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Mon, Oct. 14

Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Incas

Two weeks ago - if you keep track of such things - I gave you the whys and wherefores of visiting Machu Picchu, the supremely magnificent Lost City of the Incas. This week, I'd like to go into some detail about visiting Peru and reaching this remote masterpiece.

To recap just a little: Located on a ridge of towering Andean peaks, where the gorge of the River Urubamba spills into the Amazon rainforest, the Inca city and temple were abandoned even before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century.They were not uncovered until an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, stumbled upon them in 1911, and we've all been trying to stumble there every since.

Traveling in Peru is still not simple. Nothing ever turns out quite as planned and there is the danger of altitude sickness as well as extremely precocious weather. Arriving in Lima in the early morning, spend a day or two touring the city and getting over the curse of jet lag. The next morning fly on to Cusco, the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere. This is a day to take it a little easy, eat lightly and drink coca tea as you adjust to the altitude. The city of Cusco still offers the medieval churches, arcades, cloisters and monasteries built by the conquistadors. If you look closely, you'll see that the brick and adobe of the first Spanish capital are built on the perfectly made stone foundations of an ancient Inca city.

You can explore Incan ruins and contemporary Andean life in the Urubamba, or Sacred, Valley - the cradle of Incan civilization, the sons of the Sun. There are bustling artisan markets, secluded hilltop villages and thousands of years of human history. The ruins of Kenko, Tambomachay, Q'engo, Puca Pucara, Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo (try saying that three times fast) are built of stones carved into polygonal shapes that fit together so perfectly as to need no mortar. The market at Pisac has fabulous alpaca sweaters, fine weaving and wonderful jewelry if you need a shopping break.

There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu. One approach is the ancient way, trekking the Inca Trail which can be a four-day marathon or a four-hour walk from a train stop called KM 104. If a full-day hike isn't your cup of coca, there are the Vista Dome or the Hiram Bingham Deluxe trains to take you to the "Lost City of the Incas."

However you arrive, it will be worth the journey. This archaeological wonder was built in an extraordinarily beautiful and isolated mountain setting in the middle of a tropical cloud forest. A fabulous creation of the Inca Empire at its height, the 100-acre complex of giant walls, terraces and ramps seems as if it has been cut naturally in the rock escarpments. Hidden for so long, the ruins of the temples, altars, chambers, fountains and terraces represent some of the most intricate structures ever built. Do take time to note the beautiful craftsmanship used throughout. Most of the buildings are constructed without mortar, built of granite blocks cut with bronze or stone tools, and smoothed with sand and many of the structures are built into the living stone. The Incas had no iron, and so had to fashion their extraordinary stones by chipping at them with chisels of harder stone. With the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains to one side and the Urubamba River roaring below, it possesses all the satisfactory mystery one could wish for.

The best times at Machu Picchu are in the late afternoon or the early morning when the crowds are gone. Before sunrise, walk to the Sun-Gate, the ancient final checkpoint and watch day break over the ruins spread before you. Whether lit in the sun against a backdrop of Andean peaks or enveloped in rain and broken cloud, you won't find a view like this anywhere else in the world. It is isolated and haunting, beautiful and mysterious.

It is best to go in April and May when the country is lush and green and the summer crowds haven't arrived yet or in September and October which are also quieter and dryer. January and February are at the height of the rainy season and should be avoided. However, Peruvian weather is full of microclimates, so be prepared.

While you are in Peru, don't let your explorations stop at Machu Picchu. Peru is an ancient land brimming over with exotic magic and ancient secrets. Your travel agent will help you choose the right tours and guides to make the most of your journey.

Leslie and Mike Ross have owned Kachina Travel since 1975.

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