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Huayna Picchu: The Death Hike… really?

Huayna Picchu, also written Wayna Pikchu, is the sharp peaked mountain towering 260m over the prominent site of Machu Piccu. In fact, Huayna Picchu, which means “Young Peak”, culminates at 2,693 m.
The mountain is also known for the breathtaking view over the Machu Picchu site and is therefore climbed annually by hundreds of thrill seeking hikers and unconscious mainstream tourists.
Why unconscious? Well, the hike up there is also known under the more spine-crawling designation of “Death Hike” or “Hike of Death”. This gloomy naming is due to the mountains perilous hiking terrain, wet weather conditions and a certain number of casualties recorded on its trails.

The Huayna Picchu Hike

I was fortunate enough to hike up Huayna Picchu in 2008. At the time, I was quite a hike rookie and had never heard of that sadly famous Death Hike. Adding insult to injury, I was not in the best shape either, since the side effects of enjoying the Argentine food & wine a tad too much for the last few months made me carry a few extra pounds.

That being said, as our guide at the Machu Picchu site urged us to get up Huayna Picchu and experience the view of our lifetime, I didn’t think twice and took the “fun little hike” as he called it, as a welcome opportunity to throw in an extra session of fitness. Together with my best friend, I duly complied and started the ascent of what we then naively called “The Picture Mountain“.

As we stepped on the path leading from Machu Picchu to the peak of Huayna Picchu, I laid my eyes for the first time on the small fortuitously built mud and stone stairs, some already crumbling before us, others interlaced with tree roots.

Path on Huayna Picchu, through drizzle and clouds
The first steps on the Inca trail leading to the top of Huayna Picchu

I have to say that the weather was not really on our side either, it was dribbling down, making the path muddy and slippery. My wish to see the sun rise over the lost Inca city was long annihilated. Instead of the soft sunlight illuminating the ruins, I had witnessed early in the morning the dark night settling into a grey drizzle and an equally gloomy outlook on the grey stone remains. But hey, I wanted to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience and didn’t even think of complaining.

Indiana Jones in the Peruvian Andes!

With the weather being quite dreary and the slopes and makeshift steps becoming more slippery by the minute, it soon dawned on us that this hike, would not be a piece of cake.

The trail left by the prominent Inca population crept through luxurious vegetation, alternately giving way to a steep abyss on our left and our right side. We grabbed hold onto everything that our hands met: tree roots, creeper plants and a metal rope, that someone had kindly installed a very long time ago. Yeah, you could tell it was old due to its advanced state of corrosion. Anyway, it fulfilled its purpose and kept us on the track.

I don’t know why, but at some point I was humming the soundtrack of Indiana Jones – between heavily huffing and puffing, of course.

Up the Inca trail for an amazing view

After what seemed to be half an eternity, we arrived at one of the first viewpoints. Macchu Picchu lay right below us and as the clouds parted the whole site uncovered in front of our eyes. Although the view was phenomenal, other hikers pushed forward to the utmost top of Huayna Picchu. I craned my neck and saw the top of Huayna Picchu peaking over me at its full height.

In fact, in front of us the Inca trail had transformed into an infinite staircase of tiny steps made of stone… a friendly invitation leading us on our climb. The steps were so small that I didn’t even manage to get an entire foot on them (and I guarantee you, I have a small shoe-size). I thought: “Either my trekking shoes are massive or the Incas had really itsy bitsy tootsies.” I giggled to myself as I mentally pictured the little Inca feet.

Machu Picchu seen from Huayna Picchu
Picture by Martin St-Amant (S23678) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The view from up above was just … I guess there are no words, but let’s say AMAZING! Every drop of sweat and every anxious look down the precipice had been worth this unforgettable moment. We stayed there for a good while with other hikers, catching our breath and looking in awe at the remains of the once very prosperous Inca city.

The Stairs of Death

Part of the Stairs of Death at Huayna Picchu

After some time, we decided it was time to slowly get down again. But as I turned towards the trail, the inviting staircase with those cute little steps had turned into a lurking trap. Infinite steps, too tiny for my feet to fit on and purposely waiting for me to fall down into … NOTHINGNESS (or the Urubamba river some 700m below me)! A nauseous feeling of vertigo took hold of me at the sight of it.

The Stairs of Death

I don’t know how long it took me to get down those heinous stairs made for heinously small feet, but I died a hundred deaths, sweated abundantly and even let a few tears roll down my cheeks. In the end, I made it. But the slog was far from being over, the stairs were followed by the very slippery and muddy dirt path we crept up a few hours ago.

So here’s a secret: If you think that the way up is the hardest part, that’s so not true!

Me trying to get down the Stairs of Death… seconds before the inevitable anxiety attack

Anyway, to add fuel to the fire, I learned a bit later that the tiny stairs were called Stairs of Death.

The Stairs of Death can reach an angle of 60 degrees in some parts and there’s no railing to hold onto. Those stairs drain the blood of the face of every traveller; from keen backpackers to neophyte walkers. But a lot of tourists already survived those steps, so you will as well. You just have to be cautious and try to stay calm!

Is the Death Hike really as perilous and deadly as they say?

I heard and read about some isolated casualties that occurred on Huayna Picchu. For example, there was a guy who fell down a cliff while taking a Jumping Selfie, another one didn’t bring enough water and died from dehydration or exhaustion.

So quite honestly getting up Huayna Picchu is only a perilous undertaking, if you:

  • don’t have any fitness level (because, yes the climb is physically challenging)
  • don’t wear the right gear (like flip-flops instead of hiking shoes)
  • are struggling with acute vertigo or balance problems
  • are afraid of heights
  • want to take a Jumping Selfie on the brink of a steep cliff

How to climb Huayna Picchu today

Safety regulations have improved a bit since 2008. Today, to avoid overcrowding and safety deficiencies, only 400 visitors have the permission to climb Huayna Picchu daily. The hikers are divided in two groups of 200 people. Before your climb, everyone has to register in a logbook controlled by the authorities on your way down.

Anyway, as I already said before, a lot of travellers have made their way up there and did not die. Just be ready for a steep climb, be cautious of each one of your steps and definitely bring a bottle of water! If you are afraid of heights, consider not going up the last section: the Stairs of Death.

Would I climb Huayna Picchu again?

When people ask me what I liked most about visiting Machu Picchu, I always refer to the goosebumps I had while standing on top of Huayna Picchu, looking at the lost city of the Incas.

I loved every bit of the climb up and hated every bit of the descent, but I never regretted out of the box experience! If I had the choice, I don’t think I would climb Huayna Picchu a second time, because those stairs definitely gave me the creeps. But then again, I’m afraid of heights… I guess that a lot of people won’t find them as gruesome as me.

My advice to all of the future visitors of Machu Picchu is to get up there as long as they let travelers hike Huayna Picchu. Book your tickets to Huayna Picchu in advance and let the stunning view amaze you!

Wanna read about my other hikes in other countries?

  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
  • Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya
  • Mt Bromo: Get up there without a guide!, Indonesia
  • Mount Rinjani trekking: Personal logbook, Indonesia
  • A Cliff Hike in the Luberon, France

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Huayna Picchu: The Death Hike… really?


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