This morning was one of our earlier wake-ups. From here on out, the trip would pretty much be 5:00 mornings every morning. We had a driver waiting for us outside the apartment. He would take us to the train station located approximately 30 minutes away. From here we would take the 3-hour train through the Andes to our final destination.
Machu Picchu is more than just a day trip. The only nearby town is a small place called Aguas Calientes that is 3 hours away from Cusco by train. From here, you often spend the night in town so you can get an early start the next morning. We decided to take this option because trying to do two 3-hour train rides and an entire tour of Machu Picchu would be way too much for one day.
We got to our seat and were really impressed by how luxurious the train was. The Perurail is all about being an experience in and of itself. There were comfortable seats, a nice big table for eating, complimentary refreshments and even a guided tour of certain parts of the mountains. It was nice to learn a little bit about the area we were driving through. We were sitting across from a nice couple from England and because they were facing the opposite direction, we had a fun time sharing great views with one another. Together we took so many pictures of all the views, but they never came out the way we hoped. This was a clear sign that we should just enjoy the views in the moment and not worry too much about getting the best picture.
We went over streams, tunnels and miles and miles of farmland. In the beginning, we could see a thick blanket of fog rolling over the mountains. We came through the legendary “sacred valley” part of the Andean highlands. This region was important to the Incan empire due to its fertile soil, and it still plays a very crucial role in the agriculture of Peru. There are many towns set up in this area, including Pisac and Ollantaytambo. What was really cool is the time we came to the “zigzag zone” where we had to go forward and reverse about 4 times to make the vertical descent to lower ground. I had never seen this before but then again, I had never really taken a train through the mountains before.
It was cool seeing this part of the country. During the guided tour, they said that some of these traditional villages still shared a lot of Incan culture. They used terraced farming, which we got to see first hand. They also crossed the stream using extremely narrow hanging bridges. Another cool thing we saw was the “hanging hotels” that had become famous in Peru. Here, tourists could stay in a pod about the size of a queen sized bed and hand over the cliffs while they sleep. Tempting, but we decided to pass on this one.
As we started getting further in our journey, they landscape began to change. It turned from a dry highland to a lush “cloud forest”. This part of the country, which Machu Picchu was a part of, still was very high above sea level, but it had a ton of vegetation and wildlife. I saw a blue-crowned motmot, possibly a contender for one of Peru’s most beautiful birds. The cloud forests were also known for their collection of hummingbirds. I would later see one getting a drink from one of the rocky streams in Aguas Calientes.
As beautiful as the train ride was, we were happy to arrive in Aguas Calientes and settle into our hostel. Although I am glad we got to spend a night here, I wouldn’t recommend spending much more time than you have to here. There really isn’t that much to do other than Machu Picchu. If you are looking for some reccomendations on food, I’ll just save you some time and recommend you eat at “Mapacho”, which has the best food in the town. The town is really not known for its food, and you may have a bit of a hard time finding a decent place to eat here. This is the only place we ate that I was actually impressed with, the rest of the places I kind of just tolerated.
We walked through the narrow city streets, seeing many restaurants, souvenir shops and hostels. Basically everything in this town was built for the benefit of tourists. With so many people coming through this town each year, it’s hard not to capitalize on this opportunity. The town itself is pretty, nestled in between steep green mountain peaks, with a small rocky stream running along the main streets. You can get from one part of the town to the other by using one of the many bridges to cross the stream.
In case you were wondering, yes, Aguas Calientes does get its name from the hot water that flows through the mountains. If you want to enjoy this water, head on over to the “Banos Termales” and soak the day away in the hot springs. I want to manage expectations a bit, this may not be the type of hotsprings you have in mind. It basically looks like a public pool area filled with hot water. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely a fun experience and a nice way to relax between travels. There are amazing views of the lush mountains and the entry fee is only 20 soles for the whole day. You can also order food and drinks poolside and they will bring them to you.
It is possible to pass the time in this town, but you are constantly reminded that it is all about Machu Picchu. The entire town revolves around its proximity to the famous ruins and although there is some fun to be had here, you probably wouldn’t come here without going to Machu Picchu. We got a great dinner at Mapacho that night and went to bed early to prepare for one of the longest days of the whole trip. It would also be, by far, the most difficult days of the trip for me. But more about that later.