Diary of a Wimpy Kid at Machu Picchu

Although a visit to Machu Picchu is at the top of many bucket lists, I never planned to visit.  It’s too high! But I went to Machu Picchu anyway and learned that no one ever exaggerated either its magnificence or the challenges it presents to people who are afraid of heights.

Machu Picchu is the miraculous citadel of the Incan Empire. Built in the 15th century high in the Andes, the Incans abandoned it some time after the Spanish conquered them. Machu Picchu was “found” in 1911 by a British archaeologist, Hiram Bingham III. (Actually, a small community of Peruvians lived there when it was “discovered,” but some white people think it only counts if white people find something.).

Some of the stones used to build the site weigh as much as 50 tons and were hauled up the mountain and chiseled into perfectly engineered walls — without the benefit of the wheel or iron tools.

Our journey to the site began with a train ride from Cusco that wound through the Peruvian countryside and a narrow gorge to the small town of Aguas Calientes, nestled at the base of Machu Picchu’s mountain along the Urumbamba River.

View of Aguas Calientes from the front of our hotel.

The view of the Urumbamba River from the window of my hotel room.

At 5:30 the next morning, we left for the site.  The bus ride was, as expected, crazy scary! The buses are nice enough but the one-lane road is unpaved and very steep with lots of switchbacks. The road has no guardrails and plenty of 1,000 foot drops. When another bus was coming down the hill, our bus made room by backing down the muddy road. Each time this happened, I put my head between my legs and moaned. Each time I did that, the nice young man sitting next to me giggled. He said no bus at Machu Picchu had ever gone over a cliff, as far as he knew.

A photo of the bus ride to Machu Picchu that someone else took. I didn’t take any photos because I was closing my eyes.

Anyway, I survived the bus ride up and was super excited to be there!  I expected a lot of drama — giant expanses of granite ruins over hundreds of acres on the top of the Peruvian world. The drama was there alright but I had to imagine some of it because the whole mountain was enshrouded in fog. Visibility was further impeded by the fact that it was raining and the $3 rain poncho I bought would only keep my head dry if I allowed it to fall over my eyes.

This is a photo someone else took of the most famous part of Machu Picchu when it wasn’t enshrouded in fog.

This is a photo I took of part of the famous area.

For some reason, I decided not to hire a guide for my Machu Picchu visit, which is probably why I decided to hike to the Sun Temple. I got within a quarter of a mile of it and turned around because the people coming down the trail said they couldn’t see the Sun Temple through the fog. In a way, this was a huge relief to me because it gave me an excuse to avoid further navigation along the slippery trail with the sheer drop on one side and the sheer cliff on the other.

The trail of sheer cliffs on the way to the Sun Temple.

A photo taken by someone else of what I would have seen if I’d made it to the Sun Temple on a sunny day

There was no guide to prepare me for my second hike either, which was to Inca Bridge. Actually, almost to Inca Bridge. I turned around about 100 meters from the site when I saw how scary the trail was going to be. Another sheer drop but this time without the benefit of other hikers to save me.

The trail of sheer cliffs in the last quarter mile to Inca Bridge.

The view of Inca Bridge from where I turned around.

But don’t let my experience deter you. Hire a guide and go during the dry season. If the hiking trails sound too scary for you, you can skip Sun Temple and Inca Bridge, and go to the part that everyone else goes to. If the bus ride sounds too scary for you, you can hike to and from the site on a very strenuous path.  I took that path on the way down instead of getting back on the bus for a total of 9 miles of hiking up and down the mountain. I have been limping and popping ibuprofen ever since.  Totally worth it!

My Machu Picchu hike — like 5 hours on the Stairmaster.



  1. The bus trip up the Road of Terror, the narrow trails with frightening cliffs and gorges, the bridges over chasms promising certain death and dismemberment- OMG!

    Waaaay too scary for me to even look at the pictures!!!

    Glad you survived Kim! Next trip I suggest you go to Disneyland.

  2. So glad you went through with the adventure. When I hadn’t heard from you for a while I was afraid you had bagged it! Great blog. Now you are on to the Amazon Love

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. In spite of everything, it was amazing. At first, I was thinking “What can I do to get back at Carol Brown and Karen Sokal for not telling me about the bus ride?” But in the end I thought “I am glad Carol Brown and Karen Sokal didn’t tell me about the bus ride!”

  3. I had difficulty jumping off the 10 meter diving board when I was twelve, but only the first time. After that, I couldn’t get enough of it. So I’m afraid I can’t empathize much with your acrophobia — sorry.

    Such a shame that you had bad weather! It just means you’ll have to go back, and if your guide is good enough, it’s worth it, in my opinion.

    I trust you saw Coricancha Temple back in Cusco. I found it invaluable in making the Tahuantinsuyeno religion understandable, with its map of the empire with the network of sacred spots throughout — of which Machu Picchu is but one.

  4. PS. In Mérida Mexico, Pilar and I saw a big exhibit of the photos of Martín Chambí. Have you had a good look at them? They give you a real glimpse of the way of life in Tahuansuyu. Check ’em out if you haven’t.

  5. I’m with you! I get the weirdest clammy feeling when I contemplate heights. No way would I have gone over that Inca bridge.

    Sent from my iPad


  6. Your ride on the narrow trail reminds me of Nepal and Bhutan. But in contrast to the man on your bus who knew of no one who went over the cliff, we had to wait for two hours on such a road as a truck was hauled up from a deep gully by a crane. The driver escaped with a broken leg. I too closed my eyes when we passed another bus or truck. But I imagine those drivers would cringe if they had to drive on our freeways or in NYC.

    1. Right — and the difference is that there is a sort of zen approach to driving in other parts of the world that we don’t experience in the US, especially in the cities.

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