Day 6: Aguas Calientes

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January 17, 2013 by jiejie768

Our adventures during a Peruvian holiday with family and friends continued Dec. 27 with a train ride from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, which sits at the base of the mountain that hides Machu Picchu. To catch up with our other holiday adventures, click on the links at the bottom of the page.

Train Depot

Day 6: Aguas Calientes

On Thursday, Dec. 27, the alarm clock sounded early yet again. This time at 6 a.m. as we had a 7:15 cab to the train station. Any lingering drowsiness was quickly dispelled when I reminded myself that the train would take me to the foot of the mountain atop which rests Machu Picchu. I wouldn’t actually make it to my long-awaited destination until the following day, but just getting that close was enough to get me out of bed (well, that and a big cup of coffee).

The train station sits about 20 minutes outside of Cuzco along the banks of the Urubamba River, which the train would follow all the way to Aguas Calientes. Pam had booked us seats on the VistaDome train, which offered skylights in addition to the traditional eye-level train windows. It made sense as most of the scenery was vertical (truthfully though, I found myself looking out the horizontal windows much more often than the skylights).

Though Cuzco is often cited as the jumping off point for a trip to Machu Picchu (and it is in a broader sense), it’s actually a good three hours away by train. It is possible to take a train early in the morning, spend all day at the ruins, and then return at night in time to grab a beer and sleep once more in Cuzco. That, however, was a bit more ambitious than we could stomach so we — wisely in my opinion — decided to book two nights in Aguas Calientes so we could arrive Thursday, spend the night, spend all day Friday doing the Machu Picchu thing, spend the night again and take a morning train back towards Cuzco (we actually took the return train to Ollantaytambo, but we’ll save that for a later post).

So it was that we boarded the train at 8:45 and set off into the Urubamba Valley. If Machu Picchu is the main course on this particular expedition (and it is!), then the train ride out is a fantastic appetizer to get things rolling (in this analogy Aguas Calientes is the free bread you ate too much of and kind of regret). As you get further from Cuzco, the river turns from placid wanderer to a raging tempest cutting a path through dazzling green peaks wreathed in clouds. Cuzco sits at 11,000-plus feet and Aguas Calientes is only about 5,600, so as you descend, the scenery shoots skyward to dazzling heights.

In addition to gorgeous mountain ranges, our train ride from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes offered us a view of several farms throughout the countryside.

In addition to gorgeous mountain ranges, our train ride from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes offered us a view of several farms throughout the countryside.

As we left Cuzco, the river went from placid to roaring in no time flat.

As we left Cuzco, the river went from placid to roaring in no time flat.

A bridge leads out from one of the villages along the tracks from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes.

A bridge leads out from one of the villages along the tracks from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes.

This woman was selling flowers at one of the trains stops along the way from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes.

This woman was selling flowers at one of the trains stops along the way from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes.

Just outside of Ollantaytambo, about an hour from Aguas Calientes, the train passed the Inca Trail. I did feel a little lame about not attempting the trail myself, but I must say no part of me was envious of these braves souls on this day.

Just outside of Ollantaytambo, about an hour from Aguas Calientes, the train passed the Inca Trail. I did feel a little lame about not attempting the trail myself, but I must say no part of me was envious of these braves souls on this day.

These Incan agricultural terraces visible from the train were among our first — though certainly not last — glimpses of ruins on our journey into the Urubamba River Valley.

These Incan agricultural terraces visible from the train were among our first — though certainly not last — glimpses of ruins on our journey into the Urubamba River Valley.

The food on the train — potatoes, cheese and quinoa salad with coffee — was excellent; a much better dining experience than the previous night.

The food on the train — potatoes, cheese and quinoa salad with coffee — was excellent; a much better dining experience than the previous night.

A rejuvenated Ty, along with Bill, Katie, Dan, Ryan and Tom are visible in this group shot on the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes. There are skylights in addition to the standard windows to help passengers take in the view as the train winds through the breathtaking Urubamba River Valley.

A rejuvenated Ty, along with Bill, Katie, Dan, Ryan and Tom are visible in this group shot on the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes. There are skylights in addition to the standard windows to help passengers take in the view as the train winds through the breathtaking Urubamba River Valley.

Despite back-to-back wake up calls of 4:30 and 6 a.m. respectively, I had every intention of staying awake on the three-hour train ride so as to enjoy the scenery. I made it most of the way, but Tom caught me napping toward the end of the trip.

Despite back-to-back wake up calls of 4:30 and 6 a.m. respectively, I had every intention of staying awake on the three-hour train ride so as to enjoy the scenery. I made it most of the way, but Tom caught me napping toward the end of the trip.

I’ve always enjoyed traveling by train, and the surroundings just made it better. We spent a leisurely morning enjoying the excellent cuisine served on the train, wandering the aisles chatting with one another, napping and looking out the windows at the countryside and cloud forest. Tom and I even spent about 20 minutes talking Seahawks with a man who had lived in Seattle for 15 years. It was, by far, my favorite in-transit part of our entire trip to South America. It almost felt like a destination in itself.

It, of course, was not, and our actual destination came into view about noon. The best thing I can say about Aguas Calientes is that it is surrounded on every side by some of the most breathtaking natural beauty I have ever seen. The Urubamba roars past the edge of town and mountains reach into the clouds in every direction. The town itself is basically a huge tourist trap that really got on my nerves by the end our time there. Just about everything there is twice as expensive as it would be elsewhere in Peru (even in the so-called expensive city of Cuzco). The town is built on a hill, and as we climbed toward our hotel, we were harassed by no fewer than a dozen hucksters trying to get us to step into their overpriced restaurant that serves the same bland imitation cuisine as every other restaurant in town. This scene repeated itself every single time we left our hotel.

