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Its 4:00 am in the morning, and it is dark and cold. About 50 folks are ahead of us in the queue at the bus stop at Aguas Calientes waiting for the bus to take us to the entrance to Machu Picchu, the first of which departs at 5:30 am. There are no limits on entry to view the ancient ruins, but only the first 200 at the entrance when it opens at 6 am get a pass to hike up the Wayna Picchu – the mountain in the background in most pictures of the ruins of Machu Picchu – a skippable add-on in hindsight, yet its exclusivity has us vying for access. The buses line up at 5:20, the first one leaves on time at 5:30, and after a 20 minute ride along switchback roads with breathtaking views of mountain tops surrounded by the early morning fog, we reach the entrance. By virtue of being within the first 200, we are given the coveted pass to hike up the Wayna Picchu.

The rising sun dissipates the fog that shrouds the ruins, revealing a site that is tranquil, timeless, and beautiful. The ancient walls with its roofs long gone, and the stepped farming slopes provide the framework with which to imagine how the Incas may have lived 5 centuries back. Along the edges of the ancient ruins, one can view the vast Urubamba valley with the Urubamba river appearing as a narrow stream from this great height. As I soak in the sights, I wonder if the Incas stared with similar wonderment at the vistas that surrounded them and contemplated on the beauty of nature.

At noon, we head back to the entrance to meet our guide. With our group we return to the ruins again. This time, thanks to the guide, the ancient structures take on a new meaning. We are told that the Incas built the city around the mid-1400s but abandoned it 100 years later during the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish conquistadors never found the ancient city and when Hiram Bingham, the Yale archaeologist and a possible inspiration for the Indiana Jones character, rediscovered it in 1911, it was covered in dense vegetation, unlike the clear sight that we view today. More details follow. The guided tour is essential to understanding and appreciating these ancient ruins.

After the tour and wandering around the ruins, we start on our hike up the Wayna Picchu, which I found quite exerting thanks to a 10 pound day-pack that I had been carrying. Parts of the trail have narrow steps leading up a fairly steep incline and passages through stone crevices that would not let me pass with a bag on my back. The view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas from the top of Wayna Picchu is worth the struggle up, though not exactly worth queuing up at the bus stop at 4 am in the morning. By evening we are back at our hostel in Aguas Calientes to pick up our backpacks and to catch the train back to Cusco, but not before eating up a pizza at one of the numerous pizzerias in this little town that seems to exist primarily to house and serve the many tourists drawn to Machu Picchu. Tired, we sleep through the 3-hour train journey.

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