WARNING: This is a ridiculously long post and I tend to ramble on about my thoughts during that particular day. If you start to get bored, just scroll through the pics – I won’t be offended!
I have to say that without a doubt, this day was definitely the highlight of our Peru trip. Bold statement for sure, considering all the amazing things we saw on this trip, but nothing was able to surpass how we felt when we were sitting at the tippy top of Huayna Picchu with Machu Picchu in the background way below us. It was an absolute thrill for the both of us, and I was so proud that we made it all the way up without any major difficulties.
On the day that we went to hike up Huayna Picchu, we had to get up at 3:30 am to line up for the buses that would take us to the top of Machu Picchu. This was because only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu each day, 200 at 7 am and 200 at 10 am, so we had to make sure that we were on one of the first buses that left the station in the morning.
It was a pretty rough morning for the both of us since neither Josh nor I are morning people. Plus the rally in the square had kept us awake for most of the night so we were not happy campers to have to get out of bed so early. By the time we got up, got dressed, packed our stuff, checked our bags, and checked out of our hotel, it was about 4:30 am. Luckily the bus station was only a five minute walk so we joined the end of the line around 4:35, and there were probably at least 100 people ahead of us already.
The line at the bus station at 4:30 am
It was pitch black outside still, and it was kind of chilly. There was a mist hovering around us, and we were worried that it would turn out to be a rainy day. If conditions are too bad, they won’t let people climb Huayna Picchu because it’s too dangerous. We stood in line and just waited, watching as the line grow longer and longer behind us.
The buses don’t start running until 5:30 so we had to wait for about an hour before anything happened. It was a good thing we bought bus tickets the day before because there was a separate line to get tickets. That line wasn’t long, but if you were by yourself it would be hard to save yourself a spot in both lines. The line soon started to move, and we were counting how many buses pulled out before we got to the front of the line. There were probably about seven buses ahead of us, so we were pretty sure we would be able to get the Huayna Picchu stamp, but we really wanted the 7 am slot rather than the 10 am slot, since we had to catch a train back to Cusco in the early afternoon.
It was still misty by the time the sun rose, and the mountains were cloaked in a pretty dense gray fog. We finally reached the entrance gate and immediately found the guy who was stamping tickets for Huayna Picchu. We were thrilled when we were able to get stamps for the 7 am time slot, and I immediately felt relieved that we wouldn’t have to rush to get back in time for the train. We had heard varying reports of how long it would take to climb to the top, and I knew that I would want to take things slowly because of my fear of heights.
The sun rising behind the mist and clouds
When we walked into the main part of Machu Picchu, it was eerily quiet and calm, a huge departure from the previous day when it was packed with people. The view was also different, since a large part of the structures were shrouded in the fog, and we couldn’t see Huayna Picchu at all.
Postcard view obscured by the fog
We walked around for a little while, savoring our solitude and the peacefulness that we felt. Even if you don’t plan on climbing Huayna Picchu, I definitely recommend going to Machu Picchu super early in the morning because it feels like a completely different place when there aren’t so many tourists milling about. You can walk around at your own pace and see things up close without having to wait in line or waiting for people to move out of your way so that you can take a picture. It’s definitely worth waking up early for.
After we had seen all the things we wanted to see, we found a little nook by some stairs where we could sit down and just stare at the awesome view in front of us. We watched birds fly around chasing each other and just enjoyed being there in that moment. I know it sounds really cheesy but it was a pretty moving experience. This was a trip that we had been planning for a few years, and it really hit us that we were finally there, and that it was everything we hoped and imagined it would be.
By the time 7 am rolled around, it was still misty and foggy. We saw a line start to form at the start house so we waited just a bit longer before heading down there ourselves. We got in line around 7:30 and there were still quite a few people in front of us. I didn’t care because I preferred to be at the end so that I could take my time. I knew the paths and stairs would be narrow and it would be harder to have to keep letting people pass us because I was too slow.
