A pilgrim in Peru: Part Four, visiting Machu Picchu at sunrise

On Day Four I awoke as the sun was just starting to tint the sky, and made my way to the Aguas Calientes bus stop. With about two dozen Peruvian guides and Western and Japanese tourists, I piled into the bus for the weaving 1500-foot ascent to a place I’d been dreaming of visiting for decades: Machu Picchu. I’d finally set foot there the day before and wandered its time-bridging grounds, but I’d felt like I was missing something, the connection wasn’t quite complete: I had to get there for the sunrise. As the bus jounced and switchbacked through the lightening dawn, this feeling weighed undeniably in my stomach and my head: a yearning, an expectation.

As the sky brightened, I worried that I was too late. But I had forgotten that Machu Picchu, despite its high altitude, is still a bowl surrounded by towering peaks. I raced up to the site and saw with relief that while the peaks to the west were tipped with bright sunlight, the ruins were still in shade. I made my way directly to the sun dial, known as Intihuatana or “hitching post of the sun,” which sits atop a pyramid-like construct of terrace and wall in the site’s northwest quadrant.

I positioned myself at the sun dial and waited, absorbing the stony stillness and the fresh scent of grass, the texture of tree. I watched the sun’s rays light the peaks behind and around me, slowly getting higher and higher, closer and closer.Minutes passed. The molecules in the air ever so slightly brightened. Then, in a suspended moment, light flared over the top of the mountain directly in front and touched the sun dial.

I was looking through the lens of my camcorder when it happened, and at the moment the sun appeared, rays shot out in six searing streaks at 45-degree angles. I felt like one streak was searing through me as well. I felt transfixed, transformed. For a suspended moment I felt drawn into the sun, enwrapped by the sun, plucked into some profound energy-stream of sun worship that coursed through the ground where I stood. This flowing energy seemed to stitch through me and through the world around me – the sun dial, the rock plazas, doorways and walls, the temples and the terraces. For a moment I felt a thoughtless understanding, a pure, empty-headed universe-connection, a solar spear-tip that pierced my heart and soul.

Then it was gone. A group of gossiping students clambered over the rocks, guides replayed their learned lectures, camera-wielding couples postured and posed. But somehow, everything had been transformed.

In retrospect, all I can say is that some deep energy radiates from that place. It’s a combination of the altitude, the pristine quality of the ruins themselves, the purity of the air and the sky and the sun – and something else too, a kind of spiritual energy that courses like water-springs through the site. I had felt it on the Sacred Plaza and by the Temple of the Sun, but I felt it especially at Intihuatana at dawn: the hitching post of the sun.

At mid-morning Manuel joined me and we took a walk along the Inca Trail. Most trekkers take the trail from Ollantaytambo or from an intermediate stop called Kilometer 104 along the rail line to Aguas Calientes, but Manuel and I met at the Watchman’s Hut and walked up the trail in the opposite direction, away from the ruins and toward the Sun Gate, or Intipunku, where trekkers first see Machu Picchu. We shared the paved path with orchids and llamas and workers who were trying to repair one section of the trail that had been weakened during the rains. Looking into the jungle to the right of the trail we could see more Inca walls in the thick shade. Manuel said there were probably Inca walls scattered throughout the mountains. The dense slopes seemed alive with them, echoing with the spirit of the people who tilled, ate, and slept, planted, played and prayed here 500 years before.

We reached Intipunku and then continued along the Inca Trail away from the site. We descended into a world of luxurious blossoms and thick cloud forest shadows. I remarked to Manuel that I was amazed by how well the path was paved, and he told me that at its height, the Inca empire had been laced by a network of 19,000 miles of trails, virtually all paved. I stopped and touched my hand to the rough stone and tried to conjure the imagination and organization, technology and toil, required to complete such a feat. I tried to picture the worker who had placed the very stone on which I stood, whose fingers had touched the very pocks and ridges my fingertips traced. What did he eat? Where did he sleep? What did he dream?

We walked for a half hour to a point where we could see another ruin on a mountain slope: Winay Wayna, a cleared site most trekkers detour to explore. I thought of the deep-shaded walls we’d passed before – who knew what secret cities these vast jungle fastnesses still held?

The trails wound on and on, I realized, some into the cloud forest fastnesses, some into the secret cities of the soul. And on this lonely, well-trod mountain trail, I finally felt whole.

Manuel and I returned to Aguas Calientes, where we were treated to a specially prepared lunch in the restaurant at the Sumaq Hotel, including a presentation on the proper pisco sour preparation (I sampled a number of these in the name of research) and ceviche (ditto).

After lunch we drove to Cusco, and John and Manuel dropped me at Inkaterra La Casona, a colonial house that has been lovingly converted into a stylish and exclusive hideaway – so exclusive that there’s not even a name over the door and I had to knock to be let in. After settling into this true home away from home, I explored the city’s beguiling back-street mix of cathedrals and cobblestones, museums and galleries, boutiques and bars. Past and present intertwined in the ancient Inca capital, but with threads of the local and the global woven through, too. In this way, it seemed to me then, Cusco’s shawl was perhaps the richest of all.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Three, arriving in Machu Picchu
Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Five, going to Racchi, Tipon, Pikillacta, and off the tourist trail
Related: How to hike the Inca Trail

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and sunrise in Peru are purely my own.