There’s something about standing up on the edge of a windy mountaintop ABOVE Machu Picchu, that makes you truly feel on top of the world.
Whether it’s your very first trip or like me, you’ve been travelling for the past 10+ years, there are always expectations before visiting a new place. I am usually wary of destinations that are engulfed in fame. There have been so many “The Road Less Travelled” locations I’ve stumbled upon that I would consider more awe-inspiring than some of the typical bucket list destinations. Examples off the top of my head are The Taj Mahal, The Eiffel Tower or Mona Lisa compared to the Silk Road’s Samarkand markets, India’s intricately carved Jain temples, the pyramids of Sudan or the small villages discovered in the hills of Slovenia.
Machu Picchu, because of it’s incredible fame and postcard perfect photos, has always been one of those places that was on my bucket list, mostly because, well, everyone tells you its spectacular, not because I necessarily expected it to be.
A lot of times people confuse actual interest in a place with the glorified “bragging rights” they gain being able to say, “I’ve been there”. I won’t lie, I am guilty of that too. Sometimes it’s impossible not to get sucked into the hype. Taj Mahal was one of those examples where, for me, it looked exactly like the postcards that we’d been seeing everywhere around India for five months, and there were absolutely no surprises. I partly expected Machu Picchu to have that same underwhelming aspect but I was entirely wrong. There is something so magical about Machu Picchu that has miraculously survived despite the mass tourism surrounding it. The way nature seems to hold the ancient ruin up on a mountainous pedestal is captivating. The clouds move so quickly you feel like you are inside a glass globe.
We’d been on the road for exactly one week and of all the luck, I woke up feeling terrible the morning of our hike. Of all days, it had to be the day I’d scheduled Machu Picchu that I could barely pull myself from the bed.
Despite my constant efforts to stay hydrated in preparation for the high altitude, my mouth felt like I’d been sucking on a hairdryer all night. My head throbbed to the point of dizziness, my throat felt like I’d swallowed razor blades, my joints and muscles ached and the worst of all was the cough. I could only take half breaths before I’d break out in a fit of coughing which put extra strain on my already aching back and my chest was on fire. I could hardly lift my arms and legs from the pain. I can’t remember the last time I felt so awful.
The mere idea of getting from the bed to the bathroom that morning felt like an unbearable mission. How on earth was I ever going to hike for several hours, climbing up 630 metres (2,070ft) at high altitude. If you want to do additional hikes, you have to buy tickets weeks and even months in advance, so there was no possibility that we could postpone or change the date. I had to make a decision. There was no way I was going to come all that way just to sit in a hotel room, so I stepped in my shoes, grabbed a water bottle, threw on my daypack, and set out to see what I was really made out of.
The cramped, 25-minute bus ride up to the site was beautiful with the sparkling river below and mountains all around. The single unpaved road winding up in switchbacks to the entrance of Machu Picchu was bumpy and perhaps slightly unnerving, especially if it’s your first time abroad. There are so many buses going up and down and the drivers have become extremely confident driving the same route consistently every day, that they aren’t deterred from passing each other with the sheer drop to the river below.
From the entrance it was just a short climb to the picture perfect view of the ancient Incan village but for me it felt like an eternity. Once I was able to catch my breath and clear my dizzy eyes, I was blown away. I’d seen that view in photos a hundred times before, but standing there seeing it in person was surreal.
Instead of the more famous hiking route of Huayna Picchu which is the mountain you see towering above Machu Picchu, we would climb Machu Picchu Mountain.
As we made our way up, like kids on a long road trip, we begged everyone hiking down to tell us, “How long, how long?” “How much further?” “Are we almost there?” until our excitement turned to questioning “Is it worth it?” and everyone answered with positive insistence that we must keep going.
It was the hardest when we were looking eye to eye with Huayna Picchu, the famous mountain towering over Machu Picchu, and assumed we must be close when hikers’ answers became, “I don’t know how much further. We decided to turn back. I’m exhausted. It’s just not worth it. Do you realize you’re not even halfway yet?”
“WHAT?!” I could not believe what I was hearing and have rarely been so discouraged in my life. Steadily inhaling, I would get halfway to a deep breath before going into a coughing spasm that lit my chest on fire and almost flattened me from the pain it caused my aching back.
Kees was a great support telling me to just take it slowly. Surprisingly, the trail was nowhere near as crowded as I expected it would be, thanks to the limited entries allowed each day.
I was overly prepared for the narrow, steep steps because I’d read many warnings about having issues with acrophobia. I wasn’t sure what to make of that since I am pretty much afraid of every living and nonliving thing in the world. I couldn’t complain too much though if I discovered my fear of heights on the ancient steps of an Incan trail. From my experience the climb up Machu Picchu Mountain was nothing to worry about, though perhaps Huayna Picchu is much steeper and more difficult (I’ve heard conflicting opinions). When you are there, the last thing you are thinking about is how sheer the drop is because you are dumbstruck by the surrounding beauty. Then again, I apparently don’t have acrophobia, which is a great relief. I personally would say, don’t let ANY fears stop you from experiencing new things, especially something as remarkable as Machu Picchu.
When we reached the top I was overwhelmed! I couldn’t believe I’d really made it. 3,061 metres! It took us about 2.5 hours up and 1.5 hours down.
Here is a short video that gives you an idea of what a trip to Machu Picchu entails. We didn’t have much footage of the hike because we were both exhausted and focussed on making it to the top and enjoying the moments. Most of the footage was of the route down.
Credit to Kees Book at Sticky Visuals for the video clip, please don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel.
You have to book ahead if you want to do any of the additional hikes. We always book last minute but the tickets to Huayna Picchu were sold out, and even for weeks after. Montana was available when I booked it a couple weeks in advance.
I highly recommend the Montana (Mountain) hike and if you’re into hiking, book Huayna Picchu too!
– Do not forget to bring your passport, they need to see it with your ticket before allowing entry to Machu Picchu.
Wear layers! With the high altitude, the sun can become intensely hot during the day, but drop to cool temperatures at that height.
SUNSCREEN! The sun always seems to be much more intense up there. You will regret not covering up or wearing sunscreen. I was extremely burnt at the end of the day.
Wear bug spray. We weren’t expecting bugs and our legs and ankles had chunks out of them from whatever was biting us.
There are no toilets inside Machu Picchu. Make sure you use the toilets at the entrance.
– Buses run regularly, you just step on when you’re done and it takes you back to Aguas Calientes town, which is very small and accessible on foot.
Always bring a spare battery and memory chip for your camera, you will be taking hundreds of pictures!
Don’t forget to get your copies of my travel memoir series, “Sihpromatum”, they’re available at Indigo/Chapters in Vancouver, B.C. and on Amazon.
Categories: Savannah Grace