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The ancient ruins of Machu Picchu are the most recognizable symbols of the fallen Inca Empire.

Exploring the ancient mystery of Machu Picchu

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About 50 miles northwest of Cusco, Peru, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu sit on a mountain ridge 7,875 ft. above sea level as the site of "The Lost City of the Incas." Although archaeologists disagree on whether Machu Picchu was primarily a citadel, religious site or royal retreat, it remains the most familiar and perhaps mysterious symbol of the Inca Empire.

The complex was constructed in 1450 and abandoned -- mostly likely because of Spanish conquest -- less than 100 years later. It wasn't re-discovered by the English-speaking world until centuries later in 1911 when a 12-year-old led American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham to the hidden site.

On July 7, 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of New Open World Corporation's New Seven Wonders of the World, igniting a boost in tourism. The World Monuments Fund has since placed it on the 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world. It's become Peru's most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator.

Planning a visit? Here are a few guidelines.

When to go:
June through August is considered the high season. May through October is the cool, dry season and November through April is the warm, rainy season. The Inca Trail is closed in February for cleanup and because of the month's heavy rainfall. The advantages of traveling during the low season (November through April) are lower rates and fewer fellow tourists.

Getting there:
Air

Everything begins in Lima, as it's the destination for all international flights bound for Peru. From there, most people hop the hour-long flight (Aero Condor or Lan) to Cusco.

Train
From the San Pedro station in Cusco, most tourists take the Peru Rail train to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. There are three train services available: the Backpacker (the cheapest), the Vistadome and the Hiram Bingham (which has the most amenities). The views during the three-hour ride are breathtaking.

Bus
Rather than returning to Cusco from the ruins the same day, a traveler can stay overnight in Aguas Calientes, which offers a wide assortment of lodging options, ranging from cheap hostels for backpackers to very sophisticated hotels. From here, buses go to the ruins throughout the day ($12 each way), starting at 5:30 a.m. It's recommended to buy your Machu Picchu entrance ticket in Aguas Calientes.

Hike
From Cusco you can hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a journey that lasts from two to 10 days (depending on your speed and choice of paths) and ends at the Sun Gate, a narrow mountain notch high above the ruins.

From Aguas Calientes , there is a hiking trail from the town up to the ruins that takes about two hours.

Helicopter
Helicopter flights into Machu Picchu stopped in the 1970s due to concerns about harm to the ruins. However, a helicopter service from Cusco to Aguas Calientes is available.

Explore:
Although it's not necessary, some tourists opt for a guided tour (available in many languages) for more info on the ancient city, its uses and geography. The tour guide will be sure to point out and explain:

  • Temple of the Sun tower, which includes an altar that catches the first sunrays of the year on June 21, the winter solstice.
  • Intihuatana, which means "place to catch the sun," and is the highest point on Machu Picchu.
  • Temple of the Three Windows, which represents the world above, the world we live in and the under world -- a common theme throughout the Inca Empire.
  • Main Temple, where priests prepared for ceremonies.
  • The Condor, where mummies were placed for worship during religious ceremonies.

What else to do:

  • Some say the Machu Picchu experience is not complete without a climb up Wayna Picchu, the sharp peak immediately behind the ruins. It's a steep but short walk offering more ruins and impressive views, but take note: The hike is somewhat strenuous and not advised for visitors who are elderly, pregnant or have heart/lung conditions. The path to Wayna Picchu closes at 4 p.m. and no one is allowed entry after 1 p.m. Entry is limited to 400 people per day.
  • Walk back up the Inca trail away from the site and up the hill to the Sun Gate for a magnificent view down into the valley. It's a gentle walk (probably 45 minutes tops, round trip) and if you stay in Aguas Calientes, it is possible to get there early enough to catch the sunrise.
  • Aguas Calientes translates to "hot waters" in English and the town gets its name from the underground hot sulfur springs that bubble up from the rocky ground at varying temperatures. The baths are a 10-minute walk from the town square and there are changing rooms, bathrooms and a small snack bar.

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