The tumultuos Urubamba River rages just below Aquas Calientes. We could hear the river day and night from our hotel rooms.

The tumultuos Urubamba River rages just below Aquas Calientes. We could hear the river day and night from our hotel rooms.

The Urubamba Rages 2

Aguas Calientes is "only" 5,600 feet or so above sea level, but it is surrounded by Andean peaks shrouded in mist.

Aguas Calientes is “only” 5,600 feet or so above sea level, but it is surrounded by Andean peaks shrouded in mist.

Aguas Calientes, which is a 20 minute bus or 90-minute hike from Machu Picchu, is basically a huge tourist trap on hill that features 30 of the same restaurants and a tepid "hot" springs. But, man oh man, does the scenery more than make up for it.

Aguas Calientes, which is a 20 minute bus or 90-minute hike from Machu Picchu, is basically a huge tourist trap on hill that features 30 of the same restaurants and a tepid “hot” springs. But, man oh man, does the scenery more than make up for it.

Our hotel itself was OK, though it was only about 2/3 finished and the roof over most of the common areas (rooms had real ceilings) was nothing more than the hard plastic you’d see on a greenhouse (though, thankfully, it was not actually greenhouse material). It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great either. It got worse when Meg and I returned from Machu Picchu the following day, and, exhausted, I collapsed on the bed only to notice my pillow was crawling with tiny sugar ants (we were moved to a not as comfortable, though ant-free room).

After dining in one of the clone-cuisine restaurants we decided to step outside the city and enjoy a little of the natural beauty at our fingertips. Kathy, who had previously visited Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, led us on a hike along the railroad tracks to a waterfall across the river from the peak that is home to the famous ruins. Along the way, we learned our two primary destinations — a botanical garden and the waterfall — had also fallen victim to the tourist-trap mindset.

New hat in place, Meg is ready to explore the area around Aguas Calientes the day before we'd head up to Machu Picchu. The logo on Meg's hat is Peru's Nazca-line-inspired insignia adorned with a chuyito — the official hat of the Andes mountains.

New hat in place, Meg is ready to explore the area around Aguas Calientes the day before we’d head up to Machu Picchu. The logo on Meg’s hat is Peru’s Nazca-line-inspired insignia adorned with a chuyito — the official hat of the Andes mountains.

At the botanical garden, which was about a mile before the water fall, Katie and Kathy were followed up a flight of outdoor stairs by a drunk Peruvian who was sitting by the railroad tracks and told the admission was 10 soles … they did not pay and reported the “botanical garden” appeared to be in a state of extreme disrepair. We continued on toward the waterfall.

The waterfall, at least, appeared to be in some kind of park with a gift shop and an official cashier and such. Even so, we decided that for 10 soles apiece, the 10 Washingtonians had a pretty good idea what a waterfall looked like and opted against it. Our decision was solidified when we all oohed and aahed as I held up a picture of the waterfall against the mountain backdrop while we stood outside the “entrance” to the park.

Despite not reaching either of our stated goals, most of us felt pretty good about getting out and stretching our legs a bit — the natural surroundings provided more than enough eye candy for the low, low price of free. On the way back, Meg and I took a five minute detour and got a look in the bridge that led across the river and to the path up to Machu Picchu. It was hard to be that close and know I still had to wait another 12 hours or so to actually climb it.

The Urubamba River carves out a canyon between two towering peaks in the middle of the Andes Mountains. Machu Picchu is located just around the bend to the left and up about 2,000 feet.

The Urubamba River carves out a canyon between two towering peaks in the middle of the Andes Mountains. Machu Picchu is located just around the bend to the left and up about 2,000 feet.

Appetite whetted for the following day, we returned to town as the sun was dipping behind the mountains. For those who don’t know, Aguas Calientes is Spanish for Hot Waters, and there were in fact some hot springs just up the hill from our hotel. Ty, Meg, Lolo, Katie, Kathy and I thought they sounded wonderful after a day of hiking and (Lolo notwithstanding) we were all further drawn by the fact that you could drink a beer whilst enjoying the pools. So it was that we donned our suits and flip-flops, grabbed a six pack and headed to the heat.

It was a lot of fun hanging out in the pools, listening to Katie, Ty and Meg (who all grew up together) tell stories of their younger days with Kathy while Lolo and I listened. I will say, however, that Aguas Calientes is a hopeful name for this particular “hot” springs. Aguas Un Poquito Quizas Casi Calientita (Water That Is a Little-Bit Kind of Maybe Almost Warm) would have been more fitting. Nonetheless it was a good time.

After emerging from the “hot” springs, we headed back to the hostel, dodging repeated “Happy Hour” offers the whole way, and joined the rest of the crew for dinner at a surprisingly decent, almost authentic Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food) restaurant. My food (lomo saltado, again, though this time it was my first choice) was good, Dan enjoyed himself and there was even a live NBA game on the big screen (OKC at Dallas). Bellies full, we returned the hotel and got in bed. Knowing what was in store the next day, I could barely sleep, even though Meg set the alarm for 4:30 as we were leaving at 5 a.m. with Ty, Lolo, Kathy and Katie to hike, rather than ride the bus, once and for all, to Machu Picchu.

Catch up on a our holiday vacation with the following links:

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