First of all, let's just start by saying that Machu Picchu is amazing. Absolutely incredible. There are some people who claim it's overrated, that other sites in Peru are superior. But I just don't agree. The setting of Machu Picchu is stunning, the ruins themselves fascinating, and the spectacular ruins and views from Huaynu Picchu are in a league of their own. Granted, it is really crowded at Machu Picchu, but there are ways to avoid the worst of it. Now, here're the details:
We took the bus up from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, US$9 each, and would recommend anyone else do the same. You will get plenty of walking at the site, and the hike to the site ain't that cool. Get in line early. Buses start to leave at 5:30am. We got there at 5 am, but a desire for coffee put us on the 4th bus up.
(Approaching the Sun Gate (Intipuncu) at daybreak. Hikers that take the Inca Trail arrive at Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate so there were a number of people up there before us. (Hikers that take the Salcantay route ended up with us on the railroad tracks from the Hydroelectric dam to Aguas Calientes))
(the clouds were thick that morning, but began lifting as we made our way back down from the Sun Gate)
We explored some of the upper areas of the site when the clouds were still hovering over the ridge, adding to the mysticism (you knew we'd say it, Mark) as they broke slightly and you could catch glimpses of the ruins.
(this little chair was one of our first glimpses of how much stone work was done. Even though it looks like a lounger, I'm pretty sure that whoever was sitting in the chair was not comfortable there. You can see evidence of rope or chain worn into the rock near the shoulders. At the back of the altar there were stone eyelets. But the carved stone stairs and curvature of the stone can be found all over Machu Picchu.)
(for instance, these round, timber-looking stones protruded near the roof line on many structures. The rebuilt houses show the roofs being tied off to them (as pictured). Maybe these stone builders just liked the exotic (to them) timber frame look?)
(this was one of our greeters back down at the main site)
(along with a few other tourists.)
(even so, you can still get some amazing views)
(panaromic of us at Machu Picchu. Radioman took some really great shots that day, and was kind enough to share with us. Mark, it was fantastic being able to tour Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley with you! Thanks again for everything!)
(the stone work is amazing, with many walls having crisp, defined lines at the tight joints between rocks)
(walls often incorporated large stones seamlessly)
(Huayna Picchu is that steep mountain in the background. It's a definite hike up, but well worth it as the views are incredible and crowds less - only 400 people are allowed up each day, 200 in the morning and 200 late morning. We had the late morning slot and it worked out great.)
(us at the base of the ruins on top of Huayna Picchu)
(Jill working her way out of a tunnel on Huayna Picchu)
(Mike on an exposed staircase. Someone else's video of the exposure can be seen HERE
with a good overview of the site including the road out to the Sun Gate at around 1 min 10 sec in)
(steep terraces of Machu Picchu as seen looking back from Huaynu Picchu)
(Huaynu Picchu is situated on a very steep, very tall cliff face. Mike walked no further)
(Jill taking it all in from the peak)
From the top of Huayna Picchu, you can either backtrack down the same way you came up, or take a trail that drops down the back of the mountain, past 2 more known ruins and then connects back up with the main Huayna Picchu trail. The hike is strenuous, but well worth it! Of the 400 people that go up to Huayna Picchu in a day, very few take this longer hike (adding a couple of hours to the Huayna Picchu part). I would guess we were 3 of around 20 other people who took this path. It was beautiful.
(following the Incan trail down and around Huayna Picchu)
(the trail brings you to the Templo de la Luna...)
(and to the Gran Caverna)
(some interesting walking)
(to top it all off, we had this incredible rainbow waiting for us after we made it back to the main trail)
Even though we were pretty exhausted after the hike, Jill, Mike, and Joe, our new friend from Denver we ran into on Huayna Picchu, let a coin flip decide that they were going to hike up the small peak even closer to the ruins, Huchuypichhu. Just inside the Huayna Picchu checkpoint (they make you sign in and out to ensure everyone comes back...some of these trails are not for the faint of heart) there is a turn off for this little peak and in fact the sign says '<-- --="--" large="large" nbsp="nbsp" or="or" picchu="picchu" small="small" uayna="uayna" uchuypicchu="uchuypicchu">'. This hike was much shorter than the 45 min up Huayna Picchu, only taking 10 or so from the turn off. But there are some sections of path even narrower than the main trail.
(Jill rappelling at Huchuypicchu)
We were the last group of people to check out of the Huayna Picchu gate (aside from 2 others right behind us) and that time exploring made our day! Even though it was already nearing 3pm, we still had some time to check out the main area and to see the Inca bridge, which is worth the walk.
(more impressive stone work for water channels)
(this doormat must've meant something. You don't see many blue rocks on site)
(inca bridge. Look at that trail!)
(I guess it was built as a way to block access to the site - chuck the boards and you'd have a real tough, slow, vulnerable time climbing down those exposed rock side-stairs to get to the other side)
It was getting late in the day, especially with the site closing within the hour (5pm). We were out of water (bring lots!) and ready to use a bathroom (you can't find those on premises, either). Thankfully a young employee at the snack stand at the entrance filled our empty bottle with tap water free of charge (as opposed to the exorbitant prices for their selection). He was real reluctant to do so, good thing his manager wasn't around.
(the llamas reclaim the site later in the day)
We met back up with Joe and walked down the hill, saving the US$9 each. The walk is easy enough on the way down, taking an hour or so to reach Aguas calientes at our slow, exhausted pace. We rewarded ourselves with a beer at the first stand in town, and had a good chat with Joe.
Our day at Machu Picchu was phenomenal! Some of what made it that way was allowing the full day to be up there, being prepared to walk all day long at that elevation, and taking the hike up and around Huayna Picchu.