm departure with minutes to spare, most of which are then spent shuffling seats with our group about 80 times to work out the perfect configuration. After 2hrs on the train and another 2hrs in a van, we will make it back to Cusco with just enough time to shower and pack our bags for our 2-day Ausangate trek departing at 4am tomorrow. After 4 days in the mountains and the climb up Salkantay Pass, we are feeling ready to tackle the next high altitude adventure (this time at 5,200m). Stay tuned!