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Aguas Calientes: Exploring Machu Picchu's Vibrant Base Town

Aguas Calientes (hot waters) is a small town situated at the base of Machu Picchu, and is a popular destination for tourists from around the world heading to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site. Come meander with me and I will share some detailed information on travelling to Aguas Calientes from Cusco, including the Inca Rail journey and my stay at the 3-star Inka Wonder Hotel. Let's discover the Stone Chronicles, explore the food specialties of the region, and watch the celebrations during the Virgen del Carmen Festival. I will also offer my advice on visiting the town's hot springs, choosing how you will travel to the Machu Picchu site, as well as some other tips for travellers to make the most of their visit. So, grab a cup of coffee and let's dive into the beauty of Aguas Calientes!

Getting There

There are several ways to travel between Aguas Calientes and the city of Cusco, but the most popular and convenient tourist choice is to take the scenic train trip. The Cusco train station is a fair way from the center of the city so visitors will need to take a taxi or bus to get to the station. The train station arrivals area is quite chaotic with taxis, collectivos, and various souvenir vendors and locals drinking in the parking lot. Inside, the station feels more secure and safe.

I took the Inca Rail train and was awed by the stunning views out the windows. The train offers different classes, but I chose the cheapest economy-class ticket. I was comfortably seated with a family from northern Peru and we enjoyed lively conversation as we travelled. The slow train ride took around 3 hours. There were some snacks and beverages available for sale, but I was invited to share the family's bountiful picnic.

Booking information, including schedules, prices, and ticket levels for the Inca Rail train can be found on the official website.

My Stay

During my stay in Aguas Calientes, I chose the Inka Wonder Hotel. I had a lovely room with a view of the river. The hotel is a short walk from the train station and near the town's main attractions. My room on the side away from the town included everything I needed for a comfortable stay. The view and sound of the river outside my window was very soothing and muffled any party sounds emanating from the noisy bustle in front of the hotel.

The Town

Aguas Calientes has a rich history, dating back to the Inca Empire when it was known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. Today, the town is home to a diverse population of locals and visitors, who come from all over the world.

There are plenty of things to see and do, from exploring the local market to taking a dip in the nearby hot springs. The town is also home to several historical sites, including the Manuel Chávez Ballón Site Museum, which houses a collection of artifacts and exhibits about the history and culture of Machu Picchu. Other local attractions include Putucusi Mountain, a moderate-level hike with stunning views of the surrounding landscape, and the Mandor Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden located just outside the town with a pretty waterfall.

Aguas Calientes is divided into two main and very distinct areas: the tourist area and the residential area. The tourist area is home to most of the town's hotels, restaurants, and shops, as well as the train station that connects the town to Cusco and Machu Picchu. The residential area, on the other hand, is where most of the locals live and work, and offers a more authentic look at daily life in the town. The football field was in constant use from dawn until darkness with a tournament scheduled to coincide with the Virgen del Carmen festival.


Stone Chronicles

While exploring the town, I stumbled upon stone carvings scattered around the area, known as the Stone Chronicles. These 37 fascinating carvings, which are found all around the town, depict scenes from Inca history and were created by local artists in 2017 to commemorate the village's anniversary.

I thoroughly enjoyed meandering along the Stone Chronicles Circuit, discovering each along the way. Each carving tells a different story, and many of them are accompanied by detailed images and inscriptions explaining the work and offering a brief biography of the artist(s).

Not only are the Stone Chronicles culturally significance but they are each beautiful works of art. The carvings are intricate and beautifully crafted, demonstrating the incredible skill and talent of the artists.

What to Eat

Aguas Calientes has a wide assortment of delicious and unique food specialties that are sure to tantalize your taste buds and curiosity. For budget-friendly and authentic options, street food is always a great choice. You can find a variety of grilled meats, including the popular dish of grilled cuy or guinea pig, a local delicacy. I did not try the cuy, although I have been assured that it is a tasty treat. I have a strict personal rule that I will not eat any animal that I once had as a pet, especially when served with the head still attached. (I will spare you the graphic photos).

Other street food options include empanadas, tamales, and quinoa-based dishes. For a casual dining experience, try the local ceviche or the hearty chicken soup, Aguadito. If you're looking for a fine dining experience, several restaurants offer a mix of traditional and contemporary cuisine.

