Monday, July 14, 2008

2008 Peru Trip Day 11 (Aguas Calientes)

Monday, July 14, 2008
Okay, it’s up early again, a quick breakfast at the buffet, and we were off in the van with a driver, Edward, and Hugo. Edward was willing to take the suitcase for us; whew! In through the town of Ollantaytambo, to a large parking lot. We were led to the train station, and just outside the outer gate, we were given our one-way train tickets to Machu Picchu. We were assured that our return tickets would be given to us by Ulbalina, who would meet us in Machu Picchu.
Ollantaytambo train station
We walked the length of the train station to board. The conductors at the door let us in, and we didn’t pay much attention except to the big print on the ticket which gave us seat numbers, across the aisle from Jan and Kirby. But soon two women came to claim our seats, and told us we were on the wrong train. When we made our way against the stream of people boarding, the conductor said, “Uno”. Which we soon figured out meant we were in seat number one. On closer inspection, our original tickets were for the 8:53 AM tourist class train with seats 47 & 48. But a smaller piece of paper stapled to the ticket gave us an upgrade to the Vistadome train leaving at 7:05 AM with seats 1 & 2. Jan and Kirby’s upgrade gave them their original seat numbers in the back of the car. We had the two front seats in the second car of the train, which gave us great views, but we did not have the “vistadome” windows in the curve of the ceiling above us.
Looking out our "front" window
The train left on time and we headed downhill along the narrow Urubamba River.
Urubamba River before it narrows
One thinks of going up to Machu Picchu, but Jan and Kirby said they could really see that the car we were in was going downhill. Jan and Kirby each took a turn to come visit us in the front of the car.
Passing through a town
We were surprised to find that breakfast was included, as they passed out boxes and served us drinks. Quite fancy.
Brynne noticed there was a group of British kids about her age sitting behind us. I guess I noticed that they had no secrets from us (i.e., they spoke loudly!). The valley narrowed, and I saw lots of prickly pear cacti and agave plants. Then the valley became a rocky gorge. We passed through several tunnels, maybe seven.
Urubamba gorge
Ruins in the valley
We heard some information from the guide for the British group. The train had announcements, but we couldn’t understand any of it. Anyway, Machu Picchu is one of 53 protected areas in Peru and it includes the Inca Trail. There are only two routes into Machu Picchu, the train and the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail is 33 km/21 miles from the village of Chilca to Machu Picchu. To trek on the trail, you are required to have a permit and pay a trail fee. It takes four days for the entire trail, but there are shorter options. The trail has been considered a work of spiritual art like a cathedral of nature, and walking it is an act of devotion. There are three high mountain passes, including elevations of up to 4,198 m/13,772 feet. Most of the way is paved with original stonework that crosses a raised causeway, goes through a tunnel, and even clings to a side of a cliff, as well as has stairs. Rope suspension bridges cross un-fordable rivers. The Inca Trail paralleled the train tracks on the other side of the river, but at KM 88, it veered away from the river. A new bridge crossed the river near KM 88, where there is a checkpoint to enter the Inca Trail.
The train continued down the gorge, passing a hydroelectric power plant.
Hydroelectric plant
Approaching Agua Calientes
Finally it entered the town of Aguas Calientes, also known as the Town of Machu Picchu. To put a stop to any confusion, I will refer to the town as Aguas Calientes, and the ruins as Machu Picchu. We retrieved our luggage from a central baggage holding area on the train, and disembarked. We headed out of the station with the crowd, and once outside the outer gates, we saw a petite young woman, Ulbalina, with a sign for “Jan B. Grupo x 04”. She greeted us along with her husband, and a porter from the hotel took our suitcases in return for a numbered tag. Ulbalina walked us to our hotel, through a market, down some stairs, across a bridge where she pointed out the restaurant where we would have lunch, and downhill along a street.
Hatuchay Hotel
We arrived at the Hatuchay Tower, and were told to have a seat in the lobby, which was decorated with antique-looking hats as seen being worn by indigenous women.
