50. Cusco to Agua Caliente
We drive out through the Sacred Valley to Ollatatambo.
First we must walk down to the cochera and awaken the proprietor, in order to ransom El Bandito, the quatro por quatro [visible up there in the background of the photo to the left]. Selma does so [in photo at right]. Eventually we pay him, then go back up to the Hostal Qorichaska to pick up Ragna.
The drive begins with the same long, slow climb up from Cusco, and the road to Pisac. [These two pictures and the one below left show the view down toward Pisac. ]
Pisac today, a market day but not a Sunday, is somewhat different. The market takes up a smaller proportion of the town’s streets, and in the Plaza de Armas most of the market stalls aimed solely at locals aren’t there. Today’s market quite obviously exists because this is one of the days on which tour-buses appear in Pisac during the morning. It’s less crowded, and not half so interesting photographically. We stop long enough to have a quick walk around the Plaza and stop at an ATM. The vendors look lonely. At least one of the little old ladies is making a little money by having pictures taken of her. We drive back up into the hills toward the ruins at Pisac, which are just a few km. up a steep mountain road.
The ruins must command a magnificent view; but there are an obscene number of tour-buses parked by the side of the narrow road for several hundred meters. We consider parking and walking in, and would do if the place weren’t so crowded; but instead we drive back out to the main road, knowing that among the things we don’t yet know is where we’re going to stay in Agua Caliente.
The Sacred Valley is a pleasant drive. It would be pleasant to spend a few days here. There are ruins and small villages and nice countryside. We don’t have the time to explore it as it deserves.
At Ollatatambo we drive down toward the train, only to learn that there is no provision for parking a private vehicle at the bottom of the hill near the train station. The traffic cop points me to a certain driveway blocked by a big sheet of metal, and tells me to bang on it, but no one responds. I do find a nice-looking hotel on one side of the street, and a small restaurant and hostal on the other. Being a budget traveler, I try the smaller one, where our request to park the car for a few days, and pay for it, is so unusual that the young lady in charge has to phone the owner. He consents. We park the car as far into the corner of the very small parking lot as possible, then start the hike down toward the train.
If you need to know, it is possible to buy some food and coffee and use a clean toilet at the little train station. The train is just two cars long, at least in this season, and very clean — and nearly empty. Peruvian music plays during the 35-minute ride along a river at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon. The uniformed attendants serve a snack-box, although not a very helpful one if you don’t eat meat.
The view is beautiful, although photography is difficult. The train moves at a moderate speed past river, forest, occasional farms, and a few other buildings, all dwarfed by the high peaks on both sides of us most of the way.
Suddenly we are there.
Our exit from the train is a confused rush through a maze of market stalls from within which we haven’t a clue which direction the main part of town is in or whether we’re meant to be going uphill or downhill or sideways. We’re also carrying a bunch of stuff. I’m trying to glance at the Lonely Planet guide-book, call budget hostals, and walk at the same time, unable to hear because of the noise all around me. I also don’t yet know where I’m going, so at least I stop walking for a moment and ask. It takes several calls to locate an affordable hotel with a vacancy, and the vacancy turns out to be an extremely crowded three-bed room with its own small bathroom. Hostal Bromeliad.
We find the place, check in, and shower, then wander out to explore Agua Caliente and get something to eat.
Opinions vary concerning Agua Caliente. It’s an odd place, because the main purpose of its existence is for everyone to hurry from it to somewhere else. It’s dedicated to tourism, but because of a combination of factors — the fame and beauty of the place, the rugged mountains, and the availability both of luxury tour-buses and difficult treks — the tourists run the gamut from the very wealthy, some of whom can even afford to spend a reported $1,000 per night to stay in a hotel just outside the gate of Macchu Picchu, to the poor but determined, some of whom camp out then walk up the incredibly steep and tall mountainside to Macchu Picchu.
