I had been obsessed with the idea of visiting Machu Picchu ever since I read The Clue in the Crossword Cypher (Nancy Drew Mystery #44). You remember that one, right? Nancy's Peruvian friend invites her to visit (George and Bess come along, too), and somehow a clue carved on an ancient wooden relic helps Nancy capture a ring of smugglers led by some dude named "El Gato." Mysterious!
But I digress--and in the first paragraph of the post, no less!
When most people visit Machu Picchu, they take the train to Aguas Caliente, the little town at the base of the mountain, and then get on a bus that zig zags up the side of the mountain to the ancient city of the Incas. Well, there's a better way to do it.
The ancient Incan people did not have motor coaches at their disposal to wind their way up and down the mountain. Hell, they didn't even have the wheel. The way the Incans entered Machu Picchu was from the Inca Trail through The Gate of the Sun. It usually takes about four days to hike the Inca Trail, and certainly, people who've done it say that it's worth the trek. But Peru has so many incredible things to see and do. You'll certainly want to visit the people who live on the floating reed islands in Lake Titicaca. You'd be remiss if you didn't spend some time in the rainforest, canoeing up a tributary of the Amazon. And Cuzco and the rest of the Sacred Valley are incredible, too. Fortunately, you read this site, so you know that you can have the experience of hiking the last little bit of the Inca Trail, and have the incredible experience of seeing Machu Picchu for the first time, by entering the site the same way the Incans did--through the Gate of the Sun.
Take the early-morning train of the Cusco–Machu Picchu railroad and get off one stop before Machu Picchu at Kilometer 104, where you can see the Chachabamba ruins. Let's all say that together, shall we? Chachabamba. Chachabamba. Excellent!
From there, it's a nine mile day hike uphill to the Gate of the Sun and the Lost City of the Incas. Along the way, you'll hike from the floor of the valley up into the clouds (or maybe it was just foggy on the day I did it), past gorgeous waterfalls, and through other ruins like Winay Wayna and Inti Punktu. It's a climb of about 2600 feet, but you're doing it over 6 or 7 hours with lots of breaks to take pictures and eat lunch. You'll want a guide for this hike, by the way. It's not a particularly strenuous hike, but they limit the number of hikers on any given day, and you need a permit. And there was a baby poisonous snake on the trail when I did the hike, so having a guide to point those things out to you is not a bad idea.
But then you see Machu Picchu revealed to you through the Gate of the Sun, and ... well ... it's simply incredible. It's not like you see Machu Picchu in the distance and it slowly gets closer...you've been hiking through gorgeous scenery all day, and then you come up over the ridge and ... it's almost feels like you've just sort of stumbled upon the Lost City of the Incas. And it's gorgeous.
The site will still be open when you arrive, so you can walk around a little bit, but before they close, you can get on the bus down the side of the mountain, check in to your hotel in Aguas Calientes, curl up with a good Nancy Drew Mystery, and get a good night's sleep. Then, early the next morning, when you take the bus back up the mountain with the rest of the tourists to explore the site more fully, you'll think about how sad it is that the other passengers didn't know that there was a better way to do it.