Before coming to South America, I shamefully admit that I knew very little about Machu Picchu. All I knew was that it was famous and a must-see. Since then, my curiosity has been picqued by its compelling mystery. How is it that this giant complex eluded the Spaniards when they destroyed so many other Incan sites? How did it go so many years forgotten in the jungle, unknown to but a few locals? What must it have felt like to be Hiram Bingham, the Yale historian, who “discovered” it by accident in the early 1900s and exposed it to the world? And, most importantly, what was its purpose? Some say it was a royal retreat, others say an agricultural centre, and then there are those who claim it was for astrological and ceremonial purposes. I think it was probably used for a bit of everything, but I’m no expert on the matter.

Machu Picchu is indeed elusive and, for a while, we thought it might elude us. Heavier than normal rains in January caused mudslides and washed out a portion of the train track leading to Machu Picchu. Several tourists were left stranded and the government was forced to close the ruins for several months to repair the damage. Luckily, the site was reopened at the end of March and we were among the first groups of tourists granted train tickets.

Part of me was worried that Machu Picchu would be a let-down, as many overly-hyped attractions are. The price definitely leads one to have high expectations. For a 4 day, 3 night trek along the Inca trail, ending at Machu Picchu, the reputable companies charge $500 to $600. That was out of our budget so we opted for a private taxi to Piscacucho followed by the Perurail train to the town at the foot of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. We paid $220 for our package from Harry’s Tours in Cusco, This still seemed steep to us but train tickets were in high demand with the reopening; the powers of supply and demand left us with few budget options.

The train to Machu Picchu is definitely less epic than hiking the Inca trail, but it does have its own glory. The glass ceiling and large windows offered panoramic views of dark tunnels, jungle-covered rock walls and rushing rivers. We arrived in Aguas Calientes antsy to get to Machu Picchu. Before the crack of dawn, we were up and waiting for the bus to take us up to the ruins. It was raining, and a light mist hung in the air. “Very appropriate,” I thought.

My first glimpse of Machu Picchu was enough for me to know that I would not be disappointed. Watching the white mist swirl around the crumbling stones, I could feel the intrigue, the beauty and the spirituality of this place.

The ruins are in very good shape considering their age and the recent rains. Doorways, walls, supports for straw roofs and aqueducts are all still discernible. Cut into the hillsides surrounding Machu Picchu are flat platforms called andenes used for agriculture, built in this way to prevent soil erosion.

On an elevated patch is the Intihuatana, “hitching post of the sun,” a rock said to act as both a compass and an astrological calendar. Our guide told us that by putting our hands above it we would feel its energy.

It’s easy to admire the Incans for their architecture and stonework. Each stone fits perfectly beside its neighbour, without mortar. The Incans used trapezoidal windows and tilted walls to prevent collapses from earthquakes.

Windows are often aligned with seasonal changes; for instance, the window in the Temple of the Sun is aligned with the sun’s dawn light during the summer solstice.

We were initially planning to hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain that flanks the ruins, but had second thoughts. Dan and I were still feeling nauseous from earlier upset stomachs that had caused us to lose our lunches. We did a slightly less gruelling 1.5 hour hike, along the ancient Inca Trail, to the Gate of the Sun, Intipunku, where we got terrific birds-eye views of the ruins. We both wished that we had more energy to do some of the alternative walks around Machu Picchu but our bodies were not co-operating.

Exhausted and aching, we began the trek back to Aguas Calientes. We had decided to walk back down to the town rather than taking the pricey tourist bus, but the uneven Inca steps got the better of us and after 45 minutes of stairs, our legs felt like jell-o. It was no surprise that we got back to our hostel and collapsed into the deepest sleep of this trip. Exhaustion and cost aside, Machu Picchu was worth all the hype. The pictures are a great memento, but they only depict a fraction of the beauty and none of the mystery.