Anthony Bourdain once said, “It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.”
I was fortunate enough to visit Machu Picchu and it was everything you hear and read about, and more. It’s difficult to fully explain to someone who hasn’t been there and photos of course don’t do it justice. A cab driver in Cusco, Peru told us before we went there that Machu Picchu holds a special place in his heart, that it’s a magical place that he feels drawn to. For me, however, as special as Machu Picchu is, the journey to get there is what holds a special place in my heart.
We took a 4 day/3 night trek to Machu Picchu, called the Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions and it surpassed my expectations. You can read about the trek here (day one), here (day two), and here (day three). By the time we reached Machu Picchu, we were exhausted but thrilled to finally be at the famous ruins. There are four hour time limits on visits which must be within one of three daily shifts: early morning (6-9 am), late morning (9 am-12 pm), and early afternoon (12-3 pm). You have to sign up to enter at a specific hour within these shifts and supposedly only 600 people are allowed to enter at each hourly interval, meaning no more than 2,400 people would be allowed in the ruins for the four hour time, but I’m not sure how much this limit is enforced because it seemed very crowded to me, especially as the day went on.
All of our tickets including the train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, entrance fees to Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, and returns back to Cusco were taken care of by our guide from Alpaca Expeditions, which made everything much less stressful.
However, to add to our stress, the morning of our tour of Machu Picchu, our guide was supposed to be at our hotel in Aguas Calientes at 5 am and didn’t show up until 5:50, at which point we were just about in a total panic about what to do (no way to contact the guide so we sent an email to Alpaca Expeditions but didn’t get a response by the time the guide showed up, which by the way his excuse was he had drunk too many beers the night before and over-slept). Long story short, he apologized about a dozen times and in the end I completely forgave him because he was so stellar in every way before this.
Although we arrived at Machu Picchu a bit later than we were supposed to, everything worked out fine. My first impression was that it’s pretty much what I thought it would be. We’ve all seen photos of Machu Picchu so many times and maybe even seen TV shows about it. Well, it’s exactly like it looks in the photos. It’s also crowded, despite the attempts to limit tourists (although our guide said things do seem to be getting better on that front). It’s every bit as grande and beautiful as it looks.
What did surprise me was the scale of the mountain that lies behind Machu Picchu, the one that you see in the background of the majority of photos of Machu Picchu- Huayna Picchu. You see, we had a separate entrance ticket to climb Huayna Picchu once we were done touring Machu Picchu. Guides aren’t allowed on Huayna Picchu for reasons unbeknownst to me, so we would be climbing that behemoth of a mountain all by ourselves. I was terrified.
After we felt like we had seen all we needed to see of Machu Picchu and got all of the history and background from our guide, he walked us out the exit, said good-bye, and my family and I used our separate entrance ticket for Huayna Picchu to get back into Machu Picchu, working our way through the ruins back to the entrance for Huayna Picchu. The peak of Huayna Picchu is 2,693 metres (8,835 ft) above sea level, or about 260 metres (850 ft) higher than Machu Picchu, according to Wikipedia. The truth is, the climb up is strenuous and should only be undertaken by people in good shape.
The climb up Huayna Picchu begins easily enough, and is full of switchbacks to make the climb easier. Still, you will be drenched with sweat and gasping to get your breath unless it’s a cold and rainy day, but then the steps would be slippery and you’d still be out of breath because of the steep increase in elevation so that wouldn’t be ideal either. There are some cables to hold onto that I was grateful to have both on the way up and down.
Here’s the part that most people gloss over in their reviews about Huayna Picchu- the final ascent to the top is like climbing a ladder, only on narrow little rocky, sometimes crumbling stairs. There are no cables or anything else to help you up here. I’m terrified of heights and I had to focus like I’ve never had to focus on anything before just to control my shaking body. I found it easier to use my hands as I climbed up, since it gave me something to do with them, and I just focused on one step at a time. Finally I reached the summit and it was the best feeling ever! Honestly, I’ve never climbed anything as difficult as Huayna Picchu, and I’ve done quite a bit of hiking around the world, although nothing like the via Ferrata in Italy.
The way back down Huayna Picchu wasn’t as bad as going up and I never felt any real pangs of fear like I did going up. I passed a guy who was going up and looked scared to death and he hadn’t even reached the worst part yet. I told him if I could do it, he could do it and told him to use his hands going up and just focus on one step at a time. I hope he was able to conquer his fear and make it to the top. The view really is one of the best views I’ve ever seen and absolutely worth the effort.
Have you been to Machu Picchu? Did you go up Huayna Picchu? If so, what was your experience like? Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list?