Peru Part 2: Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo

As a continuation of the post, Peru Part 1: Cusco, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, this article details the next leg of my journey through this majestic country. There is so much to see and do in Peru it is truly the adventurers’ paradise, irregardless if you’re a world class mountain climber or a luxury traveler. In this article I’ll talk a little bit about jumping into Peruvian culture in the towns of Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo. 

THE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Aguas Calientes
  • Visiting Ollantaytambo and nearby ruins

Map of Cusco Area

Aguas Calientes “Hot Water”

Known formerly as the “Machu Picchu Pueblo”, Aguas Celientes is the closest town to the Lost City of the Incas, and rests deep in a gorge below the famous ruins. Surrounded by two rivers and overshadowing mountains, the only way in and out of Aguas  Calientes is by train. The local economy of the town is based solely on Machu Picchu tourism such that there are a plethora of places to stay, souvenir shops and restaurants. Within the town, the only noteworthy attractions are the local hot springs, thus the name “Hot Water”, and the souvenir artisan market. The town can be used as a base for visiting Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu, and Putucusi Mountain.

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After visitng Machu Picchu and having a final meal with the Perutreks Inca Trail trekking goup, some members of the group rented bathing suits and went to the hot springs (thus the name of the town), which are a 10 minute walk from the town center. I decided to skip the hot springs being quite exhausted, and checked into a local hotel to get some rest.

Normally, having spent the last six months staying in hostels and low budget lodging, and having become a decent negotiator, I would have done some additional shopping around for a cheaper place to stay. However, needing get off my feet I only compared two different spots in the heart of Aguas Calientes, Hostal Presidente and Casa MachuPichu Hostal. These two places were at least 2-3 times the price of where I would typically stay, but my spent knees forced me to settle on something quickly so I chose the cheaper Hostal Presidente. (The cheapest available rooms they had were on the second floor).  

After settling into my quite comfortable room, I was excited to be able to finally take a shower after four days! However, looking at my belongings, I realized I had no clean clothes! Everything was damp or soiled including what I was wearing. So, after I did a bit of moaning and convinced my knees to stay strong for just a bit longer, I went for a walk to purchase something clean to wear. 

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Quickly after perusing the streets for a bit, I noticed that the town itself is the epitome of a typical tourist trap and quite pricey by Peruvian standards. You will get hounded on the streets near the town square by many people trying to get you into their restaurants to eat or lodging. However, this is to be somewhat expected as the town is so heavily dependent on the income from tourism.

Still on the hunt for some clean clothes to change into, I tried to combine both souvenirs with functional clothing to minimize the carry weight and maximize the functionality in my backpacking pack, and ended up purchasing a souvenir T-shirt and a pair of artisan pants. Of course, being the curious explorer, despite the poor condition my knees were in, I also ended up doing quite a bit of additional walking around town and chatted with a few locals in Spanish (I was even invited to a party later that evening) before returning to my room for what seemed like the most luxurious and relaxing shower of my life. Shortly thereafter, I quickly fell into a deep slumber for the night.

The next day was relaxing as I did some additional walking around the town, conversing with the locals and other tourists and grabbed some cheap food to replenish my energy. As I was not going to be using Aguas Calientes as a base for other treks or climbs, it was time to leave and make my way back to Cusco. 

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The only way in or out of Aguas Calientes is by train. Thus, with this monopoly on passage to and from the Lost City of the Incas, the train trip fee is fairly pricey by Peruvian standards at $79 USD one way. After my leisurly day, I packed my things, passed some time in the artisan market then headed to the train station. 

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The train left at about 6:30pm as I donned my rice sack full of dirty trekking clothes and my small hiking pack, wearing only my souvenir t-shirt, locally purchased artisan pants and hiking boots (my socks and undergarments were still unwearable from the trek), and took the journey to Ollantaytambo. The train ride went by quickly as I chatted in Spanish with a kind man in his mid-forties who was on vacation to Machu Picchu. He had a week off from work and traveled to Peru from the Patagonia region in Argentina for the visit to this mystical place. We parted ways when the train arrived in Ollantaytambo and I headed into town for the night.

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Ollantaytambo

Nestled in the northwest corner of the “Sacred Valley of the Incas”, Ollantaytambo is located about 2.5 hours via bus from Cusco. A lovely smaller sized farming town, built directly atop Incan building foundations, one can truly get a sense of the original Incan town designs, architecture, layout and Incan cultural influence in this quaint little place. Ollantaytambo is nestled within multiple distinct Incan ruin sites, most notably the fortress which guards the entrance to the lower Urumbama valley.

Arriving in the small town in the dark, alone, I hadn’t researched the town ahead of time as I didn’t decide to spend the night here until the last minute, and wasn’t really sure what to expect so I stayed near a group of fellow backpackers headed toward the center of town. Quickly we reached some hotels and I checked the prices on a couple before settling on a the Hostal El Chasqui with a private room, and hot water for pretty cheap. I have to admit I was still exhausted from the Inca Trail trek but as had happened each day of my journey, I could not go right to sleep.

