When I read the introduction for Aguas Calientes in the Lonely Planet I shuddered. I didn’t sign up with the group to hike part of the Inca Trail that day so I would be stuck in this “gold rush town, with a large itinerant population, slack services that count on one-time customers and an architectural tradition of rebar and unfinished cement. With merchants pushing the hard sell, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. Your best bet is to go without expectations.” (Lonely Planet Peru 249)
Let me tell you, when I boarded that beautiful train to Aguas Calientes I left my expectations behind together with my suitcase in Cusco. I remember that the Lonely Planet described the border town Poipet, between Cambodia and Thailand similarly and that place was not filled with joy. Luckily, I found out I didn’t need to fear, there’s a nice hike to undertake while in Aguas Calientes which makes the stay worth the time.
How to get there
First things first, the only way to reach Aguas Calientes is by train. The tip is to buy return tickets far in advance, because tickets tend to sell out. Only a limited amount of people are allowed to travel between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes to avoid the town from flooding with tourists.
There’s no other way in as there is no road access. I used the Inca Rail which has tall and wide panoramic windows and a glass roof to enjoy the landscape.
Aguas Calientes Town
Upon entering the town, the first thing I noticed were all the souvenir shops scattered on the pavement outside the station. My first thought that this was the beginning of the hell that would be my day. It wasn’t though, because the moment I walked 200m the stalls disappeared and I was able to fully appreciate the surroundings of Aguas Calientes.
The town lies in a gorge below the ruins of Machu Picchu. It’s enclosed by cliffs and forests. There are multiple rivers that run through the town, which means that sometimes you have to cross bridges – be careful, they can be slippery. The town itself is pretty steep. It’s not as mental as I had prepared myself for though. Sure, the small streets are lined with tourist shops and restaurants, but no one approached me to lure me into them and it wasn’t so busy that I continuously bumped into people.
Los Jardines de Mandor
Now, here comes my secret to why I think a stay in Aguas Calientes shouldn’t be dreaded. If you follow the train tracks for a few kilometers, you will reach “Los Jardines de Mandor” or Mandor Gardens. Even though the Lonely Planet does not mention this sight, it’s worth a visit.
The walk there and back took met 3 hours, but it’s not strenuous since it’s all flat. Of course, you have to take the altitude of Aguas Calientes (2,000m) into account.
When you see a large locked gate on your right hand side, you have to walk to the left. There’s a little shop there with a map of the area where you can also pay the 10 Sol entrance fee (2,50 euro).
You then enter the gate. What I saw beyond the gate took me by surprise because I didn’t think I would see this kind of landscape in Peru. It reminded me more of Costa Rica’s cloud forest. Suddenly, the air became cool, bird song became the prevalent sound and moist dripped off the trees.
The marked paths inside the gardens lead to the two waterfalls. There are also plenty of miradors and benches where you can sit and enjoy nature. You might even be able to spot some of the birds on the map above.
I loved to experience this different side of Peru and I definitely did not expect to find this in Aguas Calientes. I can’t believe that the Lonely Planet does not mention this hike.
Now, let’s talk about the town’s service and friendliness shall we? I stayed in Hotel Inti Punku El Tambo, which is a beautiful hotel with friendly service. I had dinner at Indio Feliz which is a French/Peruvian restaurant with delicious dishes and an eccentric interior. Yet again, the staff was incredibly friendly. I don’t have the impression that “services are slack” here.
As you can see, I don’t agree with the Lonely Planet’s description of this town. Sure, we all go to the trouble of reaching here to see Machu Picchu – that much is clear. I wouldn’t advise you to go out of your way travelling here by train with no onward destinations to only go the Mandor Gardens. However, when you’re here the picture is not as grim as the Lonely Planet tries to paint it.
I would be hesitant to stay here for more than a day. However, the hike mentioned in the post combined with a lovely dinner should be enough to give you an agreeable day in this tiny town.