Renamed Machu Picchu Pueblo by the Peruvian government—a name adopted by few—Aguas Calientes is quite literally the end of the line. It’s a gringo outpost of mochileros (backpackers) outfitted in the latest alpaca and indigenous weave fashions: hats, gloves, sweaters—they are walking (if unshaved) advertisements for Peruvian artisanship. Making it Peru’s own little Katmandu, the trekkers hang out for a few days after their great journey to Machu Picchu, sharing beers and tales, and scoring a final woven hat or scarf, or at least celebratory T-shirt, to wear as a trophy back home.
To be honest, there’s not much else to do in Aguas Calientes, which might as well be called Aires Calientes, given its sweltering heat and humidity for much of the year. A purpose-built jumble of cheap construction and a blur of pizza joints, souvenir stalls, and hostales, it’s a place tourism officials would probably like a do-over on. But if you squint hard enough, and your legs are tired enough, you might just find a little ramshackle charm in it.
Exploring Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes has a river rushing through its middle and baños termales, or outdoor hot springs—the source of the town’s name—at the far end of Avenida Pachacútec. Many visitors find springs to be hygienically challenged, but they’re popular with folks who’ve completed the Inca Trail and are in desperate need of muscular relaxation (not to mention a bath). The one pool with freezing mountain water can be tremendously restorative if you’ve just finished a long day at the ruins, but the smell of iron is overpowering. The springs are open from 5am to 9pm; admission is S/20. Just be sure to leave your valuables locked up at the hotel.
Adventurous sorts not yet exhausted from climbing might want to climb the sacred mountain Putukusi, which commands extraordinary distant views across the river to the ruins of Machu Picchu. Look for the trail head on the right side of the railroad just out of town. (A signpost reads KM 111.) Veer to the right up stone steps until you reach a clearing and a series of stone-carved switchbacks. At the summit, the view of Machu Picchu, nestled like an architectural model between its two famous peaks, is incredible. In good condition, the trek up takes about 75 min.; the descent takes 45 min.
Another good trail, particularly for bird-watchers, is the short trail to Mandor Valley and a waterfall found there. From the railroad tracks, walk downstream (beyond the old train station) until you come to the ravine (about 3km/1 3/4 miles). A short climb takes you to the waterfall.
Aguas Calientes has an iPerú office, Av. Pachacútec, Cdra. 1 s/n (tel. 084/211-104), about one-third of the way up the main drag in town. It has photocopies of town maps and some basic hotel and Machu Picchu information.
The main bank in Aguas Calientes is Banco de Crédito, Av. Imperio de los Incas s/n, though there are several ATMs around town. Shops and restaurants along the two main streets, Avenida Imperio de los Incas and Avenida Pachacútec, also buy dollars from travelers in need at standard exchange rates.
You’ll find the police on Avenida Imperio de los Incas, down from the railway station (tel. 084/211-178).
There are Internet cabinas at a couple of places on the Plaza de Armas, though almost every hotel should have a computer or Wi-Fi available. There’s a post office at Colla Raymi 101. A posta de salud (health clinic) is located at Av. Imperio de los Incas, s/n.
On the Trail of “New” Inca Cities: The Discovery Continues
Ever since the demise of the Inca Empire, rumors, clues, and fabulous tales of a fabled lost Inca city stuffed with gold and silver have rippled across Peru. The tales prompted searches, discoveries, and, often, reevaluations. Machu Picchu wasn’t the lost and last city Hiram Bingham thought it was—Vilcabamba the Old was the last refuge of the Incas. The search continues, though, and incredibly, new discoveries continue to occur in the Andes. First, it was Choquequirao in the early 1990s. More recently, other teams have announced the discoveries of other lost Inca cities.
The discovery of Qorihuayrachina (also called Cerro Victoria, the name of the peak it rests on), 35km (22 miles) southwest of Machu Picchu in the Andes, was announced by the National Geographic Society in March 2002. Led by Peter Frost, a group of explorers uncovered the ruins of a large settlement that might have been occupied by the Incas long before they’d built a continent-spanning empire. Among the ruins are tombs and platforms, suggestive of an important burial site and sacred rites, although there are also indications that the site was an entire city. The ruins cover 6 sq. km (2 1/3 sq. miles) and occupy a spectacular mountaintop location with panoramic views of the Vilcabamba range’s snowcapped peaks, which were considered sacred by the Incas. Archaeologists, claiming that Qorihuayrachina is one of the most important sites found in the Vilcabamba region since it was abandoned by the Incas nearly 500 years ago, have high hopes that the ruins will help them piece together the Inca Empire from beginning to end.
Frost claimed the site was the largest of its kind found since 1964. Comprising 100 structures, including circular homes, storehouses, cemeteries, funeral towers, roadways, waterworks, farming terraces, a dam, and a pyramid, the city might have been occupied by the Incas who fled Cusco after the Spanish conquest. The ruins are secluded in cloud forest in the remote Vilcabamba region.
Just months after the discovery of Qorihuayrachina in 2002, the British Royal Geographic Society, led by Hugh Thompson and Gary Ziegler, announced the finding of a major new Inca site, Cota Coca, only a few kilometers away but across a deep canyon from Choquequirao (a road might have connected the two). Wholly unknown to the outside world until its discovery, Cota Coca—97km (60 miles) west of Cusco—appears to have been an administrative and storage center.
Llaqtapata was rediscovered by a U.S. and British team using remote (aerial) infrared technology and (re)surfaced in November 2003. Just 3km (1 3/4 miles) from Machu Picchu, it, too, had been visited by Bingham and by several explorers in the 1980s, so it's open to interpretation how new its “discovery” in fact is.
How long these discoveries might go on is anyone’s guess. According to Hugh Thompson, “The physical geography of southeast Peru is so wild, with its deep canyons and dense vegetation, that it is possible that there are even more ruins waiting to be discovered. The fact that we have found two in 2 years means there could be many more out there.”
Shopping in Aguas Calientes
Shopping may not be very exciting in Aguas Calientes—it’s pretty much limited to mass-produced Machu Picchu souvenirs and touristy alpaca (or would-be alpaca) goods—but it’s everywhere. The main Mercado Artesanal (artesanía and souvenir market) is a jumble of stalls clustered between the Río Aguas Calientes and the train station. You can’t miss it. If you’re going to pick up a T-shirt, cap, or other memento of your journey to Machu Picchu, this is the place.
Entertainment & Nightlife
Most gringos congregate at innumerable and largely indistinguishable bars along the train tracks and up Avenida Pachacútec. My vote for the best bar in town is El Bar, Av. Pachacútec 109 (tel. 084/211-011), the house watering hole at El MaPi, the hip hotel that took over a former government-run inn. The couches and terrace combined with the beer and cocktail list at Incontri del Pueblo Viejo restaurant off the plaza make it a good option. In general, most tourists here have an early train or trip to the ruins planned, so most of the town is shut down by 10pm, with just a few random bars staying open late on the weekends.
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