Hike of Death: A Treacherous Climb in Peru

Up the crumbling ruins of Macchu Picchu's neighbour, Wayna Picchu.  
Wayna Picchu, Peru
When explorer Hiram Bingham came upon Machu Picchu in 1911 he thought he had reached Vilcabamba, the lost city of the Incas. Photo: 3523Studio/Shutterstock

Wayna Picchu, which means “young peak” in the Andean language Quechua, is the tall mountain you usually see in the backdrop of pictures of Machu Picchu. The magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu, dubbed the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, are carefully maintained; only 2,000 tourists are allowed to visit every day. Wayna Picchu (or Huayna Picchu) allows much fewer: only 400 per day.

llamas Machu Picchu Peru Wayna Picchu

The Incas domesticated llamas and used their dung as fertiliser to grow maize, which greatly helped them expand their empire. Photo: Milosk50/Shutterstock

On the recommendation of Renzo, my Peruvian friend, I book tickets to Wayna Picchu as an extension to my Machu Picchu visit, before they’re sold out. Only later do I begin my research, which is when Google’s suggestion tool throws up “Wayna Picchu deaths”, sending me on an Internet research frenzy. I realise then that I have signed up for something called the “hike of death”, a steep ascent up an ancient flight of crumbling, slippery stairs carved out of rock. I inhale pages of tips, warnings, success stories, and death reports.

I am terrified but also excited at the prospect of an adventure—and wanting to get my money’s worth drives me to craft a training plan. I don’t stick to it. Less than two weeks before the hike, I find myself scrambling on the treadmill.

Research has warned me that the 2.5-hour hike of death is not for those in poor physical condition. Nervous and unprepared, the night before my visit to Machu Picchu, I drift in and out of sleep. The hike hijacks my every thought. Thunderstorms at Aguas Calientes, the town that provides the nearest access point to Machu Picchu, exacerbate my fear. I know that the Inca Trail is closed during the rains due to potential landslides. Since I am hiking in wet January, I worry that one slippery step will send me plunging 600 metres to my death.

Machu Picchu Peru Wayna Picchu Urubamba River

A 1.5-hour, steep climb takes tourists from Machu Picchu to Wayna Picchu, which is about 1,000 feet higher than the famous Incan ruins. Photo: Björn Kietzmann/Demotix/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Machu Picchu Peru Wayna Picchu Urubamba River

Exploring Machu Picchu’s ​complex of homes and temples provides fascinating insights into the architectural prowess of the Incas. Photo: Alex Robinson/Passage/Corbis/Imagelibrary


Next morning, I am moved by the fresh air and the roar of the Urubamba River. I take the tourist bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu’s entrance gate. Some tourists choose to walk the nine kilometres, along a gorgeous path shrouded in lush Andean jungle, but I decide to conserve my energy for the treacherous climb up Wayna Picchu.

At 6.30 a.m., you don’t just walk into Machu Picchu, you saunter among clouds. The experience is surreal, like the depiction of heaven in movies. The sun is nothing more than a pale disc and the mountains are but silhouettes behind a veil of clouds. Paying little attention to the free map given at the entrance, I run up the steps, jump down the wide terraces, and circle the granite houses and temples of this once-lost Inca city.

Then the cloud cover lifts, and I am face-to-face with my fears. “How are they doing this?” I wonder as I watch the tiny dots of people atop the terraces on Wayna Picchu. The path from Machu Picchu to the summit of Wayna Picchu is carved, not comfortably around the mountain, but on one side, into the steep rock surface. Towards the top, the tree line disappears. I have never studied the Incas but I learn one thing about them instantly: They did not give a damn about vertigo.

Machu Picchu Peru Wayna Picchu

Machu Picchu’s draw is as much its stunning location among towering Andean peaks as the fascinating history of its disappearance and rediscovery. Photo: Mark Daffey/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

I am in the 10 a.m. batch, the later of the two groups of 200 people each that are allowed up Wayna Picchu every day. The 7 a.m. group gets to see a quieter summit, while ours will get better views of the ruins of Machu Picchu down below, after the clouds have dissolved.

Taking a deep breath, I comfort myself with the thought that I can always retreat. The walk starts with a jungle trail that snakes downhill. Over 600 metres below, the Urubamba gushes along its course. As the ascent begins, I encounter hikers from the 7 a.m. group on their way down. “How was it?” I can’t help asking. Answers range from “difficult” to “amazing.” The more of them I see, the more reassured I feel.

Machu Picchu Peru Wayna Picchu

The hike up to Wayna Picchu is tricky with narrow paths on some stretches. Photo: Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock

But the trek gets harder. The steps are breathlessly steep, dangerously narrow, or a combination of the two. Safety rails play hide-and-seek, present in some stretches, absent in others. Sweat soaks into my clothes as I lug my body forward. It’s a challenging hike and I have to stop often. With shallow breath and my heartbeat ringing in my ears, I lean against the mountain wall to avoid the drop. Many overtake me, though sometimes we get stuck behind each other on a narrow path.

A couple that passes me returns a little later, complaining that the way ahead is too steep for them. I keep going slowly, cautiously. Some 15 minutes later, I realise that I must have crossed the point where they turned back. My mental celebration evaporates, however, when I realise I am out of drinking water. Looking up at the perpendicular rock above me, I have no clue how much longer I have to keep going. My thirsty eyes spot a trickle from the previous night’s rain. I make my way to the steps below it and let the sweet mineral drops fall into my mouth.

A hiker on her way down turns the corner and sees the ridiculous scene of me lapping water from the rock. Smiling, she tells me it’s less than five minutes to the top.

Machu Picchu Peru Wayna Picchu

Hikers to Wayna Picchu can visit the Temple of the Moon. The Incas used no mortar, all the stones used in their structures were cut and wedged so precisely that there are no gaps in between. Photo: Keith Levit/Design Pics/Corbis/Imagelibrary

A few steps later, Wayna Picchu bursts open into green, wide-stepped terraces—a contrast to the grey rocky way that snakes up to it. Stepping out of the tree cover, the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu become visible below. But then I realise that I am not quite at the top, the summit still lies ahead. Turns out there is a cave to cross and then a second, even narrower one to plough through. Finally, an unexpected wooden ladder buried in steep rock makes my last steps to the top possible. The summit has a few big stones that tourists climb on to take selfies. It is crowded, so I crawl onto a rock carefully, claiming my space with a few others. Machu Picchu is just 360 metres below to my left and the Urubamba River down by my right. When I feel sure of my footing and the ground beneath my feet, I stand up tall. Face flushed, I feel a sense of invincibility. Though I am tiny and at the mercy of a towering mountain, I have conquered something big inside me.

The Guide

Though the writer went in January, July to August is the dry season and considered the ideal time to visit Machu Picchu. Tickets sell out several months in advance, so plan ahead and book early. During the low, rainy season, for example between November and April, tickets can be bought roughly four weeks in advance. They can be purchased at the Peruvian government’s site: www.machupicchu.gob.pe. Combined tickets to Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu cost PEN152/₹3,068. Students with an International Student Identity Card pay half-price.

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    Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.

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