Aguas Calientes is the town nearest to Machu Picchu. This is where you will likely stay a night before you visit the site or having a meal before you take the train back to Cusco or Ollantaytambo.
Most of the infrastructure in Aguas Calientes is targeted at tourists. This means jacked up prices.
In Aguas Calientes, I had eaten a 45 soles (S$21) set meal where the rice was as large as the head of my fork and a 67 soles meal (S$30) that was actually pretty tasty.
Of course, not every meal in Aguas Calientes has to exceed 50 soles. I can show you a place where you can have a meal plus a fruit juice for just 10 soles (S$4.50).
This little piggy went to market
On the second floor of the local market (not the “craft market) is where they sell cooked food. At lunch time, a lot of the stalls write their dishes of the day on a whiteboard. Just order off the list and you will have tasty, freshly made food.
The second stall on the left gave me a good vibe so I had both my meals there. The stall is run by a family of women. The first time I went, the elder sister cooked while the second time, the mother cooked.
The beef steak meal was lovely but the Milanese chicken (breaded chicken cutlet) wasn’t as good. I love how they have rice along with the meal. I also requested that they only give me tomatos and not greens as the salad.
After your meal, you might want to have a drink. At the market, juices sell for 5 soles. For this price, you get about 2 glass-full of juice. That was enough to stretch my stomach.
I will definitely miss the generous servings of fruit juices in Peru.
At the end of the train to Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes. This town, named after its hot springs, does not have a good reputation among travel guides.
“[U]nplanned tourist development and perpetual construction makes this one of the ugliest, most exploitative towns you’ll run across anywhere in Peru,” says Lonely Planet.
Wikivoyage reports, “Despite its magnificent setting, it’s not the most scenic town, owing to fast and ruthless development to support the huge influx of tourists.”
Based on all these comments, I kind of dreaded the two nights that I would be spending there.
I thought my eyeballs would melt from looking at Aguas Calientes town. But at the end of the trip, my eyeballs were intact. I even think that Aguas Calientes is much prettier than some of the Malaysian towns I’ve been to.
First impression of Aguas Calientes
When the train pulled into its station–well, just in the middle of the tracks and not really the station–I saw half-built buildings made up of concrete and wood. I thought to myself that if the whole place looks like this, then it’s really sad.
At the platform, a woman holding a whiteboard sign had the name of my hostel. I introduced myself but the woman–who doesn’t look past 24–seemed worried. I guessed that no one told her that a Chinese person was coming.
When she had gathered all the guests, we trekked through the “craft market”. The market is made up of tens of stalls all selling the same woolen hat, gloves and souvenirs.
The woman from our guest house had a cloth baggage on her back like many of the local women. From the cloth, I could smell soured milk so I wondered if she was carrying a baby inside.
My hostel was a rather sad place. It was a shop house divided into many rooms. My room had a window that looked out into a corridor and the place smelled musty.
I got out of the hostel quickly and explored the town.
Real exploration of Aguas Calientes
When I stepped out of my hostel, I was awed by the mountains that hugged the town. They towered the town and looked freshly green.
If you looked only at the mountains, Aguas Calientes is indeed a pretty town.
Away from town, the real river of Aguas Calientes was beautiful too. Sadly, part of the town where the river flowed had a smell of wet socks so the whole river might not be as clean as it looks.
The town is made up of a lot of stairs. Some of these stairs are flanked with tourist restaurants where waiters call out semi-aggressively while some have women shouting about “Masaji. Masaji.” (Perhaps I look Japanese so they use the Japanese pronounciation of massage.
I was surprised to find the football field. I expected the town to be void of activities in normal life, such as school and play, since tourism is such an important business in Aguas Calientes.
As Aguas Calientes is constantly underdevelopment–not unlike Dubai and Singapore–a lot of buildings were unfinished.
Murals in Aguas Calientes
One of the buildings’ wall had gorgeous murals.
Other fun thing in Aguas Calientes
Besides Machu Picchu, another interesting place in Aguas Calientes is the hot springs. But it’s kind of dirty if you go later in the day.
