Looking down on Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu is the peak across the valley than can also be climbed for a view
Machu Picchu turned out to be different than I imagined it would be, in so many ways. It was the one thing I was most excited about seeing...as it is for most people visiting Peru. I did not take the time to do much research before we left for Peru, wanting instead to have a completely "in-the-moment" experience (and not plan out every day, like my type-A personality usually wants to do).
I was first struck, sadly, by how commercialized and touristy the experience is. I'm sure it wasn't always this way, and I understand the local's need to make a buck off of us tourists. But the town at the base of MP (called Machu Picchu town, or Aguas Calientes) gave me such a headache. It is row after row of overpriced mediocre restaurants, stalls of the same wares to be sold, and cheap backpacker hostels. It is set in such a gorgeous place...at the base of the Andes on a rushing river, but those things are overshadowed by the haphazardly thrown-together tourist town (it actually is an ancient town, but tourism is the new industry replacing farming).
The scene at the top of the mountain is not much better. There is a super-expensive hotel at the top of Machu Picchu and more people selling wares. You have to pay to use the restrooms, pay for a guide, etc. While this is certainly not abnormal in tourist destinations (I would love to know how much I've paid to pee in the past 9 months!), it still starts to take away from the spiritual MP experience.
Once inside the gates, and around the bend, Machu Picchu spreads out before you like a green maze dotted with people in raincoats. Our guide toured us all over the town, explaining where the commoners lived, the royalty lived, and where the farming happened. It was supremely amazing, but I never really felt like I was in Machu Picchu. It just didn't look like I had pictured...and there were tourists EVERYWHERE!
Not until we climbed to the top of the agriculture terraces, and escaped from the masses to a semi-secluded terrace on the side, did we look down and feel like we finally were in Machu Picchu. Sitting and staring and feeling the energy and excitement of the space was something I will never forget. It was humbling and awesome. If you go, I suggest going in the off/rainy season. I can't imagine what the crowds would be like if tourist season was in full swing!
PS, I have also heard that if you stay at the hotel at the top, or come in via the Inca Trail (3-5 day hike), you have the opportunity to be the first ones or last ones in the park for the day...and therefore have the place more or less to yourself. Next time!