I’d been climbing for about 30 minutes when I heard the sound. Up until that moment there had been nothing but the sound of silent work; feet on stone steps and solid breathing…and then a song broke through the silence. A cluster of birds began to sing, cutting through the dim light of daybreak with their sweet voices. They were cheering me on, encouraging me. Surely this was God’s way of strengthening me, urging me forward toward my goal. And it worked.
We were told that the hike up to Machu Picchu would take 45 minutes to an hour. I had no idea how long it was going to take me, but I was determined to see what everyone else on the hike was determined to see: Machu Picchu in the early morning, covered in mist and fog, and absent of the thousands of tourists that travel through that space in a day. This was the last day of my 5-day journey along the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu. I was tired and it was cold and dark, but rising at 4am to hike up when the gates opened at 5 was more appealing to me than taking the bus up. I’d come all this way and I was determined to push myself ’til the very end.
I, along with a few members of my group, left our hostel at 4:20 to take the 25 minute walk to the first set of gates. We knew the gates opened at 5am and when we arrived at 4:45, there were about 20 people already queued up. As we waited, I could sense a certain energy that I can’t quite put a name on. The crowd grew. And the energy, almost a primal angst, grew. We were all there to take this hike as quickly as possible and be the among the first to see one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. There was one guard who stood in the doorway of a small wooden structure, pacing slowly, holding the key to the gate. The entire scene was quite comical at close to 5am. It was as if he knew that he could taunt us with his power.
The time came and the guard finally opened the gate and, with his co-worker, checked each visitors passport and permit into the area…and we began. Across the old bridge, along a dark path that led to stone steps, some hidden by dirt and covered by jungle, the group of about 100 started. The excited energy created a buzz that soon faded into nothing more than deep silence, footsteps and solid breathing. I turned back and saw only little white dots of flashlights guiding the way. Up and up and up we went, crossing over and neglecting the smooth road that zigged and zagged up the mountain, to get to the rugged, stone steps that led straight up the mountain. Deep darkness turned into misty day-break and the outlines of the mountains became ever-visible against the sky in the midst of the rising and falling mist. Surreal and enchanting and majestic all at once. And then my singing birds broke their silence, urging me onward. After ascending for about 45 minutes, I reached the top and one final gate of entrance where the growing crowd waited to have permits stamped before entering. Once we were allowed to enter, we were on our own to explore the grounds with our trek guide. But first, I enjoyed my first look at this ancient wonder, shrouded in morning mist, the peaks of Quechuan mountains and ruins darting behind the moving clouds…and prepared myself for one more hike up Montaña Machu Picchu.
Montaña Machu Picchu is an optional climb which towers at 3,082 meters (about 652 meters over Machu Picchu). The ascent offers several stopping points with amazing views of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu and the surrounding mountains. The best view, of course, is at the top (although some stop short of the top, satisfied with the view they’re greeted with), 360 degrees of the ruins and mountains below. It is nothing short of awe-inducing and breathtaking. But with four days of maneuvering the Salkantay trek already behind me, another 90 minutes up a mountain was offering a pretty strong challenge.
I entered the gate and presented my passport and hiking permit and started up, slowly. The wide stone steps offered an easy path to begin with, but I definitely wondered if I wanted to continue. The thought of another 90 minute ascension was tugging at me and I thought, several times, about just going back, resting my legs, and taking more pictures of the ruins I’d already seen. But being who I am, there was no way I was going to travel all that way and not finish strong. I stopped, I said a prayer and asked for strength, I asked for endurance, I asked to be carried, and I kept it moving. At points, the path was wide and covered with trees. At other points, the steps were very narrow and steep, open to the sun and the edge of the mountain with drop-offs that would stop many dead in their tracks. But I kept it moving. I took my time, I stopped along the way to enjoy the view, to rest my legs, to say another prayer, and kept pushing ahead. And I’m so thankful that I did. The view and the satisfaction at the top, which I reached exactly 90 minutes after I started, were worth it all. There was a narrow path leading to a covered hut with benches, and further to the very edge, the apex of the mountain. There were people laying and enjoying the sun, sitting, chatting, snacking, basking in the beauty of the mountains and their accomplishment…and I did the same.
What amazing views! 90 minutes up…43 minutes down…and worth every last second. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to see this piece of ancient history from such a majestic point of view. I’m thankful for it all. The bee that hovered by my head, interrupting my breathy rest with its incessant buzz until I pressed forward, the bright orange and black butterfly that moved gently on the wind over the spectacular view half way up the mountain, the firefly with electric blue wings that blew past me urging me onward, the other hikers making their way up and down offering sincere encouragement, and the knowledge that I conquered. I’m thankful for it all.