Machu Picchu at sunrise

Why Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate is one of my most unforgettable travel moments

24 November 2020

Webster’s dictionary defines ‘unforgettable’ as…sorry, I’m just kidding. I won’t do that.

But when I was asked to write about an unforgettable experience on one of my adventures, the first thing that came to my mind was my incredible trip to Peru just last year.

Over the years I have helped thousands of people who have wanted to travel by gathering all the information they needed to feel confident about where they were going. The average questions I got typically came down to whether there will be showers at the campsite, or what happens with the fundraising targets, but I believe what makes an adventure truly unforgettable isn’t so much the destination or creature comforts, but the team you experience it with.

Paris and his team of Plan supporters

My last trip was Plan International’s 2019 Trek for Girls in Peru. My team were incredibly lucky to explore the Inca Trail and emerge, after four days of hiking, at the vista of Machu Picchu. As their team leader, my focus was to help my team navigate the physical and emotional challenges of this high-altitude hike. The steep climbs and thin air can play havoc for ordinarily fit people.

You might assume that the Inca Trail would have many unforgettable (and breathless) moments – such as the countless Inca ruins we passed through, the delicious three-course meals prepared by our hard-working guides, walking through misty cloud-forests, but for me it was none of these. The most unforgettable moment took place at the base of an ancient and uneven staircase, with no magical views or even smiling faces.

For context, the whole team had already spent three days walking up and down, and up and down again, through the mountains. Finally, the morning had come when we would arrive at the ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, but there was one last obstacle – another staircase.

This particular staircase we faced is infamous to those who have taken on the Inca Trail. It is the ‘last challenge’ due to the enormous and uneven steps, which can have the shorter members of some groups crawling on hands and knees. At the top of these stairs is the Sun Gate, which is the literal gateway to Machu Picchu and the setting for much relief and celebration. From here you can see the mountains, wreathed in long strands of wispy cloud, and look down on the ancient ruins in the golden morning light.

The team in front of Peru's Mountains

As the team leader, this was also my last challenge too – supporting my team to overcome this final obstacle. If we could get through this (and of course, there was no doubt in my mind we would), then everyone would be able to celebrate completing the Inca Trail, cementing this achievement in their lives forever.

At first the going was slow, I watched as each person crawled or climbed the staircase, huffing and puffing as they ascended. The sense of camaraderie was palpable; each person who finished cheered on the next. Choruses of cheering and applause encouraged each person to make the final push. I watched proudly as each person overcame their fears. Some team members had confided in me at the outset of the trek that they weren’t able to do something like the Inca Trail. Yet here they were: they had done it and they celebrated from the top of the Sun Gate.

There are so many people I speak to who rule themselves out of experiences like this. The fact is, many people have doubts about being able to travel. They don’t think their confident, capable or strong enough, but the truth is that they can if they’re surrounded by a supportive team. It was an unforgettable experience for me to watch this happen with a group of strangers, now friends, on the Plan International Trek for Girls. It is unforgettable to share triumph over doubt.

So yes, when I think of unforgettable moments, I think of walking up to the Sun Gate and of friends sharing tears of joy and lots of hugs as the sun rises over Machu Picchu. I knew it was not just the view, but also the relief of successfully completing our journey.

Paris Ericksen is an Adventure Sales Manager at Inspired Adventures. Every day he’s helping travellers find the right adventure for them. Browse our full range of trips and find your unforgettable too.