We’re going up that?

Huayna Picchu as seen from the entry gate Huayna Picchu as seen from the entry gate

Huayna Picchu does not look hikeable. It looks imposing; steep; overgrown. It is—all three—it’s also surprisingly easy to climb. Everyone said so—the guide books, people I know who’ve done it—and now I say it too.

We almost didn’t make it. Huayna Picchu requires a separate permit on top of the Machu Picchu entry, and these permits are time-slotted: ours was for the 7am-8am slot. Given the 25-minute bus ride, uncertain wait time for the bus, unknown walking time to the trailhead, those of you who know me and my punctuality neurosis are thinking “so, you left the hotel at 5?” Nope. Fernando suggested 6:30. Not much leeway should we run into problems—which we did.—but long story short we got to the gate at 8:03, and this is Latin America, so it was OK.

Sunlit patch, seen from trail up Huayna Picchu Sunlit patch, seen from trail up Huayna Picchu
The morning was drizzly, gray. Raincoats and pack covers on, we started our descent. (Not a typo. The first part of the hike is a down-up-down). Then up. And this is where it gets curious: as everyone said, you don’t feel the exposure. Steep as the trail is, it’s also (for the most part) wide, with a solid rock wall to one side. On the very steep steps there’s often a hand cable. And the lush vegetation didn’t offer many opportunities to look out or down. Occasional breaks in the foliage showed spectacular views across, not down.

The rain stopped, or maybe it just suspended itself in midair Warner Brothers Cartoon-style. The air was still wet and thick. The humidity, the plants, the damp rock—it felt like El Yunque, the rain forest in PR. Up we went, often passing groups of slower walkers or some stopped to catch their breath. There were some sections where we had to wait to pass, but for the most part the trail was wide enough that traffic flowed easily. Once in a while we’d cross paths with earlier-start hikers coming down.

Machu Picchu looks different from above Machu Picchu looks different from above

Before we knew it we were at the top; less than 50 minutes from the gate. We walked through the few ruins of buildings; waited a while for the fog to clear. We were rewarded with brief views of Machu Picchu far below, completely unrecognizable from this nontraditional non-cliché perspective.

Back down: the next entry group was at 10:00, and they encourage the first group to be out before then to avoid snarlups on the single trail. The trail down seemed much steeper than the one up. Partway down, an attractive Brazilian woman—that’s redundant, I suppose—noted my Fivefingers; her eyes widened, she pointed them out excitedly to her companion and said something rapidfire. Looking at me, we tried to identify a common language, failed. After a brief struggle she slowly came up with: “com-for-tah-bel?” “Very,” I replied. We exchanged smiles and went our separate ways.

Machu Picchu, second tour

Back at Machu Picchu proper we set off to reune with those of our group who hadn’t done the Huayna Picchu hike. Fernando offered running commentary on the sights along the way, including (bonus!) one I had hoped to see: the Condor. Not, Fernando insisted, “Temple of the Condor”: condors were messengers, transporting souls between worlds, respected but never revered as deities. The Condor room would hold mummified bodies of those waiting to be taken to Valhalla. I never learned how they knew which souls had been taken when, and can only surmise that a stamp would magically appear on the mummy’s passport.

We met up with the rest of our party and set off for the Inca Bridge which, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit, was one feature I had read nothing about. It’s a “drawbridge” on a side trail in and out of Machu Picchu, a trail possibly used for access by armies. Should unwelcome intruders approach, the two logs at the top could be tossed down the cliff by defenders. Given how good the Inca were with ropes, my guess is that they would’ve attached some to the logs for reuse once the invaders were defeated, but all Youtube records from the era have been lost.

Self-guided Machu Picchu

I’m going to plug REI here: they provided us with three Machu Picchu entry tickets. Looking back, that was truly exceptional and much appreciated. (I say “three” because tickets are time-slotted: a morning entrance ticket does not offer afternoon access, and M.P. is set up with one-way routes such that you often have to leave the park after seeing one part, then reenter to see another. With a morning-only pass, our options would’ve been limited). Yes, of course we paid for them, they added to the cost of our tour; but I’m grateful to REI for knowing that this would be important and for making that part of the plan.

And so, after lunch, we reentered Machu Picchu one last time. By “we” I mean Ginger, myself, and N., one friend from the group. Three others went with Fernando to see the Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The majority took the bus back down to the hotel where they hot-tubbed or massaged or walked the estate with its beautiful gardens. I write that with full respect for their choices, with a mind that strives toward nonjudgment, but even two weeks later I can’t shake my disbelief. I have a long way yet to go with my practice.

Viscacha sunning itself in a quiet room Viscacha sunning itself in a quiet room
Machu Picchu without a guide is a completely different experience. We strolled. Poked. Sat, sometimes in silent awe, sometimes in laughing conversation. Looked for shapes among the rock walls. Listened to birds. Oohed at a viscacha, a rabbit-like rodent (not lagomorph) in the chinchilla family, sunning itself on a rock in one of the many unassuming and seldom-visited rooms in the vastness of Machu Picchu. Leafed through our guide books, trying to learn about the area we were in and to find our way toward other areas we wanted to see.

We lolligagged. Looked outside, took in views of the mountains and the Urubamba river and side terraces that we might otherwise not have noticed. And, around four o’clock, made our way to the bus and back down to Aguas Calientes where we kept ambling, stopped for a gelato, peoplewatched, and quietly absorbed our experiences.