So you’re thinking about visiting Machu Picchu but aren’t sure which of the mountains to climb, huh? I’ve been fortunate enough to climb both Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, and in this guide I’m going to take you through the pros and cons of both (spoiler: the main con for both is you might fall off and die, no joke) and the practicalities of doing so.
Machu Picchu: mystical fifteenth-century Incan civilization, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and arguably one of the most photogenic places on this planet.
Do you know how I know this?
Because I’ve been there…twice.
Planning a trip to Peru? Check out these other articles to help make the most of your trip: The Ultimate 2 Week Peru Itinerary Best 12 Things to do in Arequipa 10 Incredible Places to Visit in Northern Peru Or check out the Peru Archives for more inspiration
Yep, this “once in a lifetime” destination on so many people’s bucket lists – and with damn good reason! – has been graced with the presence of my size 4 Converse not once, but twice.
Well, twice and a half, but that’s a story for a different day…
The first time was when I was 18, volunteering in the Sacred Valley and decided to take a weekend trip to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu with two French girls who quite frankly hated the Welsh. During this trip I somewhat naively agreed to climb Huayna Picchu and ended up loving every second of it!
The second time was 2 years ago, a little older and slightly less naive but apparently still quite stupid, as I signed up to climb Machu Picchu Mountain (or Montaña Machu Picchu) just days after recovering from an illness that well and truly wiped me out.
No regrets, though, as now I’m uniquely positioned to advise on both incredibly beautiful yet death-defying and white knuckle hikes that are almost enough to make grown men cry.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading, buddy.
Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain: what’s the difference?
Unless you’re fully clued up on the life and times of Hiram Bingham, a hardcore mountain fan or just someone who really likes Machu Picchu, you might be sat there wondering what’s the difference between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain?
They’re both mountains, both in the “grounds” of Machu Picchu, what’s the difference?
So here’s the deal:
You know that picture-perfect postcard you always see of Machu Picchu? Where you can see what looks like the entire citadel with a gianormous mountain behind it? Well the giant mountain in the background is Huayna Picchu, and Machu Picchu Mountain is behind the spot where the photo is normally taken from. So one of them is behind Machu Picchu, the other in front (sort of).
Both of these mountains are hike-able (is that a word?!), but the most important thing to know is that entry needs to be secured in advance.
How can I hike Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain?
If you’re already this far into planning your trip to Machu Picchu, you’re already clued up enough to know you can’t just rock up to the Citadel on the day you fancy and ask to be let in.
It’s highly recommended to book as far in advance as possible.
Especially if you want to hike Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Montain – tickets to Huayna Picchu in particular sell out like lightning!
The number of people who can hike Machu Picchu Mountain are limited to 800 per day, and the number of people who can hike Huayna Picchu limited to 400. For both mountains there are two entry times:
Machu Picchu Mountain: Group 1 enters between 7am and 8am, group 2 enters between 9am and 10am. Book your tickets to Machu Picchu Mountain here.
Huayna Picchu: Group 1 enters between 7am and 8am, group 2 enters between 10am and 11am. Book your tickets to Huayna Picchu here.
When you purchase your Machu Picchu tickets, be it online or through an agency in Cusco, Lima or somewhere else in Peru, there are a few different ticket type options.
The first, and most common one people go for is Machu Picchu Only, of which there are a limited number available each day, and which grants you entry to the main grounds of Machu Picchu citadel, but neither of the mountains or the museum.
There are also options for Machu Picchu + Montaña and Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu – these are the guys you need, if you want tickets to Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.
TIP: If you don’t want to go through the hassle of navigating the official Government Machu Picchu website (it can be a nightmare for foreign cardholders!), Get Your Guide has great deals on entry to just the citadel, Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu. You can book online before you go and not have to worry when you get there!
Huayna Picchu Hike Difficulty
Have you ever tried to swim in a pool full of treacle toffee with your legs tied together?
I haven’t (yet), but I’d go out on a limb and say climbing Huayna Picchu was harder. And yes, I said climbing instead of hiking, because most of the journey is more of a climb than anything else. You’ll find yourself on your hands and knees, crawling through caves, clinging on to haggard old ropes for dear life – it’s an adventure to say the least!
Officially online the Huayna Picchu hike difficulty is moderate to medium and apparently suitable for anybody with a decent level of fitness but you have to take that advice with a pinch of salt.
Trust me on this one!
There is a section of the climb nicknamed “The Death Stairs” and the hike is actually often referred to as The Death Hike due to its often deadly hiking conditions and numerous casualties in its history.
The climb is often near-vertical, and at times you find yourself having to rely on nothing but decades old, worn away steps and ropes screwed into the rockface to stop you plummeting thousands of feet to your death.
It’s definitely not one for the faint-hearted!