The best time to visit the hot springs is before 12 noon when the sun is at its strongest.
The market near the main square has a second floor with food stalls. They sell cheap (5 soles) meals!
Have you been to Aguas Calientes, how did you find it?
To be honest, I don’t really know why I want to visit Machu Picchu. The main reason is probably that it has been so hyped up. I don’t mind
Many web sites that I read recommend heading to the bus station slightly before 5am to catch the first few buses that leave at 5:30am so that you can catch the sunrise.
Initially, I planned to do the same and set my alarm for 4:45am. When the time came and my iPhone blasted out my alarm, I went over to my phone and changed the time to an hour later.
I didn’t fully fall back into sleep but when I checked my phone, it was 5:55am. I checked my alarm and realized that I had set it to 5:45pm.
I got up and got ready. I checked out of the hotel around 7am and looked for food because I planned to stay in Machu Picchu well past lunchtime and I need a good breakfast.
My favorite French pastry place was open. I ordered a cafe con leche and two pastries. This should sustain me for a long while.
I bought a one-way bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. The queue was long when I got there but the line moved quite efficiently. The bus was on a very windy uphill road and took about 20 minutes to reach the entrance.
Almost at the end of the ride, I saw Machu Picchu Inca town and Huayana Picchu–the two most photographed parts of the thing we know as Machu Picchu. It looked like tiny Lego blocks from afar.
Entering Machu Picchu
After the ticket check where the person scans your ticket and checks your ID name against your ticket name, you are free to enter.
I asked the guards after the entrance if it is true that there is a Machu Picchu stamp. They told me that the stamping starts at 9am. So take note and don’t leave too early.
There is a little walk from the entrance to the spot where most people take their Machu Picchu phototos.
When I first saw the real Machu Picchu, I thought, “Wow. It looks like the postcards. But a bit smaller than I imagined.” It wasn’t until I was inside the city walls that I felt tiny.
I took many photos showing the same angle of the site. All of them look the same but I feel obliged to take as many as I can. This resulted in a dead battery at the end of the day.
My ticket allows me to climb Machu Picchu mountain. I tried walking the first 30 steps of the mountain and gave up. I’d see the site from ground level. Thank you very much.
Reading on Machu Picchu
After some phototaking, I thought it was time to head into the city but when I was walking in the direction, I found a very nice nook in the wall with two large stones. I sat on the stone and found it really comfortable. It also gave me a good view of the mountain and the ancient city.
Then I took out my Kindle and started reading. It was a very good place to read because the sun had not reached that particular spot yet. From time to time, I look up from my book and stare out at the sight below–so that people don’t think that I’m crazy for reading in Machu Picchu.
Tourists passed by my reading spot. Only one Indian man commented joyfully about my “comfy nook” while the others just ignore me or look with curiosity.
I only moved when the sunlight crept into my lap. My knees were hot and soon my head would be too so I moved. The reading session took a little more than an hour but it was a fun session.
By that time, it was past 11am and I noticed that the tour groups have descended in drones. While there were a lot of people, it wasn’t crazy crowded like some of the sights in China. Maybe it’s because of the 2,500 daily limit.
Llama photo opp
Machu Picchu Inca city has a few llamas on its premise, grazing on the grass or running away from humans. (I even spotted llama poo in one of the buildings, so I imagined that they roam around freely when humans are not around.)
There was a baby llama that was still drinking milk from its mom. Some of the llamas gave up running away and allowed humans to pose with them.
One of the llamas even had a flew and was sneezing from time to time, giving everyone nearby a jump. Llamas are not quite as cute as alpacas but they are still fun animals to touch.
After walking a while, I found another good reading spot. I saw this from across the amphitheatre, the spot is against the wall and is very shady when the sun is still in the east.
While reading, I snuck bites of my takeaway pain au chocolate, wiped tears from my eyes using my jacket and eavesdropped on tour guides nearby.
It was another hour later when I finished the book. By that time, the sun was higher up in the sky and sunlight reached my shoes. It was time to leave to continue my tour.
