The beauty can almost be overwhelming. You are surrounded by the Andes mountains in all their glorious splendor, one of God's masterpieces, then right in the middle of it is a feat of human engineering - a city of stone, created entirely through manual labor, covering the side of a mountain. My awe increased as we toured - the agricultural and astronomical knowledge of the Incas was equal to their architectural skills.
We began with a guided tour of the main sites in Machu Picchu, and while our guide did a good job, I don't know how accurate it was. We overheard many other tour guides while we wandered the ruins, and not one of their stories matched! I guess it's hard to know who's correct when a culture doesn't leave a written language.
Our tour was about two hours, then we were on our own. There are no bathrooms in the ruins, so we exited to make a bathroom stop before spending the entire rest of the day exploring. There is so much freedom at the site: you can climb all over the stone buildings and terraces, inch your way along narrow paths on the edge of sharp drops, explore the wooded areas nearby. Only a few areas are roped off for excavation or repair (Interestingly, excavation has only just begun on the site: before it was just maintained and kept clear for visitors, but no real archeological work has been done since it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900's).
This kind of thing would NEVER fly in the USA. For one thing, the ruins aren't protected at all. And for another thing, the visitors aren't protected at all, either! Machu Picchu is not the safest place in the world, and there isn't the slightest nod to safety at all. If you want to enjoy the trip and visit every nook and cranny, go when you're young and fit and don't have family. Kids couldn't make the whole thing (they'd get tired and you might not want to spend all day saving them from certain death off a cliff) and the older people we saw - oh, man. They were almost all struggling and miserable. And they couldn't see some of the best parts because the climb would be too difficult. You COULD do Machu Picchu in retirement, but unless you were in decent shape, you wouldn't be able to do everything.
We fit in almost the entire site on that first day, including the easy climb to the sun gate (incredible views) -
|I got sick of my shoes and did half the day barefoot|
and the petrifying walk to the Inca bridge. I would only stop for pictures where there was a slight ledge because the thousand-foot drop to the river (a silver ribbon below us) was just about a foot away along the path.
|Not even going one inch closer to the edge|
|Looking down at the Urubamba from the path to the Inca Bridge. David took this. I would NEVER put my head that close to the edge.|
|Exhausted, sweaty, and a little sick, on the footbridge over the Urubamba on the way back to Aguas Calientes|