The Machu Picchu Express

by Ekua on September 17, 2009 in Peru

July 26, 2009

In the wee hours of the morning, when many Loki Hostelers were just returning from a night out, I was getting ready to leave for my two day, one night Machu Picchu tour. After putting Bessie into the hostel’s storage room, I grabbed my small backpack and got into a van from SAS Travel to head off to the train station. I was the last to be picked up; there were five other people already in the van– a couple from San Francisco, two women from Washington D.C. and, and a woman from England who was currently living in Dubai. Everyone seemed calm and composed which would be a nice change from the Loki for a couple days.

A rainbow we saw from the train

At the train station I headed straight for a little food stand to get some coffee. I learned that Claire (the woman from England) and I were the only ones taking the train straight to Aguas Calientes, which is the gateway to Machu Picchu. The other four were doing a short  Inka Trail tour and would be getting off the train early to hike the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes. Their seats were in a different cabin and the guide stuck with them so the two of us were left on our own.

A fancy train came and went and then it was our turn to board the Backpacker Train. The seats across from Claire and I were empty as time to leave approached. But just as the train was about to go, two girls hopped on to claim those seats. I gathered from the hoarseness of their voices and the conversation they were having that they had gotten a little too caught up in Cusco’s party scene and that’s why they almost missed the train. They slept almost the entire way to Aguas Calientes.

DSCN0125Claire turned out to be a great travel buddy. I thought I might sleep on the train, but we ended up talking about anything and everything, but mostly about travel. We had obviously both been bitten by the bug. She told me about the different places she had lived and what it was like to be a resident of Dubai. We exchange travel stories and talked about the interesting people  we’d met while traveling. Our conversation, combined with the wonderful views made for a fantastic train ride.

A waterfall and ruins we saw as we approached Aguas Calientes

Getting into Hot Water

When we got off the train, there was someone from SAS Travel waiting to meet us to take us to our hostel. It was a short walk through the market and across a bridge or two to get to the hostel. Aguas Calientes is an interesting town. By interesting, I mean awful. The natural scenery around it is stunning, but it’s obvious that the town sprung up like it did solely because of its proximity to Machu Picchu. The buildings are unattractive and some appear to have been hastily built with fake stone facades that attempt to look like the stones of the ruins at Machu Picchu. There is a limited selection of places to eat and things to do and everything is overpriced.

I was happy to have most of my arrangements taken care of through my tour. SAS Travel owns and operates a hostel in Aguas Calientes called the Viajeros Hostel and that’s where we stayed. They were flexible about letting us choose when we wanted to have lunch so we decided to get settled in first. I was given a triple room with three beds. On my trip I quickly learned to value being alone in a room with extra beds. Extra beds means extra blankets for those extra cold Andean nights.

A guy who gave us an orientation of sorts when we arrived didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the activities Aguas Calientes had to offer. He told us there was a waterfall and orchid farm to hike to, but it wasn’t that great and the orchid farm had no orchids. He talked about the hot springs (after which Aguas Calientes is named) but said they were dirty and not recommended. Way to sell the town. We decided to take a stroll to the main plaza to find an internet cafe.

A Foray into the Delights of Aguas Calientes

After a sufficient amount of net time, we went to a cafe next door for some hot beverages to warm us up. It looked cute from the outside, but it was completely disorganized inside. They were playing a delightfully horrible CD of popular movie music played on pan pipes. Imagine “My Heart Will Go On” and other such tunes played over and over again on a wooden flute. Good times. It wasn’t clear if we were supposed to order at the counter or sit at the table. We decided to go to counter. I asked for a hot chocolate and the girl I ordered from promptly disappeared without a word. When we eventually got everything sorted out, we saw drinks that we suspected were ours sitting on the counter behind the girl who was taking orders. We attempted to ask and get her attention, but she made no effort to give them to us. When we finally got our drinks, they were lukewarm and my earlier suspicion that they were making my hot chocolate with Hershey’s chocolate syrup was confirmed.

That afternoon, it was pouring and chillier than I expected it to be. The weather reports I checked in Cusco made it seem like it would be hot in Aguas Calientes. I wasn’t prepared for rain or cold and was worried that I would be freezing at night and soaking wet the next day if the rain continued. So Claire accompanied me to the town market. We both wanted socks for bed, so we visited several stalls until we found a pleasant vendor who gave us a deal on two pairs of knee high wool llama socks. Score! Next, I found a pan pipe stand and bought the pan pipe movie CD we heard earlier in the cafe. Score! The guy tried to sell me actual pan pipes so I could play along with the CD, but I declined. You have to draw the line somewhere. Then came the most complicated purchase, a pink poncho. I’d seen several tourists in bright colored rain ponchos they’d bought at the market and really wanted one in pink. We searched high and low for a pink poncho and couldn’t find one. Finally we came across a stand that had a purple poncho available. Score!

A Table for Two

Back at the hostel, they were setting up three long tables for dinner. One was for a large group that had just finished a trek. Another was for the four half day trekkers we met in Cusco and their guide. And the table in the middle was just for Claire and I. I thought it was silly that they set such a large table just for the two of us when there was space at other tables. I asked if we could join the group of five. The hostel staff refused to let us do that. I noticed in both Peru and Bolivia that they have a funny way of rejecting requests that may seem perfectly reasonable to you. It’s a shaking of the head with a drawn out and slightly whiny, “nooo.” And an exasperated smile that lets you know they think your request is absurd.

So during dinner at our extra large table for two, our guide for Machu Picchu came to tell us about the details for the next day. We would be waking up very early so we could get in line to catch the first buses going up the hill to Machu Picchu.  We returned to our rooms early that night get ready for the next day and get some rest. I hoped that the rain would wear itself out and that Inti would make an appearance the next day.

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