In many ways this day was the climax of our entire time in South America, but the first three hours were spent sat in darkness waiting for the checkpoint to open at sunrise.
As the Sun began to rise, the checkpoint opened and and we joined the long convoy of tour groups making their way to the Sun Gate. The reason for our early start had enabled the porters to strike camp and get down to the railway station in time to return to Ollantaytambo. They do not accompany us to Machu Picchu sadly, but we had said our thank you's and goodbye's last night in a ceremony where the chef presented a colossal cake that had been baked that very afternoon, with no oven. The food has probably been some of the best of the trip and was all produced without a kitchen!
After ascending the final set of 'monkey steps' we were confronted by an uninterrupted view of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Both were lit by the rising sun that warmed our backs as we stood on the ridge high above.
We took our time down the final stretch of the trail, the city drawing slowly closer as the sun rose higher.
There were plenty of photo opportunities along the way.
After three days hiking it was smiles all round, arriving in one of the most mysterious and famous locations on the planet. The surrounding mountains completely enveloped the citadel, confirming that the old Windows screensaver from the 90's did the place no justice!
No sooner had we stepped from the trail into the citadel, the crowds descended.
Jose gave a great talk to bring our trek to a close. Years of knowledge condensed into half an hour. Sadly our 3am alarm call began to catch up with us towards the end!
Machu Picchu was re-discovered in 1912 by American explorer Hiram Bingham. The main citadel was badly overgrown and local farmers were using the peripheral terraces to grow food. Since then a railway has been built to make day trips from Cusco feasible and the 'feel' of the place has changed dramatically. Arriving early proved to be the best defence against the tourist hoards.
Archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was not complete when the Inca deserted. In spite of this much of the stonework was the finest of any Inca ruins we saw.
The Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu rises seamlessly from a huge boulder with windows placed to align with the Sun at key points in the year. The stonework here was seamless while fitting in with the irregular site conditions.
This photo looks back across the terraces towards the Sun Gate and our route down to the city.
Beautiful as its setting may be, there is another theory as to why Machu Picchu was established on that particular ridge. The ready supply of granite made construction quicker and simpler. Some of the rocks still have splitters in place from where workers didn't finish the job, further support for the theory that Machu Picchu was an unfinished project.
The Spanish never found Machu Picchu and its re-discovery after centuries of secrecy adds to its intrigue. Sadly we felt that this mystery had been diluted by the shuttle buses, tour groups and gift shops. Machu Picchu felt very much the party piece, but our time in the rest of the Sacred Valley had given us a broader view of the Inca civilisation.
The day was wrapped up with Passionfruit Sours in Aguas Calientes and a slap up lunch in a local hotel before boarding the mystery-busting tourist train to Ollantaytambo then the bus home to Cusco. A fantastic climax to our time on the altiplano.