In case you don’t know this, the train to Machu Picchu doesn’t take you to the famous ruins. Instead, it leaves you off in the town of Aguas Calientes, which in Spanish means “hot waters” and is only a few miles away from this South American wonder of the world. While Aguas Calientes is the exact opposite of charming, since almost every business there is geared towards tourists (i.e. mediocre, possibly overpriced food and experiences), it still pleasantly surprised me. Here are my personal dos and don’ts for visiting.
Do go with an open mind
If you have a negative opinion of Aguas Calientes before even going there, yes, you’re probably going to hate everything about it. However, I went there knowing that it was not going to provide me with the most authentic of experiences. That yes, I would try to be persuaded to dine at just about every restaurant there from proprietors hawking their restaurant’s menu to you in the street and that yes, I would probably see more foreigners than actual Peruvians. And yet, due to its status as the gateway to Machu Picchu, it still had charm in some areas, cool things to photograph, and well, the natural scenery couldn’t be beat either.
While normally I am a “stick to the map” kind of traveler, as in I like to have a good idea of where I am, the streets of Aguas Calientes were perfect for wandering. Whether it was the adorable stray puppy that kept trying to escape from the also adorable Peruvian toddler who most likely thought it was a toy, or the beautiful bronze plated murals that depicted the Inca civilization, or all the tangible signs that make you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore, there are much worse places to wander.
Do eat…a lot
I had plenty of good meals while on my trip to Peru and yet one of the best was in the town of Aguas Calientes of all places. Although yes, I ended up going into a restaurant where one of the workers was standing in the street, holding open a menu for you to peruse, that’s the norm there. I ordered the lomo saltado, one of Peru’s most famous dishes (a beef and vegetable stir fry) and honest to goodness, it was fantastic. I’m not sure if it was due to the fact that I hadn’t eaten much all day or that I had worked up an appetite climbing all over Machu Picchu, but I devoured it. D was also thoroughly impressed with his arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). There was also a stand near to where you board the buses to Machu Picchu that sold French style rolls and pastries. Buy from here. Nothing beat being able to feast on a pain aux raisin and pain au chocolat in a sleepy Peruvian town.
Don’t forget your sunscreen
As I mentioned before, the day we spent at Machu Picchu was the hottest day of our entire trip. The same obviously went for the town of Aguas Calientes. While walking around, you won’t find a whole lot of shade so be sure to apply sun screen or at least have your back/neck/shoulder/arms covered. While there was public seating outdoors, seating in shady areas was hard to come by. We walked around 20 minutes even though we were both tired simply because I didn’t want to sit in the sun. Thankfully we finally found a shaded spot.
Don’t miss your train
In the morning when the train arrived in Aguas Calientes, we were let off right in the middle of the town. We (incorrectly) assumed it would be the same for our return trip to Ollantaytambo. Our train was to leave at 2:25 and our tickets said boarding would take place at 2:05. Well, 2:05 came and we didn’t see any train nor anyone else waiting, which I found odd since I’d assumed it would be crowded. We had been waiting outside by the train ticket office where we thought the train would come. I finally went inside and asked and was told trains left from the station which was by the artisan market. By this point our train was to leave in 15 minutes time, we didn’t know where we were going except I knew we needed to hustle, which was easier said than done since we were physically exhausted and in Aguas Calientes, a lot of the walking was uphill. Well, we walked as fast as we could, saw the train station and walked the entire length of it since even though we didn’t see any entrance, we (incorrectly) figured it had to be at the opposite end. We got there, didn’t see anything normal looking, were asked what we were doing by an official, we told him, he told us we have to go to the entrance which was back the way we had come. By now, I was ready to have a heart attack from both nerves and feeling like I couldn’t make it. I had D run ahead, he still didn’t see any entrance until finally we saw that you had to literally go THROUGH the crafts market to get to the train platforms. Latin America, I love you but w&%$F? Although I felt like I was going to pass out from panic, worrying, and running, thankfully we made it but it was not the experience you want to ever have as a traveler. Had I not asked when I did, I’m not sure what we would have done.
Many people end up staying in Aguas Calientes (there are numerous hotels there) in order to visit Machu Picchu for more than one day. While I would have loved to go back a second day (after hours there, the sun, heat, and crowds had gotten to me), I’m not sure if I would have liked staying there. But as a place to eat, walk around, and just reflect on an incredible visit to some of the most magnificent ruins in the world, it definitely fit the bill.