Wanderlust Series Part Three: Aguas Calientes & Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes
Hello again! In this section of the Wanderlust Series, I’ll discuss my experiences and what I learned about travelling to Machu Picchu. Since we had 2 weeks to see a few spots in Peru and another in Colombia, we opted to take the train there. I’d love to say that we hiked the Inca Trail, and most people go that route if they are able, but we just didn’t have the time.

Getting to Aguas Calientes (And Feeling Great When You Arrive!)

First and foremost, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get acclimated to the elevation in Peru. I saw this warning everywhere I looked while researching for our trip. The elevation in Cusco is over 11,000 feet, which is enough to leave you more than just breathless at its splendor. If you don’t acclimate yourself (i.e. get physically used to the elevation), you can get altitude sickness which is no joke and will ruin that segment of your trip. What we did, and what worked perfectly for us, was to fly into Cusco and then immediately hop in a taxi to take us to Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is the town at the base of Machu Picchu and sits at just under 7,000 feet elevation. Coming from sea level, as we did, this was still a jump from what we were used to, but not enough to really have any negative effects on us. Some people stay in Ollantaytambo, which sits at 9000 feet, but we felt that we were willing to spend a little more on our hotel to ensure that we didn’t get sick. We also wanted to get up and go straight to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, rather than taking a 6am train to the Ollantaytambo bus station.

We flew into Cusco and hired a taxi from inside the airport, as per the general warning. During certain times of the year, you can take a train directly from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, but we had to board in Ollantaytambo which meant hiring a driver for the 2 hour drive to the train station there. I want to say that cost us around $50 USD, and the taxi driver actually took US currency which was nice since we had some on hand.

As with many other places, the taxi driver we had would rather have a sure fare than not, so he offered to pick us back up from Ollantaytambo upon our return for a fraction of the cost for the ride there. So, that was nice. We picked up our tickets for the train and grabbed a bite to eat at the station while we waited. There was actually a pretty great little café in there so we had some Coca Tea and a sandwich- which was basically the first actual meal we had in Peru.

A word on Coca Tea.

It’s awesome. It’s not Cocaine, so don’t get all freaked out that you’re going to start feeling spastic. It’s like a stronger version of Black Tea, and it really does settle your stomach and help with headaches or any other signs of Altitude Sickness. I’m a coffee drinker, but Oliver and I both stuck with Coca Tea throughout our trip and we felt like it really made a difference. Plus it tasted pretty dang good… think an earthier version of green tea. It should also be noted that it’s quite easy to find altitude sickness medicine at any market in Peru, so if you DO get sick, you can remedy it quickly.

The train ride from Ollantaytambo into Aguas Calientes is GORGEOUS and takes about 1 ½ hours. You’ll want to purchase your train tickets prior to your trip, and buy them either through Peru Rail (which we did) or Inca Rail, depending on your starting point.

On the train to Aguas Calientes
We had some concerns about the luggage policy on the train, since Peru Rail doesn’t list baggage weight limits aside from carry-on luggage (which must be under 11 lbs.). If you’re only spending the day in Machu Picchu, that 11 lbs. is no big deal. However, we had our luggage for our entire two-week trip which was around 50 lbs. apiece. I’m happy to report that they weren’t very strict on baggage weight when we went, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

Staying in Aguas Calientes – Our Experience

There are a lot of places to stay in Aguas Calientes, but I can’t really speak to any of them except for the one we stayed at. But I will say that we were totally blown away by our hotel room at Hotel Ferre Machu Picchu. The price was excellent, and it was right on the river. The picture below shows my feet hanging out of our bedroom window, for reference. We even ended up closing our window most of the time because the river was pretty loud outside of our room. It was totally walkable to everything we wanted to do, too. We walked there from the train station, and it was far enough from the main area of town to be secluded but close enough to it to grab something to eat without walking too far.

As we wandered through the town, we noticed that some of the hotels were near the river (by us), and others were really in the heart of the town. I would imagine that those places can be kind of noisy, and the view can’t be that great if you’re just looking at another building. All in all, we were really pleased with the place we chose.

What To Do With An Extra Day In Aguas Calientes

In order to make sure we were acclimated before we went to Machu Picchu, we spent an extra day in Aguas Calientes to be safe. So the day after we arrived, we did the hike to Mandor Gardens. I was also told that the Hot Springs in A.C. are awesome, but Oliver and I aren’t really into the idea of sitting in a hot body of water with strangers. The hike to Mandor Gardens took about an hour, in which you basically follow the railroad tracks out of the town (the opposite direction from which we arrived). There are a couple of sketchy parts where you have to go through a dark tunnel, and you should know that trains DO still travel along the tracks, but you can hear them coming from a little ways away. All the same- be careful in those tunnels.