You also apparently have to be 12 years old, but I met a 6 year old hopping about at the summit so something tells me that rule isn’t very harshly enforced…
Machu Picchu Mountain Hike Difficulty
Compared to Huayna Picchu, hiking Machu Picchu Mountain was a doddle! The steps are nice and wide, so the chances of you tripping over your feet and falling headfirst into the valley and ultimately your death are reduced right down from 80% with Huayna Picchu to an easy breezy 2%*.
*Not actual statistics – I made them up.
For real, my anxiety levels have lowered tenfold just writing about Machu Picchu Mountain as opposed to Huayna Picchu, the difference is that significant.
The only downside of hiking Machu Picchu Mountain is that, like Huayna Picchu, the steps are very small. And I mean, they’re wide enough for the most part, but they’re not very deep if that makes sense?
I have abnormally small feet (Size 3/4 UK!) so didn’t struggle, but I think anyone with even slightly larger feet would have to be very careful, especially on the way back down.
How long does it take to hike Huayna Picchu?
Typically the average length of time it takes to hike Huayna Picchu is 2.5 hours up and down. I managed it in 2 hours and 45 minutes-ish back in 2011, when I was a wee ‘un with a larger lung capacity and smaller waistline.
There was a man who must have been part bionic as he was coming down when I was just starting (at just before 8am, which means it took him less than 1 hour, if that’s even possible!).
The full length of the hike up Huayna Picchu is actually only around 1.2 miles, but it is a treachorous climb, hence the extended length of time it takes to actually summit.
You also have to factor in at least 20 minutes for you to cry at the edge of the mountain, begging for the High Heavens to save you.
How long does it take to hike Machu Picchu Mountain?
The hike up Machu Picchu Mountain is also only about 1.2 miles but according to the experts (those experts being most websites specialising in travel to Peru and Machu Picchu), you should factor in 1.5 hours to get to the top, half an hour just chilling and admiring the view, and 1 hour to get back down. So 3 hours in total.
It took me 3 and a half.
That was just under 2 hours to climb, around 20 minutes on top and just under 45 minutes to climb back down with my tiny feet that perfectly molded into the grooves of the steps.
I will say that it probably would have taken me significantly less time to climb Machu Picchu Mountain if it weren’t for the fact that a) I hadn’t eaten breakfast and b) I ran into my ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend halfway up.
Lol, what fun that was.
The View from Machu Picchu Mountain
If you’re after a pretty view – and let’s be real, you probably are because who climbs mountains just for the lols?! – then you can’t go wrong with either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say you could probably stand upside down on a bucket at Machu Picchu and the view would still blow you away, posing alpacas and all.
The view from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain, though, is iconic. It’s Machu Picchu. The Machu Picchu: the one you see on postcards, on the front cover of guidebooks and occasionally a cheesy airline advert on TV. The one you’ve dreamt about seeing in person for so many years.
And being able to get a good look at it in all its glory from above – a sort of bird’s eye view without having to hitch a ride on the back of a condor – is incredible. It really is a pinch yourself moment.
The View from Huayna Picchu
The view from Huayna Picchu, on the other hand, is a little less recognisable but equally as jaw-dropping as the one from Machu Picchu Mountain.
Despite reaching only 2,693 metres above sea level, whereas Machu Picchu Mountain is 3,082 metres, Huayna Picchu tends to feel a lot higher. Standing on that rocky little crevice at the top is like being on top of the world! That feeling probably has something to do with the sheer drop into nothingness that faces you if you look down.
You can’t even see the bottom of the valley, it’s that far.
Because it’s slightly lower than Machu Picchu Mountain, the view of the ruins from Huayna Picchu is more of a view across than a view down.
And I’ll be real with you, it looks a lot like a stone representation of the female reproductive system. Now that image is in your head you’ll never be able to look at a picture of the view in the same way again – you’re welcome.
Hiking Machu Picchu Mountain
The whole climb up Machu Picchu Mountain is nothing more than a whlole load of steps of varying sizes and inclines. Some of them have worn away over time, leaving nothing but little nubs sticking out of the ground and, as I mentioned earlier, some of them are so tiny that people with normal-sized feet would struggle not to slip.
Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain is hard.
It really is.
Just imagine spending two non-stop hours on the Stepmill, with the added difficulty of the ground being made of tiny little rocks. But fortunately there’s not a single point of the climb where you think “Damn, I could die here”.
One of the unexpected bonuses is there are plenty of unofficial viewpoints on your way up Machu Picchu Mountain, a few of which have decently-sized rocks for you to sit and take a break on if, like me, your level of fitness would rival that of a particularly overfed farm pig.
Hiking Huayna Picchu
Hiking Huayna Picchu, on the other hand, is definitely more “I’m going to die” than “Oh, isn’t this pleasant” the whole way up. It starts with a little walk on flat ground, then some pretty decent looking steps. Then you get to the top of the steps and boy does the fun begin?!
More steps, then more steps, then steps so steep that the nice people of Peru have installed a rope for you to pull yourself up with.
Then there’s a little plank of wood for you to walk across a crevice.
Some respite for a moment as you come across some old ruins.
