A year ago I was standing with about a small crowd of “friends” waiting for the sun to rise up over the mountains to the north east of Machu Picchu so I could see if the stories about the sun coming through the window on the Sun Temple at Machu Picchu really did line up perfectly.
I woke up up very, very early in the morning knowing that sunrise would be a few minutes after 6 am and headed out the hostal towards Machu Picchu. For some reason, I thought it would be better to climb up the trail on the side of the mountain so I wouldn’t get caught in a really long line waiting for a bus which might get me there too late.
You can’t take chances with “once in a lifetime” events, I thought, even though I knew well that I could return many times for many years. (Of course, I had no idea what 2020 would bring!)
Setting out along the dirt today with my flashlight to guide the way, I wasn’t the only one making the trek up. In fact, quite a few people were taking the cheap (i.e., free) path to the citadel.
Once we crossed the Rio Urubamba, I turned to the right for a short period then headed up the steep, stony trail up the side of the mountain.
Pretty soon, the light of dawn began to make it easy to see, but the click, wet stones of the constant staircase climbing up about 1500′ still forced me to take my time to avoid losing my footing on the slippery staircase.
Well, that’s my excuse, but the truth is, it’s a tough climb that I swore I’d never do again. (So far, I have kept that promise to myself without one moment of regret.) Climbing slow and taking frequent breaks was a necessity if I was to make it to the top!
Once I got inside Machu Picchu, I quickly realized that my intention on getting there early was not much of a concern as the sun itself takes more than an hour longer to finally peek over the mountains and actually shine it’s light on the Sun Temple.
I was quite shocked at how many people were already standing on the upper terraces waiting for the moment when the sun would light up Machu Picchu on the most important of days.
What surprised me even more was how few people were actually waiting on the viewing area just above the Sun Temple. Only about 30-40 people had already arrived by the I made me way down into Machu Picchu itself. I honestly thought that I was so late that there was no way I would get a good view, but I was not to be disappointed.
As we waited in the cold — thank goodness wind is not much of an issue in the Andes much of the time — there was a growing sense of anticipation.
Finally, the sunlight hit Machu Picchu Mountain to our right and we knew the time was getting closer. While the hundreds of people waiting above Machu Picchu certainly got some fabulous photos, we were able to witness the really significant moment of the day.
The moment itself came surprisingly fast as the sun broke over the mountains (though not quite as fast as the timelapse below!).
When it finally did shine though the window, it was every bit as spectacular as expected and the beam of light did, indeed, line up perfectly with the notch in the stone inside the Sun Temple.
In the future, I hope to be able to witness the Winter Solstice from the Llactapata site far across the valley to the southeast. There is an alignment there was likely was part of the Winter Solstice rituals as Llactapata, a nearly forgotten, but very important part of the Machu Picchu area, received sunlight a short time before Machu Picchu itself.
One interesting part of the Sacred Plaza area is a stone near the Principal Temple that guides love to tell tourists is a compass with the high point aiming directly north. Of course, it does not and is off by a significant amount — about 6-7 degrees.
What is important about this stone is that it’s shadow, on the morning of the winter solstice, points directly at Llactapata far off in the direction of the Pumasillo Mountain Range.
I didn’t get a chance to go to Machu Picchu or Llactapata this year as hoped. I didn’t even get a chance to see the sunrise at Urubamba which, when viewed from the huaca stone at the palace built by the Sapa Inca ruler Sayri Tupac, appears over the mountain between two columns high on the ridge above.
Hopefully there will be many more opportunities to view the same astronomical observances as did the Inca rulers hundreds of years ago.
[Note: while doing some research this morning, I came across a recent scholarly paper and discovered there is another deliberate solar alignment relatively close to home. Even though tomorrow is not the solstice, the difference in alignment is minimal so I’m thinking about hiking up to the site about 2 km from where I live.]