On the third day we had a 4 am wake-up call (a throwback to my days as a baker) with a planned departure at 4:30, but in the night one of our group had come down with a nasty stomach bug. The guide went tent to tent asking for medicine, and I gladly parted with my small bottle of Immodium tablets that I, thankfully, hadn't needed.
At dinner the night before, our guide had gone over the plan for day three many times, breaking it down into sections: up from the campsite to the ruins of a lookout point, then up to the pass, down 3000 steps, lunch at Wiñawayna, passing through the checkpoint by 2:30 pm, one hour trekking to the Sun Gate, another hour to Machu Picchu, and hopping on the last bus just after 5pm to take us to nearby Aguas Calientes, where we would stay in hostels. But, of course, nothing ever goes completely according to plan.
Shivering in the darkness broken only by the beams of our headlamps, we followed our guide single file out of the campsite and onto the steep trail, too sleepy to talk. The incline wasn't terrible; I was more concerned for the stretches to come, which our guide had described as "Inca flat" (making undulating gestures with his hand). In addition to making the last bus to town, the goal of the early departure was to be able to see the sunrise from the first ruins, but it was far too misty and foggy. Nonetheless, the mountains were spectacular, and the haze only lent an ethereal, mystical quality.
Onward we pressed to the third pass, where we'd been promised cell phone service to get in touch with our father. My brother called him, and learned that mom had suffered a combination of altitude sickness and dehydration, but was doing much better. They would be waiting for us in Aguas Calientes. I Instagrammed the first of many photos. We joined the rest of the group for a brief respite but, unlike others around us, ours had opted to set up for breakfast a bit further along the trail.
From the breakfast point to Wiñawayna, the trail* passed many other ruins that begged to be explored. Our pace put us somewhere in the middle of the pack, and even though we'd thought we were making good time, we dared not dally too long. We later learned that we had barely missed the cut off for seeing Intipata, the last and loveliest of the ruins, for the group not far behind us had been told to skip it and go directly to the lunch spot.
Lunch was a welcome yet slightly stressful affair, as the slowest trio in our party had yet to arrive and time was ticking. Our guide seemed calm but I noticed how he kept checking his watch. Indeed, for the first time, we were encouraged to eat quickly, and by the time we had all donned our packs again it was past when the checkpoint was supposed to close. Our guide used a walkie-talkie to communicate with someone at the station and, thanks to my moderate proficiency in Spanish, I could immediately tell he was trying to persuade her to keep the checkpoint open for us. It worked. But, still, we were behind schedule and still had two hours of hiking to go.
Onward we trekked, occasionally pausing for snacks, water and photos, but with the pressure to make the last bus to town bearing down every more heavily. Finally we came to a brutal set of stairs so steep it was like a ladder carved in stone. This must be it, I thought, we're at the Sun Gate! For the first time I was glad that I didn't have poles because I could go up the stairs on all fours - the only method that seemed safe when the hefty pack on my back threatened to make me topple backwards. I reached the top before my brother and his girlfriend, and therefore was the first to realize that we were not, in fact, there yet.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" I couldn't help but yell at the gorgeous scenery.
Fortunately the Sun Gate was quite close and, for the first time, we caught a glimpse of Machu Picchu. But, once again, we had precious little time to revel in our accomplishments thus far - we still had a bus to catch. The anticipation of finally reaching Machu Picchu was reinvigorating; particularly the prospect of snapping photos of it devoid of tourists, as the park would be closed by the time we arrived.
It's hard to sum up what it felt like when we finally stood at the end of the path overlooking the famed city. Exhaustion, exhilaration, wonder, and pride are just a few of the sensations that come to mind. When we got to Aguas Calientes not long after, and Cuzco a couple nights after that, I found it hard to readjust to civilization. In just a few days on the Inca Trail I had become so used to the silence, the mountains, and the stars at night; the feeling of simply being engulfed by nature. Months later, now that I'm back at home in the Bay Area, which is full of traffic and light pollution and people interacting through the medium of technology rather than face to face and still saying things that they don't really mean, I long for the simplicity of myself and my backpack making our way through the world.
*By this point the trail was maybe 2 feet across, with no railing insulating trekkers from a very steep drop-off.