MACHU PICCHU, PERU
At an elevation of 8,000 ft (much lower than nearby Cusco), Machu Picchu, Peru, has the most spectacular setting of any ruin in the world—even those who aren't normally excited by archaeology will be impressed. This Lost City of the Incas is a place everyone should see at least once.
Unknown to the outside world until Yale University's Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911, Machu Picchu sits on the spine of a ridge 2,000 ft above the rushing Urubamba River. Capping the end of the ridge is Huayna Picchu, a soaring peak that offers a challenging climb—and a bird's-eye view of the complex as a reward. Once atop Huayna Picchu, linger for a view of the surrounding misty green-clad mountains and you'll understand why the Incas decided to construct such an important site in this remote location.
A tour guide is mandatory to visit the archaeological site, regardless of how you get there. Two daily visiting periods run 6 am-noon and noon-5:30 pm. If you wish to spend the entire day at the ruins, tickets for each visiting period must be purchased.
If you're feeling really fit, you could reach the ruins via the famous Inca Trail, an ancient pathway that passes through cloud forests, gorges and ancient Inca outposts before descending into Machu Picchu. The number of hikers on the Inca Trail is limited to 500 per day (about 200 tourists plus guides and porters), and everyone must be accompanied by a government-certified guide. (reservations ideally should be made at least four months in advance.)
The classic Inca Trail trek takes four days and three nights. Alternative options exist, including the shorter two-day Inca Trail trek, which is less strenuous and not as expensive. The Inca Trail is closed during the month of February for maintenance.
Your choice of clothing is important when hiking the Inca Trail or alternative routes. The nights can be cold and you'll normally start trekking in the chilly early mornings, after which you'll work up a sweat during the day. Pack layers of clothing that you can easily remove or put on as necessary. Appropriate footwear is obviously important. You'll need a pair of well-fitting hiking boots or trekking shoes, which you should break in before you even go to Peru. Don't forget to take some money with you, ideally as low denominations. This will be used to tip guides, porters and chefs, normally on the last day of the trek. Consider taking at least 100 nuevos soles in small bills (wrapped in a waterproof plastic bag).
The restaurants in Machu Picchu Pueblo are there to cater to the constant influx of national and international tourists. Because of the presumed whims of the foreign crowd, you'll find a large number of pizza restaurants, as well as restaurants offering classic international dishes that aren't so common elsewhere in Peru. Before you sit down in a restaurant, check the prices and ask if there are any additional hidden fees. The restaurants in Machu Picchu Pueblo are notorious for adding inflated service fees and dubious taxes to their bills in order to overcharge their customers. While a tip is common in the more expensive restaurants, additional charges are rarely genuine.
There are two main options for buying food immediately outside the Machu Picchu archaeological site itself, both of which are understandably expensive. The Tinkuy Buffet Restaurant is part of the luxury Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. The buffet is overpriced at US$35 (at least) and not everyone comes away satisfied; it serves lunch daily 11:30 am-3 pm. The other option is the snack bar just outside and below the main entrance to Machu Picchu, where a simple sandwich or burger costs a hefty 20 nuevos soles.
There is nowhere to buy food once you are inside Machu Picchu. Taking food into Machu Picchu is also prohibited (not that everyone obeys that rule). Bag searches are unlikely, but food is confiscated when found. If you do want to take a packed lunch with you, you can leave it inside a bag at the bag check office outside the main entrance. You can then exit Machu Picchu to have your lunch before going back inside (before exiting, always confirm that you can re-enter, just to be sure).
To get to Machu Picchu, take the train to Aguas Calientes, a trip of 70 miles northwest of Cusco (reservations recommended). The ride itself is an adventure—it leaves Cusco (Poroy Station) in the early morning, climbs switchbacks, descends into a valley and passes through villages before reaching its destination. Many travelers prefer to take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes—it's cheaper and faster. From the Aguas Calientes station, buses cross a boulder-strewn stream and take visitors up 14 switchbacks to the expensive Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (rooms must be booked months in advance), adjacent to the entrance.
The artisan market in Machu Picchu Pueblo is an interesting place to browse for handicrafts from all across the Cusco region. You'll find wood carvings, ceramics, paintings, textiles, alpaca wool clothing, silverware, jewelry, leather goods and more. Prices are high, so don't be afraid to haggle. Some items are mass-produced, so choose carefully if you want true artisanal souvenirs. Watch out for pickpockets and feel free to ignore the more insistent market stall owners. The market area is located in the center of town between Calle Tusuq and Avenida Hermanos Ayar, not far from the train station.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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