Machu Picchu: A Magical Mystery Tour

Remote and mystical, the "lost" Inca city of Machu Picchu has been a spiritual magnet for decades. Shirley MacLaine claims to have had a vision of her past lives there, grown men have wept at the site, and visitors swear they've felt the rocks vibrate and the sun charge them with celestial energy.

Until about 16 months ago, most tourists avoided the place, scared by violence from Peru's Shining Path guerrillas. Today, with the guerrillas largely eliminated, legions of day-trippers and overnight visitors are back.

On a drizzly May morning, the small orange excursion train heading for the peaks was full of mostly Australians, French, Germans, and South Africans. (The U.S. State Dept. still has a travel advisory about terrorism in Peru, so Americans have been slower to return.) The three-hour trip took us from the thin air of Cuzco, itself an ancient city at 11,000 feet, through Andean valley outposts with such names as Ollantaytambo and Chilea, to the jungle hamlet of Aguas Calientes. From there, it's a half-hour bus ride up a gravel switchback road to the 8,000-foot summit.

Machu Picchu, meaning manly peak, with its cousin Huyna Picchu in the background, matches its postcard image. With flawless beveled stone walls, miniature aqueducts for irrigating maize and other crops, and a sun temple that collects the first rays of summer solstice at exactly the same spot each year, it is an engineering marvel. A $10 walking tour provides most of the historical highlights. Mainly inhabited by priests, women, and children, the city is widely believed to have been a shrine venerating the Inca sun gods, rather than a refuge from Spanish conquistadors.

Today, Machu Picchu is also a New Age Lourdes for spiritualists and those seeking extraterrestrial contact. No sooner were we through the main gate than Donna, a young Australian, spread-eagled herself on one of the sun rocks, seeking "revitalization." Others rubbed the chiseled boulders or stared trancelike through symmetrical stone windows, hoping for visions. Loud guides, flashbulbs, lunch, and grazing llamas left them undisturbed. By mid-afternoon, as day-trippers headed for the train, leaving overnight visitors behind, the mood changed. A guide struck up the melancholy El Condor Pasa on a flute, cloud shadows and light played across the rocks, and the monument's psychic pull became apparent.

At sunrise the next morning, we tiptoed across the wet grass like intruders in a cathedral. As the sun burned off sheets of white fog below, a montage of clouds, birds, and orchids emerged amid the sheltering peaks and symmetrical stone huts. It's with dawn, sunset, or on nights when the moon gives the peaks a rose hue that Machu Picchu best stirs visions, local guides say. Imaginative visitors, of course, could say such experiences happen in many exotic places. But that misses the point, suggests John Stern, a touring Johannesburg doctor: "People know we can reach the moon, but they feel lost about what life means for them, so they turn to an ancient culture for answers."

THREE-DAY HIKE. Besides soul-seeking and archaeology, the region offers rain forest tours, bird-watching, and numerous short hikes. A steep ascent of Huyna Picchu takes an hour, as does a walk from the ruins to the Sun Gate, a monument above the city. Adventurous backpackers can even hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca trail, a stunning three-day journey.

May through November, the southern hemisphere's winter, is the best time to visit. AeroperPound has flights from Lima to Cuzco daily, though none convenient enough to make the 6:30 a.m. train. To experience a sunrise and Machu Picchu's many moods, a tour package--about $460--with one night in Machu Picchu and two in Cuzco is usually easiest, though you could wing it for less if you don't mind scrambling for hotel rooms. Even tourists with confirmed reservations at the Turista Hotel on the peak are often bumped to the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, which is nicer. But then they have to scramble to get a bus to the peak in time for sunrise.

I didn't have a spiritual awakening at Machu Picchu, but many clutching tourist kitsch on the train back to Cuzco claimed they did. As Horst, my friendly German seatmate, observed: "You see a famous place, and if you have a vision, you are a double winner."

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