Sunday, 31 August 2014

Traveling to Aguas Caliente

At 5:30 the alarm went off and I dragged myself into the shower, and then laid down on the bed.  I hadn't been physically ill for a few hours so we decided to go for it.  We were heading from Cusco to Aguas Caliente and then on to Machu Picchu. John hustled about the room trying to pack both his and my suitcases.  I sat on the bed and indicated which things I wanted to put in my backpack for the trip to Aguas Caliente and which things were going in the suitcase; he passed things to me and I packed my backpack, which took all the energy I could muster.  John took both of our suitcases down to the front desk to check them overnight, while I sucked on my electrolyte drink (YUCK!) and rested.  Then the moment of truth - the cab had arrived.  Poor John carried both backpacks and his camera bag down the stairs to the street while I managed to carry my small travel purse, walk down the stairs and collapse into the back seat of the cab.  I brought a plastic bag with me, just in case, and vowed to avoid all food until we were safely in Aguas Caliente.

We left the hotel, both of us curious where this mysterious bus depot was located.  We wound through narrow cobblestone streets and drove up to a big green wall right only a few doors down from the hotel where we had stopped for directions the previous day. But now the big green wall was open; it was a gate which lead to the bus depot.  No sign, no indication that it was a bus depot.  One day it's a big green wall, the next day it's a bus depot. 

There were lots of attendants working at the bus depot, and as people arrived we boarded the buses and once the bus was full, it departed.  John and I quickly grabbed seats as close to the front as we could, in order to reduce the amount of motion I would have to deal with (no bathroom on the bus) and we were off on the next leg of our journey.  The bus wound its way along dirt roads and pavement, through little towns and villages and finally arrived at the train station which was pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  We disembarked and had different tickets for boarding the train.  We had to wait about 20 minutes to board the train but it was nice to stretch our legs, walk around in the fresh air and take a few pictures.  You could feel the excitement in the air as tourists from around the world waited together, all  bound for the same destination.  We were almost there. 

Waiting to board the train!

I had booked the train tickets online from PeruRail quite a long time in advance and hadn't noticed that we weren't sitting together but were sitting across the aisle from each other.  Many other people had the same experience.  I think they sold the window seats first, and then filled in the aisle seats, assuming you'd rather sit by a window than sit by your travelling companion.  John and I sat together and enjoyed watching the scenery roll by.  It was hard to take photographs as the windows were a bit steamy and we were moving pretty quickly.  At one point we went past a rope suspended over the river with a seat attached to it.  If people wanted to cross the river, they simply hauled themselves across on the wooden seat, hand over hand.  Much faster than travelling miles and miles out of their way to the nearest bridge.

There are three different classes of tickets on the PeruRail train to Machu Picchu and different tickets are available on different routes and at different times, so you might want to check and see what is available when you are travelling.  We chose the midprice Expedition and it was great.  The seats were large and comfortable, there were snacks and souvenirs available for purchase, and the bathrooms were spotless. 

When we finally arrived in Aguas Caliente, we were all so excited to disembark and we all streamed into the modern train station.  When we left the train station we had to wind our way through the Mercado Artisanal, which is a very long maze of stalls covered with galvanized metal roofs, to cross the bridge in to town.  Our hotel, Mi Pequena Casita, was only about a block from the bridge and the buses to Machu Picchu stopped right outside our hotel's front door.

John standing outside of the Mercado Artisanal; train station sign in the background

The train pulling through Aguas Caliente (note the steep mountains in the background)

We checked in and dropped off our bags.  The hotel was clean but super basic and the decorations were a throwback to the 70s with lots of orange and brown upholstery, bedding, and paint. But as long as the bathroom is clean and the bed is comfortable, that's all we need! 

Our room - flashback to the 70s

The view from our room - the bridge to the Mercado and the train statin

We wandered around town, looking for a spot to stop for lunch.  Normally we check TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet for recommendations, but today we took a chance at Apu Qoyllor Rit'i which had a nice outdoor patio and was offering 4 for 1 pisco sours.   What a mistake!  It is ranked 41 of 46 restaurants in Agua Caliente on Trip Advisor and no wonder.  The food was awful, the service wasn't great and they added a huge service charge to our bill and charged us a tax which they aren't allowed to charge to tourists.  When we pointed that out to them, they removed it but if we hadn't know that in advance we would have had to pay.  I wonder how many other tourists have paid, not knowing that it is illegal for restaurants to charge additional VAT. 

Relaxing on the patio for lunch and watching the world go by

After lunch, I went back to the hotel and napped for most of the afternoon while John had a glass of wine and used the free wifi at the restaurant patio next door. Once again, no pushy wait staff urging you to order another drink or vacate. They are quite content if you order one glass of wine or one pot of tea and then linger all afternoon. 

A three hour nap did me a world of good; I felt energized and ready to explore the city.  We went for a long walk through the winding streets with no particular location in mind and then decided that after such a horrible lunch we were going to go to the number one Trip Advisor restaurant in Aguas Caliente - The Tree House.  We showered and changed and then went off to find the restaurant.  As usual, we ended up wandering all over town for about 45 minutes often doubling back over ground we had already covered.  In a small plaza we noticed a tourism information office and went in to ask directions.  The girl in the office gave us very good directions which involved a lot of landmarks rather than street names.  The restaurant was just around the corner from the plaza and we had walked by the stairs a few times in our search but there was no sign that indicated that The Tree House was up those particular stairs. 

As we were wandering the streets looking for The Tree House we passed this restaurant built on and around a huge boulder.  The red bricks, most likely laid without the use of a level, are ubiquitous in Aguas Caliente.
It was worth the scavenger hunt and the climb up yet another set of stairs.  The dinner we had at The Tree House is probably one of the best meals I've ever eaten in my life!!!!  We were the only ones in the restaurant so needless to say the service was impeccable.  The waiter told us lots of interesting information about our entrees and how they were prepared.  I had a quinoa risotto made with three different kinds of risotto that was AMAZING!!!  We ordered a lucuma mousse for dessert. Neither John nor I had heard of lucuma before and the waiter brought out a big book and showed us pictures of the lucuma fruit and explained how and where it grew.    They offer cooking classes and if we had been staying in AC longer, I would have loved to have gone back for a class.  It is obvious that the staff at The Tree House love food and love to share their passion with others. 

After dinner we waddled back down the stairs and headed home to bed.  I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve - Machu Picchu tomorrow!!!

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