A day in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)

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.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes

 

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.

Surrounding Mountains

Surrounding Mountains

 

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

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

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.

New Carving

New Carving

 

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Choosing the Right Train for Your Machu Picchu Visit

If you are currently planning a trip to Machu Picchu, chances are good that at some point you will have to choose a train. There are currently two different companies that operate trains to, and back from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo), and each company offers multiple train classes.

Peru Rail Expedition Train

Peru Rail Expedition Train

This post will outline some of the differences and hopefully help readers to make an informed decision as to which train would be best for them.

Peru Rail vs Inca Rail:

Based on past guest comments, both of these companies provide similar service and operate from most of the same stations, at least the main stations in Poroy and Ollantaytambo, and Peru Rail is the only company currently running trains from the Urubamba station.

My advice between the two companies it to just choose the train that best fits your schedule and/or budget. Considering the trains share the same track, that is mostly just a single set of rails, reliability really does not come into play either because if a train breaks down (either Peru or Inka Rail), that will stop everything, not just the one train.

Now on to specific class selection, both companies offer more than one option for train classes and I will do my best to offer descriptions of each one based on what each company indicated on their website, as well as on past guest feed back regarding each of the train classes.

Inka Rail:

I though I would start with Inka Rail as this will be the easiest one to go over and is fairly straight forward. Currently Inka Rail offers 3 choices for trains Executive Class, First Class, and Presidential Class.

Executive Class – These trains are the base class for Inka Rail and provide comfortable seating (2 seats on each side), tables, a selection of hot and cold drinks(non-alcoholic), music, as well as side and top windows so that you can enjoy the scenery. One thing to note with these trains is that the top windows are not as large as those on the base Peru Rail Trains.

First Class – Currently these carriages are the same as those for the Executive class, so the top and side windows offer the same views, we have heard though that next year Inka Rail plans to introduce new carriages for the First Class trains that will offer much larger windows. So the main differences offered with the First Class trains are wider seating (2 on one side & 1 on the other), live music, a welcome cocktail, a gourmet meal with hot or cold drinks (non-alcoholic), and an Observatory-Lounge that has spacious arm chairs, a bar and an open balcony. According to the website, the Observatory-Lounge is also available for private booking.

Presidential Class – With Presidential Class you are booking an entire carriage just for you and your friends, which I believe is the Observatory-Lounge car. The carriage has sofas, arm chairs, an open bar, includes a welcome bottle of champagne, and a gourmet meal that includes wine. As this a a private carriage, it can be added to any of the standard trains, so departure times are the same as any of the other trains that run between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes.

Peru Rail:

Peru Rail offers 4 different classes of trains, the Expedition, the Vistadome, the Perurail Sacred Valley and the Belmond Hiram Bingham, with the Sacred Valley and Hiram Bingham trains only operating from specific stations.

Expedition – These are the base class of train for Peru Rail and feature comfortable seating (2 seats on each side), tables, a selection of hot or cold drinks (non-alcoholic), a light snack and large side and top windows to enjoy the scenery. They also have alcoholic drinks available for sale as well as additional snacks and souvenirs and on the return journey to Ollantaytambo, you can purchase baby alpaca items.

Vistadome – This is the next step up from the Expedition class trains and one that Peru Rail advertises as having “panoramic windows located beside and above your seat will bring you close to nature unlike anything you’ve experienced before” but we will discuss this shortly. Aside from the Panoramic windows, the Vistadome trains offer comfortable seating, tables, a selection of hot or cold drinks (non-alcoholic), a snack (as opposed to a light snack on the expedition), live entertainment (Dancers and fashion show) and they also have alcoholic drinks available for sale as well as additional snacks and souvenirs and on the return journey to Ollantaytambo, you can purchase baby alpaca items.

Now back to the windows, Peru Rail does a good job of promoting these trains as this is the first train where you see any mention of windows above your seat, but if you remember I mentioned that the Expedition train s also have these windows. To be fair the Vistadome trains do have more windows, but the difference is a 6” window that really provides no useful viewing and in my opinion is more for looks. For reference I have included some comparison photos below showing the additional window location.

Perurail Sacred Valley – Based on the website information (we have not had anyone actually take this train) the Perurail Sacred Valley train offers elegant design modeled after the 1920’s, larger more comfortable seating (2 seats on one side and 1 seat on the other), tables, a welcome andean infusion drink (non-alcoholic), and a full three course meal (lunch or dinner depending on direction) which may be accompanied by a glass of wine and petit fours. This train only offers side windows, but does include an observation/bar car for scenic viewing. This train only operates between the Urubamba and Aguas Calientes stations going, and on the return does stop in Ollantaytambo. This train only makes one journey a day each direction, so time options are set and this is not an ideal option if you are planning a one day visit to Machu Picchu. For reference the train departs Urubamba at 10:30 arriving in Aguas Calientes at 13:34, the return train departs Aguas Calientes at 19:30, arrives in Ollantaytambo at 21:28 and then Urubamba at 22:37.

