Not many places in the world exude magic. Sure, beauty is everywhere. Even the grimmest ghettos or largest industrial wastelands appear lovely at the right time to the right eyes. Magic is a rarer commodity.
Surrounded by lofty green peaks and clouded in mist, the "lost city" of the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu, in Peru is bathed in magic. As such, a visit can carry a hefty price tag. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
By ignoring the book-before-you-leave temptation, a day or two amidst the ruins of Machu Picchu can be yours for less than £60: hundreds of pounds less than signing up with a British tour operator before you go.
Machu Picchu is situated at the lower end of the impressive SacredValley. Tiny villages and larger towns are spread along the valley’s UrubambaRiver, a tributary of the Amazon, and the area is packed with less-visited but inspiring ruins.
Trips originate from department capital Cuzco, at the other end of the valley from Machu Picchu. You can walk the expensive and overbooked Inca Trail (prices can get up to £300 for a 3-day trip), or on the cheap you can make up your own route through the valley. Most people visit Machu Picchu with a day trip from Cusco, but get more Inca for your dollar by rambling along the river, winding down to the greatest money-shot: the lost city itself.
Discovered in the tangled web of overgrown rainforest in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu has become a symbol of the significance of pre-Colombian culture.
Bingham’s own LostCity of the Incas makes a fascinating read before you visit, and goes someway to explain how the native population were able to construct a complete stone city at the top of a mountain, without modern tools.
The major drawback of the ruins is the mob of tourists. Even worse are the self-hating tourists. These are the self-righteous types who sneer at other visitors, look down on their choice of ponchos, and make fools of themselves writhing in denial. "Fuckin’ tourists" they whine, walking past local children begging for a buck.
If someone does want to arrange everything before they leave, if they do want to buy a shiny blue raincoat, good for them. There’s no point in complaining. The Incas lugged huge boulders up a mountain to build a city in the roof of the world. We’re 600 years too late. It doesn’t matter how you see it, just make sure you do.
On my second day beneath Machu Picchu I woke up at 3am to catch the first bus up the mountain. Three dozen tourists stood at the entrance by 6am.
By midday the place was rammed with day-trippers. This is part of the key. Get up early. For an hour in the morning, with the mist swirling around as the sun rose, I was completely alone to wander as I pleased.
Get a taste of the Machu Picchu vibe before you go. Dig out Chilean poet Pablo Neruda waxing lyrical about the city. He’s not far wrong when he describes: "A resting place of butterflies at the epicenter of the great circle of life."