I cried the first time I saw Machu Picchu. It had been an emotional few days! I had been pushed to my physical and mental limits; hiked for four days across peaks up to 4400m high. I had been wet, cold, hot, sweaty and constantly exhausted. While I understand how some people hate Machu Picchu and how touristy it is, for me it was all worth it to get my magic moment, watching the sunrise at Machu Picchu. As the first rays of light touched the top of Wayna Picchu, I knew I would always remember my Machu Picchu sunrise. If you’re looking for the best time to visit Machu Picchu, it has to be sunrise!
When we had finished our trek, we were taken by bus to Ollantaytambo. The plan was to stay there overnight, take the train to Aguas Calientes in the morning, then the bus up to Machu Picchu. However, after coming all that way, I wanted to get as much time as possible at the ruins, and to get there to see that all important sunrise at Machu Picchu. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo I went to the station and asked to change my train to leave that afternoon. Unfortunately that company didn’t have availability, so despite the extra cost, I bought a new ticket with another company. That train was leaving in 30 minutes so I scurried back to the hotel to pick up my stuff and ran back to the station as fast as I could (under the weight of my full rucksack). Unfortunately in my haste I fell over TWICE when the laces of my hiking boots got tangled. My pride, my knee & my shoulder took a serious bruising, but I had to get that train! I managed to make it just in time, and somehow had been allocated a seat right at the front of the train. Karma was paying me back for my trauma, and the day was rapidly improving!
The train journey took in some beautiful views of the countryside, and in my prime spot I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. They even served us a snack – well, a bit of salad & a tangerine. By the time the train arrived in Aguas Calientes it was late afternoon; I made my way to the hotel I had booked, and checked in. I was underwhelmed by the hotel, particularly for the price, but at least it was only for one night. After an equally average dinner I went to bed to try and get some sleep before my early start. The buses from Aguas Calientes start running at 5.30am, but I expected a queue, so set my alarm for 4am, and planned to be out of the hotel at 4.30am. I didn’t sleep well; the excitement getting the better of me! Nonetheless, when the alarm sounded at 4am I rolled out of bed and was soon ready to go!
When I arrived at the bus station there was already a long queue. The buses were parked up waiting, and the queue grew longer by the minute. Luckily I already had my bus ticket with me, as part of my package, so I didn’t need to queue to get the ticket before I joined the queue for the bus. If you don’t have a ticket I suggest buying it the previous evening if you have time –that will save you the worry in the morning! The ticket office opens at 5am, although at 5.05am it was still closed, and the queue was getting antsy.
Just before 5.30am, the queue to get on the bus started to move. We were loaded onto the buses; I got on the 5th or 6th one, and we were off. The buses wound up the side of the mountain to reach Machu Picchu, and I began to appreciate how hard it must have been to transport the building materials up to the site in the days before buses & roads. I felt as though I was in Jurassic Park -making my way through a lost world, expecting a T-Rex to leap out of the trees at any moment.
I arrived at the entrance at around 6am, as the first bus-loads of people were starting to enter. I joined the queue, had my ticket & passport checked and I was inside! I followed the path around to the left and my instinct to move with the crowd, then to keep climbing up paid off. I found my way to the Guardhouse, where “those” photos of Machu Picchu are taken, and chose a spot to wait for the sunrise.
I can’t effectively describe what I saw before me. I’d seen it on so many websites, in guidebooks and on countless social media pictures, but nothing prepared me for that view. I breathed in the fresh morning air and gazed at the 600 year old citadel below. Gradually the sky grew lighter and I gasped as the first rays of sunshine touched the tips of the ruins. This was it, my magic moment – sunrise at Machu Picchu.
The sun rose higher and bathed the stone walls in glorious gold. The shadows disappeared as the warmth of the sun touched my cheeks, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the ruins. I stayed up there a long time, simply enjoying the view. I watched as more people filed in and made the climb to the guardhouse as I had done a couple of hours before. Tour groups began to filter into the ruins below, following their guides around a pre-designed route. And the magic of the sunrise slowly faded as my private moment with Machu Picchu was polluted with more and more people. I sighed. Never again would I recapture that feeling, the pure wonder and elation at being there. My moment, alone, on the mountainside, feeling like I had discovered Machu Picchu for myself will stay with me forever, or as long as my feeble brain will retain it.
Reality eventually reminded me that I had agreed to meet up with the rest of my group at 9am. As part of my Dragoman trek we would also have a guided tour of the ruins, so I made my way back to the main entrance to rendez-vous with them. I heard someone shouting my name, and found the four who had done the Inca Trail having some breakfast at the café – and taking it in turns to use the bathrooms to freshen up. They were in a much worse state than I was; un-showered, tired and sweaty. I had a smug feeling I’d got the best deal, despite my early start. Perhaps they felt the same; I didn’t walk up the sun gate so admit I don’t know if the view was worth it. Either way, I was more than happy with my Machu Picchu Sunrise!
The rest of the group arrived shortly afterwards so I joined them for the official tour. Our guide Yamil wove around the maze of ruins, pointing out how the shapes of the stones and the walls perched on the mountain top all slotted together like complex jigsaw puzzles, designed to withstand earthquakes and the elements. Temples, ceremonial rocks, accommodation and agricultural terraces were all built here, combining with the Waynu Picchu Mountain to create an incredible citadel, and one of the ‘new’ 7 Wonders of the World. Protected by its location, and hidden trails, Machu Picchu remained hidden from the Spanish invaders, so the site is much better preserved than others similar to it.
After the official tour we stayed for another couple of hours to enjoy the ruins. I returned to the guardhouse to appreciate the view once again, found a relatively quiet spot and had a snooze. When I awoke it was time to go. I felt sad to leave this magical place, which was starting to get quieter as the tour groups left and the early visitors began to head home. I am glad I made the extra effort to arrive early, to fully appreciate what I had hiked for 4 days from Cusco to Machu Picchu to see. But was it worth the $60 new train ticket? The $60 hotel room in Aguas Calientes? The 4am wake up call? The bruised knee and shoulder? Absolutely!
Sunrise at Machu Picchu has to be seen to be appreciated, none of this google street view nonsense will compare to your magical moment, when you first set eyes on the citadel and watch the sun come up. Go there. And go there soon!
Here’s some more photos to whet your wanderlust appetite.
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