Putucusi Mountain Trek: A Free, Challenging, and Unknown Hike near Machu Picchu

April 21, 2014

NOTE: From July 2016, it has been reported that the access ladders for this trek are now not passable. Therefore, until be hear differently, don’t bother with this trek!

If you’re going to write about something properly you really need to experience it first-hand. So a couple of weeks ago I left the comfort of my office, pulled on my forgotten (and slightly rotten) hiking boots and headed off to Machu Picchu. I had set myself a challenge to hike all the available treks in or close to Machu Picchu in 3 days, and the first and most challenging on the list was Putucusi Mountain trek.

An Introduction to Putucusi Mountain

Peaking at 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) above sea level, Putucusi Mountain is a white-grey granite mountain that was created over 250 million years ago by volcanic uplift. Standing alone to the east of Machu Picchu, Putucusi Mountain forms part of the striking scenery of abrupt irregular slopes, cliffs and rugged terrain that makes this region of Peru so unique and so beautiful.

Unlike the Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain treks, Putucusi trek is free to enter and is un-governed by park wardens. Putucusi Mountain is not located within the citadel of Machu Picchu, but actually on the other side of the Vilcanota River, quite a distance away. Only a handful of people climb Putucusi Mountain every day, making it a very unique and different experience.

The trail head is on the outskirts of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), on the train tracks just behind the fancy Sumaq Hotel. The trail head isn’t clearly marked with a sign, but actually with a notice in Spanish that says “zone in process of conservation – this is a restricted area.”

Putucusi Mountain (from Machu Picchu)

Putucusi Mountain (view from Machu Picchu)

The Trek

After promptly ignoring the warning sign at the entrance I started the trek with a heightened sense of wariness, wondering just what lay ahead. I was full of anticipation as I had previously seen photos on the internet of towering wooden ladders that marked the start of the trail. After a 15 minute hike I arrived at the derelict warden’s hut already dripping sweat off the end of my nose. Passing through a metal gate supported by a half torn down fence, I was presented with the first wooden ladder; a monster of a ladder that clung to the sheer rock face at an angle of 70 degrees, if not more. As I found out later, this is one of 7 wooden and fairly consecutive ladders that you need to navigate to reach the summit of Putucusi Mountain. Easily stretching the height of a four-story building, the initial ladder is the longest and scariest of all of them all; one slip would certainly result in some pretty nasty injuries or perhaps even worse (seriously). I found the ladders were well constructed and in good condition, and most of them had a metal wire guide rope on one side that you could grasp to aid the ascent. I will admit that the ladders really took it out of me, and to help avoid the onset of wobbly legs, I had to wave goodbye to my pride and  stop every 20 rungs or so for a rest. Finally after finishing the assault-course of ladders, I continued up the relentless ascent reaching a thin ridge where the path briefly levelled out. Here I came across some really unexpected views. Behind there were vistas of Aguas Calientes Village and to the left and right panoramic views across the stunning mountain scenery that surrounds Putucusi Mountain. Only at this elevation looking out over the un-touched dense green cloud forest do you realise just how remote you actually are. The views were breath-taking. After a brief rest I continued following a stepped stone pathway which became increasingly more elevated. After 30 more minutes of tough trekking following what seemed like a never ending trail, I finally arrived at the summit. It was only at this point that I got the first views of Machu Picchu, which was in the far distance on the other side of the valley.

The first wooden ladder

The first wooden ladder

Views of Machu Picchu

The summit of Putucusi Mountain is made up of several large rocks which I found an incredibly comfortable place to rest my aching limbs and for taking a well-earned rest. At the centre of the summit was an old metal (and bent) flag pole and a wooden sign stating “Putucusi Mountain, 2,500 m.a.s.l.” The exhilaration of finally making it to the top of Putucusi Mountain was tremendous, but for me the view was not as spectacular as I was hoping. It occurred to me that the difference in height of the summit of Putucusi Mountain and the main urban sector of Machu Picchu is only 70 meters, meaning that you only get a side view of Machu Picchu, not an aerial view like that from the summit of Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. However, knowing that you are looking across at one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, a sanctuary that was built by one of the greatest cultures in the world whilst perched on the top of a secluded granite mountain certainly makes up for it.

Summit: View of Machu Picchu

Summit: View of Machu Picchu

Tougher Coming Down?

Although descending the trail was less taxing on my repertory system, never the less I still found it tough on the body. As it had briefly rained on the way up parts of the trail had become wet and slippery and on two separate occasions I did actually fall over. The continuous pounding of the downward steps were also challenging on my knees and I found that my uncontrollable leg wobble had returned with gusto.

How Long did it Take?

Although I am definitely more accustomed to the office than an Andean mountainside and my levels of fitness are mediocre to say the least, I managed to get from Aguas Calientes to the summit in about 1 hour and 30 minutes. I found that 30 minutes at the top was sufficient to rest, recuperate and take in the magnificent views. Coming down took a little bit less time at about 1 hour and 10 minutes. All in all the round trip including rest time at the top was a little over 3 hours.

Aerial View over Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)

Aerial View over Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)

Tips for Hiking Putucusi Mountain

  • Take plenty of water with you. I managed to gulp my way through 1.5 litres of water which I finished at the summit and had nothing for the return journey.
  • Take a few salty snacks with you. There are plenty of places to buy snacks in Aguas Calientes.
  • Don’t set of for the hike after 2pm, you don’t want to be hiking in the dark, it is far too dangerous.
  • Avoid trekking Putucusi Mountain alone if you can. One slip and you’d be lost to the ravines and caverns of Peru’s high Jungle for years to come.
  • Watch out for the underside of the rungs. I found that most were covered in a fungus and were great places for creepy crawlies to hide out!
  • Take some hand sanitizer to clean your hands before snacking.
  • Take a coat or a warm jumper for the top and perhaps even a change of tee-shirt.

More Detailed Information

For more information on the Putucusi Mountain trek, including a trail head map and photos click here.

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