At the starting gate
We finally reached the little house where we had to sign our names before we could embark on the hike. We saw that we were the 118th and 119th people to go that day. The first part of the trail was pretty easy – it was wide and there wasn’t any huge drop off to one side. At one point the trail even went downhill, which was nice, but we knew that meant we would have a long way to go uphill to get to the top of Huayna Picchu.
Path goes down before it goes back up
Sure enough, there were winding stairs that traversed up one side of Machu Picchu, and led out to the narrow path that connected Machu Picchu to Huayna Picchu. I was a little nervous at this point because even though there were cable railings for the steepest and narrowest parts, the railings were kind of low and I had to almost sit down in order to keep holding on. Nevertheless, we crossed over to Huayna Picchu without any huge issues.
Crossing over to Huayna Picchu
Me clinging to the cable railing until the last possible second before I had to let go to continue
Once we were on the other side, this was where the climbing began in earnest. There were lots of steps, some super steep where I had to cling to the cables to pull myself up. Still, it wasn’t as difficult as I had feared because there were no sheer drop-offs along the path – at least none that I could see. The path was pretty woodsy so there were lots of trees and greenery surrounding both sides of the path, disguising any sort of cliff.
All the steps heading up Huayna Picchu
There's definitely a drop off next to the path, but it's sort of obscured by the trees and bushes, giving me a much needed false sense of security
We climbed slowly and steadily, not caring if people passed us along the way. We weren’t in any rush, and while we were pretty hot and sweaty, we weren’t terribly out of breath or struggling too much with all of the steps. Higher and higher we climbed, unsure of how far we had gone and how much there was left to climb. At least the scenery was beautiful to look at, and we were lucky that the morning mist and fog had cleared up so we were able to see out into the distance.
Once we had gone up a good distance, we looked down and could see Machu Picchu peeking out between the trees. The smaller it got, the happier we were, as it meant we were getting closer to the top.
Machu Picchu in the distance, peeking out from between the trees
Eventually, people who were ahead us on the hike had already reached the top and were headed back down, passing us on the way. We asked everyone who passed how much further we had to go before we would reach the top, and while the answers always varied, everyone said that the view from the peak was absolutely worth the climb. Buoyed by that and by everyone’s words of encouragement, we steadily made our way higher.
Eventually we reached a cluster of Inca structures, and we knew the top couldn’t be so far away. Unfortunately, this was the most treacherous part of the hike. The structures had narrow and steep stairs running along the sides, but no cables to help us climb. I guess they didn’t want to ruin any of the incredible stonework by screwing in metal bolts everywhere but it was incredibly hard for me to go up all those flights of stairs with nothing to hold on to. I ended up clinging to the walls with my hands, grabbing anywhere that jutted out so that I could get a decent grip. It was pretty awkward but it did the trick.
Steep and scary climb up the Inca structures
More stairs upward
View of Machu Picchu from the Inca structures
Josh's camera was able to zoom in for a great shot of Machu Picchu. The houses at the bottom of the picture was where we started from.
Looking down from the structures
Once we got to the top of the structures, I knew we had to be close to the peak. After ducking into an opening in the rock wall and actually having to crawl through some narrow crevices, we finally arrived at a ladder that took us to the top of Huayna Picchu. I took a deep breath and climbed up, with Josh following close behind.
One of the crevices we had to crawl through
The ladder we climbed to get to the very top of Huayna Picchu
Once I got to the top of the ladder I could see the incredible view spread out all around. Unfortunately, my fear of heights kicked into hyperdrive and I could not bring myself to stand up. I ended up swinging my legs around the ladder and crawled onto the large flat rock that the ladder rested against. There were a lot of people at the top, and not so much room to maneuver. This was definitely where if you slipped and fell, you were going to fall a long way down. There were people just milling about, relaxing and taking in the sights.
People hanging out at the top of Huayna Picchu
The best spot to take pictures at the top was a little outcropping where it almost looked like a seat had been carved into the rock. From there was a perfect shot of Machu Picchu in the background, so there was quite a line of people waiting to take photos. I apologize to anyone whose photo I’m in, because I was basically paralyzed by fear and refused to move from my spot just off the ladder. When it was finally our turn to take a photo, I basically crawled onto the seat with Josh, shaking the entire time. I absolutely refused to look down over the edge, I just looked at the person taking our picture for us, pasting a smile onto my face. I was proud of the fact that we had made it, but I was truly terrified at the same time.
