This last weekend we had an empty house so we decided to take a trip to Aguas Calientes, yes I know, the name is actually Machu Picchu Pueblo, but I think this name change was stupid and has only created confusion, so I continue to use the old Aguas Calientes, as do many people. Back when I first visited Machu Picchu in 2006, the town was called Aguas Calientes, then sometime after that initial visit, someone got the not so bright idea to change the towns name to Machu Picchu Pueblo, which has only served to confuse many travelers. The problem is generally when people purchase their train tickets, because they are purchasing tickets to Machu Picchu, they are sometimes surprised when they arrive and find out that they still need to go up the mountain to visit the actual archaeological site, not to mention if I just told you that I just visited Machu Picchu this weekend, the normal assumption would be that I visited the archaeological site, which I did not.
“ What’s that, you went to Aguas Calientes and did not visit Machu Picchu?”
That right, we went to Aguas Calientes and did not visit Machu Picchu, but considering I have been 5 times, and Lily has been about 7 or 8 times now, we did not feel the need to brave the crowds, so the sole purpose of this trip, was to relax and enjoy Aguas Calientes.
“Enjoy Aguas Calientes you say! I have read almost everywhere that Aguas Calientes is not worth a visit”
Well I have to disagree with that, so far my wife and I have made 3 trips to Aguas Calientes without visiting Machu Picchu, and while it is a very touristy town, we generally enjoy our visits and find them relaxing, so below are some of my thoughts on the town, and whether someone should plan to spend a night there or not, as well as a few things to see or do while in Aguas Calientes.
“So if I visit Machu Picchu, I should stay in Aguas Calientes?”
That is a common question on Trip Advisor, and my general answer is to spend at least one night there, if for no other reason than to save time. Time is of course the one precious thing that most travelers have far to little of when visiting Peru, so making the most of your time, should be a priority.
“So how does staying in Aguas Calientes save time?”
I am glad you asked, and the short answer is that staying in Aguas Calientes can easily save you 2 hours on the morning that you visit Machu Picchu, for those that might like a little more information than just my word, here is an example. If planning a one day trip there and back, the earliest train that you can take at the moment is the Peru Rail expedition departing at 05:05 from Ollantaytambo, and arriving in Aguas Calientes at 06:35, so providing there is no line for the buses (not likely), the earliest you could be at the Machu Picchu entrance is going to be 07:00, or one hour after the park has opened.
“But Lyle, you said 2 hours , not 1 hour”
Correct but I was referring to travel time saved, so to enter at 07:00 (assuming you can get right on the bus at 06:30), you would have to be at the train station at 04:35 to catch the train, and assuming it takes about ½ hour to get ready, then you would basically have to wake up at 04:00 to be at Machu Picchu at 07:00. If you were to spend the night in Aguas Calientes, and assuming the same time needed to get ready and for the bus, then you would not have to wake up until 06:00, which would be an extra 2 hours of sleep before doing Machu Picchu.
“Okay, point taken, but I heard that Aguas Calientes is expensive and there is nothing there to do”
Yes, Aguas Calientes can be a little more expensive than other locations like Ollantaytambo or Cusco, but not much, I think the big problem here is that people don’t take the time to actually look when they are there. We know several nice places that are around $50.00 per-night for a double room, which is about the same as Cusco or Ollantaytambo, and there is rotisserie chicken, which is about S/7.50 Soles (about $2.35 USD), so it is possible to eat cheap. One of our favorite stops when we visit is a place called “Gourmet Andino” which is up towards the top of town (going towards the hit springs), and right next to a small park like area. They have some of the best Pisco sours that we have tried, for a good price, and they have a S/15 Soles tourist menu (about $4.70 USD) that has some good options like alpaca, and is also very tasty.
As for things to do, there are of course the hot springs that the town was originally named for, these are mineral baths, so you have to expect a slight rotten egg smell, and the morning or afternoon tends to be the best time of day to visit, we find the water to be the hottest then and the pools are not as crowded. If you have limited time and decide to visit the hot springs in the evening, expect them to be crowded as many people will do this after visiting Machu Picchu.
Aguas Calientes Thermal Baths
For those that might have a half day or so, there is the Machu Picchu Museum and the butterfly house, both of which are located below town near the bridge that the buses cross going to Machu Picchu. The butterfly house is a little before you reach the bridge on the left side (just before the camping area), and to reach the museum you would have to cross the bridge, then follow the trail to the right about 100 meters or so. Next to the museum there is also a botanical garden that has many orchids, but so far we have not timed it well t see them in bloom.
If you happen to have a full day, or almost a full day, then you might want to take the hike to the Mandor Gardens, this was about a 2 hour walk for us, but we took our time and enjoyed the scenery. To get to the Mandor Gardens you follow the road down past town towards Machu Picchu, then after the butterfly house and camp grounds, but before the bridge, there is a road the turns off to the right, follow this and you will pass by a small building and the walk follows the train tracks along the river. This was a nice flat walk, and we saw a nice variety of flowers and birds when we went, there are also a few small campgrounds and restaurants along the tracks as well, so there are places to stop and take a break if needed. The entrance to the Mandor Gardens themselves are on the right when coming from Aguas Calientes, and the entry fee can be paid at the small hostal opposite the entrance. This is a fairly large botanical garden with many orchids, but the main reason we went was to check out the waterfall, which was about a 45 minute hike up into the valley, it was not very big, but was nice.
A girl and her cat
While the town itself is very touristy, it is hard to argue that the location is not beautiful, and just sitting having a drink, people watching, and enjoying the scenery can be a good way to relax, and if that isn’t relaxing enough for you, then how about a nice massage? Otto’s Spa is one of our favorite stops when we are there, the Inka massage is the best and is a good hour or more, and combines three different techniques, Swedish, Shiatsu and Hot Stone, don’t want a full body massage, then try their Happy Feet Massage, perfect after a long day of hiking. Otto’s is located at Av. Imperio de los Incas #602, downstairs and just across from the stairs coming down from the the Artisanal market area.
Speaking of the artisanal market, unless you forgot to get something for someone back home, and will not have any more chances to shop, I would say avoid this market for your shopping, everything has to come into Aguas Calientes by train, so the prices here are generally more than what you would pay in Cusco.
Well that about wraps things up for Aguas Calientes, there are a lot of new sculptures that have been carved on the rocks throughout town, I thought of discussing them here, but have decided instead to do a separate post for them, so check back or follow my blog to see pictures of some of these new works of art.