There are lots of ways to get to Machu Picchu: you can walk the Inca Trail (4 days, expensive, and being loved to death) or one of the alternative treks (4+ days & still expensive), you can take the train (4 hours - but still expensive!), or you can do as we did and sneak in round the back way by taking a local bus to Santa Marta (5 hours), then a van to Santa Teresa (2 hours - after a 2 hour wait cos there weren't enough passengers), then a car to a hydroelectric plant (another hour), and then walking the final 2 hours along the railway to Aguas Calientes (a beautiful walk for the first hour - the second was a little trickier in the dark!) - we got there in a little under 12 hours, and for under 15 pounds for the two of us.
Aguas Calientes has the unenviable reputation of being the ugliest and most overpriced small town in Peru - but we quite liked it! It is definitely overpriced - but we still managed to find a cheap room and a meal for just over a pound, and while it doesn't exactly have colonial beauty, its setting is gorgeous, and we didn't think it ugly - it reminded us of a mixture between a ski resort and a kind of tourist shanty town. We stayed 2 nights so that we could make the most of our expensive entry ticket to Machu Picchu. The next morning, we got ourselves up at 4:30am so that we could walk up to the entrance before dawn (why doesn't travelling involve more sleep?!). It took us just over an hour of determined non-stop climbing in the dark to reach the entrance (accompanied by 2 dogs who were clearly used to making the morning climb for their breakfast with the tourists!), and we were happy to be the first there. It's very hard to describe our first impressions of Machu Picchu in the dawn light: seeing in real life an image that we're so familiar with from photos was incredible, but it was its setting, the scale and beauty of the mountains that surround it, and the incredible dawn light that made it magical. It was definitely worth the effort and expense of getting there! We stood and took it all in from the end of the Inca trail, and then climbed up to the Intihuatana Stone to sit and take it all in some more! (it's a rare ritual stone - the Spanish destroyed most of them - believed to be an astronomic clock, and arranged to point directly at the sun during winter solstice; it's also called the 'Hitching Point of the Sun' because it was supposed to hold the sun in its place). Tara tried rubbing her head on the stone to see if she could see the spirit world (as Shamanic legends say!) - she couldn't(!), but we're told that that might be because many of the spirits left when a crane being used to film a beer company video fell on the stone and broke a piece off of it in 2000. After a bit of a walk around in the relative quiet before the tour groups arrived, we headed to the entrance of Huaynapicchu (the 'second hill' in the classic postcard shot of Machu Picchu - 'Machu Pichu' means 'young mountain/peak' in Quechua, and 'Huayna Picchu' means 'young mountain/peak'). We were there when it openned, and scurried up the mountain (more steep steps - the Incas must have been very fit!!) so that we could have a couple of minutes on our own at the top. One of our dog companions from earlier joined us again - not sure how 'cos he definitely wasn't supposed to be there! It was satisfying reaching the top, and sitting there in the quiet for a bit - but we didn't have the view we'd hoped for 'cos the clouds had closed in. Since they showed no immediate signs of clearing, we decided to visit the Templo de la Luna (Moon Temple) and the Gran Cavern (Great Cave), and then climb back up for the view if the clouds cleared (you can imagine how excited Da was about all the extra climbing!). We loved the quiet of this part of the site, and the many huge orchids and noisy hummingbirds that we saw! The clouds cleared with great timing, and we ate our early tuna sandwich lunch very contentedly looking down on Machu Picchu. Once we were back in the main site, we made the most of the tour groups, and moved between the English-language ones. It was fascinating - especially when the afternoon rain made the tour guides entertain their sheltering tourists with longer explanations - but what we learnt most is that we really know very little about the site: the guides all had different explanations and often contradicted each other. The rain became persistent, so after a quick walk to see the Inca Bridge for Tara (Da stayed sheltering in the thatched Hut of the Caretaker of Funerary Rock!), it was time to leave. We were going to take the bus down, but it was so overpriced for such a short journey that we decided to walk - and then, too late, remembered that the tourist information office had told us we'd need to book our train tickets to leave the day before, and that they closed at 5pm - it was 4:20pm, so we ran back as fast as we could on the slippery steps (with doggy accompaniment again of course!), and now know that is possible to get from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes on foot in just over half an hour! When we got to the train station (gasping for air!) they told us they were open till 7pm!! Our train out to Ollantaytambo was more expensive than our journey to get there - but much quicker and easier, and very beautiful! From there, we hopped in a collectivo and were back in Cusco in under 4 hours. We spent a lazy afternoon there, and visited a weaving exhibition and shop, and then caught a night bus to Puno, our last stop in Peru.