Saturday, December 31, 2011

Machu Picchu - Huayna Picchu Hike

Huayna Picchu (aka Wayna Picchu, “Young Peak” in Quechua) is THE iconic mountain that you can see on almost all photos of Machu Picchu. It raises about 360 meters (1,180 feet) above Machu Picchu, and offers a spectacular bird-eye view of the site.

I, of course, had to climb the mountain. And to have a shot at doing that I made my poor husband run the last few miles of the Inca Trek.

The number of people who are allowed to go up the mountain is limited to 400 a day. It might seem like a lot, but it isn’t, as every day Machu Picchu is visited by more than 3,000 people. So to have a chance of getting one of those climbing permits/tickets, you have to arrive at the Huayana Picchu ticket office quite early in the day. Until recently, the Inca Trail trekkers were at a huge disadvantage to get those tickets, as they couldn’t get to Machu Picchu earlier than 8:30-9:00 A.M. (It would not help if the Inca Trail trekker would wake up at 2 A.M., or not sleep at all. On the way to Machu Picchu, a few hundred feet past the last campsite on the Inca Trail, is a guarded locked gate that only opens at 6:30 A.M. From that gate it is another several miles and about two hours to Machu Picchu.). In contrast, the visitors who arrive to Machu Picchu by train can enter the ruins through the main gate that opens at 7 A.M. On most days, we were told, Huayana Picchu tickets would sell out by 7:30 A.M. So to have a chance of getting two of them we had no choice but to run.

As soon as we were cleared at the Inca Trail gate, we started running as fast as we could. It was not an easy or pleasant run, as we had heavy backpacks, the trail was narrow and slippery, and we had to navigate our way between other trekkers and porters who crossed the gate before us. I have to admit that we were risking serious injury running in those conditions. I had a quite epic fall, and I almost managed to break my hip bone. Luckily, my hips are well-padded and this padding saved my ass (literally). I ended up with the biggest bruise I had ever seen on anybody, which lingered with me for the next two months—a small price to pay for the fantastic views Huayana Picchu offered!

Our determination paid off when we got to the Huayana Picchu ticket office shortly after 7 A.M., almost two hours ahead of the rest of our group, and we managed to get two of the last few remaining climbing permits. (BTW, the system of issuing tickets has changed since we were there. Nowadays, one can book a ticket for Huyana Picchu online. On one hand, that’s great news for the Inca trekkers—they will not need to risk their lives (like we did) to get tickets. But there is a downside to it too: you cannot buy a ticket for Huayana Picchu alone, you have to buy a Huayana Picchu-Machu Picchu combo, which costs $55. That’s somewhat unfair, as the price of the Inca Trail permit already includes the price of entry to Machu Picchu. But if you’re determined to climb Huayana Picchu, you have no choice but to pay this double “view tax” …)

The climb to the top of Huayana Picchu, though well-worth the effort, is not for the faint-hearted. As we stood in front of the mountain, measuring it up and down, we had a hard time imagining how one could possibly climb it without proper climbing gear.

We had an even harder time imagining how, a few centuries earlier, the Inca had managed to transport building materials and construct terraces, temples, and other buildings on the top of the mountain. Some of the buildings on top of Huayana Picchu could have been a part of an astronomical observatory, while others might have served as lookout points over the city and the paths leading to it.

One of the local guides told us that the mountain top also served as a residence for the high priest and sacred virgins. Apparently, every morning before sunrise the high priest walked with a small group to Machu Picchu to signal the coming of the new day. Then and now this walk would entail climbing about 1,200 vertical feet (300 meters). Today wire and hemp ropes aid hikers in their effort, but I doubt the Inca had needed them.

I would recommend exercising a lot of caution on this hike, especially after the rain (in fact, on most rainy days Huayana Picchu is closed to visitors), and I would definitely advise against attempting this hike with kids under the age of ten, or maybe even older.

Some spouses should be spared from this hike as well. For example, my husband complained all the way up and down the mountain how steep and dangerous it was, and how stupid he had been not only to agree to do this hike, but also to run with a heavy backpack to get a permit/ticket to do it (you can hear him say that in the video I posted below). And, you know what, I think Anil would have probably been fine without going on this hike, and he only did it because I pushed him to do it. But, hey, this is what spouses are for: motivating us and pushing us to achieve the impossible. :) Today, from the perspective of time having gone by, I know that he is very proud of himself that he managed to hike Huayana Picchu in addition to the Inca Trek, and I’m happy that we lived to tell the tale.

The bird-eye view of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayana Picchu:

A beautiful orchid growing along the trail: