I’ve done a lot of hiking in Peru. I’ve gone on the Inca Trail, done the Salkantay Trek, and just finished up a version of the Lares Trek. But the hike that made me the most uneasy is one that up to 400 people a day set off to do: heading to the top of Huayna Picchu.
You know those warnings they have before a hard-core amusement park ride listing all the people who shouldn’t go on the ride? For this they should post something like that and then add a few more, and be blunt about it too. “No fat people, no people with arthritis, nobody who has had hip or knee surgery, nobody who suffers from vertigo, nobody who has ever fainted, nobody with a fear of heights or of small spaces, and nobody who thinks they may need to cling for dear life to a guide’s hand in order to make it back down.”
I’m no wimp, but the Huayna Picchu hike was the hardest two hours I’ve spent in Peru.
First the obvious: if you’ve seen any photos of Machu Picchu—and I know you’ve seen a thousand without trying—you will notice that the pointy mountain in the background is very steep. As in the way a little kid draws a mountain steep. The kind of steep that if you dropped a soccer ball at the top, it would bounce to the bottom in less time than it takes to show the highlights of a soccer match on TV.
Add to that the fact that there are many people going up at the same time, then many people coming down as well. On a trail that’s wide enough for one in many places. There are points when people are clinging to the side of a cliff so someone can pass. Or they’re backing up like a loaded truck on a mountain road to a wider point on the trail. And there are steps, some close together, more of them very far apart.
Now don’t get me wrong, I expected all that. Most people committing to it probably do. What none of us expected, going by the expletives hurled in five or six different languages, was the very tricky passage at the top.
There’s a point where you can abort and turn around after snapping a photo, and I’m guessing that’s what the 70-something Cox & Kings tours group types were doing when I saw them gingerly going step by step past me on the way down. Because I can’t for the life of me figure out how they could have done the whole circuit.
When you get close to the top, you skirt some narrow ledges and tiny steps before getting to what can best be described as a cave with holes at both ends. You have to shimmy and slide through on your knees and anything you’re holding must be pushed in front of you or passed on to someone because it won’t fit otherwise. I heard “Ouch!” and much worse plenty of times.
You come into the sunlight, look back in disbelief, then curse again as you round a corner and realize there’s another narrow passage. Halfway through that are two wooden ladders, each going to the top of steep boulders you need to crawl over in order to get to a place you can stand on level ground. Congrats, you are now at the highest point. Which means you must go down.
To go down, it’s not just a nice little meander along a path. There are teeny tiny steps going down the sides of terraces, with nothing to hold onto, just a wall to brace yourself against as you shuffle. Most of the people in front of me went butt cheek by butt cheek down a couple hundred steps. If you have even the slightest fear of heights, it’s best not to look to your right.
Once you get done with all that and make it back to the path, you may get lucky like I did and find that nobody is coming up anymore: there’s a time limit on when they let people in and it goes in shifts. (7 to 8 a.m and 10 to 11.) So there were a few times we had to share the steps going both ways, but most of the time I could just breathe a sigh of relief that I was back to the easy part: just descending 300 meters in altitude, on stone steps, back to the ruins of Machu Picchu.
If it’s a clear day though, you do get to keep photos and memories of this view. Just don’t back up while trying to take a stupid selfie.
I arrived at the Sun Gate after hiking the Inca Trail with my wife many years ago and always kind of regretted that we didn’t do this part. Our legs were spent and we thought it would kick our ass if we tried it. We went and got a massage in Aguas Calientes instead. Now I know for sure that we made the right decision. This time I had a day of recovery between our Lares hikes and this one and that made a world of difference.
If you’re acclimatized, in good physical condition, and don’t get freaked out by the above, wait in line at the right time. Your Machu Picchu ticket gets you access.