An Obligatory Visit to Machu Picchu & Aguas Calientes

Country Peru | Dates June 25-26 | Accommodation Ecopackers Hostel

While in Peru, I of course had to visit Machu Picchu which required a bit more planning and was more costly than expected. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d love it, given I’m not always thrilled with major tourist spots and I’d heard mixed reviews from traveler friends, but it was certainly worth seeing. I paired this with a night’s stay in Aguas Calientes.

Arriving at Machu Picchu

There are several ways to arrive at MP – train, bus or trek. I choose the train. You can leave from Cusco (station outside city) or Ollantaytambo, and because I booked last minute (oops) I had no choice but to do the latter, getting off my sacred valley tour the day before in the town. I awoke at 6 for my 6:40 train, and trekked the 10 minutes to the station unburdened without my big bag (left in the hostel – it’s not allowed on the train), with a small backpack of water/snacks, every valuable I had, and an extra pair of underwear and t-shirt. If you are wondering, yes, I hiked MP with my laptop.

I boarded the Inca Rail, boasting mystical experience which it kind of was. Clouds lifting as we drove, glimpsing mountains out the massive glass-paned windows, as delicious coffee and cookies served on printed napkins. Upon arrival, a quick exit to the bus ticket station where I purchased my seat up. I debated walking, but figured I shouldn’t be tired before hiking Montaña Machu Picchu — a good choice as again the road up was 10x steeper and longer than it appeared on the map.

Hiking Montaña Machu Picchu

I entered among the throngs of people, then followed signs to the mountain. My slot was 9-10am to start the hike, so I got signed in and began my way up. At first, not bad! Easy, in fact. Shady, some casual stone steps and not-so-steep grade. Just enough people around to feel safe, but also to feel like I was hiking alone and having a unique experience (as opposed to an experience 400+ people have per day every day for years…). As I kept going the trail kept getting steeper, naturally. By midway I was out of breath, sweating, and had to remove my 3 jackets into a sketch plastic bag I affixed onto my backpack with my hair tie (crafty I think); the bag slapped my body as I hiked. Others I passed were struggling, too, so my self-esteem wasn’t too low.

The climb was strenuous; whether it was the altitude or I’m not as fit as I am in my mind I don’t know, but it certainly wasn’t easy. I walked the second half with another girl in front of me, the both of us saying “we must be almost there!” each time we rounded a bend and saw another steep set of stairs. Each time, we were not there. Finally, after some struggling and motivational talks, we made it to the top! The view was breathtaking; we were much higher above the ruins than I might have imagined, although only at 3, 061 feet which seemed low after the insanely high altitudes of Bolivia. Sun shone on the ruins, and the effort seemed worth it.

The Ruins

As always, going down was faster — although more painful on the legs (maybe I am just old). I signed out and realized, despite thinking I might die, I had beat back nearly every person who started hiking before me! I took a breather and regrouped, then headed to the ruins area. It was crowded, but less so than I expected. I followed the circuit around, passing behind random English-speaking tour groups periodically to get the details as I had no guide. I was feeling a bit weak (OK a lot weak), so I took a break and a quick nap on one of the massive ruin steps. Refreshed, I continued on among the hoards. The ruins are much bigger than expected; it’s best to just see the photos:

Aguas Calientes

I planned to walk down and save the $12 bus fare, but I was so drained I rode instead. Straight to my hostel to shower, put on my single clean shirt, and then out for an exploration of Aguas Calientes. The town felt very familiar, weirdly like the town of the same name, Hot Springs Arkansas (I know this is odd as I type it). Built into the mountain, with buildings high and low and brides across the river. Many touristy areas, of course, with vendors aggressively selling their dinner menus — even stopping to ask your name, nationality, introduce themselves, shake your hand, and give a business card – “remember me” – talk about a sales pitch. After wandering for a while I settled on a place (they are all the same) and negotiated for a free included pisco sour. It was fine; not the menus of local cities but better than expected for a tourist spot.

I planned to go to the actual hot springs, but after reading the reviews about their lukewarm filth was horrified and changed my mind. Instead, I walked up to see if  could just glimpse them (I could not). A weird old man in sweats tried to pay with a 100, “that’s all I have, man,” he yelled at the ticket guy angrily. Soonafter I got bored and wandered out of tourist areas, climbing cement stairs up the mountain to the local housing area, where I got weird looks and mistakenly wound up in someone’s backyard.

Returning from Aguas Calientes by Train

The train back was empty! I changed seats for an ideal view with huge plate glass windows, we got food (ham/cheese tortilla) and there was an open-air car you could stand in to view the amazing sights.

Once back, I pushed through the wall of people trying to sell me an overpriced taxi ride to Cusco by the train gates, grabbed my bag, and headed to the main plaza to get the collectivo back for only 10 sole. Back at my hostel, I saw a fumigation sign was posted. Wtf…not again. Final exploration of Cusco and some reading until the 25 minute night walk to the bus to Arequipa.

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