Then there’s more steps again, so narrow that a squirrel would struggle with them, moving on to a cave of sorts which you have to squeeze through in order to reach the summit.
And the summit? Yeah, it’s just a serious of rocks precariously perched on one another.
Which is better: Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain?
If I had to choose between the two, I’d say that I preferred the climb to Huayna Picchu, but the view from Machu Picchu Mountain was most certainly equal if not greater than the view from HP.
There’s definitely a lot more to enjoy culturally on Huayna Picchu. There are crumbling old ruins dotted along the climb and a plethora of interesting flora and fauna if you’re into that kind of thing.
But Huayna Picchu involves a lot more physical effort, and a lot more awareness of your surroundings.
So if somebody who was totally new to the world of climbing up mountains (is it even called hiking?!) asked my opinion, I’d 100% recommend they give Machu Picchu Mountain a whirl, because hiking Huayna Picchu is anything but a gentle introduction.
The same goes for people who have a phobia of heights – climbing Machu Picchu Mountain is a lot gentler in that respect.
There are much fewer sudden drops, the paths are mostly wide enough for you to not even have to worry about accidentally slipping over the edge, and the scenery is such that at times you can totally forget that you’re even up that high.
You’ll often find yourself sandwiched between foliage, unable to even see the view below, so it’s perfect for anyone a bit queasy when it comes to looking down.
Comparatively, hiking Huayna Picchu is for the adventurous soul.
It’s for thrill-seekers, adrenalin junkies, people with an Act Now, Think Later type attitude.
When I climbed it, there was a bloke (a dead ringer for Jackie Chan) who somehow managed to reach the top and pass me on his way back down as I was just reaching the halfway mark. He sprinted the whole way. Sprinted!!
With no shoes on, I must add.
He said it was his 5th time and he was constantly trying to beat his own record. What a guy.
Huayna Picchu is also for eighteen-year olds who have no idea what they’re doing and a blatant disregard for their own safety. Holla!
My final answer?
If you have to choose between hiking Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, which one to go for depends on a few different factors and what you want out of it.
If you have even the slightest level of acrophobia you may want to seriously consider whether either mountain is worth it for you. Because they are high, the drops are vicious and the health and safety is questionable at best.
Likewise, if you suffer with vertigo or any illness that affects your mobility or balance, it’s not worth the risk.
But if none of the above fits you…
If you want the most beautiful view, climb Machu Picchu Mountain.
If you want the biggest adventure, climb Huayna Picchu.
Hiking Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain are both incredible experiences, and if you get the opportunity to climb either of them, take it with both hands!
You won’t regret it.
Tips for hiking Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain
Arrive on time
You’ll be given an entry time for your climb – abide by this!!!
I was late for my Machu Picchu Mountain hike (I arrived at 8:15 for entry between 7am and 8am), asked the lady at the gate to change it for me and she gave me a firm no.
I was absolutely gutted.
Not one to give up easily, I walked all the way from the Guardhouse (entry to Machu Picchu Mountain) to the entrance of Machu Picchu itself to beg and plead with someone there.
Fortunately a very important man took pity on me and signed me off to go for the next entry time (between 9am-10am).
Don’t risk it – stick to the timings!
Take plenty of water
If you don’t have any with you, they do sell water at the entry point of both Huayna Pucchu and Machu Picchu Mountain.
However, a small bottle is quite pricey (about $4 a bottle if I remember correctly), so you’re better off bringing your own from Aguas Calientes if you can.
I actually did Huayna Picchu without any water (remember what I said about those pesky 18-year olds?!) and although I didn’t die, I paid for it.
The price was heatstroke.
I thought I learnt my lesson so bought a bottle of water to climb Machu Picchu Mountain – just one 500ml bottle which was nowhere near enough.
Stay hydrated, take water!
Wear appropriate clothing
Jeans and converse aren’t suitable.
Your best bet is to invest in proper hiking shoes or boots – these are my shoes of choice, perfect for beginners and those who have no idea what they’re doing.
Also wear appropriate, loose-fitting hiking trousers or alternatively yoga pants, and layers on top. The day starts of absolutely freezing, but by lunchtime you’ll be quite attractively drenched in our own sweat.
Eat a good breakfast before you go
Whether you’re planning on hiking Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, your day will begin with a very early start.
And both climbs require a lot of energy and focus.
Make sure you eat a good, hearty breakfast before setting off. If they know you’re planning one of the hikes, most hotels and hostels in Aguas Calientes will provide an earlier breakfast for you.
Keep your wits about you
As someone who comes from the health and safety-obsessed United Kingdom, both climbs are not exactly what I’d call safe. There are sheer drops, no barriers and very few signs warning of risks.
Keep your eyes open and be sensible.
Don’t fall off mountains, because you probably won’t survive.
Have you done either the Huayna Picchu Mountain or Huayna Picchu hike? Or even both?! Let me know in the comments!
And if you’re planning on hiking either and have any questions, let me know below.