Reporting from Machu Picchu, Peru—At the top of the mountain, where an attendant will take your $46 ticket, foot traffic is steady and cellphone 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.
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.
PHOTOS: Tour 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 brushstrokes 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 Cusqueña 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. (But I wonder: What would happen if Budweiser went to Mt. Rushmore and broke Thomas Jefferson's nose?)
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, then take a train about 70 miles to Aguas Calientes, 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?