Peru – Climbing Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu overview

Machu Picchu, a symbol of the old Inca civilization, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the seven world wonders is a marvel to experience. Sacred Valley, just a 40 minute shuttle bus ride, is a lesser visited site, but this beautiful, peaceful corner of the Andes is filled with quaint villages, and packed with Inca sites. A great way to experience it is on horseback (see our post).

Many travelers like to combine a trip to Machu Picchu with a trip to the Galapagos Islands (see our post). We did not want to rush through Peru and decided to visit the Galapagos on a separate trip. We were not disappointed with our decision.

Many hypotheses exist as to what Machu Picchu was used for before it was abandoned in 1532. The most agreed upon scenario is that Machu Picchu was used as housing for the Inca aristocracy. Alternate scenarios include interpreting it as a prison, a trade hub, a station for testing new crops, a women’s retreat or a city devoted to the coronation of kings.

Getting to Machu Picchu and where to stay

Many visitors to Machu Picchu stay in Aquas Calientes, a short bus ride from the Machu Picchu entrance also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, it lies in a deep gorge below the ruins. To get from Cuzco to Aquas Calientes there are several options, all involve taking a train from one of several stations along the way. Once in Aquas Calientes, it is a 30 minute bus ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu. There is every level of accommodation possible in Aquas Calientes as well as resorts short driving distances from the Machu Picchu entrance.

If you are staying at the hotel ( Belmont Sanctuary Lodge) which is located right at the entrance of the park, it is an easy walk to the gates. Although room rates at this hotel are extremely high, the advantages are obvious, you are the first to get to the gate in the morning, thereby avoiding the huge crowds. It is the only hotel at the entrance of the gates. Depending on your budget and time constraints, the Belmont is a great option, although the service and food are average at best, and the views are disappointing.

In spite of the outcries of archaeologists worldwide, a plan to build an airport in Chinchero, a picturesque Inca town about 3,800 metres above sea level (gateway to the Sacred Valley) is underway. It will allow flights directly from major South American cities, such as Lima. The airport is scheduled to open in October 2024.

Climbing Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu (aka Wayna Picchu or Wayna Picchu), which means ‘Young Peak’ in Quechua, is the large mountain that sits directly behind Machu Picchu. Climbing one of these mountains is considered for many to be a rewarding part of visiting the area. Tickets are required so it may depend on which one has available space. Let’s assume tickets are not an issue.

  • You should be moderately fit for both hikes. We would say that Huayna Picchu is a more dramatic hike with the infamous 183 stairs at the top and no railing, while Machu Picchu is generally far less crowded.
  • Huayna Picchu takes about 1.5 – 2 hours in total including the way up and the way down. Machu Picchu Mountain takes about 2.5 – 3 hours in total. Huayna Picchu does not have a flat summit and it can be quite difficult to move around.
  • Machu Picchu’s elevation gain is greater but it is a longer hike the Huayna Picchu, requiring a bit more physical long distance endurance.
  • Huayna Picchu is steeper but a shorter distance to the top (3082m versus 2693m), there are some parts where you need to use your hands for balance. In fact, at the summit there is one large rock that protrudes upward, perfect to sit on for a spectacular picture. With everyone vying for a position on the rock, it is downright dangerous (we witnessed one heavy set man fall off the rock onto huge boulders below).
  • Huayna Picchu can be disconcerting for those scared of heights, while the Machu Picchu Mountain summit is flat with 360 degree views.

Historical Notes – Machu Picchu:

Machu Picchu has about 200 buildings that are considered architectural wonders, built in the classical Inca style, with polished stone walls. The most notable buildings are; the Intihuatana Stone, (arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice), the Temple of the Sun (semicircular temple), and Inti Mach’ay (special cave used to observe the Royal feast).

After its abandonment in 1532, it was not found until 1911, when Hiram Bingham, a Yale historian set out to find the Lost City of the Incas. Why was Machu Picchu abandoned? Historians agree that there is no evidence that the Spanish conquistadors ever reached the mountaintop, let alone attack it. Many have concluded that the most likely possibility is that the inhabitants all died of smallpox.

In the Quechua Indian language, “Machu” means old and “Picchu” means “ mountain. The whole compound contains more than 100 separate flights of stairs. Most of the individual staircases were carved from one slab of stone, some of which weighed more than 50 pounds. It is also believed that no wheels were used, that the stones were carried to the mountain top by hand.

Being excellent masons, the Inca built with a technique called ashlar (stones that are cut to fit together without mortar) that not even a knife blade can fit in between stones. They were also excellent astronomers. The site was an astronomical observatory, and its sacred Intihuatana stone accurately indicates the two equinoxes. Twice a year, the sun sits directly over the stone creating no shadow.

Most of the cities built by the Incas were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, but because it was hidden, Machu Picchu was spared.

Mondisti’s Peru Trip Tips

  1. Machu Picchu is a legendary place and should be visited at least once in a lifetime.
  2. If budget is no issue, stay at the Belmont Sanctuary Hotel, it will save you time.
  3. Climbing either Machu Picchu or Huayna Picchu is a thrill.
  4. Huayna Picchu is steeper but a shorter distance to the top.
  5. Machu Picchu requires greater long distance endurance.
  6. If you are afraid of heights, Machu Picchu is a better option.