“La Gran Caverna” on Wayna Picchu

What is now labelled the Gran Caverna (Great Cave) on the far side of Wayna Picchu from Machu Picchu is actually a shallow opening under a large stone outcrop. It is “gran” (great) only in the sense of the amazing stonework found inside. The space is actually quite small. The mortarless walls with tight-fitting stones have endured earthquakes with minimal damage, standing in place for hundreds of years.

What appears to be a doorway in the picture below is actually a large niche probably used to place some item of value. Notice the double-jambed design. I will have more to say about this below.

Close-up of Late Inca Era Stonework in the Gran Caverna

Such high quality stonework is only found in ancient Inca-era sites of great significance. It is no wonder, then, that over time people began to refer to this spot as the “Temple of the Moon”, even though Bingham never called it that, and there is no good reason to associate it with moon worship. The site must have had a very high status, but we don’t really know what its real purpose was.

Getting to this location requires a large time commitment and a solid level of fitness. And there’s really not much else to see on the multi hour hike other than jungle-like vegetation, an occasional view of the surrounding mountains, and a lot of stairs.

When you arrive at the check-point for entrance to Wayna Picchu, you will see a large map showing the route to the summit and a much longer route to the “Gran Caverna.” Because the direction of traffic is now controlled, you have to climb to the summit first in order to reach the Gran Caverna. The hike / climb to the summit of Wayna Picchu should take you about an hour (two hours round trip if you return the same way you came).

The map below is not the one displayed at the checkpoint. It is my own adaptation of Google Earth’s image of the area, but it shows the location of the cave in relation to the ruins at Machu Picchu (the citadel), two nearby peaks, and the town of Aguas Calientes.

Satellite map showing the location of the cave
Satelite map showing the location of the cave

The stated estimate for the Gran Caverna hike is four hours, an hour to reach the summit, and three more hours to visite the cave. I was sixty years old—I turned sixty-one a few days later—and I made the entire hike with three friends in just under three hours.

book at Wayna Picchu
Book, Wayna Picchu

To climb Wayna Picchu (including the visit to the Gran Caverna), you have to sign in. Having you sign in and out helps locate any unfortunate hikers who get into difficulty. I signed in at 7:38 am and signed out at 10:27.

I have to admit, though, that the trek was far harder for me than the last time I did it. The years have taken a toll on my fitness.

I have discussed the climb to the summit of Wayna Picchu elsewhere (see Climbing Wayna Picchu), so here I will focus on the descent from the summit to the Gran Caverna and the climb back to the checkpoint at Machu Picchu.

The Descent

Stairs protected by a wall

From the summit of Wayna Picchu, you hike down the face of the mountain away from Machu Picchu, going quite a bit lower than the level of the ruins in the citadel there. Three friends and I began this descent at about 9:15 in the morning on July 4. The hike begins on a well preserved path and staircase that has the remains of a wall on the side opposite the cliff.

Curved staircase with metal cable for support
Curving staircase with metal cable for support

As we began the descent we did not know how long it would take us to reach the Great Cave, and the longer we walked, the more we became convinced that we had chosen the wrong path. I certainly did not remember it taking so long the last time I had been there, and much of the journey looked unfamiliar. In hindsight, I think the lack of familiarity was due to a lot of careful restoration having been done on the trail. In 2004 and 2006 the beginning of the descent looked different.

At many points along the way, the descent becomes quite steep. Metal cables now provide handholds at some of these points.

At others there is no railing of any kind. If the steps are steep enough it is sometimes temping to turn around and go down them backwards, holding onto the steps above you for added stability.

The trip from the summit to the cave consists mostly of working your way down flights of steps.

As you approach the site of the “Great Cave” you will see a small structure that may have served as a control station guarding access to the site.

This small structure may have served as a guard station, controlling access to the site, or it may have been a storage facility for crops grown below the site.

The Gran Caverna / Great Cave

Turning the corner to your left after passing the small structure, you will encounter what Bingham called the “Great Cave”, a very small space under an overhanging rock containing high-quality stonework.

