It can safely be said that Aguas Calientes’ (newly renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo) reason for being is it’s fortunate designation as the last stop before Machu Picchu. Every day, year-round, the trains from Cusco and the Sacred Valley unload hundreds – if not thousands- of eager visitors here. The sheer number of annual visitors and the small fortunes they spend on bus tickets, lodging, meals and the mind-boggling array of Machu Picchu souvenirs have turned Aguas Calientes into something that reminded me of one of the fantasy land attractions in Disney’s Epcot Center: think “Magic Inka Land!”. But, I don’t mean to give it a bad rap (and I’ve read a lot of reviews of the town and its amenities that do), I thought Aguas Calientes was worth spending a few hours, maybe a few days if I were going to check out some of the hiking options in the area.
I don’t want to sugar coat the experience, though. From the time you get off the train you are literally right in the middle of all things Machu Picchu and Inca souvenir land…the train station leads directly into a massive bazaar of trinket stalls. Some of the offerings are beautiful: I purchased a few ceramic birds with simple designs on them that I love, for instance. Others are truly perfect for joke gifting…in order to avoid offending anyone whose tastes are different from my own I will refrain from identifying my favorites in this category.
The town itself feels similar to any tourist destination anywhere. Restaurants cater to the crowd with pizzas and burgers on every menu – but also offer Andean traditional dishes for the more adventurous. (Yes, you can eat guinea pig AND alpaca in Aguas Calientes!) You can also expect meal prices to be inflated. Actually, you can expect all prices to be inflated – that’s the beauty of a tourist town with a captive audience after all.
Hotels range from the very basic hostels to the luxurious, with some of the highest room prices in the country. We were enticed by a young hotel owner’s promise of clean, comfortable rooms as we attempted to walk past her in the train station and ended up staying at the very modestly priced (35 soles per person) Inti Pata that was, in fact, clean and comfortable. Our window was directly over the rushing river and we had fantastic views of the beautiful sky high peaks covered in lush jungle vegetation that surround the town. Aguas Calientes has just as much natural landscape beauty as it does tourist kitsch!
I had a great time strolling around the town admiring some truly beautiful sculptures that decorate the main streets, and the layers of cultures and ‘interesting’ marketing materials, such as the giant paper-mache Incas in front of one restaurant.
So, yes, Aguas Calientes is touristy and unlike any other place in Peru – but it definitely has a lot of beauty and an endearing quirkiness to it. If you’re going I would recommend booking as much as possible ahead of time to avoid the lines year-round -and possible lack of availability – in the high season.