by Jon Davidson
When visiting Machu Picchu, you have two choices.
Either you take a guided tour, mill around with a bunch of obese tourists, and snap some photos.
Or, you climb some stuff. Like a boss.
Naturally, we chose the latter when three of my friends and I visited this Wonder Of The World on April 13, 2015.
We'd already dropped the ball on doing a four-day trek to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail. Unbeknownst to us, daily permits are capped at low numbers and sell out upwards of a year in advance. The two-day trek seemed too puny, and time constraints prohibited us from choosing a lengthier trek option, such as the 5-day Salkantay route.
So, instead, we decided to maximize our time at Machu Picchu, hiking everything we possibly could. We reserved permits to climb Huayna Picchu, the prominent, conical, 8,920' mountain directly behind the Inca ruins in almost everybody's classic photograph. We researched other hikes in the park, and settled on the Inca Bridge and Sun Gate hikes. We planned on hiking more in one day than all the other scrubs would throughout their meticulously planned four-day treks.
5 o'clock came early the morning of the 13th. Our multiple alarms sounded, and wake-up calls rang, shaking us out of our Pisco-induced slumber. We grabbed a bus to Machu Picchu, which careened up a winding, one-lane dirt road perched precariously above thousand-foot drops on the Andes mountainsides. Upon arrival, we were disappointed to find that the entire park and outline of Huayna Picchu were completely encased in fog. We'd chosen to visit at the start of the rainy season, as it was the only time that all four of our respective schedules would allow. Grown-ups and their stupid jobs.
Still, in the clouds, we were blown away with the immensity and grandeur of Machu Picchu as we briskly walked from one end of the park to the other to get to the Huayna Picchu gate and trailhead.
We waited in line, showed our Huayna permits, and started up the trail.
Huayna Picchu's trail wastes no time in introducing itself. Dubbed the "Hike Of Death," it has claimed a few lives, and made Outside Magazine's list of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world, but isn't as deadly as its reputation implies. It's important to come prepared with sturdy hiking boots, water, and a general sense of badassery. From Machu Picchu, the imposing peak looks more difficult than it actually is, thanks to a clever Inca trail replete with steps that clings to the side of sheer cliffs. Huayna is climbable for fit tourists, and while you will need to use both hands and feet at times, you don't actually need any climbing experience, thanks to cables and the occasional fixed rope. Having said that, the climb gains almost 1,200 feet in less than a mile, so a functional cardiovascular system is a must, as is a lack of a fear of heights. This is a particularly bad place to discover that you have vertigo, or to discover that you have food poisoning, as my friend Tony did. I'll spare you the gory details on that front.
First, steps led down into the pass between Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. The trail leveled out briefly, and boasted some great viewpoints of the Andes cordillera across the valley. Once down in the pass, we quickly realized that the introduction was over. From here, an unrelenting assault of thousands of steps led directly up an exposed ridge, with a 500-foot cliff on one side. Still slippery from rainfall the night before, the steps were uneven yet solid, leading us ever upward into the fog. Huayna Picchu permits are capped at 400 a day, but still the trail felt crowded at times, as we had to perch on the occasional cliffside to let a hiker traveling in the opposite direction pass.
Soon, we reached the lowest terraces on Huayna Picchu's slopes, terraces that stretched all the way to the high priest's residence that, according to local folklore, once stood on the summit. After squeezing through a narrow, muddy, cavelike tunnel in the darkness, and climbing up several unbelievably narrow staircases, we arrived at Huayna Picchu's rocky summit. From there, we were afforded an insane bird's-eye view of Machu Picchu over a thousand feet below. As the clouds cleared, more and more Inca ruins came into view.
This would have been a majestic, contemplative moment, had we not been sharing the summit with over a hundred other tourists, many of whom were yelling and giggling and snapping selfies like they were going out of style. Either way, Huayna Picchu's summit afforded a once-in-a-lifetime view.
After taking it all in, we started back down the winding staircase, stopping briefly to scramble up Huchuy Picchu, the undersized, underappreciated, yet frequently photographed mound in between Huayna and Machu. A 15-minute detour, it afforded views of Machu and Huayna, and gave us perspective on the climb we'd just accomplished (and lived to tell about). Arriving back at the Huayna Picchu gates about an hour after we were supposed to meet our Machu Picchu tour guide, we set off to find him and to further explore one of the wonders of the world.
If you're visiting this hike, climbing Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain is a must. Make it happen.
For more information on Huayna Picchu permits, click here.