I didn’t really give Huayna Picchu a fair chance.
Less than 36 hours before I tackled the famous peak that figures predominantly in most photos of Machu Picchu in Peru, I was climbing 1,300-feet straight up a vertical granite cliff. Now, my body was paying for it.
My hamstrings were so sore I could not squat. My arms were tired. My hands were so bloated I felt as though I was wearing gloves.
But we were the chosen. Only 400 people a day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu to reach its 8,924-foot peak. That compares to the 2,500 to 5,000 that flood the famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu daily. Only 200 climbers were assigned to our three-hour time slot. We were going to climb that peak!
The seven in our group rose early to catch a bus from the base camp town of Aguas Calientes. After presenting tickets and passports at the entry to Machu Picchu, we skirted the mysterious ruins still shrouded in clouds and headed for the Huayna Picchu trailhead. I was delighted to meet a few alpacas along the way!
When our entry time arrived, we signed in the official register and started our climb. We were four 20-somethings and three moms; me, the oldest, at nearly 62.
I have to admit, that absent the challenges of the altitude the initial trek was more comfortable than the 900 rungs I climbed two days before. No one was pushing us, so the three elders stopped as often as we liked. All of that, of course, lulled us into a false sense of security.
What I didn’t know was that the climb hadn’t really started. When it did, it was 1,158 feet straight up to the summit. Due to occasional rain, parts of the trail were sloppy and many of the stones were slippery. As we got higher, the steps became more narrow, designed for the tiny Incan feet that built them. It’s probably a good thing we were unaware until late that these last steps to the summit are known as the “Death Stairs.” No guard rails. No safety ropes. There was only an occasional piece of cable to help you boost yourself to the next level.
The 20-somethings made it quickly. It took the last of us more than an hour. But the reward was instantaneous. We had million-dollar views of the valley and surrounding mountains. We experienced dizzying views straight down over Incan ruins through the mists below.
We passed through a narrow cave requiring a few acrobatics, and were spit out onto a stone terrace overlooking Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, it was shrouded in clouds, preserving the mystery it is. We waited, though, to be rewarded with the occasional parting of the clouds, revealing teasing glimpses of the massive complex below.
I was encouraged in that the path down was just over 45 minutes, leaving us a good part of the day to explore Machu Picchu. We lucked out when we grabbed a guide as we exited the trail. Eduardo was an impassioned Incan descendent who shamed me in the breadth of his knowledge about his history and ancestry.
Though my “seasoned” body was screaming surrender after two rigorous mountain climbs in three days, I agreed with the others to explore the more than 3,000 stone steps that link Machu Picchu’s many different levels
While many archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built in the 1450s as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachucuti, Eduardo believes it served as a sacred, religious site for the Incan leaders. Local lore holds that the five-mile site was abandoned to preserve its sanctity as Incans fled Spanish invaders in the 16th century. For hundreds of years, until the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911, the abandoned citadel’s existence was a secret known only to peasants living in the region.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, Machu Picchu is Peru’s most visited attraction and South America’s most famous ruins. Increased tourism, the development of nearby towns and environmental degradation continue to take their toll on the site, which is also home to several endangered species. As a result, the Peruvian government has taken steps to protect the ruins and prevent erosion of the mountainside in recent years.
The most popular point at Machu Picchu is just a short climb from the entry. There, tourists flock to take the photos of themselves with the majority of the ruins splayed out behind them. If you are fortunate enough to arrive at a time with few tourists, it is a perfect place to stop, meditate and marvel on this magnificent testament to the past. Not only are its carefully chiseled massive blocks of stones a feat of engineering, but the location and use of the land is nothing short of landscape art.
The Incans selected a breathtaking site. In a bowl of natural splendor surrounded by magnificent Andean peaks, they created a granite masterpiece carved into the hillside. Their use of stone, green terraces, purposeful steps and narrow waterways created a living masterpiece. Many of the dwellings and temples still stand, their precisely fitted limestone and granite walls unyielding after centuries.
One of them, the Temple of the Sun, houses a rock believed to have been an altar. During the June solstice, the sun shines directly through a temple window in perfect alignment between the rock and the sun.
Another testament to the Incan regard for the sun is the “Intihuatana” rock. It’s a large, carved rock that sits on a raised platform above the main plaza. While some believed it to be a sun dial used to predict solstices, others believe it was simply a tool for observing astronomical changes. Interestingly, the rock is in the shape of the Huayna Picchu peak towering just beside it.
Just below the Intihuatana are the Sacred Plaza and the Temple of Three Windows. This was one of my favorite spots, as much for the architectural details – large blocks of stones weighing up to three tons – as the beautiful snow white alpacas that happened to be trundling through as we arrived. Because the three windows frame the three facing mountains perfectly, Hiram Bingham believed that the windows represented the three mythological caves from which the Ayar brothers – the three children of the sun – came onto earth.
It is easy to see the ruins in a day. New regulations have caused the Peruvian government to issue morning and afternoon tickets. But if you have a morning ticket and make sure you have re-entered for the last time before noon, no one will ask you to leave before the site closes at 5:30 p.m. The best times to go are in March/April and September/October when crowds are thinner and weather is cooler.
Machu Picchu deserves a spot on everyone’s bucket list. It’s one of those experiences that have to be, well, experienced. And that, we did.