Hutachay Hotel lobby
Indigenous hat display
Indigenous hat
Indigenous hat detail
Indigenous hat micro-detail
Ulbalina took our passports and forms, then came back and asked if we had a hotel voucher. We explained that we did not have anything, and that we were told she would have our return train tickets as well. Ulbalina did not speak English very well, and often apologized for that. To us, she often seemed clueless, but as it turned out, it was not her fault.
Eventually, computer reservations proved we had rooms, but they would not be ready until 10:30 AM. So we asked Ulbalina about shops in Aguas Calientes, and got information about two tourist sites instead, the museum and baths. We walked across the street to the small park along the river, and headed farther downhill in the direction of the Machu Picchu museum which was to be at the foot of the path to the ruins. Jan checked along the river for birds.
Following the river out of town
View back towards town
Passed the Encantador Sumaq Hotel with fountains that resembled the Ollantaytambo Bath of the Princess.
Encantador Sumaq Hotel fountain
Interesting stone-lined parking spots
Rock in the river with strange markings
When we came to the bus garage where empty buses returning from Machu Picchu were getting a wash before being sent back into service, we realized that the base of the path to Machu Picchu is where the buses deposit you after a 15-minute drive up the steep mountain. I wasn’t going to be able to handle that hike.
Machu Picchu bus garage
Kirby decided to go back into town to shop. Jan decided to keep on going to what appeared to be a bridge for birding, and Brynne and I decided to hang out at the park across from the hotel until our rooms were ready.
Our Japanese cousins had put clothes out to dry on some benches.
Japanese "cousins"
Town sweeper
Inorganic and organic trash cans
We also did some birding from the park bench! And wrote a few postcards to send from the hotel. Jan came back from the bridge which she said was only a supported road along the mountainside, and no bridge was in sight when she got there. She identified the birds we had seen, and then we went into the hotel, turned in our tags to get our suitcases, and waited some more until our rooms were really ready.
The Hatuchay Tower Hotel had an elevator, which was good since our room was on the fifth floor.
Looking down from the fifth floor
We had a triple room in the back corner of the hotel,
Our hotel room
next to the train tracks.
View out our hotel window
We had one hotel robe, nicely displayed,
Hotel robe
and the room service man brought us two more robes and three bottles of water. When you enter the room, you slide the plastic card in a slot next to the door, and the electricity comes on in the room!
Turning on the room electricity
There was cable TV, a telephone, a safe, and a hair dryer. Of course, when you leave the room, you have to take the key, which means removing the card from the slot, which turns off the electricity in your room. Energy conservation!
We walked up the street to Toto’s House Restaurant for lunch, and at first we were led inside while being told the buffet was 48 Soles. We thought the lunch was paid for, but did not have the voucher they requested. Jan looked through the reservations, but could not find her name, as we have usually been called the “Jan B. group”. I still had a business card for Ultimate Voyages, and the restaurant hostess called to find out that we were booked under “TerraInka Group of 4”.
Toto's House Restaurant
As we waited, a train passed in front of the restaurant; the Hiram Bingham which is the “Orient Express” of Peru.
Hiram Bingham train locomotive in town
The tail end of the Hiram Bingham train
The restaurant was large and obviously catered to tourist groups, with long tables set for 20 or 30. We had a nice table by the open window overlooking the Rio Urubamba, with birds flying by and one making a nest somewhere below us.
View from restaurant
We were allowed to have the buffet, but Kirby managed to get a pizza instead of the buffet. There were salad offerings, which are not recommended for foreign stomachs, but I tried some crunchy white slices in a vinegar. There was a soup, and meats in sauces, rice, and potatoes. My favorite was a cheese puff. And lots of desserts. Nothing was hot, although later a new batch of soup came out that was hot.
Kirby showed us all the purchases he made in town, both from the market and from shops. Beautiful silver earrings in Nasca bird designs, and a Tumi pendant, a Tumi being a ceremonial knife with a semicircular blade. A traditional band came in to play music, and then to try to sell their music CD.
