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Peak experience The trip up to the ancient Incan ruins of Peru's Machu Picchu will leave you gasping for air and groping for words

At the top of the mountain, where an attendant will take your $46 ticket, foot traffic is steady and cell-phone reception is excellent.

At the bottom of the same mountain, the town teems with pizzerias, tourists chatter in half a dozen languages and a school band director is herding his traditionally costumed students into formation.

"Roki! Roki!" he seems to be hollering. And then, as darkness falls, his young trumpeters and drummers launch into the rousing theme from Sylvester Stallone's first hit movie.

Yes, plenty has changed in this corner of the Andes since July 24, 1911, when Yale University professor Hiram Bingham III climbed these slopes with a local farmer and beheld the ruins we know as Machu Picchu.

In the last dozen years, visitor traffic here has boomed, been halted by flooding, then surged again. The citadel's most famous stone has been chipped by a beer commercial crew. Peru's president has prevailed in a tug of war with Yale over artifacts Bingham had collected. Even the name of the town below Machu Picchu's ruins has been in flux: Though most locals and travelers have long known it as Aguas Calientes, a growing number of businesses and government agencies are calling it El Pueblo de Machu Picchu.

Yet the stacked stones and eerie timelessness of the mountaintop endure. To see and feel this wonder at its best, all you need to do is take a series of planes, trains and automobiles, bring bug juice and sunblock, accept the thin air and some high prices, and get up early. The ruins open daily at 6 a.m., and that's when you want to be there.

If you're lucky, the morning will begin with thick mist and fleeting glimpses of neighboring peaks, which hang in the clouds like brush strokes in a Chinese landscape painting. As the sun rises, the scale of the place will bloom and unfold -- the orderly boulders, wild orchids, temples and terraces. The llamas nibbling wet grass. The viscachas (cousins of the chinchilla) skittering past the Temple of the Three Windows.

It's mesmerizing. I've made three trips to Machu Picchu -- in 1988, 1995 and this year -- and each time I've wound up gasping for air and groping for words.

You start with a climb to the old guardhouse for its commanding view -- the postcard panorama, now deepened to three dimensions. You enter the citadel through the stone main gate, pass the western crop terraces, and look down, down, down to the rushing Urubamba River as it wraps around the mountain's base.

Later you'll reach the royal enclosure, the Temple of the Condor and the round tower that Bingham spotted early on. But first you'll likely gather around a sculpted rock known as Intihuatana, "the hitching post of the sun." Chances are you'll find visitors holding their hands out to it, as if to warm themselves by a fire.

This is where the film crew went wrong in 2000. Making an ad for Cusquena beer, workers somehow hit the Intihuatana stone with a piece of heavy equipment. Fortunately, only a small bit was chipped off. Most travelers notice nothing amiss, and many guides leave the incident unmentioned.

Some experts have warned that foot traffic will destabilize the ruins, and some guides speculate that one day tourists may be restricted from direct access to the stones, as most Stonehenge visitors in England have been since 1978. But for now, if you grant yourself the time, you can roam.

Most of Machu Picchu's international visitors fly to the Peruvian capital, Lima, then to Cuzco, advance by car or bus to Ollantaytambo, then take a train to Aguas Calientes (about 70 miles from Cuzco), then take the 20-minute, 18-switchback bus ride to the ruins. But all buy their Machu Picchu entrance tickets ahead of time in Aguas Calientes or in Cuzco, or even earlier through a tour operator, because the keepers of Machu Picchu, the staff of Peru's National Institute of Culture, don't sell tickets on the mountaintop -- they only collect them.

Given all the trouble it takes to get here, you'd think people might stay longer. But legions arrive at the ruins around 10 or 11 a.m., circle the complex for two or three hours, then head back to the train.

If you are staying longer, 10 a.m. is your cue to step away for a few hours. Flop on the grass and nap. Join the buffet line in the cafeteria. You could make the two-hour round-trip hike to the Sun Gate, where Inca Trail hikers get their first good view of the mountaintop ruins. Or you could take the trail to the Inca Bridge, a mostly flat path that takes only half an hour each way but will surely get your attention.

Much of the trail is cut into a granite cliff face, and at points it narrows to 3 feet wide or so. There's a rope along the wall to grab. But as with the rest of the mountaintop, there is only mist between you and the long drop to the smashing rapids.

"It's really cool to climb mountains and look down 6,000 feet to your death," said Alex Schell, 13, of Cleveland, when we met on that trail.

Strictly speaking, Alex stood about 1,500 feet above the valley floor. But who could argue with his point? If you look at Andean natives and the landmarks their ancestors left behind, said Alex's father, Scott Schell, it's astonishing to think about "the ability of these very small people to make incredibly durable works of engineering. By hand. With carried stones."

> Ancient empire

Really, the whole Machu Picchu story is implausible. Working with neither the wheel nor a written language, the Incas built a 15th century empire that dominated South America, with masonry skilled enough to survive centuries of strong and frequent earthquakes. When the Spanish conquistadors showed up hungry for gold in the 1530s, there were fewer than 200 of them, but they had guns and horses and the luck to arrive during an Incan civil war. In short order, they seized and plundered the Incan empire -- but somehow, it seems, they never found Machu Picchu.

Flash forward 4 1/2 centuries to Hiram Bingham, a swashbuckling 36-year-old academic on his way to eventually representing Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. There he stands by his guide atop the mountain, checking out the fitted stones, wondering whether anybody will believe him.