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My excitement and desire to explore drove me to walk into the center of town (still wearing no undergarments or socks) and chat with some locals whilst I searched for the inexpensive local place to eat. Everyone was very friendly, and there were several police officers standing around the town center providing an extra feeling of safety. After soliciting some recommendations from the locals, I found my way to a spot with some cheap local fare just in time before they closed up. Quite famished, I gobbled down a heaping plate of chicken and rice before heading to bed.

The next morning I awoke early to explore the town. It was exactly the kind of place I enjoyed, the town was a true reflection of Peruvian culture complete with locals in traditional dress, mototaxi’s, beautiful stone architecture and was very different from the tourist trap of Aguas Calientes. With beautiful backdrops of the mountains and within walking distance the Ollantaytambo Incan fortress ruins, I ended up staying an extra night, just to enjoy its tranquility. Although there were some souvenir stands by the ruins and some souvenir shops in the general square, there wasn’t too much to spoil the feeling of cultural authenticity in this small town.

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I first stopped at Hearts Cafe, for a delicious breakfast of coffee, eggs, and toast before exploring the area. While having breakfast, I noticed that many of the dwellings had small ceramic ornamental bulls on the rooftops. This was quite interesting, and it is my understanding that they are placed atop the roof to provide protection and good fortune to those in the household.

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I then walked toward the main ruins, however unfortunately when I went to enter, I was told I had to buy a pass to visit three different ruins in three different towns in the Sacred Valley and since my budget was low I had to make the hard choice and skip purchasing this ticket (a reason for another visit :).

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Instead, I chatted with some of the nearby artisans about my trek. I met one really kind man selling minerals which he said hold certain powers according to Quechua belief. Some minerals he sold were said to improve luck, others your chances at love, and so on. I was intrigued and I started asking him some general questions about Quechua religious beliefs. He was eager to talk to me about this subject and we chatted for at least a half an hour in Spanish as he explained to me about the Pachamama and some of the Quechua peoples beliefs in energy and nature.  This kind merchant, even though I wasn’t going to purchase anything, was very informative and eager to share his knowledge with me.

In lieu of visiting the fortress, I spotted a smaller set of ruins atop a small mountain (Apu Pinkuylluna) across town and liesurly made my way towards them. Walking through the stone alleys, surrounded by modest dwellings each set atop the ancient Incan foundations was quite intriguing. 

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As I walked down Lares Calle and approached the base of the mountain which held the ruins, I came to Apu Lodge Bed and Breakfast. Curious, I ventured inside. Upon entering I was surprised to find quite modern accomodations and inquired with the staff as to the room rate. Not surprisingly it was $55/night for a single room. Next I began asking questions about the ruins above and the staff kindly provided me with directions to the entrance nearby and details on the trails above. Shortly thereafter, I was on my way up the trail. 

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Upon reaching the small ruins above, there were abundant opportunities to take photos of the Ollantaytambo fortress ruins from afar, so I wasn’t very dissapointed that I hadn’t been able to visit the fortress up close, especially having recently visited Machu Picchu.

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Later in the afternoon, the sun was out and feeling energetic after a simple lunch in town, I started walking on the road into the farmlands. The Peruvian sun can really radiate some heat! In the distance I saw some stone structures and terraces to visit before heading back and looking for transportation towards Cusco. The walk on the trail through the valley only took about two hours and offered great views of the surrounding farmlands and mountains.

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Still wearing the same souvenir shirt and pants with no undergarments I had been wearing for two days now, I followed the directions of some locals to the market back in town to see what they offered. I can’t tell you how excited I was that I found a vendor who sold socks, by the pair! After my sweaty walk in the sun that afternoon, the thought of a fresh pair of cotton socks was better than heaven! I chatted with the merchant who other than trying to get me to go on a date with him (like many of the Latin guys) turned out to be a sweetheart and told me how to get back to Cusco super cheap. I thanked him for the socks and info and went outside.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you feel true bliss? That’s how I felt sitting down in the shade and putting these socks on! Still sore from all the hiking to Machu Picchu, my poor tootsies were beaten up, sore, sweaty and I’m sure if they could talk, would be swearing at me quite profusely by that time. Aahhhhh, the feel of the cotton socks, just indescribable 🙂 Well, after I methodically took a good 15 minutes to enjoy putting on the socks and my hiking shoes, I grabbed a few quick photos before hopping on one of the Minivans stuffed with Peruvians, and headed out to Urubamba where I did a quick switch of minivans for the ride back to Cusco.

Back in Cusco I had a few days to relax and enjoy the city before my trip took me to Iquitos, Peru. To read all about my experience in the Peruvian Amazon, check out Peru Part 2: Iquitos and the Peruvian Amazon!

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