Although the main body of the trek is over by the end of day three, there is one last peak (both literally and metaphorically) to reach on the morning of day four to finish the Inca Trail – the famous Sun Gate, situated high above Machu Picchu, where you can catch a first glimpse of the whole site. It’s 6km, mostly uphill, from the final control point, where your permit has to be checked and stamped before you can continue.
What is most bizarre about this final 6km of the trek is that it is something of a race for the 200-odd people who walk the trail each day. There is no logical reason why it should be so. The control station doesn’t open until 5.30am, so no-one can proceed until then, and it takes an average of an hour to reach the Sun Gate, by which time the sun has already risen at this time of the year, so no real reason to rush for that either. The only conceivable motivations for participating in this race, as far as we could make out, is that buses begin to arrive at Machu Picchu from the town below at 6.10, at which time the first tourists who haven’t completed the trek can go in. If you can reach the Sun Gate before then, the virgin site, devoid of any people, stretches out before you. But it’s risky – you basically have to run to complete the 6km in less than 40 minutes – there are lots of steep steps (including the 50 ‘gringo killer’ virtually vertical ones) and in the dark it’s easy to trip. And then of course, there is the element of competition – to be the very first that day.
If you are sensible, you can get up at a reasonable time, wander the 6km, arrive at the Sun Gate with a picturesque view of the site, and still make it down to Machu Picchu itself before most tourists arrive. Sounds nice, right?
At 3am our alarm went off. By 4am we were at the checkpoint, settling in for a wait of an hour and a half before the checkpoint opened. As soon as the guard had stamped our papers, we started running. Me. Running. We skidded and tripped over the flats and huffed up the uphills, whilst tree roots snaked across the path and loose stones caught the tips of my walking boots. By the time we arrived at the 50 steps, we had retained our the lead. By this time I was knackered. Couldn’t really breathe properly. Our guide, cheering us on, encouraged us to use any means necessary, so up the steps I went, scrambling on my hands and knees. Yep, hands and knees (bloody quick way to get up though!). All of a sudden, a guy came sprinting past, like a machine (we later learnt that he was a competition trekker and did this all the time). There was no catching him, but as he was clearly a robot, we discounted him. The final few hundred yards were the worst – I couldn’t breathe, the steps were looking steeper and I didn’t think I could keep up the pace. Our guide, and the guide of the next group behind, started cheering, no doubt recognising my delusional and desperate state, and with a bit of a push from F, I made it up there. We collapsed, sweaty but completely elated, just as the next group arrived, and soon the Gate was filling up.
We stopped for a quick photo before starting on the thirty minute descent down to the site. F checked his watch, and we realised that we’d arrived at 6.07, a mere three minutes before the first bus arrived (we could see it winding up the hill). We spread the message around so everyone up there by ten past could get the people-free shot, and finally made our way to the city itself.
And why did we get up at silly o’clock to race a load of strangers up a hill, nearly destroying our lungs in the process? Human competitiveness of course. But it wasn't really challenging others that drove me. It was myself that I was competing with. My pride and my determination. And ultimately that’s what gets you through the Inca Trail – and I for one am very pleased I have it, or I might just still be sitting there at the beginning of day two…