Machu Picchu and the Sun Gate

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There was some light in the sky by the time my bus was halfway up the winding dirt road to Machu Picchu. The jagged mountains formed the most intense horizon I had seen in my life.

A few restaurants and a bathroom have been built next to the entrance gate to Machu Picchu. The line of early risers waited while travel guides offered their services, but I had spent too much money to get there. My ticket to the world wonder cost 200 Soles, and that did not include the accommodation or the train tickets.

I bought my ticket from the official government site, Ministerio De Cultura. It was a pain in the arse for a foreigner. My Peruvian girlfriend printed a voucher and paid for the ticket at the bank (of Spanish speakers obviously), and then from there put the voucher number into the website. There are easier ways to buy tickets more directly in Cusco. The problem with buying these tickets in Cusco is that there is a limit of tickets to travel every day.

 

I was able to buy my ticket the week before I went, in high season, but thousands visit daily and tickets were selling fast in the days ahead. There are three types of tickets to Machu Picchu. There is the visit to the ruin, a bit extra to climb the mountain, and a third more expensive ticket to climb the mountain you always see in the photos (Huayna Picchu). For the third option you need to book months in advance. I didn’t have a chance to climb it.

I was worried I hadn’t beaten the crowd when I saw the line for the bus and the gate that morning (at 5am). I need not have worried. I did beat the crowd that came much later, at about 10am. The ruins are a huge place and when I turned around the first corner and saw the stone ruins for the first time, I was able to get plenty of photos in the grey dawn with nobody in the background. Yet, there was plenty of friendly tourists happy to take photos of me on my phone camera all through the day.

 

There were amazing things I saw that day. I was worried it would all be overhyped. I wondered how on earth I could possibly spend six hours walking around ruins. I thought I would be bored within the hour after I had taken my selfies. Definitely not.

I heard the gasp of Asian tourists ahead of me in the dark and I wondered what was happening. And then I saw it. A line of silver spread a ring around the peak of a nearby mountain. The silver became stronger, and the sky changed from gray to blue, and the silver became a sharp glare of white, and that ended up becoming the sun. The ball had formed before my eyes in 30 seconds, and it had announced the start of a new day, all justified and collected in those moments. I spared the sun no more thought as I continued through the ruins, and walked the path up the hill for more than 40 minutes to find the Sun Gate, where the travelers of the Inca Trail can first see the ruins from a far distant for the first time.

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And it was all amazing.

The crazy town of Machu Picchu

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That line on the right side of the bridge? That’s for the bus to Machu Picchu.

There’s a bombardment of market stalls, souvenirs, and statues of the Incas, and all in your face the moment you leave the train. The mountains loom above and the first thing you instinctively do in Aguas Calientes is look above to see if you might be able to see the ruins of Machu Picchu.

The river stream descending from the jungle splits the small town in two, and from the train station you almost straight away cross a bridge to the bus station and the main square. If you arrive at any time in the day you will notice a long line rising up the hill. This is for the bus to get to Machu Picchu.

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The trains bellow.

Restaurant waiters persuade.

The children are crazy. And there is a frantic manic energy to them, as if they are the hijos of carnies. Two infants are playing blocks with each other when I pass by, and one of them grabs a block and starts chasing me and hitting me.

There is fascinating artwork weaved into the stone of the town, with its own stories. My favourite is of the ancient Peruvian god Viracocha, because it had an insight of him emerging from nature, but some of the other artworks are spread across the town and almost hidden from plain sight unless you stare from the right angle.

There were hot springs in Aguas Calientes but I couldn’t go in without thongs (flip flops), swimmers, and a towel. These could be hired but I didn’t want to be ripped off.

This is a town of transience. Even the locals in the poor end of town, in the dodgy lanes of stairs cut into the hills in the corner of the end suburb, don’t feel local. There is a desperation, a hunger, an aggression, among the waiters that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Peru. The most reasonable meal I could find was a Peruvian menu for 15 soles (which was to include a salad platter for an entree, lomo saltado for the main course, and a crepe for desert).

They forgot to give me the desert and charged me 13 Soles for each beer. At another place the alpaca steak was 40 soles and when I said this was far too much, the waiter brought it down to 25 soles. The other waiter who brought me the check didn’t realise I was given a discount, and also charged me a service tax not mentioned on the menu! My understanding is this is illegal, but no gringo questions it.

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The line for the bus at 4am.

Travelers were in the mood to talk here. I met visitors from across the world who had time for friendliness and to share their adventures, including a trio from Argentina who taught me how to say the name of their country properly, and a Canadian.

The main thing to do in town while waiting for your trip to Machu Picchu is spending money, or trying to avoid spending it. You can also walk the steep climb to Machu Picchu, or you could take the bus. From memory it was 50 soles for the return journey, but it could be more.

The trip is worth it but you are at the mercy of the long lines at the start and the return journeys. I woke at 4am for my trip to Machu Picchu and was surprised to see that I had not beaten the line.