Most impressive part of Machu Picchu
Some people say that they feel very spiritual when they head to Machu Picchu. I usually roll my eyes when I hear these comments. What does spirituality feel like?
It’s a bit funny how people find it spiritual when everything was man-made. They should feel more in awe of those who built the site and not some invisible energy.
I was most impressed with the Inca terraces. From the postcard photos of Machu Picchu, you don’t get to see how huge the terraces are but they are really really impressive.
I took a path leading up to the terrace and ended up at the entrance. I decided that 1:30pm was a good time to end my visit since I’ve been in the compound for about 5 hours.
The queue to the bus back to town was horribly long but I queued with everybody else.
Back in town, I had 6 hours to kill before my train so I ate, read and ate.
Aguas Calientes is the town where the train to Machu Picchu stops. The name means “hot water” or “hot springs”. I have been in love with hot springs ever since Japan. Even though we have hot springs in Sabah but those are a bit lame as the water is piped into little pools.
Problem is, the hot springs in Aguas Calientes has pretty bad reviews and the photos of the pools do not look appealing. My sister said the photo of the pools remind her of the hot springs at home.
Still, I had a whole day in Aguas Calientes with no plans so I decided to give the place a go. After moving my things from one budget hotel to another at 9:30am, I brought my shampoo, sarong cloth and camera to the hot springs.
To reach the Baños Termales (Thermal Bathes), walk with your back to the train station. You will likely see signposts along the way. Keep to the right where the slopes and stores are (not along the river) since the entrance is there.
Before the entrance, there are shops renting towels and bathing suits. I’m not sure about the price but you can get them there if you need.
Entrance fee is 10 soles but you will need to keep your things in the lockers which costs 1 sole. The lockers are further in where the pools are.
There is a slight walk from the entrance to the pools. I haven’t been in good shape so I was huffing and puffing halfway up the slope.
The sight of the pools surprised me since I thought there was more walking. From above, the pools looked like they contained dirty murky brown water. Eek.
After changing into my swimwear (this is not Japan so no naked onsens, people!), I brought my plastic bag of shampoo, camera and watch to the pools.
At first I checked out the “showers” near the entrance, the water was freezing. Someone above shouted at me and pointed to the other side of the pools.
As I didn’t wear my glasses, I had to walk up to the old man, tell him I cannot see without my glasses and followed his instructions to go to the other side where there is hot water.
A local lady was washing herself at one of the three tiger head spouts. I turned on one of them and laughed when hot water came gushing out.
The lady said, “Agua thermal!” to tell me that it was hot spring water. I nodded and started washing myself. After the shampooing, I checked out the pools.
I found one of the medium-sized pools empty so I got in. The water wasn’t as scalding hot as Japanese hot springs. It was about body temperature.
I realized that the dirty-looking water wasn’t filled with grime from Inca Trail hikers as I originally thought. Instead, it could have been from the minerals in the spring water. Or at least I hope it was.
The pool is too deep to sit in but too shallow to wade so I half-stood by the faucet with hot spring water, allowing the water to trickle down my face. (It was actually too hot to do that but I want spring water on my face so I did it anyway.)
From the pool, you can see the mountains surrounding the little valley. It’s quite beautiful from there.
The floors of the pools are filled with pebbles which I think are to prevent people from slipping on the smooth tiles. Or it could be for a natural foot massage.
Then I felt that the water was too chilly and shifted to one of the larger pools. I was in it until the sun was a little too high in the sky and I could not find a shade.
I moved to the kiddie pool which allowed me to sit on the floor and soak my whole body.
There was one old lady, some kids and a young mother (I assume) in the kiddie pool with me. The kids splashed playfully while I continued my soak.
Saving butterfly from drowning
The sun was quite high up now that the only shade was from the bridge leading to the entrance. I scooted a little to the left to allow another old ladies to sit with her friend.
Then I saw a butterfly flutter past. It was flying prettily and did a dip into the water and proceeded to drown.
