Aguas Calientes, Peru, is not a destination town.
Aguas Calientes, Peru, is the final stopover on the journey to the wonder, Machu Picchu.
The sole purpose of Aguas Calientes is to accommodate travelers on their way to the legendary Incan ruins. To furnish travelers with lodging. To provide food options and to supply travelers with any last minute items, such as rain ponchos or snacks, before they ascend the steep hills carved with switchbacks.
Why, then, did this place, this gateway to our final destination of Machu Picchu, leave such an indelible impression upon me?
Often times, when we travel, we inevitably focus solely on the ultimate destination while giving little thought to the journey itself. This was the case when we planned a trip to Machu Picchu, which involved flying to Lima, then flying to Cusco, then taking a taxi to Ollantaytambo, and then finally boarding a train to Aguas Calientes. The latter two, just stops along the way. Or so I thought.
Before arriving in Aguas Calientes, we savored a profound view of the stunning Peruvian landscape through the wide windows and glass ceiling of the train. Stark, forest-covered stone cliffs towered above us on either side, yielding occasionally to a river rushing over large stones. This, I believe, helped to provide a prelude to what we could expect at Aguas Calientes, which is nestled at the foot of these hills, as well as alongside this river.
Once the train came to a stop, we deboarded, and like our fellow travelers, we spent a few disoriented moments on the sidewalk. The tracks literally bisect the small town, with just a row of shops, restaurants and a few hotels on one side. On the other side, which cuts up the hillside, there are many of the same. There are no roads, except for the one for busses that transport travelers to and from Machu Picchu, only pedestrian paths.
Fortunately, someone from where we were staying met us and led us the few yards to the hotel, separated from the tracks by only a slim sidewalk. We could have settled in for the rest of the evening, as we’d be getting a 4 a.m. start the following day. But this town, this Aguas Calientes, pulled at us, begging to be discovered.
Our hotel, as well as the few adjacent buildings, were simple, three-story structures, modern in design and aesthetically appealing. Progressing, though, up the hill, the buildings began to take on more of a freestyle look, exhibiting no apparent forethought or design, other than for functional purposes.
Concrete blocks topped with bricks topped with more bricks topped with sturdy plastic. It was as if the people needed to expand the town, but the stone hillsides and river prevented them from doing so on the ground. So, they just kept growing vertically.
The pulse of Aguas Calientes was beating right there along the railroad tracks. Travelers moved from place to place, securing memories on their phone cameras. A few of the women managing the shops propped themselves up outside, newspapers next to their faces. Three little boys, two with toy trucks and one with a hammer, eagerly occupied themselves in the loose dirt on the railroad tracks. All the while, the Urubama River charged ceaselessly through the rocks in the background.
We continued to explore, eventually discovering a small opening alongside a busy restaurant. The town center, along with a modest church, more restaurants and a few hostels awaited us once we ventured through the path.
Although Aguas Calientes was just a stop on the way to our actual destination, Machu Picchu, I can’t shake the tangible impression it’s left upon me. Nor do I want to. My thoughts return to that town often.
(Note: Marjorie Appelman is an English, communications and journalism teacher at Mason County High School and co-founder of the travel blog, Tales from the Trip, which is also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. She can be reached at [email protected].)