We also discovered that you can walk along a dirt road where the buses come from Machu Picchu, as long as you stay to the right after the bridge to M.P. After you pass the campgrounds and a butterfly park you can veer up a small road to the right. If you get to what looks (and smells) like the city dump, you’re on the right path. You’ll see the railroad tracks in front of the dump so you should be able to keep walking along them without running into any tunnels, and once you get to a huge intersection of multiple tracks crossing just keep going dead straight and the sign for Mandor Gardens is maybe 100 yards past that crossing. We came back to town via the dirt road route and felt a LOT safer skipping out on the tunnels. We had asked our hotel for help finding the gardens and they gave us a map that made it look like the landmarks to follow were super close together but they really aren’t as close as they appeared in the map. As I said- the whole thing took us about an hour (one way). The park is s/10 per person, and has a bathroom which is really nice after a long walk like that!!
Mandor Gardens
Getting Ready for Machu Picchu

As I mentioned in Part One of the Wanderlust Series, you’ll want to have purchased your tickets to Machu Picchu well in advance. We were able to purchase our bus tickets up the mountain the day before we went. This can be done by heading to the booth near the bus stop and buying your tickets there. You’ll want to make sure you have your passport with you since the rates differ for locals vs. tourists. You’ll also want to make sure that you buy a sack lunch the day before you go. We got some amazing boxed lunches from LaBoulangerie de Paris, which you order and pay for the day before and then pick up as early as 5am the next morning. This was perfect since we assumed that we’d have to buy food and then store it somewhere until our early morning bus trip, but instead had fresh food waiting for us in the morning. 

Where To Eat in Aguas Calientes

Our absolute favorite place in A.C. was El Indio Feliz. The food was amazing and the décor really gave it a fun atmosphere. We wanted to go to The Tree House for dinner one night, but it was closed for renovations. We also really liked Café Inkaterra, but it was a little pricier than we’d have preferred. We ate pizza at Inka Wasi Restaurant and Pizzeria and Oliver thinks he got food poisoning there, but in fairness it also might have been altitude sickness. 

Bug & Sun Protection

It should be noted that both sunscreen and bug spray are pretty important the whole time you’re in Peru. We went in April and the sun was beating down pretty hard at times. And I made a HUGE mistake by not putting bug spray on my ankles while we were there and ended up with some kind of super-insect bug bites that stayed with me for almost a month afterward. We were there during the whole Zika scare, so it was also critical to us that we avoided all bug bites. I ordered Natrapel off the internet and wherever I sprayed it- I was fine.

Machu Picchu

You can find lots of tips for Machu Picchu on more knowledgeable websites, but here were some tidbits of info that I found helpful:

  • The bus to Machu Picchu drops you off at the gate, where there are bathrooms. There are NO bathrooms inside of the park, so you'll really want to try and go upon arrival. 
  • We were running behind when we got there, so we figured we wouldn't really need to hire a guide. This was a big mistake. After hiring a guide for Saksaywaman in Cusco- we realized that learning all of the amazing facts about these ruins was really awesome. I highly suggest hiring someone to show you all of the details you'd otherwise miss.
  • I was really worried (because I am clearly an over-planner) that my running shoes weren't sufficient for the hike up Wayna Picchu. I ended up being totally fine. I do suggest dressing in layers, though, since it can go from hot to cold (and vice versa) fairly quickly. I also recommend bringing a rain coat or parka.
  • Speaking of Wayna Picchu- this hike was amazing. There were really great views from the top, but several great vantage points during the descent back down as well. It was overcast and slightly raining when we started our hike, which ended up being a blessing in disguise because it kept us cool during what was a pretty strenuous hike. Wayna Picchu is almost ALL stairs, which was tough, and left me with Jelly Legs for about 2 days afterward. BUT the hike looks much harder than it actually is, and you'll feel like a bad ass showing people pictures of the GIANT mountain behind Machu Picchu that you hiked all the way up. For reference- I am in "okay" shape, and don't go to the gym more than once or twice per week. I struggled, but was fine. 
  • I will add some images below, with descriptions so that you can have more of a visual idea of our trip up to Machu Picchu. Next up- I'll post some details about our time in Cusco, Peru!
The Llamas are friendly (and hungry!)
We had fun feeding them.

Viewpoint from the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu

The HUGE mountain right behind Machu PIcchu is Wayna Picchu.
It looks a lot gnarlier than it is, leaving you to look & feel like a total champ!!

At the top of Wayna Picchu. 
The steepest stairs on the hike up Wayna Picchu.
Don't worry- there are plenty of holding rails like this!

Jumping picture from a vantage point on our way down Wayna Picchu.
We look much closer to the edge than we actually were.

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