Six days in Aguas Calientes, Peru.
We’ve all been there. You plan your trip, sometimes loosely while other times we plan down to the minute. Machu Picchu, because of the strict ticket allotment and limited seats on the tourist trains, is one of those places you have to make some concrete plans before you go.
So what happens when you have to run for your flight, barely making the last tram to the plane, the connecting flight is severely delayed due to rain and fog, causing you to miss the train to Machu Pichu Pueblo. The next available seat on the tourist train is in two days and *cough cough, sniffle, sniffle*…are you getting sick?
Everything was going wrong but missing our scheduled time to see Machu Picchu was not an option. So when you scrap your plans and after two days in Cuzco you extend your hotel stay in Machu Picchu Pueblo because one more hiccup in your plans will make you miss seeing the ancient town altogether, you head to the tiny town at the foot of the mountain to ride out the oncoming illness and wait for your day to visit the mountain.
Aguas Clientes or Machu Picchu Pueblo is the tiny gateway town to the historic Inca city, Machu Picchu. If you are going to Machu Picchu, there is no way you can skip passing through it. Most people spend 1 day maybe 2. So what do you do when you find yourself in a 3 block town (I’m exaggerating only slightly) for six days?
Again, the average person stays two days (with one being the day they visit Machu Picchu) or they’re in and out the same day. But in case you find yourself in this sleepy town for longer than a day or two, for whatever reason, here are some things to occupy your time.
Los Jardines de Mandor - (Waterfall and nature preserve) – Ask anyone in town for the start of the trail, seriously anyone, and follow said trail out of town. It runs parallel to train tracks. (Or, visit the website for directions). Along the trail, locals sell beverages and snacks in front of their homes. The trail leads to a family run nature preserve. There you can take a 20-min stroll to a waterfall while observing regional plants and wildlife. It’s an excellent way of spending the day and by far the best non Machu Picchu thing to do and see. You can even take a dip in the waterfall but beware, the water is freezing.
Plaza Manco Capac - Hang out in the town square with the dogs and people watch. A lot of people come through here. The “city hall” is here. You will hear many different languages. Watch wives instruct husbands how to take a flattering photo of them. Chat with a Machu Picchu tour guide on break. Or, grab a smoothie or snack in one of the restaurants. Service is slow and ideal for passing time.
Hiking – You may only think that hiking would be confined to Machu Picchu Mountain or Haya Picchu Mountain for good hiking but the path leading to the entrance of Machu Picchu is an intense but doable way of passing the time and getting some exercise. Please note that walking to Machu Picchu on the designated road is a no go. It is only wide enough for a bus and a half (even though it is a two way street) so hikers are not allowed. You can hike up the steep, well marked trails to and from the hilltop ancient city.
Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon - This small museum is a 30 minute walk, on flat terrain, from Aguas Clientes. Go before or after your visit to Machu Picchu for information, artifacts and displays about the creation and preservation of the 15th century ruins.
Ollantaytambo - A short train ride from Aguas Calientes or Cuzco will bring you to the town of Ollantaytambo. It was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti. Walk or bike around the town and visit the and check out the ruins.
Clubbing – We didn’t realize there was a lively nightlife until the morning we had to be in line for the bus to Machu Picchu at 6:30 am and the twenty-somethings behind us were talking about their crazy night. Also one morning we headed out early to catch the sunrise and followed a drunk man from a building with flashing rave lights, down a side street until he found a bench to fall asleep on.
Hot springs – Up the hill from the town square. Spend some time relaxing in several thermal baths while enjoying the mountain views. The day we planned to go we took a wrong turn, missing the dirt trail back to town and ended up having our own “Stand By Me” moment. But, during our stay we saw a lot of people heading down the street with wet hair, towels slung over their shoulder, smiling, looking relaxed and happy.
Shopping – The usual souvenir type shops but nonetheless it’s there if that’s your thing….go for it.
Eating - I only put this here to tell you what to expect when you grab a meal. Although there are some good places to eat, most are unmemorable. The line of “greeters” aggressively vying for you to “just sit down, look at menu” because they know there’s no maybe tomorrow. Restaurants are pushy to get you in because if you don’t go to them that day, there is no tomorrow as most people are on the next train out. Once you’re in the service is subpar and so is most of the food.
As you can see there are things to do if you find yourself in Aguas Calientes for more than a day or two, but let me be clear, this town is not designed for that.