Deep in the Andes, where the cloud forest surrenders to the jungle, Machu Picchu rises in mist and mystery.
A century ago, this lost city of the Inca was unknown except to some farmers and storytellers. Today, the site, as stunningly preserved as it is hauntingly remote, attracts thousands of travelers every year.
The number is expected to increase this summer as Peru marks the centennial of the morning when a Yale archaeology professor became Indiana Jones.
On July 24, 1911, Hiram Bingham descended from the jagged peaks into a vanished civilization. He'd later observe, "I know of no place in the world which can compare with it."
He was right.
Your first image of Machu Picchu evokes the kind of magic that fiction reserves for Shangri-La. It's an enigmatic dreamscape where "breathtaking" takes on its true dimensions. And it immediately rewards you for all the time, difficulty and expense of traveling there.
Machu Picchu, which means "old mountain" in the native Quechua language, is among the most isolated of the world's wonders, situated on a ridge more than 8,000 feet above sea level in southern Peru. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 50 miles from the historic city of Cusco, often the point from which visitors begin their journey to the ruins. Artifacts collected by Bingham are being returned to Peru from Yale; they're expected to be displayed in Lima and then Cusco as part of the centenary celebration. After all, by the time Columbus completed his voyage, the Inca ruled an area bigger than the Roman Empire.
PATH TO THE PAST
Bingham got to Machu Picchu by mule and on foot. You'll arrive either on foot, or by train and bus. A day trip from Cusco via rail requires about eight hours of travel time; the hike, along the Cusco railway into the high country, takes four days. We were based in Cusco, but you also can stay in Aguas Calientes, where the train leaves you. From there, Machu Picchu is straight up. Aguas Calientes is a touristy spot with some hotels, most modest (peru-hotels.com; pacarama .com).
You'll ride about 20 minutes by bus to the main entrance of Machu Picchu. The route takes you along a curving, unnerving, switchback road that provides spectacular, plunging views.
And you'll be dropped off at a parking lot near Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (sanctuarylodgehotel.com), the only hotel this close to the site. If you arrive at Machu Picchu at dawn, your reward may be a stirring sunrise that tints ruins orange-gold.
From the lodge area, you'll walk to the official entryway. To save time, you're better off buying your ticket either at your hotel or in Cusco. The entry fee is about $44 (machupicchu.org; sacred-destinations.com/peru/sacred-sites.htm).
What the settlement actually was and why it was abandoned were puzzles for decades. Machu Picchu had been occupied for less than 100 years when the Spanish invaded and conquered what's now Peru. Eventually, historians and researchers deduced that it was a royal residence; the reasons for the Incas' exit, however, have remained tantalizingly uncertain. Known immediately: This was a staggering work of civil engineering, urban planning and architecture, the apex of an empire.
And you can explore some or all of it, taking three hours or three days, on your own or with a guide, who may be hired in advance or at the train station.
The ruins on the ridge cover about 33 acres. They're defined by mortarless construction and incredible precision, erected with granite stones weighing hundreds of tons. A knife blade can't slide between them.
From above, Machu Picchu looks like a maze, a carefully laid out series of gates, fountains, chambers, squares, towers, doorways, guardhouses, tombs and temples, plus an astronomical observatory. Terraces once used to grow corn now provide tracks for prancing llamas and camera-toting tourists.
The Temple of the Sun, atop a cave, is a semicircle in alignment with solar movements. At solstice, light shoots through a trapezoidal window onto what appears to be an Inca calendar. The cave may have been the royal tomb.
Intinuatana is a compelling, puzzling, carved rock that at each angle suggests a Henry Moore sculpture. The stone could have been either an altar for sacrifices or a sun dial.
CLIMB TO THE TOP
Huayna Picchu is the picture-perfect mountain that provides a dramatic, cinematic backdrop to the entire scene. It takes about two hours to hike to the top, a difficult journey up steps and switchbacks. The Lost Ark isn't there; the Temple of the Moon is.
If the climb is too strenuous, don't be disappointed. There are accessible and revealing ruins all over the ridge. Wander around. Or just find a seat on the weathered bench at the first gate that oversees the entire site. Take it all in. That's part of the magic of what the poet Pablo Neruda termed a transit to "the serenity of the soul."
The Spanish conquistadors never reached Machu Picchu.
CUSCO AND THE SACRED VALLEY
Although Machu Picchu may be the focus of your trip, spend some time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Spanish influence pervades Cusco, the former Incan capital. Churches were built on the foundations of temples. Gold panels and art were stripped from monuments and buildings, melted and shipped to Spain. The last Inca leader was executed in the main square. Today, however, Cusco is a vivid, welcoming city that pulsates with two cultures. There are comfortable, first-rate hotels in Cusco (cuscoperu.com).
Visit the baroque Catedral, aglow with silver and gold, and full of evocative artwork that unifies Spanish and Inca traditions. It presides over the central Plaza de Armas. And go to the imposing Inca sun temple, Qorikancha, once lined with gold, where you'll now also see a Dominican church.
Less than two miles from Cusco are the extraordinary ruins of Sacsayhuamán. They're the remains of a gigantic stone fortress. The archaeological park is a powerful image of Inca might as well as seamless engineering.
Between Cusco and Machu Picchu is the Sacred Valley, so named for its lush, fertile fields and granite cliffs. The essential site, among many, is Ollantaytambo, a monumental Inca temple and fortress that rivals the stonework of Machu Picchu. The Temple of the Sun, princess baths, and the nearby Inca granaries and quarries deserve exploration.
You'll enjoy visiting Pisac, about 20 miles from Cusco, for its ruins, and its daily market. Food is sold there, and craft stalls abound, selling local carvings and weaving. The town of Chinchero is a weaving hub. Along the Machu Picchu route, you may visit farms and find stands where locals sell clothing made from silky alpaca. Ask your driver to make a brief stop.
LIFE AT HIGH ALTITUDES
Cusco's altitude means 30 percent to 40 percent less oxygen and, for some travelers, altitude sickness. "Soroche" is the local word for it. Symptoms at this height include headache, dizziness, shortness of breath and fatigue. But don't let it deter you.
Oxygen is readily available, for sale in canisters at the airport and in shops. A major hotel, such as the Hotel Monasterio (monasteriohotel.com), either provides oxygen piped directly into your room or offers tanks. Imbibing herbal coca tea is soothing, too. You also may consult your physician about acetazolomide, an altitude-illness prescription drug sold as Diamox.
WHEN TO GO Seasons are either dry or wet. Most of the rainy season is December to April; the dry, like a New York summer. A surprise: on a January visit, it was dry.
GETTING AROUND Aguas Calientes is the town closest to Machu Picchu, reachable by train. Andean Railways (machupicchutrain.com), Inca Rail (www.incarail.com) and PeruRail (perurail.com) provide service.
Most luxurious is PeruRail's Orient Express Hiram Bingham train. It leaves Ollantaytambo station for a 31/2-hour ride. Brunch and dinner are served, and there's afternoon tea at the Sanctuary Lodge. Round-trip tickets are about $255 per person.
PeruRail's window-ceiling Vistadome train is about $71 one way; the more modest Expedition, about $48. Andean Railways and Inca Rail trains are $50-$75 one way.
GUIDED TOURS Backpack trekkers may take the guided Inca Trail hike. Porters are provided. So's food. The prices range from about $500 to more than $2,500 per person, depending on duration, lodging and number of travelers. (andeantreks.com, perutreks.com, www.explorandes.com, latikaincatrail.com). On the second day of the four-day hike, you'll be more than 13,000 feet above sea level.