DREAM TRIPS: 2006 EDITION
Machu Picchu, Peru
One visit to this legendary mountaintop city and you'll realize why the Inca believed their gods lived high in the Andes.
'Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest,' wrote Hiram Bingham, the explorer who stumbled upon the marvelous granite city in 1911. Bingham was understating things: Every year, half a million tourists head to a remote Peruvian ridge to visit the 15th-century ruins.
Round-trip flights between Miami and Cuzco, the launching point for visits to Machu Picchu, start at $550 on LAN Airlines (connecting via Lima). Three types of trains make the four-hour journey from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, an ATM-less town at the base of Machu Picchu: the Backpacker ($68 round trip), Vistadome ($105), and Hiram Bingham ($495). The main difference between the first two is that the Vistadome has more windows. Hiram Bingham service comes with afternoon tea and a four-course meal accompanied by musicians. Reservations are required for all (perurail.com).
Consider spending a night in Aguas Calientes, which allows more time for poking around the ruins. One package, from Cuzco-based SAS Travel, includes a round trip on the Vistadome, one night near the ruins at the Pueblo Hotel, and a guided tour from $175 (011-51/8425-5205, sastravelperu.com).
Outfitters also lead several-day hikes to Machu Picchu. The traditional Inca Trail, part of the empire's original network of stone footpaths, has grown so popular that the government caps the number of hikers at 500 a day and requires that all tourists go with a licensed guide. Prices for the four-day trek from operators such as Peru Treks & Adventure (perutreks.com) start at $295 and include food, entrance fees, porters, and all camping equipment except your backpack and sleeping bag. The dry season (May-September) is best for hiking and exploring, though it's also crowded. Far fewer people come in the wet season, but you run the risk of getting stuck in Aguas Calientes; mudslides sometimes block train tracks for days.
You made it
Starting at 5:30 a.m. in Aguas Calientes, buses leave as soon as they fill, bound for the ruins' gate 15 minutes away ($6 each way). Alternately, a stone staircase to the gate takes about an hour to climb and 45 minutes to descend. To avoid lines at the gate, buy admission tickets in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes (inc-cusco.gob.pe, $23). From the entrance, a path leads to a terrace for the postcard view, with the stone city laid out at the foot of a taller mountain, Huayna Picchu. Wooden signs indicate the important ruins, but there's little else in the way of explanatory information. Tour guides lingering at the entrance charge $15-$20 per person for a 20-minute tour, largely doling out the same basics that are in any guidebook.
Bingham thought that one group of stone chambers served as Machu Picchu's prison. More likely, the Inca used the spot for some kind of religious ceremonies. It's known as the Temple of the Condor because the layout resembles one of the huge birds considered sacred by the Inca.