Machu Picchu is almost a cliché on Bucket Lists. It’s the most famous destination in South America. Still, I wanted to spend my Christmas birthday there. Some friends said “don’t bother, it’s been overrun. You won’t be able to see the stones because of the crowds.”
I didn’t listen, and neither should you. If you love mountains and had never been to the Andes, you must experience them. How much longer would I be in shape to spend active days at altitude? Better just do it.
Embracing the cliché, I asked Peru veterans what would make a visit really special. Plan to hike up Huayna Picchu, said one friend. The peak resembles a narrower, steeper version of Yosemite’s Half-Dome.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The summit offers incredible views of South America’s most famous ruins.
- It is an extra, welcome adventure for Machu Picchu visitors.
- Good for: Fit adventurers acclimated to 8,000 feet.
Despite its forbidding appearance, Huayna Picchu is a very doable morning hike, the same friend said, offering amazing 360-degree views of Machu Picchu and the surrounding vista, if the weather cooperates.
Huayna Picchu is so popular it is necessary to sign up for it. To prevent trampling the trail, the Peru cultural ministry allows a maximum of 400 people a day. Tourists line up at dawn at its entrance to get a special permit.
Is the Huayna Picchu climb dangerous?
But other friends warned me: It was such a scary, dangerous hike that their guides told them to stay away. “It’s really only for mountaineer types.” Perhaps that’s why some reputable tour outfits, including the one I was traveling with, did not include a Huayna Picchu ascent in its options.
Warnings only strengthened my resolve. To paraphrase a Billy Joel song, I’ve been high in the Rockies, the Himalaya and the Alps under the evergreens. No way I would omit Huayna Picchu (it means Young Peak) from my Christmas birthday itinerary.
Christmas is rainy low season at Machu Picchu
We reached Machu Picchu by train and then bus from the town of Urabamba after touring other handsome ruins in the Sacred Valley near Cusco.
Photos are inadequate; it’s the most picturesque ruin I have ever seen. What’s more, because it was the rainy season, the place was nearly empty!
After wandering through the famous temples and peering through the requisite windows, we returned to nearby Aguas Calientes, 20 minutes away, for the night.
At 6 the next morning, four of us took the public bus back to Machu Picchu. When I had emailed our guide months earlier about the climb, he quickly agreed to get tickets and offered everyone the chance to join me.
Accompanied by a local guide, we signed in at the simple gate that separates the Huayna Picchu trail from the rest of the site. About two dozen others were already there.
The route began as a gentle traverse. Eventually it rose into a series of big stone steps. It was overcast, with temperatures in the 60s. We wore layers of hiking clothes. I brought my collapsible poles.
Steep, Silent, Sublime Steps
An overlay of emerald shrubs surrounded the steps. Because I was used to New Mexico’s desert ruins, I was amazed at how green the Inca lands were, even at 8,000 feet. Soon, I was amazed at how vertical the steps were. I climbed, grunting with the effort.
The trail corkscrews higher and higher. I did not spend much time looking sideways. Yes, there was a dropoff, but I felt safe with my poles as props to boost me up each step. At some of the most sheer sections, there are rope and mental railings built into the hillsides to grab.
Because we were there in the rainy season, we were not trampled by people trying to reach the top in the shortest possible time. Within an hour we reached a platform cut out of the rocks. Spread out below us were the rooms and gardens of Machu Picchu proper. Its stone architecture seemed undisturbed by decades of chattering visitors from all over the world.
It was serene, silent, sublime.
We were not quite at the top. Continuing, we had to dip our heads through a narrow tunnel, one person at a time. We emerged with a new, much smaller jumble of rocks above us. The sun filtered through light clouds. Thank goodness for the limit on hikers. There was space for only a few people at a time to crawl out and gaze at the panorama of peaks surrounding the once-hidden Inca masterpiece.
The four of us grinned at one another, snapped photos, gulped water, ate our snacks and marveled at how a place so famous could still be so grand, 100 years after Yale explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered it and told the world. It didn’t matter that I had ascended other peaks on other continents. This was my new world. I was thrilled.
The climb to the very top had taken us a leisurely 90 minutes. The journey back down took about half that time. There was a bit more traffic on the steps, but no jockeying for position, no truly frightening turns thanks to the strategically placed rope assists.
Afterwards, Karen Savlov, a Californian from our group who made the climb with me, reflected on it:
“For me this was a once in a lifetime experience. It was difficult, thrilling and pushed my hiking limits, and I hike regularly. I did not know what I was getting into, but I will never forget the narrow steps, the camaraderie and the views. It was exhilarating to know that I accomplish this climb. I am so glad I did it.”
Earlier in our trip, we learned that the Incas used swift messengers called chaskis to transmit news across their mountainous empire. In my notebook, after we had descended Huayna Picchu, I wrote: “We are chaskis!”
Avoid crowds by visiting Machu Picchu in Peru’s winter, the off-season; I found it particularly uncrowded during Christmas week.
Arrange your visit to Machu Picchu with a tour operator in the U.S. or Cusco beforehand and specifically ask for your Machu Picchu ticket to include Huayna Picchu. You may be able to buy it yourself online.
Get fit by hiking or climbing stairs before you fly to Peru and bring collapsible hiking poles if you are concerned about balance.
Spend at least one day at altitude (Cusco, the nearest airport, sits at an altitude of over 10,000. Machu Picchu is about 8,000 feet.) feet. Alternatively, take altitude prevention medication (Acetazolamide, brand name Diamox in US, Soroche in Peru).
A maximum of 200 hikers at 7 a.m. and 200 at 10 a.m. per day are allowed to hike Huayna Picchu. Spend the night before in Aguas Calientes or other lodging very close by and get to the gate earlier than 7 a.m. even with a ticket.