You know that amazing shot of Machu Picchu we’ve all seen so many times? That ‘classical’ Machu Picchu view? It’s only perched on the summit of Huayna Picchu you get it. It’s a haul though. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs it takes to get to the top. No joke, or exaggeration. Many, many more if you choose to go all the way to the Moon Temple. I’m pretty sure we went up and down a thousand stairs doing the full tour. It was worth it though.
As challenging as the hike is today, we owe a lot of gratitude to the Bingham expedition. It took them three tries before they were able to navigate their way to the top. The trail had long been buried by the jungle and was treacherous.
I love this account of reaching Huayna Picchu as recorded by Mr Heald, the expedition surveyor:
I pushed on up the hill, clearing my way with the machete, or down on all fours, following a bear trail (of which there were many), stopping occasionally to open my shirt at the throat and cool off, as it was terribly hot. The brush through which I made my way was in great part mesquite, terribly touch and with heavy, strong thorns. If a branch was not cut through at one blow it was pretty sure to come whipping back and drive half a dozed spikes into hands, arms, and body. Luckily I had enough practice to learn how to strike with a heavy shoulder blow and for the most part made clean strokes, but I didn’t get away untouched by any means. Finally, about 3 p.m., I had almost gained the top of the lowest part of the ridge, which runs along like the back-plates of some spiked dinosaur. The trees had given way to grass or bare rock, the face of the rock being practically vertical. A cliff some 200 feet high stood in my way. By going out on the edge of the ridge I could look almost straight down to the river at that distance, through its roar in the rapids came up distinctly. I was just climbing out on top of the lowest ‘back-plate’ when the grass and soil under by feet let go and I dropped. For about 20 feet, after which it would be a bump and repeat (2,000 feet) down to the river. As I shot down the sloping surface I reached with my right hand and grasped a mesqute bush that was growing in a crack about 5 feet above the jump off. I was going so fast that it jerked my arm up and, as my boy was turn in, pulled me from my side to my face; also, the jerk broke the ligaments holding the outer end of clavicle and scapula together. The strength left the arm with the tearing loose of the ligaments, but I had checked enough to give me a chance to get ahold of a branch with my left hand. After hanging a for a moment or two, so as to look everything over and be sure that I did nothing wrong, I started to work back up. The hardest part was to get my feet on the trunk of the little tree to which I was holding on. The fact that i was wearing moccasins instead of boot helped a great deal here, as they would take hold of the rock. It was distressingly slow work, but after about half an hour I had got back to comparatively safe footing. As my right arm was almost useless, I at once made my way down, getting back to camp about 5:30 taking the workmen with me as I went. On this trip I saw no sign of Inca work, except one small ruined wall. ~Lost City of the Incas
The top is completely stunning. I grew up in the Canadian Rockies and this took my breath away. Surrounded by multiple mountain ranges, a few rivers, and lush jungle, it’s the perfect vantage point to fully take it in. It’s only there you begin to get the full picture of the ancient Andeans.
If you want to hike Huayna Picchu you need to book it in advance. It sells out. I recommend the earlier time slot if you can. We started up around nine and had the trail somewhat to ourselves but the top (which doesn’t have a ton of space) filled quickly and by the time you start coming down, the next time slot is on its way up.
The Temple of the Moon loop is significantly quieter. The reason for this is a combination of a four-hour hike, made up completely of stairs and the occasional ladder, and it not being particularly well-known. Whether the effort is ‘worth it’ or not is a matter of opinion and perspective. I personally thought it was. I L O V E D everything about it. It felt kind of bad ass going up and down all those ladders (I think there were two) and stairs (there were thousands). The jungle is lush and incredible. It’s quiet, you can hear the birds. It almost feels as though you’re not in the centre of the world’s most popular tourist destination.
The Temple of the Moon is little more than a shallow cave with a throne carved into the centre and stairs that go into the back. It was an old ceremonial site that dates 1500 years. The real purpose of the temple is unknown and the name is arbitrary. Since the ancient Andeans didn’t have a written language, most of what we know about them is little more than sophisticated guess work.
That’s why I like it.