I let out a yelp and went to scoop it out of the water. The butterfly was safe but it clung to my finger, not willing to fly even when I blew at it.
The old ladies were curious and chattered to me. I nodded stupidly and showed them the butterfly. One of the kids joined us and later caused the butterfly to drown again.
I rescued the poor thing but it still would not fly away. In the end, I decided that I had enough of the pools and it was time to go for a nap. (I woke up at 4:30am today because of Machu Picchu hiking people.)
After I took photos of the butterfly, I nudged my pruney finger against the walls and it flew away. Bye bye butterfly!
At first I thought that I could come for another bath in the evening after Machu Picchu on Saturday. However, I was shivering really badly even under the sun so I thought it would be best if I did not do it in the evening when the temperature is even lower.
Do you like soaking in hot springs? Where’s the best place to do it?
Finally, it’s the day I take the train to Machu Picchu. Or at least that’s what it says on my train ticket.
In reality, the train to “Machu Picchu” stops at a little town called Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters). This town is deeply hated by travel guidebooks and sites, I’ll talk more about it tomorrow since today it’s all about my train ride.
My train to Machu Picchu starts at the town of Ollantaytambo. I spent two nights there but you can easily access the town from Cusco in not more than 2 hours’ time.
Ollantaytambo’s train station is at the very end of the road where the two ticket counters are. Along the road, there were stalls selling woollen things and even food.
There was a group of school children who were about to take the train when I was at the station. They were quite prepared as most of them each had a roll of blanket strapped to their bag.
All aboard the Peru Rail train!
The train ticket says everyone needs to be at the station half an hour before the train leaves. They let passengers into the train area well before that.
The guards checked everyone’s ticket with their identification so remember to have your passport in hand.
After the ticket check, I tried getting onto a carriage. The lady in the carriage asked me, “What do you want?” and then “You cannot come in yet. Thank you.” when I told her that I was looking for my seat.
I got out of the carriage with a cheery “You’re welcome!” and stood by the side of the train. At least the view was good.
Soon, the Peru Rail employees started putting out the carriage letters. It was strange since the order was A-C-B. Anyway, I got onto my carriage after the carriage attendant checked my ticket and my passport once more.
The Expedition carriage is the cheapest ticket for foreigners. The carriage has windows on the roof so passengers can admire the sky and tall mountains and get a bit of sun bathing.
My A-1 seat was right next to the window, in front of the food preparation center. The person beside me never came so I had the two seats to myself.
I also checked out the toilet before anyone else came on board. It was the largest train toilet I’ve ever seen. I think it can fit 5 people standing up.
While we were waiting for the train to leave, I looked outside and saw several passengers and a Peru Rail employee on the phone, huddled in a circle. It seems to me that there were problems with the train tickets. One of the passengers had a large backpack with a hiking stick.
I tried to imagine if that was me and that Peru Rail told me that there were problems with my ticket and that I cannot go to Machu Picchu. It felt like yesterday all over again so I stopped imagining.
When the train pulled out of the station, the people-with-ticket-problems did not get on board. I hope they eventually reached Machu Picchu.
Coffee or tea?
About 30 minutes into the journey, we were served one drink and one snack. I got myself a black coffee and a muffin.
While the Peru Rail employees were serving the drinks, I realized that the guys were a lot taller than the average Peruvians. I really wanted to ask them if height was included in the job requirement, as do flight attendants.
Back to the train ride. The view along the way was great but the sun was so bright that I kept my face hidded next to the wall to avoid sun face.
On the far right of the was a snow-capped mountain, which I found out is called Veronica, while on the right were grass-patched mountains. We even passed the Inca Trail, as a tour guide for the group sitting in front of me announced.
The lady who sat on the seat across mine was Taiwanese. She gave me a lot of information on sights in Peru, allowing me to narrow down what I want to do these last 10 days.
The train ride ended quite soon and we got into the concrete town of Aguas Calientes. My hostel sent someone to pick everyone up which was a good thing since the tiny paths can be quite confusing.
As promised, I’ll write more about Aguas Calientes tomorrow.