The ruins of Machu Picchu, rediscovered in 1911 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham, are one of the most beautiful and enigmatic ancient sites in the world. While the Inca people certainly used the Andean mountain top (7972 feet elevation), erecting many hundreds of stone structures from the early 1400's, legends and myths indicate that Machu Picchu (meaning 'Old Peak' in the Quechua language) was revered as a sacred place from a far earlier time. Whatever its origins, the Inca turned the site into a small (5 square miles) but extraordinary city. Invisible from below and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces sufficient to feed the population, and watered by natural springs, Machu Picchu seems to have been utilized by the Inca as a secret ceremonial city. Two thousand feet above the rumbling Urubamba river, the cloud shrouded ruins have palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms and some 150 houses, all in a remarkable state of preservation.
Ancient Inca rulers forged trails and communication systems through this region over 18,600 miles long, paving mountain tracks, building runners and swing bridges from straw ropes. Most of these structure still exist today, and it's quite astounding to think that the well worn steps you are walking on when traversing the Inca or Lares trails were hand constructed by Inca stonemasons so very long ago. The most popular trails leading to Machu Picchu are the Lares Inca Trail, and the Classic Inca Trail. There is also the longer and more physically demanding Salkantay trek, but the two most popular treks are the 4 day, 3 night Lares and Classic Inca trails. The Lares takes you through many more villages, without the same level of foot traffic you may encounter on the Classic Inca Trail. You can also opt for cycle and kayak options, where you can visit a small village on Lake Titicaca's reed islands and stay with the locals. However, if you don’t fancy a 4 day hike there’s a shorter, often quieter route which begins at 70 miles. Whichever you opt for, few experiences beat the first view of Machu Picchu from Intipunku at sunrise.
If you want to experience the magic of Machu Picchu without being surrounded by hoards of coach parties picking their way through the ruins, it’s essential to arrive at dawn. By 10am the place will be packed, but provided you’re there early you should have ample time to explore. The one-horse town of Aguas Calientes is the closest habitation to Machu Picchu and all travelers to and from Machu Picchu must pass through here. It’s rapidly becoming more touristy but for the meantime, at least, there's a good reason why you might consider spending the night here: to avoid being engulfed by the hordes of day-trippers arriving from Cuzco by train each morning. Only those who sleep here get to catch the first morning bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu and stay at the ruins until late afternoon, when the tour crowds magically vanish. The city is also a peaceful place to recover from the exertion of the Inca Trail. It gets its name from the natural hot springs where you can soak your blisters and soothe away the toils of the route.