View of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayna Picchu
When we were finished, I quickly crawled back into the middle of all the rocks and sat down, and only then would I take in the amazing 360 view. And what a view it was. We could see the beautiful green peaks of the mountains all around us, and a beautiful view of Machu Picchu in its entirety. We sat there for a while and just appreciated the scenery, but we knew that the next wave of people who started at 10 am would be arriving soon, and it wouldn’t be fair to make them wait for their turn at the top.
Uneven rocks at top, and a long way down...
Green mountains all around
Sadly, however, going down was excruciatingly painful for me. I debated going back the way we came, down the ladder, but with all the newcomers arriving at the top, there was just no space for me to go down that way. So I had to crawl to the opposite side of the rocks on top and then basically shimmy down the uneven and narrow steps until we reached a ledge. This part wasn’t any better, as there were sheer drop offs all around. I walked facing inward and clinging to the walls.
See the narrowness of the path on the way down, the uneven steps, and the steep sheer drop offs
Down and around we walked for a short bit, with me going down the stairs on my behind, until we reached a larger terrace that faced Machu Picchu. There were lots of flat rocks here so we sat down on one and rested, snacking on some pound cake that our hotel packed for us, and drinking lots of water and Fanta. We sat there for about 20 minutes, just enjoying the view. During that time I calmed myself down and psyched myself up for the rest of the journey down.
Our view while we rested, snacked, and rehydrated
Zooming in on the start house and the next group of hikers lining up
Our next biggest obstacle was coming down the narrow and steep stairs of the Inca structures that I struggled with on our way up. If I thought coming up was scary, going down was even scarier. At first I tried to go down backwards, facing inward, but the steps were too uneven and precarious. I kept losing my footing because I couldn’t really see where I was going when I faced the steps. So I just turned back around and continued downward while sitting on my butt, taking each step one at a time. It was a slow process but luckily there were no people behind us, and my arms got a great workout from lifting myself up and lowering myself down each step.
Inca trapezoid window, alcoves, and doorway
At long last we finally reached the regular path, and it was much easier from there on out. I was still holding on to all the cables on the way down but I felt much more comfortable because I knew this path wasn’t as treacherous, and there were no more steep drop offs to deal with. Going down this part was definitely easier on the legs than going up, and we made much quicker process. Finally we crossed back over to Machu Picchu, and when the path started going upward again, I knew we were close to the finish.
Finally the little house was in sight, and this was when I really got excited. We signed ourselves out, took a quick victory shot, and then immediately collapsed on some benches nearby in the shade. We were flying high from all the adrenaline but we were physically exhausted at this point. We were slightly out of breath and dripping with sweat but we had never felt better. We were just so proud that we had done it, and even though I’m sure most people think that the Huayna Picchu hike really isn’t that big of a deal, it was a huge accomplishment for us.
A look back at Huayna Picchu on our way out
The hike was tiring and there were definitely steep parts that we had to work hard to get through, but we never felt like we couldn’t do it nor did we ever really struggle with the physical aspect required. My fear of heights was probably my biggest obstacle but I made it through without any major freak outs. The only time I was truly terrified was at the top, but if you’ve been up there you can probably understand my fear. You’re basically on a jagged pile of large rocks, with no real path or secure place to sit, and all the rocks slope downward so that if you slipped, you had nowhere to go but off the top of the mountain.
Whenever I got scared on the steep and narrow steps, I just went down on my butt. It wasn’t graceful or attractive, but it did the trick. I was really lucky that Josh is such a patient person because he let me go at my own pace and never rushed me or made fun of me when I was afraid. He always walked behind me to make sure that I could get pass whatever obstacles we faced, and he made sure to be ready to catch me in case I slipped.
