Machu Picchu, Peru

At an elevation of 8,000 ft/2,450 m (much lower than nearby Cusco), Machu Picchu, Peru, has the most spectacular setting of any ruin in the world—even those who aren’t normally excited by archaeology will be impressed. This Lost City of the Incas is a place everyone should see at least once.

Unknown to the outside world until Yale University’s Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911, Machu Picchu sits on the spine of a ridge 2,000 ft/610 m above the rushing Urubamba River. Capping the end of the ridge is Huayna Picchu, a soaring peak that offers a challenging climb—and a bird’s-eye view of the complex as a reward. Once atop Huayna Picchu, linger for a view of the surrounding misty green-clad mountains and you’ll understand why the Incas decided to construct such an important site in this remote location.

Machu Picchu’s grassy central court is surrounded by almost 200 houses, palaces and temples built from perfectly fitted stone blocks. Especially notable are the Temple of the Sun (the only round building), the Temple of the Three Windows (trapezoidal openings), the Sacristy (full of mysterious niches) and the Intihuatana (Hitching Post of the Sun). Stone and earth terraces (designed for farming and defense) descend the mountain around three sides of the city—the fourth side is a sheer cliff.

You can see the ruins on a day trip from Cusco, but you’ll you’ll have more time to explore the site if you spend the previous night in the nearby town of Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly Aguas Calientes) and wake up early the next day. Machu Picchu Pueblo is an unashamed tourist trap and not the most appealing of places, but it does have a selection of hotels ranging from budget to luxury. Alternatively, hike the classic Inca Trail or one of the other trekking routes and get to Machu Picchu early in the morning, in time to watch the sun rise up over the surrounding mountains.

If you’re feeling really fit, you could reach the ruins via the famous Inca Trail, an ancient pathway that passes through cloud forests, gorges and ancient Inca outposts before descending into Machu Picchu. The number of hikers on the Inca Trail is limited to 500 per day (about 200 tourists plus guides and porters), and everyone must be accompanied by a government-certified guide. (Many outfitters in Cusco or Lima can arrange this, but reservations ideally should be made at least four months in advance.)

South America