The road to Machu Picchu is long, even if you aren't hiking the 4 day Inca trail. Originally, we planned to hike the trail but quickly discovered that wasn't an option. You see, Peru limits the number of people that hike the trail so you have to reserve a spot months in advance. Tickets for May hikes were sold out by January.
To be honest, I wasn't that upset about it. I've camped one night in my life and was subjected to a series of ridiculous events including:
- 4 hrs of rowing in a canoe against a wall of wind (was supposed to take one hour)
- Trading beer for a missing friend with a river man wearing a tiny pair of jean cut-offs
- Swimming in the river to cool off only to find myself covered in green algae
- Chris trying to skin a catfish by nailing it's head to tree
- Not sleeping due to a combination of heat, rain, animals and fearing psychopaths in tiny cut-offs outside my tent
And that was in Illinois. Who knows what we would have encountered in the Andes!
Of course, with the bad comes the good: These crazy events were balanced by the wonderful company of good friends and they make for a good story that we'll tell for the rest of our lives.
Anyway, back to our journey to Machu Picchu. To get there you must take a bus from Cusco to Ollantayambo where you catch a 2 hour train - either Peru Rail or Inca Rail - to a town called Aguas Calientes. From Aguas, you take a 20 min bus ride up to Machu Picchu. In my last post, I wrote about our ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo which included a tour of a few sites in the Sacred Valley. After the tour, we boarded our train in Ollantaytambo at 4:30 pm. We chose the Inca Rail which was a really charming and somewhat old fashioned train.
The train ride was beautiful! The windows are open so you breathe fresh mountain air while sipping your coffee as you roll through beautiful mountains and rivers. The train also plays pan flute versions of popular songs including several Abba tunes and Africa by Toto.
We sat across from a really friendly couple from Brazil. The woman spoke perfect English and told me that she spent a year of high school living with a host family in small town Mississippi. Being Brazilian meant that she was the town celebrity for the year, since most of the locals had never left the South, let alone the country. One of her classmates pointed to a poster of a jungle, featuring huts, monkeys and jaguars and sincerely asked her if that was what her home looked like. She is from a city right outside of Brasilia (the capital of Brazil) so she found this misconception very amusing. She is still very close to her host family and they often fly her to her US home for a visit every now and then. Sorry for another tangent, but I love stories like this because it shows how travel not only expands horizons for the tourist, but also for the locals.
Getting back to our journey....
The Bad: Our Hostel- $35/night is too good to be true
We arrived in Aguas Calientes around 6:15pm and it was already dark. We had a free transfer from the train to our hostel. We quickly realized that there are no cars in Aguas Calientes, so our transfer consisted of the hostel owner finding us at the station and walking us 5 minutes to the hostel. We stayed at a place called Cusi Backpacker because it got rave reviews on Booking.com and it was only $35/night. Since we were arriving at 6:30pm and leaving for Machu Picchu at 5am the next morning we just need a place to crash so we thought we'd save some money on accommodations since everything else online seemed way overpriced and received pretty bad reviews. We had the only private double room with a private bathroom and the reviews said the place was basic, but very clean. We have stayed in our fair share of hostels in our younger days and figured this one would be tame compared to some of our past experiences.
We dropped our stuff off at the room which looked fine at first glance. Then we headed out to town for dinner. Upon returning to the room after dinner we realized we made a big mistake. First, we were hit like a ton of bricks by a putrid odor which we quickly determined was coming from the bathroom, more specifically, the shower drain. This smell had somehow materialized between the time we left for dinner and the time we returned. The hour was late and we could find no one to complain to and thus we closed the bathroom door tightly and opened the bedroom window. We realized at this point that our rented towels (yes, they rented towels) would also go unused, as we wanted to spend as little time as possible in that bathroom, with whatever science experiment was taking place in the shower drain. With the door shut, the stench was dulled just enough to make being in the bedroom not entirely intolerable, although still totally unpleasant.
Thoroughly disgusted, we attempted to sleep on our rented towels on top of the sheets. But the nightmare continued. Apparently Cusi Backpacker abuts the trash heap that serves as the meeting place for all the local hoboes of Aquas Calientes, who while away the wee hours yelling drunkenly at one another while banging loudly on anything they can find. Guess where that trash heap was located? Right outside our window. Fun.
We made it through the night drifting in and out of half-sleep and left at 5am the next morning glad to be rid of the place.
After all my years of travel including a decent period of cheap hosteling, I can now say that this was unequivocally the worst night I've spent in a hotel/hostel/guesthouse of any type. It was kind of a shame, because the owner/manager of the place seemed to be a really nice guy who seems to want to run a good business. We are rooting for him and hope he can make some changes to make this into a decent place. But we lived to tell the tale, so all's well that ends well. Plus, this is the only really bad hotel experience we've had thus far in South America and we've stayed at 8 places so far!
Now that I've thoroughly grossed you out, let's talk about food. We walked from our hostel for about 5 mins to the more touristy section of town and stopped at a restaurant with a wood burning fireplace and live music. The band consisted of 5 Peruvian men with long flowing black hair, 2 of which were playing the ever present pan flute. They were pretty good and definitely added to the ambiance. Chris decided it was time to try the alpaca - which cost as much as our hostel room by the way. I tried it too and it tasted very unique. The only adjective I can think of is earthy, but that is how everything tastes in the Andes. It might be worth trying it once just see what you think, but I'd never order it for an entree.
If we were to do it again...
Everyone recommends staying in Aguas Calientes the night before Machu Picchu so you can go up first thing (first bus leaves at 5:30 am). People start lining up for the first buses before 4am. This is not necessary, as the buses leave continuously and people who showed up a 5:30 ended up getting into Machu Picchu maybe 10 minutes later than those who had waited in line for two hours. If we were to do it again, we'd stay in Ollantaytambo the night before because the town is more charming than Aguas and you can get a nicer hotel at a good price. Then we'd take the first train up to Aguas Calientes and get on the bus right away to arrive at Machu Pichu around 9am which still gives you plenty of time to explore the site, hike the mountain and get back to Cusco for a late dinner.
One of my favorite lines from a movie was in Vanilla Sky where the character Brian says: Just remember, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour. We experienced the sour in Aguas Calientes and it will make every future good experience on journey that much sweeter.