For my husband's 40th birthday, I planned a trip for the two of us to the beautiful Peru. I wanted his 40th to be memorable, so I arranged for us to be at Machu Picchu on the day of his birthday. While it rained heavily on our way up to Machu Picchu from nearby Aguas Calientes, the rain moved out just in time for us to climb to the top of Wayna Picchu (also referred to as "Huayna Picchu"), the mountain in the background of Machu Picchu's citadel that rises 360 meters above the ruins, to get a bird's-eye view of the ruins from above. And what a view it was!
They only allow 400 people to climb Wayna Picchu each day, so if you think it's something you'd like to do, make sure to make that your first stop so you can get in line early for a permit. My husband and I were towards the front of the line and we hike pretty quickly, so we were able to get up Wayna Picchu before everyone else. For about 15 minutes, we had the mountain summit and the breathtaking view of Machu Picchu below all to ourselves. The pools of water from the morning's rain and the moody cloud cover that lingered after the storm just added to the view and made it more dramatic. Climbing Wayna Picchu was the perfect way to start my husband's 40th birthday celebration.
If you find yourself visiting Machu Picchu and would like to experience it in a slightly different way, take the short but strenuous hike to the top of Wayna Picchu. You'll feel like you're on top of the world.
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Explore Machu Picchu's 700 Terraces
The Incan emperor Pachacuti built the amazing Machu Picchu in the 15th century. The residents abandoned the city shortly after building it, likely because of a smallpox outbreak, and it remained hidden and unknown for three centuries until Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911.
One of the most impressive things about Machu Picchu is its roughly 700 terraces, marvels of engineering in and of themselves. The terraces serve a couple functions: they're highly permeable, safely carrying away water from the often heavy rains that swamp the area and stabilizing the city's buildings and trails. They also provide a natural place to cultivate agriculture, making life at the remote Machu Picchu more sustainable for the people who lived there.
It's amazing to think that the 15th century Incans who built Machu Picchu didn't have any formal written language, hadn't yet discovered the wheel, didn't use iron or steel, and yet were savvy enough engineers to develop the complicated drainage systems that have preserved Machu Picchu for some 500 years.
Couldn't have asked for a better day. Mostly sunny with puffy white clouds and temp in the low 70s. Visiting Macchu Picchu is a breathless experience, since at 8000 feet breathing can be a bit difficult after climbing up to the top. I have now been able to visit six of the new seven wonders of the world. Only the Roman Colosseum left to see.
They say you have to face your fears to get over them. If you have a fear of heights, Peru's a good place to stare that phobia right in the eyes.
Just a day before this was taken, I'd been unable to climb Putucusi, a mountain just on the edges of Aguas Calientes that affords a panoramic view of Machu Picchu from across the Urubamba river gorge. Getting to the top required climbing a long, straight-up-and-down ladder that I just couldn't cope with.
But this day, in the ecstasy of being at the actual Machu Picchu site, I was talked into climbing Huchuy Picchu, one of the two peaks just beyond the main ruins. It's supposed to be the smaller, less extreme choice, as compared to the towering Huayna Picchu, so I figured it'd be the better option, given my fears.
Let's just say it was more than I bargained for. To get to the top and then back down, I had to shimmy along a crumbling path of loose stones, gripping what I could of the rock face and various tufts of vegetation that would have had no way of holding me if I slipped.
It was a sweaty, stressful experience, but it also gave us mind-bending views of the surrounding mountains and the roaring river so very, very far below us.
Climbing Huchuy Picchu showed me just what I'd be missing if I let that fear hold me back for the rest of my life, and since then, I've been conquering it bit by bit.
Upon entering, your inclination may be to walk to the right towards the heart of the Incan City. Instead, head up steps and to the left of the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock for a panoramic view of the ruins and to orientate yourself. Watch in awe as Machu Picchu dramatically materializes through the dissipating clouds.
The Inca Trail lies beyond the hut, away from the center of the heart of the Incan City. It is relatively lightweight-friendly from this direction so go ahead and walk it for a mile or so (it leads all the way to the Sun Gate, but you don’t have enough time for that) to get a long-distance, wide-angle view of Machu Picchu.
Return on the path the way you came (you have no choice), and proceed down to Central Machu Picchu. Walking in a clockwise direction, Wayan Picchu (Huayan Picchu) will rise up before you. Book tickets in advance to spend an additional day climbing to the top.
Moving on, reach the maze of walls and structures that you gazed down upon when you first arrived at Machu Picchu. Look up to see where you’ve been.
A one way ticket from San Francisco to Bogota, and this was the peak. After gringoing through Colombia and Ecuador, my travel buddy and I found ourselves socked in a bundle of thick clouds at the entrance of Machu Picchu.
We had taken a bus from Lima that was a pricey $20 compared to most bus fares but it was a luxurious Cruz del Sur ride. Once in Cuzco we compared some Inca trail tour companies and said we were students, that got us a four day room, board, hike and bike tour all the way to the lost city and back for $165.
We were underwhelmed to arrive on a day with heavy fog when the views were so hyped, but Hiram Bingham's find prevailed and the sun shined through for 5 hot hours.
Since it's one of the most photographed tourist destinations in the world, it was my mission to take a picture at Machu Picchu that nobody had seen before. I had to crop the bottom by a quarter inch, but we got the point across, we were above the clouds.
Although the destination of Machu Picchu was the prize, everything leading up to the top was what made the trip. I compared notes with my brother who took the train straight in from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes and he was nonplussed by the whole experience. My advice, take as little transportation as possible from Cuzco, it doesn't have to be pure hiking, but the Sacred Valley wasn't named by accident. Every step is worth pausing to take it in.
And add some adventure to your journey to Machu Picchu with the Inca Jungle Trek. An alternative route to the classic Inca Trail, this trek provides variety for those who want to do more than just hike for four straight days. Although there are a variety of tours available, most Inca Jungle Treks include the options to bike, hike, raft, and zipline.
Be warned: The biking is not for beginners. You'll zoom down the winding Abra Malaga mountain pass, having to dodge oncoming traffic. It definitely has the potential to be the most exhilarating bike ride of your life.
Like many, I had seen dozens of pictures of Machu Picchu in the past. Everyone had mentioned what a great experience it was and that the feeling of being there was like none other. In all honesty, part of me was a bit fearful that we’d arrive and it would be a bit anticlimactic; so built up and it would be just like every picture I’d seen (I had felt like that in other acclaimed places before).
Machu Picchu was entirely different. It was magical. The landscape was breathtaking just driving from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu’s gates, but the view upon entering is absolutely stunning. The mountains, the skies, the citadel — standing amidst everything made me feel… small. Not in an insignificant way; in a sort of wonderful, I’m-part-of-something-so-much-greater way. We stayed at the Sanctuary Lodge, right outside of Machu Picchu's gates, and got in early enough to see the sun rise behind the mountains. Spectacular doesn't even scratch the surface.
Huayna Picchu is the mountain towering behind the Machu Picchu ruins. The strenuous hike to the summit takes about an hour, with steel cables assisting hikers on the more treacherous parts of the climb. To avoid overcrowding, only 400 visitors are allowed to climb the mountain a day. The summit towers 1,180 feet above Machu Picchu.