The highlight of Machu Picchu wasn’t seeing the iconic Incan citadel for the first time—although it was undoubtedly a special moment when the low-hanging fog finally parted to reveal the ruins—for me, the highlight was climbing Huayna Picchu.
Huayna what, you ask?
Huayna Picchu (or Wayna Picchu) translates to ‘young peak’ (Machu Picchu means ‘old peak’) and is the towering mountain that looms above Machu Picchu—360 metres above, in fact—in the ubiquitous photos that you see in every Peru travel brochure.
Climbing Huayna Picchu
Only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu per day and there are two entry times. The first group departs between 7 and 8 am and must return by 10 am; and the second group departs between 10 and 11 am and must return by 1 pm. Make sure to check the time on your ticket as only 200 people are allowed to enter during each time slot. Permits can be purchased online here in advance.
The signs at the checkpoint say that it takes approximately 45 minutes to climb to the summit of Huayna Picchu, and 1.5 hours to complete the round trip, but I would say that it takes closer to an hour each way depending on how many breaks you take.
Be forewarned: climbing Huayna Picchu is no easy feat. Our guide was vague when describing the difficulty of the climb—I now realise that it was purposely so—and said that if you were afraid of heights then perhaps it would be best not to do it. However, it’s not the heights that I found to be the problem, it’s the sheer difficulty of getting up the mountain.
The climb is arduous, physically challenging and seriously steep, and you’ll likely need to pause more than a few times along the way to catch your breath. There are cable ropes positioned at specific points of the path, so that you can help pull yourself up in the more difficult areas. Bear in mind that there is two-way traffic and people are also heading down the same narrow rocky pathway at the same (this is more of an issue if you’re in the second group).
When you reach the terraces near the summit, you can stop and admire the panoramic views of Machu Picchu from above. Take a deep breath before proceeding because next came the part that I found most challenging of all: having to climb steep stairs that had tiny ledges and essentially a vertical incline. Later on, I would find out that these stairs bear the nickname of the ‘death stairs’, but at the time I was only perplexed as to how to tackle the stairs aside from crawling up using my hands and simultaneously praying that I wouldn’t plummet to my demise. Granted it would have been a short-ish fall, but this wasn’t a reassuring thought at that moment. Additionally, I couldn’t quite comprehend how I was going to be able to get back down (note: I crawled back down like a crab).
After conquering the ‘death stairs’, you’ll reach another platform area, which you can also rest at before the final ascent to the top of the mountain.
The moment when you reach the peak is one of elation, ecstasy and pure relief. Soak in and enjoy the amazing views and alternative perspective of Machu Picchu because you have seriously earned it.
Should you climb Huayna Picchu?
Honestly, I did more reading on Huayna Picchu after having climbed the mountain, and truth be told I probably would have decided against climbing it had I read people’s accounts beforehand. But I’m so glad that I did it and it was truly the highlight of my time spent at Machu Picchu.
I’m not the fittest person by any means, nor am I completely unfit, and I saw people of all shapes, ages and fitness levels while ascending Huayna Picchu. I think that the climb is achievable for most people as long as you take it at your own pace. It’s physically demanding and not the safest of climbs, but as long as you’re careful, there shouldn’t be any issues. The ‘death stairs’ were the most challenging part, and people who don’t like confined spaces may have trouble with the extremely narrow tunnel that you pass through on the way back down.
However, don’t let other people’s experiences daunt you and talk you out of climbing Huayna Picchu. My best advice would be to stop reading about it and just commit!
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