Around the world in 69 days

February 8, 2009

The hike of death, commonly known as Wayna Picchu (Feb 7th)

Filed under: Eric's ramblings,Peru (Cusco and Machu Picchu) — Eric @ 7:00 pm

So we went up for the first of two days on top of the mountain. As I mentioned in a previous post, Aguas Calientes is the town nearest Machu Picchu and where we are staying. Machu Picchu is quite large, so we decided to do a guided tour for our first day to get our bearings, and then to figure it out ourselves from there. This turned out to be a wise decision, and we have Sam to thank for this one.

Our hotel, the Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel, was nice enough to organize the tour with a nice Peruvian guide named Ali. Of course, you wouldn’t think they were that nice if you knew what the tour cost! (I asked if Ali was a typical Peruvian name – it turns out that his dad was a big fan of Muhammad Ali and he’s a little embarrassed about it). Ali turned out to be awesome – he actually is a college trained guide (who knew?), was very knowledgeable about Machu Picchu (of course) and Peru and South America in general, and he was cute and nice (he is 26).

We did a full day tour but we started with a climb to Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu (“Young Peak”) is the mountain right next to Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”). Wayna Picchu is also about 1000 feet higher than the Machu Picchu citadel (the citadel is at 7972, Wayna Picchu is 8922 ft), and in Incan days was the site of a guard house where they kept watch looking for invaders. But what a guard house! Almost 9000 feet above sea level with a commanding view of the valley surrounding the citadel.

It was a foggy and rainy day, which is what we get for going in the rainy season. Here is a picture before our climb of Wayna Picchu looming in the fog from the Machu Picchu citadel.

Wayna Picchu from the Machu Picchu citadel - that sucker is huge!

The hike is crazy. Sam and I remarked several times that in the states we would never be allowed on something like this because of our ludicrously litigious society. You climb more than 1000 feet because the path goes down and then up, but the total length has to be less than a mile. There are parts of the climb where they have steel cables embedded in the walls because you basically need the assistance to scramble up the rocks. The rocks are uneven, they are often slippery, and there are places where the path is only several feet wide skirting cliffs literally thousands of feet high. Mom, you might not want to look too hard at these pictures.

The climb to Wayna Picchu. Smiling because we're going down. The hike to Wayna Picchu Closer picture of the Wayna Picchu trail - the easy part

The two left pictures are smiles (because we were actually on the way down). On the right is a picture of one of the sissy parts of the trail.

It was drizzling, foggy and misty. Which was actually probably a blessing as we got quite hot anyway, and could barely imagine what it would be like in the dry season when it is sunny all the time.

Although we’d become acclimatized to the altitude in the town (6,627 feet), we definitely could feel the difference when we got to the citadel, and when we started the climb. Our heart rate would climb fast and we would get easily out of breath.

About half way up we had a little scare. We had been resting occasionally, but setting a pretty mean pace, and suddenly I looked back and Sam had stopped and was wheezing and having trouble breathing. I immediately thought it must be an allergy and wondering how we were going to intubate halfway up a mountain (we’ve been too much House – a doctor show on TV :-)). Luckily, she was able to let me know that it was altitude, and so then I realized there was nothing I could really do. A few seconds rest and she stopped wheezing, and a few minutes rest and she felt fine. We took it a little easier the rest of the way up and are happy to report that both of us are present, accounted for, and still have all our limbs.

Finally, about an hour and ten minutes later, we got to the top. No speed records here. The record, by the way, is 12 minutes. And it was all worth it.

Even with a crappy day (it was still foggy and we never got a good view of the citadel which is the whole point of the climb) it was still awe inspiring. Here we are, perched at the top of a mountain, where the only access is a tiny, crappy trail. And the Incas built a relatively large set of structures on top. They built HUGE retaining walls to keep the land from eroding. They built platforms and outcroppings. The seams between their buildings, walls, and the bare rock face of the mountain are often so tight that you can’t stick a knife in the crack. And they did it all 600 years ago.

One short editorial note: It’s actually wrong to say that the Incans did this. There was no civilization called “Inca.” They were called Tawantinsuyu (which means 4 regions, because there were 4 areas that made up their empire). At any given time there was only 1 Inca – who was the emperor of the whole area. Apparently, the Spanish heard about this Inca, started calling them Incans, and it stuck. So it’s wrong, but everybody uses it incorrectly and I’m not pushing rope.

But back to the story. This outpost (and the citadel too but that’s for a later post) is an awesome feat of engineering. Pictures don’t do it justice, but here are a few.

Wayna Picchu IMG_8498 You can't really tell, but there is about a 40 foot drop to the right of Sam. IMG_8491 - Copy IMG_8496 - Copy On top of Wayna Picchu - the guard house Wayna Picchu - at the top 

What you can’t see (well) is that these outcroppings are on retaining walls, which are roughly 90 degrees and join bare rock faces that plummet hundreds or thousands of feet. How would you like to be on the construction crew that did this?

What an amazing people. What an accomplishment.

A place like Machu Picchu is so heavily photographed that you’ll have seen more picturesque views than we will post. We don’t have the luxury of waiting 3 months until the dry season :-), or going back every day for a week to get the perfect light (although we did catch the 6am bus to try today). But I think a lot of people shy away from places like Machu Picchu because they have seen the pictures and it sounds like work. I really think these people are missing out. Things like Machu Picchu make you feel both humble, and proud to be human. There aren’t enough things these days that make you feel that way. It’s worth seeking them out.

