Our intrepid Peru traveler, Shannon, gives us a first-hand account of the famous climb up Wayna Picchu (or Huayna Picchu) at Machu Picchu. If you are afraid of heights, hiking up the jutting peak in the middle of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary may not be for you. But, if you’re looking for a thrill and a totally different view of Machu Picchu, this may be right up your alley.
In sharing my assessment of the Wayna Picchu hike I am in no way trying to scare off anybody interested in climbing the soaring peak that towers over Machu Picchu; I just think it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting into before you head up there. I’ve seen the Wayna Picchu hike described on tour itineraries as a simple 2-hour roundtrip day hike accessed from the Machu Picchu sanctuary. Which is true – if you have super human strength even at altitude and absolutely no fear of heights.
The hike starts from a trail that seems to follow ‘the back way’ out of the city to an entrance gate area where you register the date and time you embarked…a good way to keep track of whether some of the hikers may have taken ‘an alternate route down’ (far, far down). Only 400 people per day are allowed to make the climb, so get there early in peak season (May-November).
The trail starts moderately enough, leading out through the lush jungle vegetation that covers the mountains. Ten or so minutes into the walk you start to ascend the Inca-constructed steps. The steps are pretty cruisey at first; but quickly get steep. That shouldn’t be suprising, I guess – looking at Wayna Picchu from below you can clearly tell that it rises straight up from the valley floor like a high-rise building in the city. If the Incas came to Machu Picchu to study the stars and be closer to their gods they had a great vantage point up there. I’ve been living in Cusco (which is actually almost 2,000 ft higher than Machu Picchu) for five months, and I try to run up the road leading past Saqsayhuaman or hike the steep stairs here a few times a week. I like to think I’m in decent shape, but the unrelenting steepness of the stairs that turned to almost ladder-like stone formations had my heart thumping and my legs burning. As I climbed higher a little voice in my head, the voice of reason perhaps, reminded me that it’s only been in recent years that I’ve been able to get past an almost paralyzing fear of heights…and weren’t we climbing pretty high? On some really exposed terrain? But, I told myself that it would have to mellow out at some point and soldiered on.
In retrospect, this was another ‘life lesson’: I learned to at least give my voice of reason a fair hearing in the future.
By the time you approach Wayna Picchu’s summit you’re climbing ladders onto exposed ledges, and following a trail along the side of the peak that allows a clear view of the long way down. This is unfortunately where my vertigo started to kick in; and as anyone with a fear of heights will tell you: it’s always worse going down than climbing up.
The descent off Wayna Picchu involves several stone staircases approximately 2-3 ft wide that seem to have a 45 degree fall line – without anything besides sheer rock wall to hold on to. And, as one of my friends put it: “if someone fell, they wouldn’t exactly rush the emergency crew to get up there…they’d probably start looking for you a lot lower than the peak anyway”. Not very comforting.
I’ll make a long story short: I made it down these staircases by crawling backwards on my hands and knees, similar to the technique you see babies using when first learning about stairs. And, yeah, I whimpered a little. Okay, a lot. Actually, there was one point where I was crying like a baby. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the kind Peruvian man who carried my backpack and held my hand when I didn’t think I could go any further.
The views of Machu Picchu, the surrounding peaks that feel close enough to touch, and the valley far below are stunning and well worth the physical effort. And, let’s be honest, 400 people per day make it up and back unscathed. That being said, the two-line descriptions of the fitness requirement and heights in the sign at the entrance don’t exactly capture the essence of the trail; and I think it’s better to be over-informed than unaware in a situation like this. So, give it a shot. If anyone else comes to visit me while I’m here I will absolutely recommend the hike for the unique experience of seeing Machu Picchu from that summit – I’ll just refrain from accompanying them.
Want to know more about Machu Picchu Travel and Climbing Huayna Picchu? See all of Detour’s diverse trip options here: http://detourdestinations.com/trips/machu-picchu-tours.html