"Fortunately," he wrote later, "in this land where accuracy in reporting what one has seen is not a prevailing characteristic of travelers, I had a good camera and the sun was shining."

Bingham went back to the U.S., enlisted Yale and the National Geographic Society as sponsors, made an exploration and research deal with the Peruvian government, undertook a series of return trips and shipped to Yale dozens of crates holding thousands of artifacts, including pottery, stone tools and bones. By Bingham's theory, Machu Picchu was where the Incas hid after the Spanish took power.

These days, many experts think Bingham was wrong about that, and some say his book "Lost City of the Incas" has its own problems with accuracy. Yale archaeologists Richard L. Burger and Lucy C. Salazar say Machu Picchu may have been built as a summer retreat for Pachacutec, the first ruler of the Incan empire.

But Bingham is the one who put Peru on the cover of National Geographic. Once the government built a rail route to the base of the mountain (in the 1930s) and added a bus route to the mountaintop (in about 1948), Machu Picchu was in business.

As for those thousands of artifacts Bingham sent to New Haven, Yale kept them, to the annoyance of many Peruvians. In fact, Peruvian President Alan Garcia ventured into the streets of Lima last fall to lead protests against the university -- and got results. Soon afterward, Yale agreed to return the items by the end of next year, and about 350 pieces are to be featured in a new museum (opening date uncertain) in Cuzco's Casa Concha mansion. For proof of Machu Picchu's enduring drawing power, look at Aguas Calientes. It's still hemmed in by mountains and rivers and knitted together by footbridges and pedestrian passages, and there's still no road out -- just the train and an emergency helipad. But more than 70 restaurants now flourish, and at least two dozen lodgings and more souvenir stands than any traveler should have to count. The population has more than doubled in the last two decades. (As of 2007, it was 5,286, including surrounding areas.)

> Growing crowds

In May, making my way from the train station to the year-old Inkaterra El MaPi Hotel (great looks, spotty service, $200 a night), I was as wide-eyed as any first-timer. In late January 2010, flooding had killed several people in town and shut Machu Picchu for all of February and March -- the longest closure in decades. Fifteen months later, some repairs were still under way, but business was booming in the pleasant little plaza around the statue of Pachacutec.

In the Pueblo Viejo restaurant, a Peruvian folk band had added a young expat Norwegian fiddler. French tourists ducked into El Indio Feliz, where you can get crepes. At the Machu Picchu Museum (formally, the Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon) a mile outside town, half a dozen plumbers from New Zealand stared hard at diagrams of Incan engineering.

"There's your hydraulic system," murmured one.

To dodge the crowds in town and on the trail, some hikers now approach Machu Picchu from the more remote Salkantay Route. Others hike instead (with guides and mules) to the lonely ruins at Choquequirao, about 25 miles southwest of Machu Picchu.

Approaching the ruins for the first time in 16 years, I found that the $46 admission fee (good for one day) excluded not only the bus ride up the hill (about $8 each way) but also use of the park bathrooms, where attendants require about 36 cents a visit. Nevertheless, crowds have grown from about 500 a day in 1988 and about 700 in 1995, to more than 2,000 a day over the last year. This year's total could beat the record of 858,211 set in 2008.

Even climbing at dawn (or catching the first bus to the top), you'll run into company. In recent years, authorities have set a 400-hiker-a-day limit on the trail from Machu Picchu to Wayna Picchu, the neighboring peak that looks down on the ruins, which brings a rush of permit-hungry hikers at first light. Fortunately, they head straight for the Wayna Picchu trail. I sauntered into the ruins, waited a few minutes and got my quality time with the Incan ghosts.

On the way back down, I expected to see grinning boys racing the buses for tips, as in years past. But no. Guide Jafeth Paz later told me that the town's increasingly prosperous parents, many of whom work in tourist eateries, hotels and souvenir shops, had put an end to the custom about a year ago. Now, Paz told me, those boys are in school.

Of course, I couldn't leave town without checking on Gringo Bill's hotel, where I spent $5 to sleep on my first visit. Bill has moved, but the hotel is there, charging $75 and up a night, with a new restaurant in the works. The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, where I paid $105 a night in 1995, has grown from 26 to 87 rooms, boosted amenities, added an orchid garden and bumped its rates to about $550 and beyond. If you can afford it, stay there.

But where you fall asleep isn't the main thing. The main thing is to get on top of that mountain while the sun is low and stand among those stones. While you still can.

> If you go:

To cover the roughly 70 miles between Cuzco and the ruins, most travelers take a taxi or bus to Ollantaytambo, then a train to Aguas Calientes, followed by a 20-minute bus ride up the mountain.

Telephones: To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 51 (country code for Peru) and the local number.

Where to stay: Presidente Hotel, 128 Avenida Imperio de los Incas, Aguas Calientes; (888) 790-5264 in U.S. or (84) 211-034, 28 rooms. Doubles from $80. (Eighteen of the rooms have views, and cost more. Pay the extra $10.)

Gringo Bill's, 104 Colla Raymi, Aguas Calientes; (84) 211-046, $75 for most single/doubles, up to $150 for a family room. Free Wi-Fi.

Where to eat: Toto's House, Avenida Imperio de los Incas, Aguas Calientes, (84) 211-020. Best river views. Dinner entrees from about $10.

Pueblo Viejo, 108 Avenida Pachacutec, Aguas Calientes; (84) 211-193. Dinner entrees from about $8.