Make a point to order the famous and incredibly tasty Lomo Saltado. This dish, which quickly became a favourite is a stir-fry dish made with beef, onions, tomatoes, served with french fries and rice. This savoury and flavourful dish is a perfect representation of the unique fusion of Peruvian and Chinese cuisine, which is heavily influenced by the large population of ethnic Chinese who arrived in the region in the late 1800s to search for gold or to work on building railroads.

For the more adventurous foodies, alpaca and llama meat dishes are also widely available throughout Peru. These meats are known for being lean and tender, and they are often prepared with traditional Peruvian spices and herbs to enhance their natural flavours. Alpaca steaks, grilled llama skewers, various stews, and alpaca burgers are just some of the options available. I really enjoyed trying out different preparations but my favourites were llama skewers and alpaca burgers -- but if I'm honest, it is very rare for me not to enjoy a burger, regardless of the protein included.

Virgen del Carmen Festival

One of the highlights of my trip was experiencing the Virgen del Carmen Festival, which is celebrated annually in July. I had been encountering various local Carmen celebrations ever since I had left Lima. Officially the festival is a 4-day event culminating on July 16 but there are many local lead-up events for children and families. The festival is a mix of religious and cultural traditions, with different groups participating in parades and dances. I was amazed by the vibrant costumes and lively music. The festival is a fabulous way to see the culture, joy, and community pride of the local Peruvian people. A local told me that in years past, the festival was very focused on the religious aspect but the community party with drunken revellers had become more common and more raucous over the past ten years or so.

The annual festival honours the Virgen del Carmen, the patron saint of the town. The festival has deep roots in the region's history and is a celebration of the blending of indigenous Andean and Spanish Catholic traditions which can be clearly seen by the costumes of the participating groups who often represent neighbourhoods and nearby towns.

The festival is celebrated with vibrant parades and traditional dances, including the Danza de los Diablos, which features dancers dressed in colorful devil costumes. The festival also includes religious ceremonies, processions, and offerings to the Virgen del Carmen.

During the festival, different groups participate in the celebrations, including dancers, musicians, and members of the clergy. One of the most important events is the procession when the statue of the Virgen del Carmen is carried from the church and through the streets in a colourful and joyful parade.

Baños Termales

A perfect way to relax those over-worked muscles after visiting Machu Picchu is a visit to Baños Termales, the hot springs located just outside of the town. The hot springs area is accessible via a short walk or by taking a shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes.

The hot springs have a rich history, dating back to the Inca era when they were believed to have medicinal properties. Today, the hot springs have been developed into a popular tourist site, with numerous pools and amenities for visitors to enjoy.


The hot springs area is surrounded by lush vegetation and stunning mountain views, creating a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere. I spent several hours soaking in the warm, mineral-rich waters and enjoying the easing of my tired muscles. The pools range in temperature, from 38 to 44 degrees Celsius, providing options for those who prefer cooler or warmer waters.

Booking a visit to the hot springs is easy and can be done online through the official website. The cost of admission is reasonable, with options for single-entry tickets or multi-entry packages. Towels and lockers can be rented for a small fee, and there are changing rooms and shower facilities available on-site. Other amenities at the site include a restaurant and bar, gift shop, and massage services.

Organizing your Transport to Machu Picchu

To get to the Machu Picchu site from Aguas Calientes, you have a choice to take a bus or do a hike. The bus ride is a short and convenient option, with tickets available for purchase on the official website.

For those who prefer hiking, there are several trails to choose from, with varying levels of difficulty. For serious hikers, the Salkantay and Inca Trail treks are plentiful, well-organized, and popular. These are multi-day hikes, generally starting from Ollantaytambo.

For those hikers who aren't interested or do not have the time to do a multi-day trip, there is also a trail from the town that will take the average hiker about 2 hours to complete. If you want to hike, be aware that the trail is rocky, narrow, and not always well-defined. If you are wishing to arrive at sunrise, you will be navigating this trail in the dark and there is a full day of clambering around once you arrive at the site. Consider your fitness level carefully.

The shuttle bus operates daily from early morning until late afternoon, with frequent departures throughout the day. The cost of the bus ticket is reasonable and can be purchased at the ticket office in Aguas Calientes or online through the official website.


