We were one of the first groups to see Machu Picchu after it reopened to the public at the beginning of April. It had been closed since January due to floods that wiped out the train link from Cusco. We were lucky our South America backpacking route ended in Peru, leaving us with just enough time to see the ancient mountaintop city.
We didn’t have enough time in Peru to hike the Inca trail (somewhat of a relief for me), and opted for the easy, comparatively luxurious train route. I would have preferred to organize our trip without assistance from a tour company, which is totally doable despite what everyone says about the need to book in advance. However, we waited too long and a shortage of train tickets, scooped up by all of the tour operators, lead us to pay a company, Harry’s Tours, to secure our transport and accommodations.
The tour package we purchased included a private taxi for our group of four from Cusco to Piscachuco, where we caught the Peru Rail train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, also known as Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the ruins.
We traveled by train over the lunch hour and enjoyed homemade falafel sandwiches and a bag of camote, Peruvian sweet potato, chips while on board.
Peru Rail provided a snack service, a bottle of water and quinoa bar. Unfortunately, we couldn’t eat the quiona bar because it contained milk. These quinoa bars are everywhere in Peru and every single one of them is made with milk ingredients. Don’t be fooled, I know they look like they should be vegan but they’re not. At one point, I thought I found a vegan version. In the end, it seems I was fooled. Leche (milk) conveniently disappeared from the ingredient list when a hole was punched into the packaging to allow for hanging at the end of a supermarket aisle. I certainly thought I was going crazy when I’d returned to the store and couldn’t find the “safe brand” that was there on my previous trip. Upon further inspection, I noticed some of the bars were free of milk ingredients, and some weren’t. Then I realized it depended where the hole punch landed. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself and the coincidence. Okay, back to the story of Machu Picchu…
By late afternoon, we’d arrived in Aguas Calientes. I have to say, Lonely Planet was right when they described it as “one of the ugliest, most exploitative towns you’ll run across anywhere in Peru.” There’s nothing there. The streets are full of crappy, overpriced restaurants and shops, charging exorbitant prices for crappy food and souvenirs.
After checking into our hostel and dropping off our bags, we grabbed our swimsuits and headed to the hot springs. We paid our $10 Peruvian Nuevo Soles ($3.49 USD) and walked up the hill towards the springs. We were disappointed to find them crowed and kind of grimy. They were nowhere near as relaxing as the hot spring we visited on our tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats.
We went to bed early on our first night, and woke up before sunrise to catch a bus to Machu Picchu. It was raining at first but cleared up by 8:00 a.m. We had an excellent guide who told us all about the city’s discovery and history. After two hours with the guide, we had a chance to explore on our own. It was amazing to watch the clouds roll in and out, at times completely shielding the city.
We returned to Aguas Calientes around 3:00 p.m. We were hungry. The one and only vegetarian restaurant in the town, Govinda, was closed. I’m not sure if they’re closed permanently or planning to reopen during high season.
Dan and Calina, our travel mates, ate at a restaurant the first night and got sick shortly after. They weren’t sure if it was from their dinner or a soggy lunch sandwich. Their experience reaffirmed our aversion to sketchy tourist restaurants. We set out to find the fanciest and cleanest restaurant in the town. We decided on The Cafeteria, a modern restaurant in the El MaPi Hotel. It looked nice, had some vegan-friendly menu options, and their prices weren’t much higher than other, less appealing restaurants. Be warned, the whole town is seriously over priced.
We ordered the vegetarian panini, sin queso (without cheese), for $21 Soles ($7.34 USD), about five times what we paid for sandwiches in Cusco. For the side, we had a choice of house salad, french fries or root vegetable chips. The house made chips seemed like the obvious choice. It was a great sandwich, but not exactly a panini, with layers of eggplant, zucchini, squash and roasted bell peppers.
We split the sandwich, as well as a small quinoa tabouli salad, made with red quinoa, tomato, basil, onion, balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. The salad was super fresh and flavorful. The only downside was the price, at $21 Soles ($7.34 USD), it should have been a lot bigger. It was served with a side of passion fruit vinaigrette, which was sweet and helped balance the balsamic.
It may sound kind of weird, but we really enjoyed dipping our side of potatoes in the leftover passion fruit dressing.
The Cafateria was the only thing that made our time in Aguas Calientes bearable. After our first lunch there, we went back for dinner the same evening and lunch the next day. We had more of the same dishes, as they were the only options on the menu we could eat.
They had fast wifi, which was a kick in the face because we didn’t bring our laptops, and large tables that were great for playing card games.
If you take the train to Aguas Calientes, you definitely want to stay over on the night you arrive so you can wake up early the next morning and be one the first groups to enter Machu Picchu. However, you shouldn’t plan to stay a second night. If at all possible, on the day you visit Machu Picchu, catch a train back to Cusco in the late afternoon or evening. Our tour package was for three days and two nights. We didn’t leave Aguas Calientes until 10:30 p.m. on our third day. We had to check out of our hostel at 9:00 a.m. and spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly around the town, wishing time would go faster. We wanted to get out of there so bad, we woke up early on our last day and stood in the train station lineup for three hours. When we finally made it to the front of the line at 10:10 a.m., there were spaces available on the 10:30 a.m. train, but they couldn’t sell us the tickets because boarding already started. The rest of the trains were full and we had no choice but to wait.
Don’t subject yourself to this torture, see Machu Picchu, enjoy it for half a day, and leave Aguas Calientes as soon as possible.
The Cafeteria (in El MaPi Hotel)
109 Pachacutec Ave
Machu Picchu Pueblo, Cusco, Peru