15 April 2011

aguas calientes

The town of Aguas Calientes has only one purpose, and that is to serve the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Machu Picchu every year. As such, it is full of hostels, restaurants, ATM's, and internet points. As I came into town, I was passed repeatedly by tourist buses, and found myself between the roaring Urubamba River and hotel after hotel.

Loki remained by my side as it began to pour. I had seen a few maps of the town and had them well-memorized, but I couldn't be sure of the scale, so I stopped and asked the first police officer I saw how to get to Pachacutec Street. He pointed to an open plaza up the street and told me to turn right when I got to it.

I mentioned that Aguas Calientes is full of restaurants, but I don't think you understand. On the main streets in Aguas Calientes, literally almost every single storefront on the street level is occupied by a restaurant. The ones that aren't are souvenir shops, internet points, hostels, or overpriced snack shops. I don't know where the actual residents of the town are.

Waiters stand in the street and try to persuade you to choose their restaurant. At times, I would have two or three guys surrounding me, telling me what was on special and why their tourist menu had better food than the other guys' tourist menu. A couple of the waiters petted Loki as we walked past, and one called him by name--it sounded like Cookie.

"You know this dog?" I asked him. He told me the dog lived at the restaurant. I informed the waiter that Cookie had actually walked with me since the hydroelectric plant and he got a sort of bemused look on his face, saying, "So that's where he goes."

I left Cookie with him, figuring I didn't have to make good on my promise to feed the dog a steak dinner when he had his own restaurant full of choice steaks, and I continued on towards my hostel.

Aguas Calientes is stretched out across the river and between a few mountains, so the part that I was in, to the north of the river, had only two streets running east-west, and maybe a dozen other streets crossing them. (Here's a map to help you out.) Pachacutec was one of these east-west streets, and the hostel I'd selected was at the far end of town. I'd chosen it because it was recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and it was also near the hot springs for which the town is named. I had been hoping to get into town with enough time to spare to go for a soak in the springs for a few hours, but it didn't look like that was going to happen.

After maybe ten minutes of walking uphill, I came to my destination. It had a nice lobby that was full of windows, so I could see the doorman napping within, arms crossed over his chest. I stepped inside and, unwilling to wake him, headed up the stairs towards the sounds of construction work to try and find the owner.

The third floor of the hostel was just a frame, open to the outside. A handful of workers were hammering, measuring, that kind of stuff. One guy came over to me and asked if he could help me.

He told me that the nightly rate was 20 soles (around $7), and I could have my pick of a couple of rooms. I think I ended up making my decision based on the room number or the fact that my room was at the end of the hall. For some reason, that sort of thing makes me feel more secure.

The room had pink and green walls, with a painting and some sort of hanging textile piece. There was also a full bed, private bathroom with shower, a small television, and a window looking out onto the back yard, which was basically a steep mountainside. Satisfied, I paid for the room, showered, laid my wet clothes out to dry, and stepped out to try to sort out my lack of funds situation and also find dinner.

Turns out that that Machu Picchu entry fee is pretty steep, which is one of the reasons I wanted to save money by walking so far. For adults, with no student discount, the price is around $45. The ticket office does not accept credit cards, and it does not accept any foreign currency. This sort of messed with my plans, as I had a $20 bill that I'd been hoping to put towards the cost. I had to run around town trying to find ATM's, one of which told me that I only had a few dollars in my account, and change my American money to Peruvian soles at a disgusting rate.

After finally getting my ticket, I had the task of choosing from scores of restaurants and cafes. There was a surprising number of places claiming to make Mexican food, so I thought I'd try one out. Long story short? Mild disaster. The guacamole was bland, and the seasonings on my grilled vegetables were a little bland. They gave me the whole 'here's the salsa but be really careful because it's the spiciest stuff we have' routine, and as usual, I finished their salsa and asked for more. Despite the unorthodox flavors, it was a filling meal, especially when washed down with some fresh lemonade.

A slight damper was put on the evening by the waiter. I was almost alone in the restaurant, and he took the opportunity to talk so much that I found myself wishing he would leave so that I could actually eat. I learned all about some mystic traditions in the town and somehow that was connected to indie rock music and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and what were my plans for tomorrow night because he was going to go out to a club and he wanted to take me with him. He could also accompany me to the hot springs if I so wished. I told him I would be getting up early to see the ruins and then planned to return to Cusco as soon as possible to get back to work. I was instructed to let him know if I changed my mind.

As soon as I had paid the bill I ducked out of there. Turned out all the talking had made me a little hungry, and I impulsively bought a sandwich from a sad little deli just up the street. Within a few minutes I was under the covers (wrapped up tight too, because as it turned out, there was an owl-sized hole in my window) and watching a news special on George Bush and what the Peruvians perceived as his deceitful, warmongering ways. I nibbled on the sandwich, which had obviously been sitting in that deli case all day, and then it was lights out in anticipation of a four-thirty am alarm.

My intent was to get up early, buy my bus ticket (the ticket office had just closed when I arrived), and see Machu Picchu with enough time to spare for a dip in the hot springs before determining the best way to get home. But when I woke up, I could hear rain pouring down, so I pressed snooze every few minutes for at least another hour and a half. Finally the rain seemed to be dying down, so I got out of bed, dressed, braided my hair, and watched the news for a few minutes.

I wasn't really sure what to wear because in the highlands of Peru, like Machu Picchu and Cusco, the temperature is usually between 40 and 65 degrees, but the sun is incredibly powerful (it's actually stronger in Cusco than anywhere else in the world, according to Wikipedia). And during the rainy season, which it obviously was, the skies could open up at any minute. It seemed like it was going to be a cooler day, with a lot of cloud cover, so I opted for black leggings (I didn't really have a choice there, as they were the only bottoms I'd brought), a blue Loki tee, my eagle scarf (someone left it at the bar so I claimed it, and it looks hella BA and adventurous and whatnot, like if Ke$ha and Indiana Jones had a baby, it would be that scarf), a grey hoodie, my alpaca wool hat, and my alpaca wool socks. I also took my umbrella, mp3 player and my passport holder, and left my backpack in reception after I checked out.

I rushed to the train station, checked train times, then ran to the bus station and bought my tickets there (some people walk, but I really didn't have the time, and I didn't feel like my knees could handle it). There was no time for breakfast. I boarded my bus and began the ride up the mountain to Machu Picchu.