Ever since a landslide destroyed the train line past Machu Picchu to Quillabamba, Aguas Calientes is literally the end of the line for the Cusco–Machu Picchu train.
Once a ramshackle town, Aguas Calientes’s recent structural improvements have brought paved roads, a colorful crafts market, and a growth in business. New restaurants and hotels are wedging their way into what little available valley space there is.
With an economy that lives entirely on tourism, it makes for an interesting stay for a couple of days. Staying overnight in Aguas Calientes will allow you to give Machu Picchu and the surrounding area the time it takes to truly absorb its magnitude. Two nights can be even better, allowing you the opportunity to visit other attractions in the area.
The town spreads uphill from the tracks, past a square and up the main drag of Pachacútec alongside the Río Aguas Calientes. On the other side of the river, the Orquideas neighborhood is becoming the new hotel zone and is also home to the new stadium.
At the top of Pachacútec are the town’s thermal baths (US$4, with towels and even bathing suits for rent). The baths are cleanest in the morning and are usually quite grimy by evening. On an uphill dirt trail, past the baths are a few spectacular waterfalls for bathing. This path leads uphill for several hours to a string of remote waterfalls. The baths are actually quite attractive.
Follow the road toward Machu Picchu, and just before the uphill schlep to the ruins, you’ll find the new Museo del Sitio Machu Picchu (highway to Machu Picchu at Puente Ruinas, 9 a.m.–4:30p.m. daily, US$7.50). The English-Spanish signs in this small, modern museum lead you geographically, culturally, and historically through Machu Picchu. Dioramas explain a typical Incan day in Machu Picchu, and enlarged photos explain the site’s investigation. There is also an attached botanical garden.
Apart from the pizzerias, the best nighttime hangout is Candela’s (Las Orquideas s/n, tel. 084/976-1173, noon–midnight, US$4), a small art-filled café that’s full to the seams with tourists and guides. Happy hour on pisco and coca sours is 8–10 p.m.
The disco Wasicha (next to the Indio Feliz Restaurant on Lloqueyupanqui, 6–10 p.m.) is the only spot for dancing.
Most Machu Picchu travelers will pass through the Aguas Caliente’s market, which lies between the train station and the town itself. The market has a variety of booths covered in plastic awnings with touristy knick-knacks for sale. There is some good jewelry at the market, but better quality jewelry can be found at two jewelry shops in Aguas Calientes.
The jewelry shop Rumi Wasi (at entrance to thermal baths, hours vary but generally open at night), run by Marcus, who makes silver jewelry on site. The second great option is Joyeria Maky (Capac Yupanqui, tel. 084/21-1136, hours vary).
Getting to Aguas Calientes
The only way to reach Aguas Calientes is by trekking the Inca Trail, the Salcantay Trek, or the Inca Jungle Trail, or by taking the Inca Rail (www.inkarail.com) or Andean Rail (www.andeanrailways.com). There are few vehicles and taxis in Aguas Calientes. The place is small enough that most visitors walk everywhere.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition