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The great Incan ruins of Machu Picchu are on many a traveler's bucket list, as they well should be. Vast, ingenious, and spectacular, this city in the sky was built by the Incas in the fifteenth century as a secret refuge from Spanish colonists.
Machu Picchu (stockphoto24/istockphoto)
Its existence was not known to the wider world until the explorer and Yale lecturer Hiram Bingham was pointed to it by a local child in 1911. (Bingham returned to Machu Picchu three more times, during which trips he removed what the Peruvian government estimates to be a total of 40,000 artifacts. After years of negotiations, Yale University and the government reached an agreement in 2007 in which Yale agreed to return most of these artifacts.) Rich with historical, spiritual, and cultural significance, Machu Picchu is the most famous and mysterious of Peru's Incan ruins and remains a destination that you have to see to believe.
There are two ways to visit Machu Picchu: hike the Inca Trail, or take the train between the city of Cusco or the nearby Quechuan town of Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail is in fact a collection of thousands of kilometers of trails within what is known as the Sacred Valley, between the city of Cusco and Machu Picchu; when people refer to hiking it, they are usually talking about a rigorous four-day, twenty-six mile expedition that ends at Machu Picchu's Temple of the Sun at dawn to watch the sun rise (which many travelers will tell you isn't necessarily the best time to view it—the site is often foggy in the morning). Hiking the Inca Trail must be done with a registered guide and a tour operator.
Temple of the Sun (Olenalv/istockphoto)
Taking the train has its own charms. The ride to the Sacred Valley is scenic, and both PeruRail and IncaRail have clean, comfortable trains, and some lines feature live entertainment and cultural presentations. The price of the ticket includes a snack and a beverage; if you're feeling the effects of the elevation, go for the coca tea, a Peruvian staple.
The train tracks run right through the center of Aguas Calientes; the large hotel Casa Andina is adjacent to the station, as is the stop for the buses that take tourists up the hill to Machu Picchu. (There is one hotel at the park entrance, but it is extremely expensive and books up years in advance. Staying in Aguas Calientes is much more reasonable, and gives you the opportunity to wander, eat, and shop before and after your Machu Picchu visit.)
If you choose to the take the train, you can still find ways to experience Machu Picchu with plenty of exercise. One way to do this would be to hike from the village up the mountain (a guide is recommended for this); another would to be spend some time after taking in the glorious panorama of the terraced ruins by hiking the various marked trails that branch off from the main area.
The Inca Trail (SQUAMISH/istockphoto)
Plan Ahead: Machu Picchu is among the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and visiting is not as simple as buying a plane ticket to Peru. Only 400 visitors are allowed to visit Machu Picchu per day, and those spaces fill up long in advance, especially during the peak tourists months of July and August. The trains to Aguas Calientes, passes for the Inca Trail (which the government regulates as well), and hotels in the Sacred Valley all have a finite supply, and book up early. So start planning now for the fall: October and November will have fewer crowds than our summer, more ticket options, and a decent shot of good weather. (October through April is officially the rainy season, though rain can happen anytime. N.B.: Machu Picchu is closed for the month of February.)
Acclimatize: The altitude varies greatly between different parts of Peru, and you can save yourself some very real headaches by planning your trip with an eye towards acclimatization. Lima, which has the country's only international airport, sits at just over 5000 feet, an elevation that is comparable to Denver. Cusco, which is the nearest city to Machu Picchu, is more than twice that—nearly 11,000 feet. Machu Picchu itself, however, is only 8000 feet. Since international travelers must fly into Lima anyway, it makes sense to start your trip there, and spend a few days in Lima.
Cusco (Stockphoto 24/istockphoto)
From there, you will have to fly to Cusco to get to Machu Picchu. If you are planning on hiking the complete Inca Trail, which starts near Cusco, be prepared for the sharp change in elevation. If you are planning to take the train, consider booking your ticket for the same day you fly in. Cusco is a lovely city with great food, a beautiful town square and some interesting museums, but take it from someone who did it wrong: your visit will be much more pleasant if you make it having had some time to acclimatize at the relatively lower Machu Picchu.
Eat Up: Peruvian cuisine is the original Asian fusion, bearing flourishes from the Spanish, the Chinese, and the Japanese, as well as indigenous cultures. Ceviche, potatoes, quinoa, pisco, and Inca Cola are deliciously unavoidable; cuy is another local specialty, if you're up for trying guinea pig. Lima has a terrific restaurant culture, and you can eat well in Cusco without any effort.
Kuchi ribs at Tree House restaurant
Aguas Calientes has more of a backpacker vibe, but if you can find it tucked behind the main street and up a flight of stairs, the Tree House Restaurant is a delicious hidden gem. Peru has a small wine industry; domestic whites pair well with the cuisine and are worth exploring. (Though skip the reds.) Pisco sours and plantain chips are a great reward for a day's worth of Inca hikes that can be found at pretty much every bar in the country; for a colorful variation, try the chicha sour, a variation on the traditional preparation that mixes pisco with chicha morada, a non-alcoholic beverage made from purple corn.
As for the language? Spanish is the official language of Peru, but Quechua, the indigenous language, is still used widely throughout the Sacred Valley.
Caitlin Leffel is a writer, editor, and author of two books about New York. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @CLO_NYC