A quick announcement: Breadcrumbs Guide was featured in Annie Anywhere’s list of 15 New Travel Blogs to Follow! A big THANK YOU to Annie and her awesome blog! There are some really great new bloggers on the list and I highly recommend you check them out. I’m liking a lot of their Instagram feeds these days, and it’s always fun to see where people are traveling to!
Everyone wants to climb Huayna Picchu, the small mountain behind Machu Picchu. It’s a rite of passage for those visiting the ruins. Having to reserve your spot months in advance, waking up before dawn, and scaling the impossibly steep trail in the dark are all part of the experience, and help fuel the hype that surrounds Huayna Picchu. It’s undeniable that Huayna Picchu offers a great vantage point to see the ruins from above. But I think most of the hype is due to the incredibly treacherous climb. There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the path up Huayna Picchu. There are drop-offs, stretches of trail so narrow you need railings to hold yourself up, and even a section of ladders when steps just won’t cut it.
If you’ve been following along, you know that I’m all about the mountain views. And I knew that the view from Huayna Picchu would be great. But, I suspected I could do better.
Garren and I did NOT climb Huayna Picchu. Instead, we climbed the lesser-known Machu Picchu Mountain. Here’s why:
Months back, I had stumbled across a project called AirPano where a group of photographers travel all over the world to shoot high resolution spherical panoramas from the air. When I saw their panoramas for Machu Picchu Mountain, I was mesmerized. I couldn’t tear myself away. I became obsessed with getting myself to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain.
I highly recommend you check out their other panoramas on the AirPano website. Warning: you might get addicted and wind up buying a plane ticket. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
So you think you might want to climb one of the Machu Picchu mountains? Let’s talk logistics.
- General: Huayna Picchu is the mist-shrouded mountain in the backdrop of every classic Machu Picchu picture. It is incredibly popular, and harder to get tickets. Machu Picchu Mountain is the bigger mountain opposite Huayna Picchu. It is easy to get tickets, and you’ll be away from the crowds.
- Difficulty: Huayna Picchu is a 1,000 ft climb while Machu Picchu mountain is about double the elevation gain. If you’ve just done the Inca Trail, both climbs will be fairly easy – Machu Picchu is at a lower elevation than most of the Inca Trail. If you’re coming from a lower altitude then Machu Picchu Mountain could be pretty exhausting, but do-able, if you take your time. Allow 2 hours to ascend Machu Picchu Mountain if you’re reasonably acclimated.
- Safety: Huayna Picchu comes with a small risk of falling to your death. Of course, if you are careful and take your time, you’ll be fine. Machu Picchu Mountain is less risky, but still has its steep sections and drop-offs.
- Tickets: For Huayna Picchu, buy tickets online (here) LONG in advance. For Machu Picchu Mountain, get tickets online or in person from Ministerio de Cultura (Av de la Cultura #238) in Cusco a few days before. Either way, your ticket also serves as your entry ticket to the main ruins at Machu Picchu.
- Wear: Athletic shoes or hiking boots. Just don’t be caught in sandals. Sunscreen and warm weather clothes are smart. Be sure to wear layers if you’ll be there early in the morning when it’s still chilly.
- Bring: Water (a must!), snacks, and a camera.
Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain
After rising early every morning on the Inca Trail, Garren and I couldn’t sleep past 7:30am so we caught an 8:30 bus up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. We found the sign for Machu Picchu Mountain, and made our way up the first set of steps.
It wasn’t long before we encountered a small pack of llamas making their way down to Machu Picchu. They walked right by us on the stairs, and some of them even posed before trotting down for breakfast on the Machu Picchu terraces.
We reached the check point for the trail up to Machu Picchu Mountain and presented our tickets and signed in. I’m pretty sure the sign-in sheet is to keep track of which tourists don’t come back.
I wasn’t sure what the trail would be like, but it turned out it was very similar to the Inca trail, with old stone steps most of the way up. At only 8,000 ft above sea level, the hike was fairly easy and we stopped less frequently than we had on the Inca Trail.
It was hard not to stop though, because every time we turned around, we saw this view.
In many places, the trail dropped straight off to the base of the mountain, giving us dizzying views of Machu Picchu, getting smaller and smaller as we climbed.
There weren’t very many people on the trail with us. We saw a couple of small groups at most.
The trail wound up the mountain in switchbacks, giving us alternating views of Machu Picchu, the jungly green mountains, and the dryer mountains on the other side where the hydroelectric plant hummed away, completely hidden to most of Machu Picchu’s visitors.
It was a beautiful hike, and there was no shortage of cool things to look at. Every step was more than worth it, with gorgeous views the whole way up.
When we turned the final switchback and saw the summit ahead, it was almost too perfect a sight.
We climbed the final steps and made our way to the lookout.
Those panoramas that transfixed me months earlier hadn’t misled me. Majestic mountain giants rippled out all around me, the Urubamba River wound around the green peaks, and one of the seven wonders of the world nestled peacefully on a bright green ridge. The buzz of the crowds at Machu Picchu were nonexistent. Up at the summit it was peaceful, quiet, and beautiful. This was the best kept secret of Machu Picchu.
It’s hard to describe how Machu Picchu Mountain made me feel, but it was something like a mixture of being incredibly content and completely awe-struck. We spent about an hour up there, just soaking it all in. I could have stayed up there all day. I never wanted to forget that feeling.
Garren eventually pried me away from the summit and we made our descent back to Machu Picchu. What had taken us about an hour and a half coming up took only 45 minutes or so going down. We signed out so the rescue squads wouldn’t come looking for us, and strolled out into the splendor of Machu Picchu.
But this time it seemed different. This time it felt like we knew a secret about Machu Picchu that most people missed. We strolled along the grassy terraces and watched the other travelers taking selfies and following tour guides with giant umbrellas. We walked a little ways away from the all the mid-day commotion and wound around the back side of Machu Picchu, then turned around. It was the best view of Machu Picchu we had seen yet.
Knowing the day couldn’t get any better, and wanting to end on a high note, we committed the view to memory, then took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes.
To see more of the main ruins of Machu Picchu and the last stretch of the Inca Trail, check out my post: Inca Trail Day 4: Machu Picchu.
Ok, let’s hear it! Has anyone done BOTH Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu? I want to hear from you!