The evening has an odd feel to it, somewhat festive. Maybe that is because there are so many places to eat and drink, all of them with
balconies overlooking streets or the small Plaza de Armas, and most of them with shills out front announcing that one particular restaurant has the others beat all hollow. Maybe it is because we are excited by the imminence of our visit to Macchu Picchu. Maybe it is because everyone is either anticipating a morning visit to Macchu Picchu or celebrating a day spent at Macchu Picchu (or the end of a trek). Maybe it’s because at the restaurant we choose [the one to the left of the three fronting on the opposite side of the Plaza from the Bromeliad], the food is slow in coming but the Pisco sours are not. Soon I’m on my third, feeling a general benevolence toward my companions and all the people crossing the Plaza or taking each other’s pictures by the statues there, as the local folks wander in and out of the church across the Plaza.
The music is loud and the air is clean. I laugh a lot, take ridiculous pictures of Selma and Ragna at the table, and fall silent a lot too, just thinking.
I do wander down into the Plaza for a moment to play with the camera, long after dark. Eventually, when the food comes, it tastes wonderful, perhaps because it is and perhaps because I am hungry and perhaps because I am working on my fourth Pisco sour.
We turn in early because the train for Macchu Picchu leaves at 5:30 in the morning, and the line starts forming about an hour before that.
We stayed in the Hostal Bromeliad, which was adquate and relatively inexpensive.
Agua Caliente boasts a quite varied set of accommodations in various price ranges. Still, I’d recommend booking ahead of time, even if you usually don’t do that, because (1) it’s the sort of destination place it is, without much through-traffic for locals, values are different, and you’ll pay more for a particular sort of room here than you usually would elsewhere in Peru, and (2) arriving there in the afternoon was a real zoo. Agua Caliente was crowded, and probably is crowded at all seasons; the lobby of the Bromeliad was a madhouse, with all sorts of folks begging for accommodations, and I was glad I’d at least managed to call from near the train station to book our room [and even so got just a three-bed room, with the right to switch to two rooms the second night]; and because it’s a small village that sees many tourists, you could find the budget places full and end up paying a lot more than you want to. As anyone reading this blog knows, we rarely booked ahead, preferring to arrive and form our own impression of the hotels and their surroundings. I wouldn’t try that again in Agua Caliente.
The place we supped in was good, although service was slow. The place next door was not as good — and I’d guess some of the better restaurants aren’t on the Plaza. There are plenty of restaurants to choose among in Agua Caliente, all within a couple of blocks. The two we ate in faced the plaza. Looking across the plaza from the church, the one we ate in the first night would be the one on the far left among the three or four establishments on the opposite side.
Be sure to buy your ticket for Macchu Picchu. If you arrive in Agua Caliente without one, go immediately to the ______ and buy one, if you plan to go to Macchu Picchu early in the morning. Note that you will also need a bus ticket, but you can purchase that early in the morning, as your partner waits in line.
I mention “early morning” often for at least three reasons: (1) Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 people, and since most folks capable of it would like to make that climb, they’re in line early, and you might miss it if you snooze; (2) since most of the early birds are headed for Huayna Picchu, the early morning is a great time for you to experience Macchu Picchu in relative solitude — and you won’t have to spend quite so long in Photoshop zapping the human forms in your pictures; and (3) as a photographer, I like the better light of early morning or very late afternoon. In addition, since some big tours give their cattle just a couple of hours in Macchu Picchu in the middle of the day, either early morning or late afternoon means a quieter and more enjoyable experience of the place.
To maximize enjoyment of the early morning, make a sharp left turn uphill at pretty much your first opportunity, about 100 yards after passing through the gates where you show your ticket.
For the truly budget-minded, there’s a “back-packer special” train from Cusco that’s much cheaper than foreigners pay otherwise. The authorities don’t exactly advertise it, but it’s there.
I’m not sure that if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t have left the car in Cusco and taken a tour bus. (That’s assuming you don’t hike in on the Inka Trail, which Ragna wouldn’t have considered.) Mostly I prefer to drive. This particular route I might have been better off riding, getting let off near the various ruins, seeing what the experts thought I should see, and not having to figure out where to park. Maybe. In a perfect world I’d have done that, and then returned a few days later to explore the area by car on my own.