Belmond Hiram Bingham – The Perurail Sacred Valley might be a luxurious option, but the Hiram Bingham is a step up from that, offering trains that have been modeled after the “Pullman” cars of the 1920’s and feature polished wood and bass interiors, in 3 different cars, a lounge car, and observation car and dining cars. The variety of cars offer a selection of seating as well, including large comfortable arm chairs, sofas and bar stools. Other benefits include, welcome cocktail (alcoholic) and gift (HB travel bag), live music and dance on board, a gourmet lunch or dinner (depending on direction), hot and cold drinks (includes wine, sparkling wine, Cusquena beer, and pisco sours), VIP lounge at the Machu Picchu station, and tea time at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. Trains to Aguas Calientes include shuttle bus up to Machu Picchu, Machu Picchu entry tickets and a guided tour of Machu Picchu and trains from Aguas Calientes include the shuttle bus from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes.

Like the Perurail Sacred Valley train, the Hiram Bingham train also is limited in the stations and times it runs. During the dry season the Hiram Bingham only runs between the Poroy and Aguas Calientes stations and only makes one trip per-day in each direction, during the rainy season the train operates from the Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado located in the Sacred Valley, and again only make one trip per-day in each direction.

A few additional facts and things to know:

Rainy Season – Generally from January 1st through April 30th (the rainy season), all of the trains that normally operate from the Poroy station, either cease operations or they switch to operate from the Sacred Valley. The reason for this is safety, there is an area in the canyon between our town of Huarocondo and the Sacred Valley, that is prone to slides during the rainy season, so during these months the trains listed as going from the Poroy station will be departing from one of the Sacred Valley stations instead. The changes have varied over the years with the Hiram Bingham normally switching to the Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado, but the other trains have used both the Ollantaytambo station as well as the Pachar station, so if looking for dates during these month, be sure to review any notices or pop-ups that might appear on the companies website.

Travel Time – For the most part, the travel time between Cusco and Aguas Calientes will be the same no matter which station you might choose, with about the only difference being the trains from the Urubamba station, due to the close proximity of homes to the tracks between Urubamba and Ollantaytambo, the train moves much slower than a car or other vehicle on the road. Choosing a train from the Poroy station (which is generally labeled as the Cusco station), will not save you time nor a transfer as the Poroy station is still 20 minute outside of Cusco.

Station Choice – In my option the Ollantaytambo station is going to be the best option for most travelers, this station has the most options for times each day, is the perfect location as you can easily do a tour on the way and take a later train, thus making the most of your time, and if just traveling directly between Ollantaytambo and Cusco, the combined cost of the train and transfer is normally less than the combined cost of using the Poroy station with transfer.

Train times – This one is a little tricky as people tend to have differing opinions and itineraries, but in general there are two ways in which most people visit Machu Picchu, a one day trip and arriving the day before. Personally I think that arriving in Aguas Calientes the day/night before is the best use of time, and for this option I would recommend departing Ollantaytambo around 6 or 7 pm and departing Aguas Calientes the next day at about the same time. If doing a one day trip then departing anywhere between 5 and 7 am is normally good, and again leaving Aguas Calientes at around 6 or 7 pm works well. Keep in mind that the overall travel time from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco is about 3-1/2 hours.

Scenery – This is something that is regularly brought up on the travel forums, and you might have noticed that the times I recommended above would have you traveling in the dark. Yes the journey between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes is nice, is it one of the top ten most beautiful train journeys? No, so the question to ask yourself if in the planning stages should be, “is the scenery worth missing out on seeing other sites and locations?” My answer is generally no, take for example doing a Sacred Valley tour before catching the train, normally we can visit the Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary, Pisac, the Inkariy Museum and Ollantaytambo, finishing up in Ollantaytambo in time for guests to have dinner before catching the 19:04 train to Aguas Calientes. To be able to have daylight for the journey one would have to get a train around 16:00 or 16:30, this would require dropping one or more of the sites on the tour. As most people have a limited amount of time here in the Cusco region, my advice is to take the train in the evening so you can maximize what you are able to see, but this is my opinion.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings. While I believe I covered everything thoroughly, if anyone has any questions feel free to post them below and I will answer just as soon as I can.

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