120km (75 miles) NW of Cusco
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 -- you can zip there by high-speed train or trek there along a 2- or 4-day trail -- 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 great majority of visitors to Machu Picchu still visit it as a day trip from Cusco, but many people feel that a few hurried hours at the ruins during peak hours, amid throngs of people following guided tours, simply do not suffice. That certainly is my opinion. By staying at least 1 night, either at the one upscale hotel just outside the grounds of Machu Picchu or down below in the town of Aguas Calientes (also officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo, although most Peruvians still call it by the original name), you can remain at the ruins later in the afternoon after most of the tour groups have gone home, or get there for sunrise -- a dramatic, unforgettable sight. Many visitors find that even a full single day at the ruins does not do it justice.
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.
Aguas Calientes has an iPerú office, Av. Pachacútec, Cdra. 1 s/n (tel. 084/211-104), about one-third of the way up the main drag in town. It has photocopies of town maps and some basic hotel and Machu Picchu information.
Mudslides at Machu Picchu
The most recent mudslide at Machu Picchu occurred in January 2010, when five people (including two on the Inca trail) were killed and 2,000 tourists stranded, requiring airlift evacuations by helicopter. Officials said the rains that swelled the Urubamba River were the heaviest in 15 years, and floods affected 80,000 people living in or near Aguas Calientes, leaving many homeless. Train service to Machu Picchu was not restored for more than a month. It was the latest in a series of catastrophic rain-related events near the ancient ruins. In October 2005, an avalanche destroyed part of the train track leading from Cusco to Machu Picchu, stranding 1,400 travelers, and before that, in April 2004, two massive mudslides at the tail end of the rainy season hit Aguas Calientes, killing six local people and stranding as many as 1,500 tourists for the duration of Easter weekend.
Such destructive rains may not be the norm, but they highlight both the dangers of traveling in the highlands during the wet season as well as the precarious infrastructure of Aguas Calientes and its ill-preparedness to handle the explosive growth of tourism in recent years.
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