The bus picks up passengers from a designated location in Aguas Calientes and drops them off at the entrance of the Machu Picchu site. The pick-up location is located near the train station and main square in Aguas Calientes. My morning bus ride was in the dark but on the return trip, I could see great views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

Line-ups begin 2 to 3 hours prior to the first departure, so be prepared to be standing in line in the wee hours. Luckily, enterprising vendors are also there offering hot coffee and pastries for those in line. Visitors can expect the bus ride to take approximately 30 minutes, with some stops along the way for safety and to allow for other vehicles to pass. The buses are modern, comfortable, and equipped with air conditioning and large windows to ensure a pleasant ride. Visitors are advised to bring a jacket or sweater, as the weather can be cool and windy at higher altitudes, although once the sun rises it gets quite warm. I arrived at 04:00 and had to wait for the 3rd group of buses. I did arrive at the site with enough time to get to the viewing area in time for a spectacular sunrise but I'm not sure that would have been possible had I arrived at the site much later.

Aguas Calientes was more than I expected. There is no doubt that it is touristy and more expensive than the rest of the country but there is also much to explore and enjoy while staying within a budget. I recommend planning some extra time to explore what this charming town offers beyond a gateway to Machu Picchu.

 

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10 Comments


Tamshuk Saha
Tamshuk Saha
Mar 21, 2023

So lucky that you witnessed the Virgen del Carmen festival. Local festivals are a great way to experience the culture of any place. The food looks quite delicious too and some of the dishes sound like a must-try. Machu Picchu has been one of my dream destinations for quite some time and hopefully I can make it there soon someday. But I will definitely spend a couple of days in Aguas Calientes for sure.

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Mar 21, 2023
Replying to

I love discovering local festivals and I got a lot of Virgen del Carmen celebrations during my trip. Hang on for Thursday's post about Machu Picchu -- a truly amazing trip and it had been my dream to visit for ages.

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Carolin Schroeter
Carolin Schroeter
Mar 16, 2023

The train journey sounds fun and lovely of the Peruvian family to share their snacks with you. I was delighted to see you've shared a picture of the train's roof and showed that there were more windows there exposing more views from the outside. It wouldn't surprise me if they got the idea from the panoramic trains in CH. I loved that you spend some time at Aguas Calientes and not just used it as a gateway for the Machu Picchu hike. From the menu I would choose the Alpaca Brochette, even tho I'm flexitarian I would love to try some typical Peruvian dishes and you mention Alpaca is quite the common meat in the country.


Carolin | <a href="https://solotravelstory.com/">Solo…

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Mar 19, 2023
Replying to

That meal on the train was humble but incredibly tasty. I felt really honoured that they shared with me. The people we meet along the way is one of the unexpected joys about travelling. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this little town despite it's very touristy nature.

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I love Aguas Calientes and anything in Peru, but I'm a little biased as my family is from Lima! You shared really great tips on getting there and what to do once you're there. I've had the pleasure of going for work and fun, but I would go back in a heartbeat.

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Mar 19, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for your support -- it always means a lot when someone familiar with the place approves! I was so incredibly impressed with the Peruvian women: strong, determined, hard-working, and thoughtful. I met so many intelligent and thoughtful women.

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Thanks for sharing your thoughts and tips on Machu Picchu. A delight it would be for me to visit it one day and see what made you fall in love in this part of the world. Aguas Calientes is surely the ideal place to start.


Jan - https://flyingbaguette.com/

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Mar 19, 2023
Replying to

Machu Picchu is indeed spectacular and should be on everyone's list. Aguas Calientes is touristy but delightful.

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I love everything about this post! In all of our research on Machu Picchu (we had a trip planned for Oct 2020 that hasn't been rescheduled yet), nobody ever suggest staying in Aguas Calientes. I think this is a brilliant idea. You've covered the town and its charms beautifully and given so much essential information. Definitely saving this post for that eventual trip...

Also, just noticed your PeruHop post (going to read that next as that was our planned route).

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Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Mar 12, 2023
Replying to

I think you'll really enjoy Peru Hop (except the night bus section). I was really impressed. If you've got time, spend some nights in each of the towns. They are all so unique and different from each other.

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