Thursday, October 13, 2016

15 in the Peruvian Andes – to, at and back from Aguas Calientes

Ollantaytambo was a dream. We loved the town. We greatly enjoyed the ruins. Food was delicious. But it was time to head to the next destination, the town of Aguas Calientes, from which you visit Machu Picchu. 

Now, visiting Machu Picchu isn't that simple: you can only get there by train, and at pretty high prices since as a foreigner you're only allowed on certain special trains. I mean, in theory you can get to Aguas Calientes without using the foreigners' train, but that involves a number of changes of public transportation and a number of hours hiking. Not really practical. So, the cheapest seats for the shortest distance (Ollantaytambo - Aguas Calientes), which is about a 90 minute ride, cost around 60USD, one way. Also, you should really buy your tickets way in advance, online, or you could easily find yourself stuck in Ollanta or Cusco.

Now, at least the ride to Aguas Calientes is really pretty, with imposing mountains on the way, and the train itself is nice, with windows above so you can have better views (this was Peru Rail's "Expedition"). And you get a snack and a non-alcoholic beverage, so at least you don't feel it's a total rip-off. Then again, if you have money to burn, you can take the Hiram Bingham train, instead of the Expedition, and surround yourself by luxury during the 4 hour ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes for some 500USD, one way. We, simple mortals, obviously didn't even get to fleetingly consider the Hiram Bingham!

Aguas Calientes

So, Aguas Calientes is the one and only town you can stay at if you want to visit Machu Picchu. You could in fact avoid staying in town by arriving very early in the morning, visiting Machu Picchu, and returning to Ollantaytambo or Cusco that same day, but that's pretty tight and exhausting. So most people come and stay a single night. Which makes this town a nightmare of a tourist trap – there's nowhere else you can stay; it exists solely for the purpose of serving Machu Picchu tourism; prices are double than even the most expensive places in Peru; there is zero interest in quality service since there is no such thing as a returning customer (this was the only place in Peru where we felt food was only either meh or bad); 99% of the time people try to overcharge you, or give you the wrong change, or stick hefty service charges if you don't ask beforehand if there are any; the gorgeous surrounding countryside is constantly under attack by uncontrolled building of the cheapest of lodgings and by polluting of the river... And pray a quake doesn't strike while you're in town, because it does look like every single building would crumble in a second with little or no safe open space to run to.

A real hell hole. But an interesting one, anyhow, if only to experience unbridled capitalism at the edge of nature. Because really, just look at what surrounds this shittiest of towns! 

And at night there is a very weird feeling of being in a Japanese town – narrow hilly streets, lots of bright lights, lots of noise, lots of movement. Of course, this would be a less developed, Latin American version. But still, quite unusual...

Religion made its appearance too. A new government was sworn in, and to what did they swear to be good civil servants? Not to the constitution, or the flag, but to Christ and the Bible! Coming from Mexico, a nation with a secular government that really frowns upon public religious displays by public servants, this made our jaws drop to the floor below us. 

Also, one night we came across this small church. Not a pretty one. But it had a most interesting crucified Jesus – very dark, with very scraggly black (and possibly real) hair, and with a certain hippie air... Really curious indeed...

Oh, and we experienced line-up madness. You see, countless tourists want to be at Machu Picchu for sunrise. To get to Machu Picchu there are only two ways: you either hike 2-4 hours up the mountain in pitch darkness (if you want to get there by sunrise), or you can take a van. You must buy the van ticket in advance, but you cannot reserve a seat or a time, so it's on a first–come first–served basis. The ride to the entrance to Machu Picchu is short, just about 25 minutes. So, what time do you think you'd need to line-up to be there at, say, 8am? The answer is... frigging 4:30am!!! Absolute madness, line-ups that go on for blocks and blocks because people start lining up at 3:00am. For a van service that starts at 5:30 or later. Madness.

The worst thing is that some of us actually did need to get to the ruins at a certain time! You see, there are regular tickets that give you access to the ruins themselves, on a specific day, at any time you want to enter (unless the site is already up to capacity). There are 2500 of these tickets available per day. Then there are tickets that give you access to the ruins and Huayna Picchu, one of the two mountains at the side of the ruins. To use these you must be at the entrance to the mountain at a specific time slot, either 7-9 am or 8-9am; a total of 400 of these are issued per day. And then there are tickets for entering the ruins and climbing Machu Picchu, the mountain that gives the site its name. Two entry time slots as well, 800 issued a day. 

So, there we were, with our tickets for climbing Machu Picchu, which had to be used no later than 8am, with an impossibly long lineup of people most of which could use their ticket any time but who wanted to see the sunrise. That makes for a very horribly stressful beginning of your day, eh? The first day we barely made it: we arrived to the ruins' main gate and then ran like mad and climbed steps like crazy to get to the frigging entrance to the mountain – at 7:58am. Whew!

The second day we were more savvy, and lined up at 3:55am, which allowed us to get to the gate to Machu Picchu Mountain at 7am. Remember, it's only a ridiculous 25-30 minute ride from town to the ruins' gate!

Now, as much as I abhored the town – and abhor it I did – there were some not so bad things, like playing Jenga for the first time in our lives! And the game went on for quite long! Fun! And then there was some popped cereal, sort of like popcorn, sort of like popped quinoa. Whatever it was, it was good! And for some strange reason the town had not just stray dogs, but stray dogs of way too many kinds! We saw a Mexican xoloitzcuintle with the cutest yellow tuff of hair on its forehead, and an immense one that looked what you'd get from crossing a San Bernardo and a Shar-Pei? 

And frankly, I should also recognize that the one breakfast we had sitting down at our hotel (the rest had been breakfasts to-go in paper bags so you could go line up for the Machu Picchu vans) was actually pretty good. Especially the juice, which was a papaya-mango super sweet mix, and what they called coffee nectar, an incredibly concentrated coffee that you were supposed to mix with water but that I found so delicious and so intense I had to have it undiluted! Really one of the best cups of coffee I may have ever had.

The return from hell town back to Ollanta, to then travel to our next stop (Písac) was – surprise – really pretty. And a welcome relief from hideous Aguas Calientes. 

And now that I've written about the whole Aguas Calientes experience, my next post will be about what we were really there for, and which was totally worth the sacrifice of spending three days in that shithole and over-paying for whatever – Machu Picchu!

No comments: