Saturday, June 19, 2010

The "backdoor route" to Aguas Calientes

We caught an early morning bus (how many times have I said that on this blog?) to head an hour and a half back up the dirt road leading to the small town of Santa Maria, where we needed to transfer to another dirt road to get another hour and a half to the small town of Santa Teresa.  We were hoping to catch a mini-van, but arriving so early in the morning, before the other backpackers coming from Cusco started arriving, there were none to be found.  We found a cab driver willing to take us, and waited about a half hour hoping someone else would arrive to split the fare with, but in the end we gave in and paid him about $12 to just get us going.  The road followed a river up the valley, and we passed several tiny villages along the way, admiring the striking mountain/valley scenery the whole way.  At least, when we weren´t trying not to notice how close we were driving to the steep drop off and how fast our driver took the blind corners.

But he delivered us to Santa Teresa, where we immediately hopped onto a mini-van which took us another hour or so to a hydroelectric station farther up the river.  Here there is a small train station which runs the 12 kilometers to Aguas Calientes, the jumping off point for visits to Machu Picchu.  The train leaves only once a day late in the afternoon, and is intended as local commuter train.  Everyone warned us that sometimes the staff would sell tickets to foreigners, sometimes they would flat refuse and there was nothing you could do about it.  Not wanting to deal with that kind of hassle, we made the trip one better - we simply walked the 12 kilometers, following the rail tracks the whole way.

The walk was beautiful, and even better almost totally flat.  We had condensed our belongings and had left one backpack back in Cusco, so we each had only one pack to deal with.  We walked over the river on an old rail bridge and passed small farms of bananas and coffee.  We even found a few bugs!  As we passed one of the farms, and old man coincidentally came out to also walk to town, and we chatted for a few minutes.  The conversation was simple, but it felt great to be able to communicate relatively easy in spanish!  He pointed up to the largest of the peaks on our left, and told us it was Waynu Picchu, which is the mountain peak that towers over Machu Picchu in the classic photos that you see.  We squinted up and could even see people walking around the top.  A few more curves around the mountain, and up in the distance there it was.  Incan terracing, with ruins on top.  We couldn´t make out much from so far below, but it was undeniably Machu Picchu.  It was so exciting I took a dozen photos that have no chance of turning out, but I couldn´t help myself.  We were almost there!

We thought we were walking pretty well, but with our necks craned up the old man soon left us in the dust.  Eventually we made it to another train station, where the path that had been leading along the tracks seemed to veer off  down to a road.  Our only instructions had been to follow the tracks, but we were leery of walking on the tracks directly.  But after only a moments hesitation we saw a group of guys walking down the tracks toward us.  We chatted briefly, they were headed back to a small waterfall we had passed, and told us the town was not much farther and that it was fine to just walk along the tracks.  We wished them well, and took off down the tracks, with the mountain on one side and a drop off on the other.  Just around the corner we came to a tunnel.  This seemed foolhardy at best, but we had come far enough that we didn´t want to just turn around, and we could easily see the other side of the tunnel maybe 25 yards or so away.  We listened for the sound of a train, and then as best we could sort of stumbled and ran through the dark tunnel to the other side.  Just past that we found a rock pile where we would be able to make it down to the road below, and decided to take it.  We didn´t want to tempt fate so close to something so awesome!  A hundred meters down the road we saw that the tracks went into another tunnel, this one much longer that the previous one.  Just as we were commenting on how we would not have enjoyed running through that one, the train came through!  I don´t want to imagine what might have happened if we hadn´t left the tracks when we did.  We later saw the guys who tried to kill us with their bad advice, but they were so friendly it was hard to hold a grudge.

The town of Aguas Calientes exists for pretty much one reason only - to separate tourists going to Machu Picchu with as much of their money as possible.  We did luck out and were able to find a room for a completely reasonable 40 Soles, about $13, although this was the last of the deals we were able to find.  Walking through town, which is quite lovely nestled in a steep valley where two rivers converge, we were assaulted by a barrage of touts competing for our patronage to their restaurants.  They offered lots of free drinks, and if you hesitated they would offer lower prices than stated on the menu.  One place told us that instead of free drinks (inevitably the pisco sour, a local coctail made with lime) we could have free nachos with guacamole, we caved.  We went in and made the order with our waitress, and they could not have been more delicious.  But when the bill came, we found that not only had we been charged a boggling $6 for them, we had also been charged a "tax" of about $7 on a bill of about $17!  (A reminder, in most cities we are able to eat lunch for $2-$3 each.)  When we told her we had been told the nachos were supposed to be free, her english suddenly got very poor and she said that we hadn´t specified that when we had ordered, and if we had she would have given us a smaller plate.  Obviously she must know her guy out front promises everyone free nachos, but she had us since we had neglected to specifically mention it to her when we ordered.  We had made sure to specify that our entrees were at half price, so she gave us that, we had just assumed the free nachos was understood.  Big mistake!  We eventually got her to knock down the price a little more than half.  The "tax", which is not charged anywhere else in Peru, we learned was also negotiable, as long as you negotiated paying it or not before you ordered.  She did eventually allow that the tax also included gratuity, so we ended up paying it but not a sole more.  We had been foolish, but at least the food had been undeniably good.

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