Life on the Edge: The Floating Stairs of Peru

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Floating Steps PeruPhoto: pasto911

The Incas, masterful builders and architects, were fascinated by stairs: their temples looked like giant staircases, farming was done through an elaborate terrace system, they were masters at climbing the steep and narrow Inca trail and invented the floating stairs. Imagine a steep wall with just a few slabs sticking out, stair-like, no handrail of course. Would you trust them, let alone brave them swift and nimbly like the Incas, given the long fall down?

The famous floating Inca stairs:
Inca stairsPhoto: via travelpod

For many, their highlight of a trip to Peru and Machu Picchu in particular is the steep climb up Huayna Picchu, the mountain that overlooks the “Lost City of the Incas.” Though the climb is steep and often dangerous, the views are worth it: The peak is about 2,720 m (8,920 ft) above sea level and 360 m (1,180 ft) higher than Machu Picchu. The Urubamba River that bends around it adds to the scenic quality.


Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background:

Huyana PicchuPhoto: Christophe Meneboeuf

The Sacred Valley, not far from Machu Picchu, has its fair share of floating steps:

floating steps sacred valleyPhoto: via travelpod

During Inca times, the high priest and his helpers who lived on Huayna Picchu would walk down the steep trail to Machu Picchu before sunrise to signal the coming of the new day. Today, the walk is restricted to 400 visitors per day to avoid crowding on the narrow trail and the peak. For an average fit person, the ascent takes about one hour and includes a steep rock staircase throughout and a narrow tunnel that needs to be braved on all fours towards the end. Then it’s down again. Here’s one description:

“The descent down to the great cave has a few ladders involved including one that’s at the bottom of a very narrow cliffside staircase that may be overly frightening for some people. The great cave is quite a bit lower in altitude than the entrance to the Huayna Picchu path so after reaching the great cave, there is another long, tiring ascent.”

Scenic yet scary:
Floating stairs, peruPhoto: The/Waz

No wonder the sense of achievement is high after having braved the climb. Visitors can even get a Huayna Picchu/Waynapicchu stamp in their passports at the sign in gate! At least once the trail is open again: Because of disastrous flooding and landslides earlier this year in January, Peru’s most famous site has been cut off because both means of getting there, the railway line and the Inca Trail, had been damaged. The railway is set to partially re-open on March 29; the Inca Trail only some time in May.

Sources: 1, 2

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