We were trying to figure a tip to leave, when the waiter came over and saw the 20 Soles bill and seemed to indicate that wasn’t enough! We then realized we had to pay for our bottles of water or Coca Cola. Only teas are included with the buffet. Coca Cola Classic and Coca Cola Zero are readily available in Peru. Coca Cola Light (their version of Diet Coca Cola) is more hit or miss.
Kirby had tried the ATM before lunch, but it was out of order. Then after lunch we saw a long line had formed to the ATM. Kirby got in line to get some Soles. Then we walked through the market, and uphill in the direction of the thermal baths.
There were workers and construction equipment in the Rio Aguas Calientes channel through town, and they were building up walls on either side of what was a mere trickle.
Construction in the Rio Aguas Calientes
Rio Aguas Calientes
Apparently there can be floods in the rainy season, or mudslides which can take out homes and lives. We crossed the river on one of several bridges to the town side, and kept going uphill. We eventually reached the entrance to the thermal baths, described in one guide book as a rather smelly communal pool.
We knew we were getting close, because the shops started offering towel and bathing suit rentals!
Street to the thermal baths
But when we saw they required 10 Soles to enter, whether or not you were going to bathe, we decided to skip that adventure and check out the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel instead.
We crossed back over the river, as we knew the hotel was behind the train station.
Behind the train station
Asked directions, and were sent behind the station, then followed a sidewalk along the tracks, until we crossed a bridge into “the Garden of Eden”. Wow! This place is amazing, and has so much to offer. If we had known about it beforehand, we might have snuck farther to the site of the Spectacled Bear Project. At least we would have seen one of the bears, even if it was in captivity! Rob had recommended that we stop in here to do some birding, and to just act as if we belonged. So we breezed by a uniformed man who was really probably there to direct hotel guests to the restaurant that was across the railroad tracks!
Inkaterra Hotel restaurant
We kept going along winding paths until we found a pool with hummingbird feeders around.
Inkaterra Hotel entrance
Inkaterra Hotel rooftops
Kirby and Jan settled in lounge chairs to check out the hummers.
Jan & Kirby
Brynne and I thought we’d relax by the pool, but we were bombarded by black flies. So using the repellent of “keep moving”, we left to check out the market. Jan and Kirby were successful with their birding, and were able to identify one of the hummingbirds based on the Latin names printed on a t-shirt in the hotel gift shop!
Brynne and I had success at the market, finding a hat for Dylan, and some souvenir shot glasses for friends. We also took advantage of the shorter line at the ATM. We were back at the hotel in time for our 4:00 PM meeting with our Machu Picchu guide, and Jan and Kirby arrived soon afterward. Ulbalina brought Efrain, our Quechuan guide. He spoke briefly as to what would happen the next day, and asked when we wanted to leave in the morning. I opted for seeing the sunrise. One factor for the timing of our tour was when we would be leaving Machu Picchu, and Efrain asked what time our train was to depart. We did not know, and were told to just look at our tickets. But we did not have tickets! So Ulbalina said she would bring us train tickets at 7:00 PM that evening. And we decided to meet Efrain in the hotel lobby at 5:45 AM the next morning.
We returned to our rooms, where Brynne watched TV in English. I went to Jan and Kirby’s room to admire the view from their 3rd floor balcony overlooking the street, and the river and mountains across the street.
View from Jan & Kirby's room
I showered again with a plastic laundry bag over my cast. We all met in the lobby at 7:00 PM, and decided that Ulbalina could find us in the hotel restaurant which gave us a dinner buffet. The girl checking our room numbers kept her clipboard on top of the choice of teas. The food was not kept hot.
Musicians came to entertain us,
Musicians at dinner
and finally Ulbalina showed up to say she would drop off the train tickets at the hotel desk the next morning by 10:00 AM while we were in Machu Picchu. We would be on the 3:25 PM train. Back to our rooms to sort and re-pack (seems like we are always re-packing!) and go to bed early.
Next: Day 12 Machu Picchu.

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