The stonework beneath this overhanging rock raises numerous questions. Why was such sophisticated work done at this remote site? What could be its intended use? To make the reasons for these questions clear, I took an image from Wikimedia Commons and labeled some of the puzzling features. (None of my own images included them all.)

Four puzzling features of the stonework in the “Gran Caverna”

This small enclosure has five large double-jammed niches (four visible in the image above, one hidden just around a corner). Double-jammed doorways, windows, and niches are features found only at the highest status sites from the Inca Period. They typically appear in palaces and temples, but not in common residences or other buildings for common use. This feature suggests that the small cave had some quite important status.

In the bolder in middle of the floor two intriguing features have been carved. The one to the left is often referred to as the “throne”. It has a curved bottom, making it a comfortable place to sit, but not very useful for other purposes.

On the right side of the boulder a set of steps carved into the rock. This is somewhat puzzling given that it’s quite easy to walk around the other side of the boulder to get to the same place. Does this imply that the steps once led to a structure that is no longer there, or that the site was still under construction when it was abandoned? There is no evidence of a former structure at that location. Turning right at the top of these steps leads within a few steps to the end of the “cave”.

The Return

The return to the checkpoint from here is not as steep as the descent, but it is a serious climb at lest as far as the western ridge. Since you do not have to return to the summit, you only have to climb about half as far as you descended, but by this time I was quite tired, and the climb became more difficult.

Unless you are much more fit than I am, you will need to stop to rest often. I often lagged behind my three companions, having to stop a little more often than they did.

As you can see from in the pictures, the vegetation is heavy on the way back. While it frequently obstructs the view of the surrounding mountains, it provides welcomed shade.

Only a short distance along the trail, you will run into more ruins. A structure resembling a house will appear on your left. It has particularly large windows facing the trail. Could this have been another access control station? While traffic is directed in a single direction now, meaning you find this structure upon leaving the Great Cave, this traffic pattern was imposed only recently. In ancient times it is likely that this structure, like the one on the other side of the cave, could have controlled traffic heading to the cave.

Once you reach the western ridge of Wayna Picchu you will be able to see the ruins at Machu Picchu again in the distance to the south. You will then begin a steep descent along the southern face of the mountain.

View of Machu Picchu from the western ridge of Wayna Picchu

Along the southern face the path will descend and rise in alternating stages. On one of the earliest of these transitions the ancient builders included a protective wall on the side of the trail opposite the cliff face, like the one we saw on the way from the summit to the cave. Only a few of the flights of stairs are protected in this way.

In the picture the younger two of our group of four look back at me waiting for me to catch up.

Stairway under a rock overhang
Modern hikers have to duck to walk these stairs under a rock outcrop.

The overhanding rock in the picture above is somewhat uncomfortable for hikers of my height, but ancient travelers on this trail would have had little trouble passing beneath it.

At one point on your return journey you will have to climb a wooden ladder. By the time you reach this point you do not have much further to go.

Can you think of a reason the ancient builders would have left a section of the trail impassable? We don’t know, of course, what means ancient travelers used to connect the upper and lower portions of this trail. It could have been a ladder, but straight segments of wood long enough to build the sides of a ladder would have been difficult to procure in this region. Another possibility is a “rope” made of vines, which would have been plentiful. In any event, some temporary structure was required here. Why?

Although I didn’t mention it while discussing the descent from the peak to the cave, there is also a section like this in that trail—a point at which a temporary means of completing the trail was necessary. Could this have been yet another means of protecting access to the cave? Removing the temporary structure would quickly complicate access.

After passing this temporary structure you will soon rejoin the trail that took you to the summit at the beginning of your hike, cross the narrow strip of land connecting Wayna Picchu to Machu Picchu, and return to the control station near the sacred rock at Machu Picchu.

For my group ranging in age from fourteen to sixty, the entire hike up Wayna Picchu, down to the Great Cave, and back to Machu Picchu took just under three hours. If you decide to make the hike yourself, you can comfortable take a bit longer!