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Machu Picchu, the stunning ruins of the ancient Inca city high on a mountaintop in the Andes in Peru, is nearly invisible from the ground below. And for hundreds of years only a few local peasants knew that the place existed. Today, though, thousands of tourists visit each year. You’ll want to get to Machu Picchu early to catch the sunrise and to avoid the onslaught of other tourists. That won’t be a problem for hardy travelers, coming in from a four- or five-day hike on the Inca Trail; tour organizers ensure hikers arrive at the ruins just in time to see the sun peek over the surrounding mountains. For the hiking-averse (or the less organized — you must book your spot on Inca Trail hikes about five months ahead of time), getting to Machu Picchu early means jumping on the 6 a.m. bus for a winding, 20-minute commute out of Machu Picchu town. For your trouble you’ll be rewarded with a few minutes of calm and quiet and an unmatched, uncluttered view of one of South America’s most famous sights. Machu Picchu is that rare place that surpasses its reputation; seeing it in person is awe inspiring. Despite what authoritative-sounding tour guides tell you, the verdict is out on the exact history of the ancient city, including why it was abandoned, although telltale signs of daily life, such as agricultural terraces, still exist. Embrace the ambiguity, and let loose your inner explorer. Don’t miss the 45-minute hike up Huayna Picchu (“Young Mountain”) on the far side of the ruins. While sometimes arduous, the hike rewards its most diligent trespassers with an eyeful of the Sanctuario de Machu Picchu, 87,950 acres of protected national-park land, and some prime photo opportunities. Here are some hints for visitors: • May is the best month to visit. From September to June, crowds steadily increase, and July and August are the high season for tourists. If you go in September or October, you’ll have the ruins to yourself, but expect rain. • Most people begin in Cusco, a bustling, tourist-friendly region about 45 miles away by car. From there, some travelers join guided trips along the Inca Trail. For more information, visit www.machupicchu.com. Other travelers go via Peru Rail to Machu Picchu town (a three- to four-hour train ride). Either way, give yourself time to acclimate to the high altitude before trekking to the ruins. • Most people stay overnight in Machu Picchu town (still referred to as Aguas Calientes by many locals, even though the city legally changed its name several years ago). The town offers myriad hostel and hotel options. Book your room ahead of time for popular places such as Hostal La Cabana or Rupa Wasi Condor House. And don’t forget to get cash before you go. As of June 2005, the town didn’t have an ATM. • One luxury hotel, Machu Picchu Sanctuary Hotel, sits outside the entrance ruins. Guidebooks classify the hotel as nice but overpriced. • Before leaving the ruins, get your passport stamped with the official Machu Picchu seal in the visitors office.
Mary Westbrook can be reached at [email protected].

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