Published July 12th, 2011
It wasn’t what I expected. The evening was misty with a touch of drizzle, I was tired, and it was the 23rd time I’d stood at this spot. But looking down on Machu Picchu from Intipunku, the Sun Gate, at the end of the Inca Trail, I felt such a surge of emotion that tears flooded into my eyes. There are few places where reality always exceeds expectation or memory, and Machu Picchu is one of them. Familiarity has brought — not boredom — but further appreciation of its infinite variety: the play of sunshine and clouds on the abrupt peak on Wayna Picchu, the flowers that line the trails and grow in and around the stones; the lizard sunning itself on an upper wall; the way the Incas repeated the shape of the distant peaks in their stonework.
I feel almost as proprietary about the Inca Trail, having first walked it in 1973 with a map drawn by a Swedish tourist, and numerous possibilities for getting lost (all enthusiastically taken). This time I did the shortened Inca Trail from Km 104, which seems to me to have all the advantages of the long route but without the high passes and slog. And it is easily done in a day. As in the longer route you pass through cloud forest, brushing through begonias and orchids, to cool off under a waterfall before climbing to Wiñay Wayna. The ruins, rivaling Machu Picchu in their position, appear as a splat of creamy grey against the dark green of the surrounding forest. Then it’s along the most dramatic part of the Inca Trail, up and down narrow stone staircases, to the Sun Gate. And … I’m not the only hiker who is moved to tears at their first sight of Machu Picchu.