Click here for more pictures from Wayna Picchu.



  1. Doesn’t bother me to look at the pictures _after_ you’ve survived it!

    Comment by Mom Doerr — February 9, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  2. What gorgeous country! Loved the description and am eager to see the pictures. If you two had struggles going up, I’m sure we’d cave in before we even got up to the fog! Love the commentary and glad Sam set you straight on what, where and how you needed to go (i.e. tour). It’s interesting to read both of your comments – the perspective is different and your writing styles are too. Totally enjoyable and thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Ardi — February 10, 2009 @ 5:05 am

  3. I was reading something this morning (Feb 12th) and realized that it’s Darwin’s Birthday. Since you’ll be on Galapagos today and since Darwin plays a big part in the world being aware of the life and Origin of The Species from there, perhaps you’ll be raising your glass in a toast to his birthday!

    Comment by Ardi — February 12, 2009 @ 7:41 am

  4. I was just there last Friday and hiked it in the rain, having many of the same thoughts that you have posted here.
    After we finished climbing, there were men rushing toward the mountain on their radios. About two hours later, we see them leave the park carrying a zipped up bodybag. After having done that climb up Waynapicchu, we weren’t the least bit surprised.
    That being said, we loved the hike.
    Very apt title, as well.

    Comment by GDC — December 29, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  5. Do you know why they call it the hike of death? Its not dangerous is it? Im hiking it with the Green Toad Bus and they said it wasn’t too dangerous. I just want reinsurance!

    Comment by Valarie Canst — September 12, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

  6. Wow, Awesome article. I’m going there next month, great insight.

    Comment by Jose Lujan — March 5, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

  7. I did this in March and it was terrifying and exhilirating..especially towards the very top.

    Comment by DanW — June 22, 2012 @ 9:52 am

  8. finally after 35 years i went, last week…..when i see Machu Picchu i start to cry was very emotional for me, i climb Wayna Picchu, all by my self,i decide to come back, next time i am going to do the Inca trail, everything was just WOW , and today is big holiday – INTI RAYMI- i wish i was there

    Comment by stefania ferretti — June 24, 2012 @ 9:11 am

  9. Great documentary of your climb. I was 68 yrs old last jn 21, 2011 when I made the climb. I didn’t want to know how long it took me to do it til I was down. It took me 5:16 hrs round trip. Had to stop often to breathe as I have asthma and to rest my legs. Also found a few lovely places to meditate and had my lunch at the stone structures to celebrate surviving dropping down through 2 spots where you just have to turn around and feel your way down til you get to a ledge. Am wondering if you went through the totally black lightless cave to the very tippy top rock of Wayna. You didn’t mention that. If you didn’t, you missed a hair raising experience. Enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

    Comment by Margot — July 4, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  10. Wayna Picchu is definitely dangerous. My friend just came back to Cuzco after doing the hike and he says that one of his group members fell 300 feet of a sheer cliff there. She didn’t fall any further because a branch caught her but right now she’s in critical condition in the hospital.

    Comment by davidthesurfer — July 16, 2012 @ 6:37 am

  11. There may be a few dangerous parts but not terrifying at all in My opinion….it’s basically all stairs going up….not sure why people are making such a big deal out of this….Go for it,100% worth it

    Comment by jack flood — February 8, 2013 @ 7:15 am

  12. Agree with jack flood and I am terrified of heights.

    Comment by Vickie Pavlik — December 6, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

  13. My husband and I climed waina pichu in 1983 . Being terrified of heights I can’t believe I actually made it to top.

    Comment by Christl atwood — October 19, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

  14. I just returned from Machu Picchu and this same climb. It was truly amazing and does for sure make you feel alive when you are up top… Then thankful you are still alive once you’ve made it back down. 🙂

    Comment by Denny — November 13, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

  15. Holy Cow! I did this hike during a visit to Peru last week and let me say it was THE MOST exhausting hike I’ve ever attempted. Several times I thought I was going to black out from the effort if not for the fear of death. But the view from the top was beyond what pictures communicate. This was the high point of my trip which included the Nazca Lines, island tours in Paracas, a tour though the Sacred Valley, and other sites in Cuzco and Lima. If you are in good physical shape and like hiking, this might be the most memorable trail you’ll ever walk.

    Comment by Christopher — July 12, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

  16. I did it June 21, 2011…the 100th anniversary of its discovery. Exciting day. I was the oldest person to make the climb that day. 69. Almost quit twice, but so glad I made it all the way to the tippy top. Did not return via the “cave” but dropped down along the side of the stone buildings. That was the scariest part. It as so narrow, I had to go down sideways gripping the building’s stones. Sheer drop of 100’s of feet on the other side. In Aguas Calientes I met an adorable little dog. Tried to rescue her to no avail. When I got back to Tucson, Gabriel Giffords office helped me get her out, but not until August. In October she presented me with 5 beautiful puppies. Nazca lines terrific,sand boarding great fun and getting to see the great condors flying was thrilling. I love Peru.

    Comment by Margot — July 12, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

  17. Chewed some coca and made it to the top in 19:50… what a day. Coca power !!

    Comment by Chris D — November 23, 2016 @ 7:12 am

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