The Huayna Picchu hike is sometimes referred to as the “Hike of Death”, and only those who have done it can truly understand why. At times, trails are only a foot wide, with a sheer vertical drop on your side, and no hand rails. Terraces near the top have no tree cover or safety nets, and a misplaced foot means certain death. At one point, the only way forward is to scoot down a sheer rock face, with no steps or ropes to help. If you do manage to make it to the top of this 2,720m (8,920 ft) “Young Mountain”, you will be rewarded with a view and sense of accomplishment that few people in this world achieve.
Huayna Picchu is thought to have been the home of the high priests of Machu Picchu, and has some ruins of its own. There are terraces and one building. The 360° view from the top is the main reason people make the climb, as the ruins are no more intricate than those at the base of the mountain. This climb is not recommended for anyone in poor health, anyone with bad knees, or young children. Dress appropriately, with comfortable layered clothing, gym shoes or hiking boots, and a walking stick if you would like one. Be aware that there are small (sometimes can’t even fit your entire shoe), intricate, winding stairs that sometimes curve around themselves with each step, and are often slippery and muddy. Near the top, you have to crawl through a small cave that cannot be navigated if you are overweight. (For comparison, I am quite thin at 6′ tall and 145 lbs, and it was a squeeze for me.) Once the tree cover breaks, there are no guard rails or ropes to save you if you lose your footing, and edges are sheer drops down the mountain. Guides wander the Huayna Picchu trail regularly to help any hikers who have panic attacks or become too physically exhausted to continue- both occur often enough to keep the guides busy. At one point, it is necessary to climb a small wooden ladder to get to the summit. Many people find the way down too scary, as it is steeper and the steps are narrower, and instead they go back down the way they came up.
Now that you have been thoroughly scared, realize that 400 people make the Huayna Picchu climb every day, and most finish with no major problems. Climbers are all supportive of one another, offering a helping hand to the stranger behind them who is having trouble with one particular staircase. Encouraging words in every different language are heard along the way, and the summit always contains at least one person crying and hugging others, overcome with joy at their accomplishment. (On a personal note, I am one of the few who had a panic attack once the tree cover broke and I could see how high we were, and how vertical the drops were. Five strangers of Spanish, American, German, and Peruvian descent came to my rescue with reassuring words, water, calming pats on the back, and breathing exercises to help me catch my breath. Although I’ll never see any of them again, I’m eternally grateful, and it reinforced what a wonderful experience climbing Huayna Picchu was, with the sense of camaraderie and support among hikers. On the flip side, one hiker did pass away on the climb the day I was there and I watched his body carried down the mountain by two porters, so the dangers are not exaggerated.)
If you are in the shape to make the climb and feel that you can handle it both mentally and physically, this experience should not be missed. Book at least a month in advance if you are travelling during busy season. If you have booked through a tour company, let them know to add the Huayna Picchu option when buying your Machu Picchu passes. If you are buying your own Machu Picchu passes online, you can add this option yourself. Passes are limited to 400 per day, 200 in the 7am group and 200 in the 10am group. When choosing your pass, keep two things in mind. Beginning your hike during the 7am-8am time slot will be less crowded, because during the 10am-11am time slot you will run into many people from the earlier time slot either lounging at the top or making their way back down. You will also not be rushed, as gates to Huayna Picchu are closed and locked at 1pm. (If you do get locked in, get a guide’s attention to be let out- you won’t have to spend the night.) On the flip side, cloud cover often does not break until at least 9 or 10am, so views during your climb will be very limited. If you take the earlier time slot, you can wait at the top until clouds break to get your bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu, but that means you may have to spend up to an hour crouched on a tiny rock at the summit of a mountain, jostling other hikers for room. If you choose the 10am time slot, you will have to deal with more crowded paths and warmer weather, but you will have full view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains throughout your climb. The hike up should take about an hour.
Machu Picchu mountain is both less steep and less popular. It is twice as tall as the Huayna Picchu climb, but slopes are gentler and the climb seems less dangerous. It does get quite windy at the top, so bring an extra layer to put on. This climb will afford you the classic view of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu towering over it in the background. If Huayna Picchu’s steep staircases intimidate you, or passes are sold out by the time you book, Machu Picchu Mountain is a good alternative with equally stunning views. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half each way, and you may be able to buy passes the morning of your climb.