Up in the Clouds on Wayna Picchu

Jackie Steves is guest-hosting her Dad’s blog with 17 posts in 17 days. Follow the adventures of Andy and Jackie Steves as they — the first Steves to venture into South America — report on their experience.

Heavenly sunrise seen from Wayna Picchu.

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Hikers scaling Wayna Picchu.

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Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machu Picchu, where we’re staying, doesn’t have much to offer, while having too much to offer for tourists. Restaurant after restaurant boasting Mexican food and “four-for-one” Happy Hours. Stall after stall of the same selection of souvenirs: comical Incan figurines, tacky silver jewelry, knitted hats and gloves, and bright traditional cloth shoulder bags and tablecloths.

Our alarm went off at 3:20 the next morning. Despite having just a few hours of sleep, I was wide-awake, the kind of wide-awake you are when a big day awaits you. We hurriedly packed our bags and left them behind the hostel’s front desk.

As we ran downhill to the bus stop, we heard music still bumping at the club — that’s how early, or late, it was. At 3:40 in the morning there was already a line for the buses that were not set to depart until 5 am. We arrived in the knick of time because in the next several minutes the line sprouted a few blocks longer. We were all desperate to be among the 400 admitted to hike up Machu Picchu’s sister mountain, Wayna Picchu.

The same precarious switchbacks our bus had navigated the day before couldn’t irk us the second time because all we could see out the window was the night’s pitch black.

As our bus (we managed to get on the first one!) rolled to a stop at Machu Picchu’s entrance, a line had already formed of those more ambitious than ourselves who had climbed the stairs up from Aguas Calientes. We won a stamp on our ticket that would admit us into Wayna Picchu at 7 am. That gave us some time to do the mini one-hour hike to the Incan bridge.

Andy remarked a few times how majestic Machu Picchu was at this hour. We were literally up in the clouds, as we could see some clouds below us. The surreal mistiness led me to exclaim, “Oh my gosh, it’s like we’re in heaven!” When Andy said he caught my exclamation on video (on his camera), I laughed, realizing how much I was under the spell of my surroundings.

We entered Wayna Picchu and slithered past a few groups of people. The sun was rising from behind the eastward mountain, casting glimmering illumination on patches of mountains. The clouds floated across the panorama, and we vacillated between making progress to reach the top and needing to stop to take it all in. The glory of it all shed me and Andy of our young-20s cool so that we became babbling brooks of awe and amazement.

The trail turned into StairMaster on steroids. We fell into a rhythm of scaling the never-ending staircase while panting from altitude and exertion. At times the path turned into a climb requiring two hands.

We finally reached the very summit, and a panoramic view made every step worthwhile. When Andy and I sat at a distance from each other, it occurred to us that the awesomeness triggered a need for personal meditation. (Are you sick of me going on about this mountainous beauty? I’m sorry, but you should know it is not exaggeration because all of this comes from a girl who is not a fan of the outdoors and is often at fault for taking natural beauty for granted.)

We didn’t want to descend the way we had come and have to navigate around the ascending hikers, so we chose the long route back, via the Gran Caverna (Great Cave).

At one point we descended a huge wall of stone by stepping down a series of little notches while being suspended above thin air by holding on to a cable for dear life. We also had to climb down a 30-foot slippery wooden ladder. To cope, I shut off my rational thinking process in order to get through it. Afterward I praised God that Andy and I survived. It would have been easy to slip off, for a foot to blunder, or for the ladder to break. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Doing that without a carabiner in the States would probably be illegal.

The Great Cave wasn’t much, but I suppose Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu are hard acts to follow. I have never climbed so many stairs in my life — up, up, up, down, down, down, up, up… Both our knees began to shake with fatigue.

We made it back to Machu Picchu with wobbly exhausted legs, soaked through with sweat, but very satisfied with ourselves. Initially, waking up at 3 am for a four-hour hike was not appealing to me. I was just going along with Andy. But with hindsight I’m totally glad I did it.

We made it back down to Aguas Calientes to watch the World Cup final over lunch at a restaurant. Every building in town was blaring the game. Andy and I don’t get into spectating soccer much, but the excitement of the international crowd around us was contagious.