This once poor and peaceful mountain town is now the gateway to Machu Picchu, and it has been transformed, by this, into an overpriced jungle of tourist facilities, and of tourists. This is where the train to Cusco departs from. This is where the shuttle buses to Machu Picchu leave from, every 5 minutes. And this is where fancy restaurants, stylish hotels, and dressed-up markets rule the roost. Welcome to Aguas Calientes.
The Apurímac valley and river.
Actually, despite all the bitching, I can't deny that Aguas Calientes really is a beautiful town. Its location is gorgeous, with mountains towering over it all around, and with the mighty Rio Urubamba roaring around and through the town. I didn't get a chance to actually visit the nearby hot springs that the town gets its name from; but I hear they're very nice too.
The 5-day Salkantay hike, from Mollepata to Machu Picchu, is the biggest thing I've done so far on my world trip. It's also the biggest hike I've done so far in my life. All up, the hike was an overwhelming success. There were a few bumps and hurdles along the way; but in the end, they were nothing that spoiled the trip, and they were everything that made the trip, and that made the story of this part of my journey. After having finished the hike, I feel (unsurprisingly!) very tired, but also very satisfied.
In the classic postcard shot, you can see the city of Machu Picchu in the foreground, and a spike of a mountain rising up steeply behind it. That mountain is Wayna Picchu. It's popular, although challenging, to climb Wayna Picchu as part of one's visit to Machu Picchu. From the top, you can explore the ruins on Wayna Picchu itself, and you are afforded a pristine and panoramic view of Machu Picchu, which is spread out below. After our tour of Machu Picchu, three people in my group (myself included) made the ascent to Wayna Picchu.
This morning, after an exhilirating sprint up the mountain, we finally made it to the grand finale of the Salkantay hike, the Lost City of the Incas itself, Machu Picchu. The place may be overrun by tourists; but really, when you get there, you can see why so many people go out of their way to visit this place. Putting aside the history, the romance, the mystery, and the culture, Machu Picchu — city and surroundings — is without a doubt one of the most stunningly gorgeous places I've ever visited. Our guide, Feliz, was good enough to give us a tour of the ruins.
There are three ways up to Machu Picchu (that I know of): the 3-day Inca Trail hike; the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes; and the walking path that more-or-less follows the road up, from Aguas Calientes. We chose the latter option. Started at about 5:30am (up at 4am), and the quicker among us (myself included) were at the top by 6:15am. They estimate that it takes about an hour. Boy, it feels good when you get to the top, all hot and sweaty, and you see the sun rise over South America's most famous landmark.
It's the national drink of Peru. It's bloody strong. And it's bloody nice. I already had plenty of it in Lima, in shot form; but tonight in Aguas Calientes, I had it as a cocktail. Vodka-like spirit, mixed with a kind of lemon juice concoction. Nice and tasty. And, of course, perfect preparation for tomorrow's dawn ascent to Machu Picchu.
One of the things I resolved to do after leaving Mexico (as you may recall) was to waste less money, and to sacrifice less brain cells, on alcohol. I figured that going on adventures, and getting out of the big cities, would make this easier. Well, it hasn't quite turned out that way, on the Salkantay hike. I've been on a mission of virtual abstinence from alcohol the whole trip. But absolutely everyone else in my group — especially the Belgian Front — has had the exact opposite mission. And they've taken it upon themselves — "for your own good" — to render my mission a failure. They seem to have succeeded.