Monumental in both size and reputation, Machu Picchu brings it big in the drama department. This UNESCO World Heritage site packs its Incan legacy into an extraordinary landscape flying 2,430 m above sea-level. However, its majestic scenery is usually accompanied by an equally monumental tourist-draw. Well, not for us.
We had a different experience at Machu Picchu than most—while not vacant, our exploration of the impressive landmark involved 1/4 (or less) of the tourist crowd than most. But how did we manage this?
It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t planned.
An archaeological goldmine even more imposing than Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya, Machu Picchu rises from valleys of immaculate greenery enclosed by dramatic cliffs and the forking Urubamba River. The twin mountains of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu cradle the ancient city, a masterpiece of the Inca civilization lost to the outside world for centuries after the Spanish Conquest. Now, about a hundred years since an American historian slipped the secret of Machu Picchu to the rest of the world, the site has become one of the most popular bucket list destinations on the planet. Unfortunately, this means most Machu Picchu experiences will be over-saturated with tourists.
We started in Cusco, the nearest town hosting most travelers to Machu Picchu. If you pass through this amazing city, make sure to check out the top things to do in Cusco! From Cusco, we went to Aguas Calientes, and it initially looked like we would also have the same over-crowded Machu Picchu experience of most. At our hostel, Supertramp, we met travelers who had been to the ancient site the day before, and told us of their sunny and stunning, yet people-filled experience. When we woke up before the crack of dawn the next day, we expected a similar fate.
However, we were soon reminded that March is smack-dab in the middle of the region’s wet season, and the weather can vary dramatically day-to-day. While the previous day graced visitors with clear skies, we were invited to drown.
Running through the rain, we boarded a bus and braced ourselves around the twisty climb up to the tourist site. It was still quite early upon arrival, and so there was only a small crowd in line to get in. After entering the Machu Picchu site, we immediately made for the site’s mountain, Huayna Picchu, in the back, hoping to finish climbing the mountain as soon as possible to avoid the crowds and save the rest of the day for wandering among the ruins.
The anchoring mountain backdrop of the ancient city, Huayna Picchu offers incredible views (if the weather’s right) and some major heart-pumping steep stair action going up and coming down.
In short, however, our climb was miserable. The altitude and our dismaying fitness-level at the time put us to WERK up the remarkably steep steps. Further, the pouring rain made our steep climb incredibly slippery, forcing us to concentrate on very careful footing. When we finally reached the peak, the dreadful weather had created a fog so thick, we couldn’t see ANYTHING down below, robbing us of at least that pay-off.
Still, I’m incredibly glad I did it, I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I consider it damn near essential for any healthy visitor to Machu Picchu to set aside some time to climb Huayna Picchu. This is because I know how beautiful the pay-off can be, and because I know that the climb would be significantly easier if done in dry weather.
So please don’t let our experience deter you, and follow these tips for climbing Huayna Picchu!:
TIPS FOR MACHU PICCHU & HUAYNA PICCHU
Machu Picchu Empties Out
Here’s the thing. By the time we had come down from the mountain, it was POURING every few minutes, with an incredible blanket of fog. And this is when the miracle began. But not first without a serving of that pants-related humiliation I mentioned.
My travel-worn cotton pants had served me well up the mountain and back down, like a real champion. But even champs fall. No more than 3 minutes after we had finally taken that last step off the mountain, I sat down on a rocky ledge for a breather.
And then it happened.
My pants…SPLIT. Right. down. the. crack.
MORTIFIED, I tied my raincoat (“Screw it, I’m already soaking wet”) around my waist to conceal the tushy-hole of my wounded trousers, and in problem-solving mode, ran for the entrance to hunt for some kind of gift-shop. What a regal couple we were—Ben, with his bloody, raggedly-bandaged hand, and me, with my butt slit—both completely drenched and frantically pursuing some pants to buy like wet, crazed dogs. This is what took us to the entrance. And that’s when we saw the miracle that gifted us a near crowd-free Machu Picchu experience.
People were leaving by the BUSLOADS, flowing as readily from Machu Picchu as the rain was from the sky. Rows and rows of travelers uniformly decked out in forlorn faces and yellow plastic ponchos swarmed the exits, looking just as frantically for an escape from the dark grey clouds as we were for some replacement pants. Thanks to the horrendous weather, Machu Picchu increasingly became ours.
So, we found one shop (the one and only) selling one pair (the one and only) of men’s shorts for 45 bucks. 45 BUCKS. In case you don’t know, that’s an ABSURD price to pay for most things in Peru. But I bit the bullet and bought the breeches, and (since it was pretty cold), slipped them on over my shredded pants.
With my shiny new $45 shorts, we re-entered Machu Picchu.
Here Comes the Sun
Machu Picchu was noticeably emptier than before. Clearly, most people had given up on the weather, but a few sparse groups stayed behind with us, seeking the little bit of shelter there was.
But then yet another incredible thing happened. The rain stopped. And then, slowly but surely, rays of light began peeking out through the thick grey clouds. The most triumphant feeling shined over everyone that had stayed behind. Glowing with the warmth of the sun, we cheered.
And the fog kept clearing out even more. A mixture of relief, excitement, joy, and gratefulness defined the scene, and every soul in sight immediately reached for their phone or camera to take some victorious selfie against the newly sunny backdrop.
So our miserable foggy, wet morning paid off after all, as we went around exploring the stunning ruins of Machu Picchu without the crowds.
The Moral of the Story
We had made it. Not only did we have Machu Picchu nearly all to ourselves, but we now had it in good weather.
These are the factors that contributed to our near-empty experience of Machu Picchu:
- We visited Peru in tourist off-season (which allowed us to get flights for less than $299 from Los Angeles!)
- The weather for the day started off horribly
- The weather stayed horrible for a good chunk of the day, compelling the people who did come that day to leave early
Of course, so much of this had to do with sheer luck and fortuitous timing. While wet season in Machu Picchu is the tourist off-season, there will still generally be a decent enough crowd filling in the site on a good day. And the weather itself is unpredictable. A day starting off and staying sunny will likely keep more of a crowd than a day starting off sunny and turning rainy, or even a day starting off a little rainy, getting very rainy, and then turning sunny.
Nonetheless, I think there’s a lesson buried in here. Something about the merits of staying behind through the cloudy times for the light at the end. And that a decent helping of stick-to-itness will often help a traveler in a variety of situations. In which case, there should be a 4th factor taken into account: that we’re tough cookies, and we stayed behind even while the people with bloodless hands and shred-free pants left by the busloads. And maybe that’s a lesson that can be applied beyond travel. I want to accompany this thought with some swirling inspirational ballad, a chorus echoing Og Mandino’s quote, “If I persist long enough I will win.” Or throw in a few lines of Mario Fernandez’s more literal, “Rise above the storm and you will find the sunshine.” And I want you to take that idea with you, living robustly with the power of belief, heroically shattering limitations with every empowered blink.
(Unless that’s all B.S. and the real lesson is just to wear some good freaking pants.)
Looking for more Peruvian adventures? Check out this guide to Sandboarding in Peru.
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