Machu Picchu is situated on a mountaintop, 2,430m (7,970 ft.) above sea level, amidst a tropical mountain forest surrounded by apus, the sacred peaks of Inca mythology. No matter how many tourists crowd the site each day, there is no denying just how enchanting this marvel of human invention truly is.
Visiting the majestic site requires some advanced planning. Outside of a series of switchbacks from the town of Aguas Calientes below Machu Picchu, there are no roads there. Visitors arrive either by a few hours on a train or a few days on foot via the Inca Trail. While a good percentage of visitors will make the long, arduous trip here from Cusco and back in the same day, some will spend the night in an Aguas Calientes hotel, opting to visit the site during off-peak hours to avoid the crowds and have time to soak up some of the cloud forest.
The stunning and immaculately sited Machu Picchu, the fabled "lost city of the Incas," is South America's greatest attraction, one that draws ever-increasing numbers of visitors from across the globe. The Incas hid Machu Picchu so high in the clouds that it escaped destruction by the empire-raiding Spaniards, who never found it. It is no longer lost, of course, but Machu Picchu retains its perhaps unequaled aura of mystery and magic. No longer overgrown with brush, as it was when it was rediscovered in 1911 by the Yale archaeologist and historian Hiram Bingham with the aid of a local farmer who knew of its existence, from below it is still totally hidden from view. The majestic setting the Incas chose for it also remains unchanged: The ruins are nestled in almost brooding Andes Mountains and are frequently swathed in mist. When the early morning sun rises over the peaks and methodically illuminates the ruins' row by row of granite stones, Machu Picchu leaves visitors as awe-struck as ever.
Machu Picchu's popularity continues to grow by leaps and bounds, straining both its infrastructure and the fragile surrounding ecosystem, forcing state officials to limit the number of visitors in high season.
The base for most visitors, Aguas Calientes is a small and humid, ramshackle tourist trade village with the feel of a frontier town, dominated by sellers of cheap artesanía and souvenirs, and weary backpackers resting up and celebrating their treks along the Inca Trail over cheap eats and cheaper beers. The Peruvian government, along with the help of PeruRail, is doing its level best to spruce up the town, lest its ramshackle look turn off visitors to Peru's greatest spectacle. It has fixed up the Plaza de Armas, built a nicely paved malecón riverfront area, and added new bridges over and new streets along the river, and the town does look better than at any time I can remember. It's still probably not a place you want to hang out for long, though. There are some additional good hikes in the area, but most people head back to Cusco after a day or so in town.
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