Winter Solstice Sunrise at Machu Picchu

Something made me wake up and take a peak at my watch in the middle of a deep, sound sleep on the morning of June 21 in my hostal bed in Aguas Calientes.

4:41 am.

I had traveled to AC the day before with the intention of going up to Machu Picchu to witness the sunrise hitting the north window on the El Torreón — also called the Temple of the Sun though no one really knows what it was called by the Incas — supposedly resulting a spectacular splash of light aligning perfectly with a carved huaca (sacred stone) in the middle.

I had decided several months before to make the trip and had bought my ticket in early April after spending time talking with my friend and adventure inspiration, Paolo Greer. And now that day was here.

4:41 am.

Even for an early riser like me, that’s really early to crawl out of bed and head up a mountain in the dark and cold to see a place I’ve already seen close to a dozen times in the past 4 months.

But when I remembered that this was a once a year experience that isn’t even possible some years because of clouds, I got up and started to get dressed. A quick rinse off followed by brushing my teeth and throwing on my clothes and I was out the hostal door.

It was still pitch black outside, though I could see stars above. After lots of steady clouds and rain the day before, that was a good sign that maybe there would really be a sunrise view this morning.

The line to catch the bus up to Machu Picchu stretched far off in the distance so I decided to make the walk to the base of the mountain and then climb up the steep trail of unending rocky steps to get there more quickly instead of being stuck in line waiting for space on a bus. If I’m going to do it, I thought, I’m going to commit completely to making sure I’m there in time.

It’s about a mile down to the bridge crossing the Rio Urubamba where security checks everyone’s tickets and identification before allowing you to continue. (Interestingly, the man checking the tickets actually recognized me from a visit 3 months ago when we had a long conversation about MP.)

Once through the checkpoint, the long climb began. It’s hard enough, but in the dark with only a poor flashlight and the knowledge that seriously poisonous snakes (i.e., the imfamous Bushmaster viper) were often found in the area, the stress was amplified.

It took about 45 minutes to reach the entrance to MP. Even 8000′ in altitude is very low for me, but climbing nearly straight up for around 1500′ will leave just about anyone exhausted.

About 6:40 am I reached the upper part of MP where I could look down and see how many people were already there. Since the sunrise would occur over the mountain in about half and hour, I really expected to see the wall directly above The Tempe of the Sun to be packed with people on this very special day, but surprising there were only about a dozen people waiting so I quickly made my way through the hundreds waiting above to get their “postcard” sunrise photos and headed into Machu Picchu itself.

Waiting for the sunrise as the first light hits la montaña Machu Picchu above.

Quickly I grabbed a spot on the wall and joined everyone else in waiting for the sun to crest over the distant mountains and shine into the Temple with what we hoped would be a brilliance quite similar to the famous “Map Room” scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The anticipation grew as the sunrise slowly illuminated the higher mountains all around us. Finally, with a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” coming from the group which now still numbered only around 30, our patience was rewarded with a burst of sun in our eyes over the mountain quickly followed by a trapezoidal stream of light lined up perfectly with the huaca stone inside.

Over 500 years ago Inca engineers built this special place high on a jungle mountain and aligned everything so perfectly including the natural rock below so that the sunrise sunlight streamed through the window so that it was perfectly bisected by the carved stone.

For a people whose very lives depended on the seasons and the resources provided by natural force at just the right times in order for crops to be planted and harvested to feed their empire, this was likely the most significant moment of the year for the Incas.

It’s easy to imagine the Inca emperor surrounded by the highest of Inca priests witnessing this exact same celestial event in this exact spot centuries ago.

To be honest, it was impossible to not feel an indescribable connection with the past in that moment as this small group of strangers from all over the world shared an experience that has fascinated and influenced countless cultures through history, but rarely as much as it did in this magical place called Machu Picchu.

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