Each and every day thousands of people venture up to the citadel of Machu Picchu. Out of those thousands, only a brave few choose to test their fitness by climbing one of the two peaks that surround the ruins. Undoubtedly, these hikes are extraordinarily beautiful and typically done early in the morning as the mist clears, revealing the majesty of the Inca landmark. The most popular is Huayna Picchu. But since only 400 climbers are allowed on Huayna Picchu on any given day, many are left out. Luckily for those adventurers, there is an even higher and equally beautiful climb: Machu Picchu Mountain or “Cerro Machu Picchu.”
Machu Picchu Mountain
Any trip to Machu Picchu citadel is not complete without ascending one of the neighboring peaks, and getting another perspective over the full extent of the iconic Inca ruins. The most popular option for this is to hike up Huayna Picchu (Quechua for Young Mountain), that sugar-loaf-like summit that you see presiding over the site in classic Machu Picchu shots.
Since I wasn’t among the lucky 400 to arrive in time to purchase one of the limited tickets to the narrow trail, I was offered a ticket to Machu Picchu Mountain (Old Mountain), which is on the opposite side of the ruins, and is much, much higher.
Unlike the Young Mountain, which is very popular, fewer visitors take on the challenge of climbing the Old Mountain. This means you’ll often have much of the mountain to yourself.
Climbing the Old Mountain
Though the time restrictions aren’t as strict (gate opens from 7 a.m.-11 a.m.), it’s still a good idea to go early to avoid the midday heat and have plenty of time to enjoy the trek and the views. I set off as soon as the gate opened at 7 a.m., with the ruins of Machu Picchu still enshrouded in thick clouds. After checking in at the Warden’s Hut, I began my ascent in the fog, going up the thousands of stone steps.
After half an hour or so, I reached a widened part of the trail where there was a clearing in the trees. I paused for breath and then noticed that the clouds over the opposite mountains were rapidly evaporating with the rising sun. This was it! This was my “experience-of-a-lifetime moment” witnessing Machu Picchu appearing through the mist!
Sure enough, in a matter of minutes the Caretaker’s Hut was the first building to emerge in a circle of cloud. Then, gradually, the whole site revealed itself to the small crowd of hikers that had now accumulated on this perfect look-out spot. Camera cards now well-populated, we started striding again in anticipation of even better views to come the further up we went.
What I didn’t fully understand at that point is quite how high up I was going to climb. The stone steps along the path kept going, and as the path turned with a new view over the ruins, the citadel seemed to be getting tinier and tinier.
My legs were aching. It was starting to get hotter and more humid in this semi-jungle climate. I distracted myself with sights of exotic birds darting between the vegetation along the path. I stopped and sat many times. I nearly gave up altogether when I saw yet another stretch of stone steps looming ever-steeper in front of me. But somehow I made it to the top. And I’m very glad I did.
The view over Machu Picchu from its namesake mountain is unrivaled. Huayna Picchu is reduced to a mere hump from this height. The ruins look like little grey Lego buildings, and brightly dressed tourists appear as if multicolored ants.
The view from Machu Picchu mountain also affords you the chance to put into perspective the startling location of the Inca city of Machu Picchu. The silty Rio Urubamba crashes round the foot of the mountain that the site straddles, making it an almost island in the middle of peaks.
Mountains dripping with jungle ripple off as far as the eye can see. You can even make out where the Inca Trail comes in over surrounding hillsides, and you can spot the riverside Aguas Calientes where you might have stayed the night, and Santa Teresa’s hydro-electric station.
I sat for a while at the summit drinking in the whole panorama, with a few other similarly mesmerized trekkers and some flitting tropical butterflies for company.
And just like that, an unexpected hike up a mountain became the highlight of my trip to the legendary Machu Picchu, if not of my whole travels in South America, so far.
Tips and Advice
My tips on how to hike Machu Picchu Mountain:
When you purchase your Machu Picchu entrance ticket (well in advance, of course), ask for the combination ticket with Machu Picchu Mountain (Montana) entrance.
Set off EARLY. Aim to get to the gatehouse at the base of Machu Picchu mountain by the time it opens at 7am. The last entry to the mountain is 11 a.m. The trek up takes a good 1 hour 30 minutes to two hours (I took 2 hours 30 minutes as I was taking it slow) and then at least another hour to come down again. When you enter the main gates to the site, don’t be tempted to start exploring the ruins; follow signs towards the Sun Gate and then turn off for Cerro Machu Picchu.
You must be well acclimatized to altitude before attempting this trek – the air is thin and you’ll notice the difference, however fit you are!
Take PLENTY of water – at least 2 liters each, plus some snacks as there are no facilities to buy refreshments after you’ve entered the site. Be respectful and discreet where you choose to stop and snack, and never leave any litter.
Wear supportive hiking shoes and cool, comfortable clothing.
Use sunblock, sunhat and sunglasses – the sun gets intense at this altitude.
Remember your fully charged camera and spare SD cards!
Otherwise, carry as little as possible!