All Aboard to Aguas Calientes

May 30 (Day 12)

The day begins with an early taxi ride to the train station.  There were some concerns earlier in the week when we came across another train station in Cusco named the Machu Picchu station but we were informed that station was closed so we had faith in the instructions on the PeruRail web site, and headed to the Ollantaytambo station.

We arrived at the station at the recommended time but this was not warranted.  That being said, we boarded our little bus much earlier than the posted departure time and as soon as the bus filled up, we were on our way to Ollantaytambo.  Now you might be wondering why we got on a bus at the train station, or if you are a little more familiar with Peru, why weren't we taking the train? Well, the answer is simple.  After the floods and subsequent landslides in early 2010, portions of the railway to Aguas Calientes (now known as Machu Picchu Village) were completely damaged so PeruRail offered a bus+train option to get its passengers from Cusco to Aguas Calientes until the railway was completely repaired (which is supposedly now the case).  

After we climbed the mountainside to get out of Cusco, we encountered incredible farming landscapes, exciting winding roads (on which drivers insisted on passing the bus on blinding curves instead of the straightaways), and head-to-head showdowns between buses on the narrow village streets.  After about two and a half hours, we arrived at the temporary station at Ollantaytambo, where we waited until boarding time for the train alongside the Urubamba River.

On their website, PeruRail made a big deal about the luggage restrictions but we did not see anyone get pulled aside and harassed about an oversized backpack.  That being said, we did wonder how it worked for people returning to Cusco after hiking the Inca Trail.  Surely, some special considerations are in place for those people as a small daypack would not suffice for a four-day trek.  

Since you're probably curious about the interior of the PeruRail "New Backpacker" class train to and from Machu Picchu, here's a photo to satisfy your curiosity:

And since a nearby couple were fancied by the wagon's washroom and deemed it better than any washroom they saw in any European train, here are a couple of photos for your viewing pleasure:

The wagon's skylights were great for appreciating the mountainous surroundings and seeing some ruins along the way, but they also let the warm sunshine in, so our wagon soon felt like a greenhouse but I'm not complaining.  The train ride was very enjoyable nonetheless and could definitely have been a lot worse so I just mention it just in case you plan on wearing your jacket onboard.

Most of the train's journey follows the river as it slowly crawls its way through the mountainous terrain and tunnels to Aguas Calientes.  

On several occasions, I saw old rails sticking out of the river. They surely were remnants from the recent landslides.

Upon arriving in Aguas Calientes, you quickly realize that it is pretty much a tourist town with nothing really more than businesses catered to tourists: read hostels, restaurants, bars, Internet cafes, and a souvenir marketplace. 

There also is the Aguas Calientes Hot Springs (Yes, that's probably why they named the village that way) but the reviews we read about them weren't too appealing, and the photos at the ticket office weren't anymore pleasing so we decided to pass on the springs considering we couldn't see its actual sanitary conditions without paying, and instead, enjoyed the afternoon on a restaurant's patio before taking a walk down by the river.  

Some interesting side notes to share: 

  1. As you approach the entrance to the hot springs, there are a number of businesses geared towards bathing suit rentals.  Yes, you read that correctly. Rent, not buy!
  2. The city dump is located a very, very short walk from what appears to be the fanciest hotel in the village.  It appears as though all garbage is placed in special red garbage bags but it still smells.  I wouldn't want to be out on my hotel room's balcony when the wind is blowing just right (if I were staying there).

Nevertheless, the riverside path is landscaped with flowers including huge poinsettias.  Our walk along the river was very pleasant as we followed the water as it meandered its way swiftly through the rapids in the canyon. 

As you can see, the town's setting is magnificent and it is unfortunate that local entrepreneurs have been short-sighted in their attempts to make money, as with a little more effort, Aguas Calientes could easily become a 'go-to' destination of its own, especially if it geared its efforts towards the eco-tourism crowd.

In the evening,  I walked across one of the bridges to check out where the locals live and also checked out the grocery store where I purchased some food for the next day.  Food and drinks are reportedly very expensive at the Machu Picchu site due to the cafeteria's monopoly so I wasn't going to take that chance.  Aguas Calientes definitely is a tale of two different cities: one geared towards tourists while the other towards the locals, just separated by a little river.  In my opinion, the locals' side is a lot more interesting but in either case, regardless of its name, Aguas Calientes or its new 'world-recognized' name of Machu Picchu Village, it's a town you want to be in and out of as quickly as possible, especially when you are on a time-limited trip, with the rest of South America calling your name.

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