I have no actual secret way to prepare for MP, but I can tell you what I did! Our lovely tour operators sent a nice preview pack with a great list of about 8 books you should read before going to Peru. I did not read any of them. I now think that if I had, I could have been bored by the guide. What I did read is Turn Right at Machu Pichu by Mark Adams which I grabbed of the best seller shelf at the airport bookstore. What luck! It had me laughing out loud and gave me just enough intro to the culture that what Elga told us sounded familiar and I was able to put it together and feel clever.
If you are going without a guide, read something before hand, probably even before you book your tickets and you will do great. But if you have tickets already and know that you aren't going to read a darn thing, just make sure you get a guide!
Although hiking the Inca trail sounds like a great experience, that was not in the cards for us-we took the train. There are a couple different service levels and schedules, but they all get you to Agua Caliente. The train is a fun experience because you start in the high desert and 3 hours later you are in the jungle. There is one section so steep the train zig zags back and forth-something I've never seen before, ingenious. We get to see plenty of terraces-to farm on a hill, you just flatten it out in small bits.
Agua Caliente is the town at the base of Machu Pichu where you catch the bus. I am not crazy about the bus (Headline: Busload of Tourists Plunges off Cliff in South America), but it is safe and well organized. I've seen some internet complaints about how expensive a trip to MP is compared to other famous sites-the bus ticket is separate from MP, etc. But this is seriously at the back of beyond-I hope they at least break even and there is a walking path if you really want to spend hours not seeing MP. Just sayin.
Machu Pichu is actually one of the mountains surrounding the city, seems we don't know what the Incans called the city. In the classic photo, it is the one behind the photographer that you don't see and the peak you are seeing is Waynu Pichu.
Elga gave a great tour-we walked through all the parts of the city. We will never be sure of the city's complete purpose, but it is clear it had farms, storehouses, running water from the springs above, temples and holy sites. The engineering is top notch and there are some rooms clearly intended for astronomy. My two favorites are the two small round shallow pools that may be mirrors to the sky and the condor room. The natural rocks are the condor wings so they simply added the condor body and voila!
The city seems designed to hold 500-1000 people so even though in the classic photo the place looks small, it is just far away. In the photos here you can see a few groups of people-it is larger than expected.
It only took a couple hours walking around to feel exhausted and sunburnt. But lunch at the lodge perked us right up-the water actually still comes from the springs in the mountains! There is a lot of hiking you can do here. Climbing Waynu Pichu is popular, but you have to get up super early because it is limited to 400 people per day. From the reviews it is also steep and scary. You can climb Machu Pichu itself, but I am pretty sure it would take me fours hours up and that was not meant to be on this day.
Instead I picked the easiest option, the hike to the Sun Gate, Intipunku.
A store house (?) with a view.
Also, since it is the afternoon, there is some shade on the hike up. Eventually we make it!
The last yards of the Incan trail.
The view as you turn the corner
The trail going up MP.
Phew! The return trip took about 1/3 the time-easy peasy!