Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu town, has come along way. It is slowly taking on the tourist feel of Cuzco with innumerable hotels, restaurants, and craft shops. Aguas Caliente (translated to Hot Water in Spanish because of thermal springs there), can only be reached by rail from Ollantaytambo. Therefore, much of the town revolves around the rail line which runs right through the center of it. Many will come just for the day, and the rest come for just one night before returning to Cuzco the next morning or afternoon. Prices tend to be higher here than elsewhere and there is little to do other than enjoy the many tourist restaurants and shops. The heat and humidity here are a bit more intense than Cuzco or elsewhere, as the town and ruins sit in an upper Amazon cloud forest. Many return to Machu Picchu sunburned, so be sure to carry sunscreen.
Most tourist amenities can be found here such as Internet cafes, a small medical center and police station all within a few minutes of each other. There are no ATMS at this time, but most places accept credit cards and traveler’s checks and money can be exchanged at most hotels and tour offices.
Getting There & Around
Train (See Machu Picchu trains)
To get to Machu Picchu you have two options:
- taking a bus
- walking the steep 8 km road to the top of the ancient citadel.
Buses – buses run from town to the entrance to Machu Picchu 8 kms away every few minutes from 6am until the evening and cost 20 soles each way. They leave and return when full. You can buy tickets at the office just at Rio Urubamba bridge. There will likely be people and buses lined up at the spot.
There are really only two sights worth mentioning here: the thermal baths and a short hike. The Aguas Calientes of Aguas Calientes are set up like a swimming pool. A hot, steaming swimming pool. The pool sits up Av. Pachacutec, about ten minutes from the town’s small plaza, Plaza Manco Capac. If you hiked here for several days, the thermal bath will do wonders for your muscles. Or, if you have hiked here for several days, the thermal baths will do wonders for that revolting smell coming off of you. Open 5am-8:30pm. Admission 5 soles. The streets surrounding and leading to the baths are filled with so many mediocre bars and restaurants that they are hard to keep straight.
Although most people are too tired from getting to Aguas Caliente to even think of hiking anywhere, some actually retain enough energy to climb the scared mountain of Putukusi. The top of the mountain has unparalleled views of Machu Picchu. To get there you must go to the railroad just out of town. At the sign that says Km 111, there is a trail of stone steps leading up the mountain for about 2 hours. The climb down is about half of that.
Hotels in Aguas Calientes
Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel – 800-442-5042. The Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel has eighty-five luxurious rooms with all of the amenities, two restaurants, the Hiram Bingham bar, spa, and massage room. The grounds comprise of five hectares, five kilometers of which are trails, flora, fauna, and birding viewing spots. They have a long list of organized hikes and activities available that make the most of being in a cloud forest. Without comparison, the best hotel in Aguas Calientes. $$$$$
Hatuchay Tower – Opposite the bus stop. Room share are a bit more modern compared with most places in Aguas Calientes, however, don’t expect total luxury. Rooms have private hot eater baths and some have balconies overlooking the river. Cable TV and room service are among the amenities. $$$$
El Mapi – This 48-room hotel in Aguas Calientes (Macchu Picchu town) was built by Inkaterra, the best hotel company in Peru in my opinion (all of their other hotels have made the hotlist too). It’s the most affordable they have built and the one that has the most traditional hotel set up (the other Inkaterra hotels include tours, food, drinks, & transfers with the price of a stay). It’s right in town, very contemporary-boutiquey, and has a lively little cafeteria and bar. $$$$
Machu Picchu Inn – Av. Pacachutec, 21-1011, email@example.com. This new hotel sitting right in the town has 75 of the most modern rooms here. It is one of the best mid range options that are actually mid range in value. Still, don’t expect so many extras. It is fairly basic. Includes breakfast. $$$
Gringo Bill’s – Raymi 104 (Plaza de Armas). On the main plaza, 20-meters from the church. There are a total of 25 various rooms including suites. Each room has a private hot water bath. Some have balconies. The hotel will accommodate your entire stay in Aguas Caliente from pick-ups, money exchange, arranging guides, lunch, and transportation to Machu Picchu, laundry service, store your luggage, cook your meals, plan an activity, and more. Low season prices drop about $10 per room. Recommended. $$$
Rupa Wasi – Huanacaure 110, 21-1101. This lodge is just 2 blocks from the main square, but seems a world away. It is made entirely of cedar wood and has a pleasant garden with orchids and native flora and fauna. Rooms are cozy and country style, many with panoramic views. There are just five rooms here, all of which have private hot water baths. One of the most interesting budget range options in town. $$
Eating in Aguas Calientes
Tree House – Associated with the Rupa Wasi Hote, the Tree House is the best restaurant in Aguas Calientes. Novo Andino plates are the stars here: causa acevichada, grilled pork ribs in an elderberry and tamarind sauce, and quinotto.
Cafe Inkaterra – Next to the train station, 211-122. This lunch only restaurant is the most chic and ecologically friendly in Aguas Caliente. It over looks the Vilcanota river and uses Amazon style palm thatching as its roof, doing its best to blend in with the natural setting in a sophisticated way. The food blends traditional Andean dishes in contemporary styles such as aji panca spiced alpaca tenderloin brochettes or trout with herbs and butter. It also serves organic coffee from Quillabamba. $$$
Indio Feliz Restaurant Bistro – 211-090. This is a French bistro that attracts a largely French clientele and other international travelers. Reservations are needed. French Onion soup, chicken in ginger, trout dishes. Everything is quite good. It is one of the best food finds in town that isn’t pizza. $$$
Toto’s House – Los Incas near the tracks, 21-1020. In a convenient location near the rail line and the river. Has open-air seating overlooking the river and mountains. It is a bit touristy at times, particularly during lunch buffets when live Andean music is performed. Other dishes like trout and pizza are decent. $$
Chez Maggy – Pachacutec 156, 211-006. This is a branch of the well-known Maggy’s in Cuzco and elsewhere in Peru. It is one of the better options for a pizza in Aguas Calientes, and there are many, many pizzerias. They use a clay oven, which makes the dough nice and crisp. They deliver as well. $$
Blues Bar Café – Av. Pachacutec near the hot springs. Of all of the nightlife options here, this is the best. The soundtrack is mostly classic rock and pop hits, which keep the dance floor lively, even with tired trekkers.
Aguas Calientes is flourishing in selling crafts, though prices tend to be a bit higher than Cuzco or elsewhere. However, it is a town where you often have time to kill. There are vendors set up everywhere, the largest handicraft market is just before the entrance of the train station.
And then on the ladder of the earth I climbed
Through the atrocious thicket of the lost jungles
Up to you, Machu Picchu.
High city of scaled stones,
At last a dwelling where the terrestrial
Did not hide in its sleeping clothes.
In you, like two parallel lines,
The cradle of the lightning-bolt and man
Rocked together in a thorny wind.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.