We rested for a while in the shade and chugged more water. We started out with a large two liter bottle of water, two 20 oz bottles of water, a 20 oz bottle of Fanta, and a 20 oz bottle of Inca Kola. I only had one 20 oz bottle of water clipped to my belt while poor Josh carried all of the other liquids plus our snacks in his backpack. It was really heavy, but we made sure to stay hydrated the entire hike so the weight gradually lessened as we drank all the water.
Once we felt vitalized from our break, we decided to take the short hike to see the Inca Bridge. We had heard the hike was quite beautiful, but that the bridge was kind of a disappointing sight. It turned out to be true. The hike itself wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the Huayna Picchu hike, though we still had to sign in and out in a guest book at a little hut on the way.
Beautiful scenery along the way
The path did get pretty narrow at some points, and there was either only a really low wall (about a foot high at most) or nothing at all, so that I could see the sheer drop off to one side. I just walked close to the wall the whole way, and tried not to think about it. The hairiest part was right at the end of the hike. The path that led directly up to the Inca Bridge was really narrow and there was no barrier to the cliff side. There was a rope attached to the mountain wall but it was stretched out and basically useless, because you could pull it past the edge of the cliff. Plus it was really windy at that point, and I felt like I was going to blow right off the path.
Narrow path and sheer drop off. You can also see the Inca Bridge to the right.
I would like to say that the scariness of the hike was totally worth it because the Inca Bridge was incredible, but lets face it, the bridge was literally a pile of rotting wood planks. There was a fence that blocked off the trail in front of the bridge so that people wouldn’t be tempted to walk across it.
In all, the Inca Bridge trail was a nice walk, but the bridge at the end was a bit of a letdown. Our guide warned us about that the day before, but I guess you have to see it for yourself to believe it. If you have the time, go for the walk. If not, don’t feel too badly because you really aren’t missing that much. If you have a choice between the bridge walk or going to the Sun Gate, definitely head for the Sun Gate.
The walk back to the main part of Machu Picchu was easier because I knew what to expect. We went back to the same spot where we had sat early in the morning that day, before the Huayna Pichu hike, and rested for a while, drinking some super sweet Inca Kola. It tasted kind of like bubble gum, or overly sweet cream soda. Not exactly our favorite, but we were happy for the sugar after all the walking we did.
Our own Inca Kola advertisement
More postcard views
After we caught our breaths, we headed to the entrance gate to catch a bus back into town. Our train to Cusco was leaving in the early afternoon, and we wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t be late. When we got back to town, we stopped for a quick lunch in the main plaza. Then we went to our hotel to change and to pick up our bags. We definitely didn’t want to be all sweaty and gross on the long train ride back to Cusco.
When we arrived in Cusco, the tour company picked us up and took us to our hotel, the Libertador Palacio del Inka. It was centrally located so after we dropped our bags off in our room, we headed into town to find dinner. We had asked the concierge for some recommendations (we were craving Peruvian style chicken, or pollo a la brasa), and while the restaurant he sent us to was nothing close to what we were looking for, the food was decent. Afterward, we walked around the square for a little while and then headed back to our hotel, since both of us were exhausted from the long day of hiking.
The main square in Cusco
Beautiful balconies overlooking the main square
I’m sorry that this post was absurdly long and that I rambled on for a quite a bit. I’m sure if you asked people who’ve done the Huayna Picchu hike if it was really that hard, they’d tell you it was a breeze. And in some ways, it was. We definitely took a lot longer doing the hike than most people (some people we spoke to said it would only take about an hour and a half round trip, and we took twice as long), but we were purposely taking our time because I was worried that if we rushed, I would end up freaking myself out and aborting the hike midway through. In the end, however, I conquered my fear of heights, and I was so proud that we climbed to the tippy top of Huayna Picchu without any freak outs or severe difficulties. It was an exhilarating feeling to be up there, looking down at everything and seeing how high we had climbed. We definitely felt like we were on top of the world, and the adrenaline buzz lasted us the rest of the day. I would absolutely do this hike again, and I definitely recommend doing it to anyone who is going to Machu Picchu. It’s definitely worth waking up at 3:30 am for!